Section of painting showing Jacob's love for Rachel and Leah's jealousy

God saw that Leah was not loved as much as Rachel so he enabled her to conceive children while Rachel remained childless. As a result, Leah gave birth to a son she christened Reuben saying “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”

Leah gave birth to a second son and said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” She named him Simeon. She gave birth to a third son she named Levi because “now at last my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.” Leah gave birth to a fourth son and said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” She named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1899When Rachel saw that Leah was the only wife bearing children, she became jealous of Leah and said to Jacob, “Give me children or I will die!” Jacob became angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in place of God, who has kept you from having children?” Rachel offered Jacob her servant saying, “Here is Bilhah. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.” Thus, Jacob slept with Bilhah and she bore him a son. Rachel said, “God has vindicated me. He has listened to my plea and given me a son.” She named him Dan. Rachel’s servant Bilhah bore Jacob a second son. Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister and have won.” She named this son Naphtali.

When Leah recognized that she had stopped bearing children, she too took her servant Zilpah and offered her to Jacob as a wife. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Leah said, “What good fortune!” She named him Gad. When Zilpah bore Jacob a second son, Leah said, “How happy am I! The women call me happy.” She named Zilpah’s second son Asher.

During the wheat harvest, Leah’s oldest son Reuben brought back mandrake plants which he gave to her. Rachel asked Leah for some of the mandrakes but Leah refused saying, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Now you want to take my son’s mandrakes too?” “Very well,” Rachel said, “Jacob can sleep with you tonight.”

When Jacob returned from the fields that evening, Leah met him and told him how she had “hired” him in exchange for her son’s mandrakes. Jacob slept with Leah that night. God listened to Leah and she bore Jacob a fifth son. She said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” She named him Issachar. Leah conceived yet again giving Jacob a sixth son. She said, “God had presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor because I have born him six sons.” She named her sixth son Zebulun.

Sometime later, Leah gave birth to a daughter and named her “Dinah”.

Then God remembered Rachel and listened to her enabling her to birth a son. She said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” She named him Joseph and said, “May the Lord add to me another son.”

What the story means to us today

Despite human efforts and/or intervention, God is the one that gives life

The desire for affectionate approval can lead us down disastrous paths. Such is the case with the family struggle between Leah and Rachel who, out of jealousy, went so far as offering their servants as concubines for Jacob to father children by. Regardless of the events in this story, in later chapters, after the paths Jacob’s children take is revealed in full, the Bible will fully demonstrate that God is the one that gives life despite our human efforts, good or bad.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The significance of the children’s’ names – the 12 Tribes of Israel are born

Each child was born with a purpose and a meaning to their name. In order of birth (i.e. the order they are mentioned in the Bible), here are Jacob’s children’s names and their meaning.

  1. Reuben (Leah): Literally, “Look, a son” but sounds like “he has seen my misery”
  2. Simeon (Leah): Verbal root means “hearing” or “one who hears”
  3. Levi (Leah): sounds like “to join” or “attachment”
  4. Judah (Leah): “He will be praised”. Through Judah’s line, Jesus is born!
  5. Dan (Bilhah for Rachel): “He vindicated” or “He judged”
  6. Naphtali (Bilhah for Rachel): Presumably “my struggle”
  7. Gad (Zilpah for Leah): “Good fortune” or “a troop”
  8. Asher (Zilpah for Leah): Presumably “happy one”. Hebrew “happy” and “call me happy” are derived from the same root as “Asher”
  9. Issachar (Leah): Sounds like “reward”, probably means “man of reward” or possibly “there is reward”
  10. Zebulun (Leah): Probably means “honor”
  11. Joseph (Rachel): Means “may he add” but sounds like “taken away” or “one who takes away”
  12. Benjamin (Rachel): Benjamin is not mentioned yet but means “son of the right hand” or “lucky”
  13. Dinah (Leah): Means “judgment” or “judged”

Soon we will see that God chose the “despised” mother, Leah, to give birth to the kingly tribe of Judah and the priestly tribe of Levi in spite of Jacob’s preference for Rachel and her son Joseph.

Rachel’s disgrace

Jacob's wives - Rachel and LeahAfter giving birth to Joseph, referring to her barren condition, Rachel says, “God has taken away my disgrace.” In ancient times, it was considered shameful to be barren. Being infertile may have been especially disconcerting for Jacob’s wives who may have felt they were being excluded from God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Note that Rachel’s “disgrace” was finally lifted (“God listened to her”) after she abandoned her schemes and instead, asked God for help bearing a child. Ultimately, God fulfilled his promise of many children for Jacob.

Give me children or I will die

Rachel’s plea to her husband, “Give me children or I will die” was not a proclamation of suicide if she found herself unable to conceive. She may have meant that her legacy would die if she bore no children but more likely, she was simply expressing her state of dejection in an exaggerated manner, using an expression similar to modern phrases such as “You’re killing me” or “I’m so hungry I could die”.

Still, it is interesting to note that this chapter ends, after the birth of Joseph, with Rachel uttering the words, “May the Lord add to me another son.” As we will soon see, Rachel’s prayer is answered – on her death bed.

The Bible’s focus on Joseph

Looking ahead we will see the biblical storyline focus on Joseph, a spoilt child who is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The attention to Joseph may seem unusual since Jesus’ bloodline goes through Judah, Leah’s fourth son. However, pay attention to Judah’s role in the upcoming stories. Note the leadership position he takes and his impact on Joseph’s story. With foresight, it can be seen that the remaining storyline offers not only lessons for readers, but demonstrates the profound impact Judah’s kindness and concern makes on Joseph’s life.

Jacob’s daughters

It may seem unusual that Jacob fathered so many sons and only one daughter – only a single daughter is mentioned by name in these verses (Dinah). We know however, from later chapters, that Jacob fathered many daughters – possibly as many as ten or more.

An unhappy marriage – there is always hope

Readers cannot help but notice that the marriage between Jacob and Lea was troubled from the start. Take heart, divine grace intervened in Leah’s marriage creating a line of children that would go on to produce a profound impact on mankind (i.e. the birth of Jesus through Judah’s familial line).

This same hope should be given to less-than-happy modern-day couples who may find themselves in an unhappy relationship. There is nothing so bad that God cannot bring good from it.

The science and history behind the story

Mandrake plants

A Mandrake plant with broad leaves and purple flowersReuben took Mandrake plants to his mother Leah (he was likely a small boy at the time) who subsequently traded them to Rachel in exchange for a night with their husband. Mandrake plants, also known as “love plants” or “love apples”, were popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac in the culture of the time. The Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus wrote (around 350 BC) that the roots of the plant were used to prepare love potions.

The mandrake plant has no stalk but has large leaves with purple flowers and yellow fruit similar in size and shape to a tomato. The variety mentioned was likely the Mandragora vernalis which were commonly found in Palestine (and still are today).

The irony in the story is unmistakable. Rachel thought the mandrakes would make her fertile and traded away a night with their husband. Instead, Leah became pregnant.

The days of the wheat harvest

The Bible tells us that “during the wheat harvest”, Reuben brought mandrake plants home to Leah. Events in ancient times were commonly dated by agricultural seasons. In this instance, meaning roughly the month of May. This month is further confirmed by the mention of the mandrake plant fruit which even today, typically ripens in April or May.

Barren wives and their servants

In the biblical days, it was a legal custom for a barren wife to give her maid to her husband as a wife. Any child born this way was considered to be the child of the original wife and belonged to the wife, not the servant. According to customs of the day, this was perfectly legal. The slave, in effect, became a surrogate wife for the husband. God however, does not always approve of our social customs.

Naming of children in ancient times

In ancient times, children’s names expressed the conditions under which they were born. This was the case in many cultures (e.g. North American Indians) where a child’s name typically referred to a deity, physical characteristics, or circumstances of birth. This custom came from the belief that a person’s name expressed the basic character of the person. As such, sometimes parents expressed their hopes for the child through the child’s name.

Notes on Biblical translation

Leah is “unloved”

Some translations say Leah was “unloved” while others say she was “hated”. The word (senu’ah) as used in this instance, appears twice in the Bible, both times in a context where a man has two wives. As such, it is highly unlikely the word translates to “hate” and would more accurately be translated as “loved less”.

Furthermore, there are other instances in the Bible where the word “hate” is used in the translation to indicate a lesser type of love when compared to something else that is loved more. Again, in all likelihood, the translation here implies a lesser love for one of multiple wives and not necessarily “hatred”.

Bible Text

NIV

When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. 32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, p for she said, “It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”

33 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon. s

34 Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” So he was named Levi. u

35 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” So she named him Judah. v Then she stopped having children.

30 When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”

2 Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

3 Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”

4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, 5 and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Because of this she named him Dan. i

7 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali. l

9 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “What good fortune!” So she named him Gad. r

12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher. u

14 During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”

15 But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”

“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”

16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.

17 God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar. c

19 Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. e

21 Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 24 She named him Joseph, l and said, “May the LORD add to me another son.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

Illustration of a Mandrake plantThe Message

When GOD realized that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. But Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and had a son. She named him Reuben (Look-It’s-a-Boy!). “This is a sign,” she said, “that GOD has seen my misery; and a sign that now my husband will love me.”

33–35 She became pregnant again and had another son. “GOD heard,” she said, “that I was unloved and so he gave me this son also.” She named this one Simeon (GOD-Heard). She became pregnant yet again—another son. She said, “Now maybe my husband will connect with me—I’ve given him three sons!” That’s why she named him Levi (Connect). She became pregnant a final time and had a fourth son. She said, “This time I’ll praise GOD.” So she named him Judah (Praise-GOD). Then she stopped having children.

1 30 When Rachel realized that she wasn’t having any children for Jacob, she became jealous of her sister. She told Jacob, “Give me sons or I’ll die!”

2 Jacob got angry with Rachel and said, “Am I God? Am I the one who refused you babies?”

3–5 Rachel said, “Here’s my maid Bilhah. Sleep with her. Let her substitute for me so I can have a child through her and build a family.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah for a wife and Jacob slept with her. Bilhah became pregnant and gave Jacob a son.

6–8 Rachel said, “God took my side and vindicated me. He listened to me and gave me a son.” She named him Dan (Vindication). Rachel’s maid Bilhah became pregnant again and gave Jacob a second son. Rachel said, “I’ve been in an all-out fight with my sister—and I’ve won.” So she named him Naphtali (Fight).

9–13 When Leah saw that she wasn’t having any more children, she gave her maid Zilpah to Jacob for a wife. Zilpah had a son for Jacob. Leah said, “How fortunate!” and she named him Gad (Lucky). When Leah’s maid Zilpah had a second son for Jacob, Leah said, “A happy day! The women will congratulate me in my happiness.” So she named him Asher (Happy).

14 One day during the wheat harvest Reuben found some mandrakes in the field and brought them home to his mother Leah. Rachel asked Leah, “Could I please have some of your son’s mandrakes?”

15 Leah said, “Wasn’t it enough that you got my husband away from me? And now you also want my son’s mandrakes?”

Rachel said, “All right. I’ll let him sleep with you tonight in exchange for your son’s love-apples.”

16–21 When Jacob came home that evening from the fields, Leah was there to meet him: “Sleep with me tonight; I’ve bartered my son’s mandrakes for a night with you.” So he slept with her that night. God listened to Leah; she became pregnant and gave Jacob a fifth son. She said, “God rewarded me for giving my maid to my husband.” She named him Issachar (Bartered). Leah became pregnant yet again and gave Jacob a sixth son, saying, “God has given me a great gift. This time my husband will honor me with gifts—I’ve given him six sons!” She named him Zebulun (Honor). Last of all she had a daughter and named her Dinah.

22–24 And then God remembered Rachel. God listened to her and opened her womb. She became pregnant and had a son. She said, “God has taken away my humiliation.” She named him Joseph (Add), praying, “May GOD add yet another son to me.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

29:31 When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he enabled her to become pregnant while Rachel remained childless. 29:32 So Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “The LORD has looked with pity on my oppressed condition. Surely my husband will love me now.”

29:33 She became pregnant again and had another son. She said, “Because the LORD heard that I was unloved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon.

29:34 She became pregnant again and had another son. She said, “Now this time my husband will show me affection, because I have given birth to three sons for him.” That is why he was named Levi.

29:35 She became pregnant again and had another son. She said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” That is why she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.

30:1 When Rachel saw that she could not give Jacob children, she became jealous of her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” 30:2 Jacob became furious with Rachel and exclaimed, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” 30:3 She replied, “Here is my servant Bilhah! Have sexual relations with her so that she can bear children for me and I can have a family through her.”

30:4 So Rachel gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob had marital relations with her. 30:5 Bilhah became pregnant and gave Jacob a son. 30:6 Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me. He has responded to my prayer and given me a son.” That is why she named him Dan.

30:7 Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, became pregnant again and gave Jacob another son. 30:8 Then Rachel said, “I have fought a desperate struggle with my sister, but I have won.” So she named him Naphtali.

30:9 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob as a wife. 30:10 Soon Leah’s servant Zilpah gave Jacob a son. 30:11 Leah said, “How fortunate!” So she named him Gad.

30:12 Then Leah’s servant Zilpah gave Jacob another son. 30:13 Leah said, “How happy I am, for women will call me happy!” So she named him Asher.

30:14 At the time of the wheat harvest Reuben went out and found some mandrake plants in a field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 30:15 But Leah replied, “Wasn’t it enough that you’ve taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes too?” “All right,” Rachel said, “he may sleep with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 30:16 When Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must sleep with me because I have paid for your services with my son’s mandrakes.” So he had marital relations with her that night. 30:17 God paid attention to Leah; she became pregnant and gave Jacob a son for the fifth time. 30:18 Then Leah said, “God has granted me a reward because I gave my servant to my husband as a wife.” So she named him Issachar.

30:19 Leah became pregnant again and gave Jacob a son for the sixth time. 30:20 Then Leah said, “God has given me a good gift. Now my husband will honor me because I have given him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.

30:21 After that she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.

30:22 Then God took note of Rachel. He paid attention to her and enabled her to become pregnant. 30:23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Then she said, “God has taken away my shame.” 30:24 She named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me yet another son.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

31 And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me. 33 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Because the LORD hath heard that I was hated, he hath therefore given me this son also: and she called his name Simeon. 34 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi. 35 And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the LORD: therefore she called his name Judah; and left bearing.

30 And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. 2 And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? 3 And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. 4 And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. 5 And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son. 6 And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan. 7 And Bilhah Rachel’s maid conceived again, and bare Jacob a second son. 8 And Rachel said, With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name †Naphtali. 9 When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife. 10 And Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, A troop cometh: and she called his name Gad. 12 And Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed: and she called his name Asher. 14 And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes. 15 And she said unto her, Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with thee to night for thy son’s mandrakes. 16 And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night. 17 And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son. 18 And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband: and she called his name Issachar. 19 And Leah conceived again, and bare Jacob the sixth son. 20 And Leah said, God hath endued me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me, because I have born him six sons: and she called his name *Zebulun. 21 And afterwards she bare a daughter, and called her name Dinah. 22 And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb. 23 And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach: 24 And she called his name Joseph; and said, The LORD shall add to me another son.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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