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Jacob's eleven sons
Genesis 29:31-30:24 bears the account of the efforts of the two sisters, Leah and Rachel, to win Jacob's favour by presenting him with children. From the beginning Jacob had loved Rachel more than Leah, but Rachel was unable to bear children. Leah, however, was favoured by God and bore him four sons in quick succession: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah (29:32-35). In these chapters we learn that in only seven calendar years, eleven male children and one daughter were born. Rachel, driven almost to despair by her barrenness, gave Jacob her handmaid Bilhah. As was the case in the similar incident involving Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16), all children born to Bilhah were to be regarded as legally belonging to Rachel. Bilhah bore Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali, thus restoring to Rachel a measure of her status in the family. But Leah was not so easily to be deprived of her position as the leading mother in the family. Since she had ceased bearing, she also gave Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, and through her gained two additional sons, Gad and Asher. In verse 20, Leah expressed the wish that, since she had now given birth to six sons (for she would include the two sons borne by Zilpah), hopefully, Jacob would now live with her.
The story of the birth of Leah's "second family" of children reveals something of the strained relationships in Jacob's family. Rachel was still deeply troubled over having borne Jacob no children. In the patriarchal culture, a barren woman could not help but be painfully aware of her failure in her obligation as a wife. Despite this apparent disparity, throughout Leah's lifetime Rachel was always the favourite of Jacob, for we remember that it had been "love at first sight" for him. However, Leah was a faithful wife and, although having become Jacob's wife in extremely unusual circumstances, she bore him six sons, one of whom was Judah, the progenitor of the tribe of Judah through which the Messiah would come. The two sisters even make a deal involving mandrake plants, which are renowned in folklore for sexuality/fertility properties, in their rivalry to become pregnant; again the Lord blessed Leah, and she conceived and bore another son whom she named Issachar. This apparently restored her to partial favour with Jacob, for she subsequently bore him two more children, Zebulun and Dinah.
We are reminded again of the futility of attempting to speed up God's timing through human reasoning and methods, for the narrative tells us, "God remembered Rachel" (Genesis 30:22) and "opened her womb." After years of frustration and anguish, she bore a son, Joseph. It was this son who was later to be responsible for the survival of the family during the time of severe famine. Later, Rachel bore a second son, Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob's twelve sons. These twelve sons are sometimes referred to as the Twelve Patriarchs and are regarded as the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
It is gratifying to note that Leah was rewarded for her faithfulness for, when we read Genesis 49:31, we notice that, although Leah did not have the benefit of living with Jacob during her lifetime, when she died we discover that she had been placed in the family tomb along with Abraham and Sarah and when Jacob was prepared to die he also desired to be placed in the family tomb with her. However, his beloved Rachel was instead buried in the desert on the way to Bethlehem and so, in a way, Leah achieved her hearts desire after her death.
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