Jacob and Polygamy

Jacob’s Soap Opera Marriage

Genesis 29:30-35:18

Without even knowing what happened following Jacob’s multiple marriages, anyone could easily predict some devastating results. You don’t even have to be a marriage counselor to see the coming storm. What happened has all the earmarks of a modern-day soap opera. Laban’s deception set the stage for the worst kind of favoritism, jealousy, competition, and lack of trust—all of which led to enormous unhappiness, tension, stress, anxiety, and anger.

Two Pagan Practices

Though God had chosen Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and his family out of a totally pagan culture that was permeated with all kinds of ungodly practices, pagan influences lingered for generations. There are two particular practices that created problems and pain for Jacob’s family.


Polygamy was not God’s plan. If it had been, He would have created more than one wife for Adam. Polygamy was a result of sin entering the world, and wherever polygamy has been practiced, it has created unusual family problems. We’ll see why as we look at what happened in Jacob’s life.

It’s true that God tolerated this practice in Israel, even among some of His chosen servants, such as David and Solomon. But it was not His perfect will and led to failure in these men’s lives. It didn’t even keep David from stealing another man’s wife and committing adultery. It appears that the more women David had, the more he wanted. And in King David’s case, it wasn’t just lust and sexual passion; it involved power, pride, and ego.

Surrogate Mothers

Another pagan practice that raised its ugly head in this story is when a man would father children through other women provided by their wives. This practice was actually written into the wedding contracts in the Babylonian culture. A wife who could not bear children was obligated to provide her husband with a woman who could.

This practice, of course, is very strange to those of us living in a culture built on the moral laws of the Bible as embodied in the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai and raised to an even higher standard in the New Testament.

But the facts are that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, probably agreed to this practice when she married Abraham. This is why she offered Hagar, her maidservant, to Abraham when she was barren. She reverted to her pagan way of thinking (Gen. 16:1-2). All of this, of course, happened hundreds of years before God revealed the Law on Mount Sinai establishing specific moral directions for the children of Israel.

Laban, Abraham’s nephew, never gave up this pagan practice. Otherwise, he would not have tricked Jacob into marrying both Leah and Rachel. In fact, Laban still practiced idolatry. When Jacob eventually headed back to Canaan, Rachel actually stole some of his “household gods”—which also tells us something about Rachel. (31:30-32).

Against this cultural backdrop, let’s look at the events and dynamics of this story. As we’ll see, it’s not a lovely, romantic story. But from God’s perspective, it once again reveals His sovereign grace.

In our last study, we speculated on what happened in the lives of Leah and Rachel prior to Laban’s great deception. Leah cooperated out of mixed motives. She no doubt wanted to be married, but she certainly would not have relished the idea of entering a relationship under such difficult conditions. She must have been crushed the morning after when Jacob opened his eyes and discovered she was not Rachel.

Rachel, on the other hand, must have been fit to be tied! In no way would she have participated in this kind of scam. She loved Jacob and certainly wanted him for herself. But both girls were victims of a cultural system where daddy reigned supreme.

In many respects, they had no choice. Their whole inheritance was at stake! To rebel against their father would be choosing a life of poverty—and perhaps prostitution—in order to survive. Laban had already demonstrated that he would be capable of threatening his daughters with these alternatives.

Once the marriages took place, the problems that already existed were amplified many times. Jacob was forced to live with a woman he didn’t love. Leah was a constant reminder of Laban’s heartless trick. There’s no way Jacob would not be tempted to displace his anger toward Laban onto Leah.

Every morning he awakened to face a new day of work, he would naturally think about the fact that in order to have Rachel as his wife, Laban had forced him into this seven-year obligation.

Leah also became the object of Rachel’s resentment. If there was sibling rivalry before, you can imagine what happened once they were both married to the same man. Furthermore, research studies demonstrate that tensions are much greater in polygamous situations when a man has married sisters. It only complicates the predictable competition, jealousies, and resentments. What we’re about to see confirms that conclusion.

Poor Leah was not loved by Jacob or Rachel. But God did not forsake her. He loved her still, as He does all people, no matter what our sins. God had mercy on her and “opened her womb,” and she had four sons in a row—while Rachel remained barren. Obviously, Jacob’s lack of love for Leah didn’t keep him out of her tent! Whatever his motives— sympathy, gratification, duty—he did not reject Leah totally.

When Leah’s first son was born, we once again see her plight. She chose a name that reflected her emotional pain. Reuben literally means “See, a son”! However, the word also sounds like the Hebrew “He has seen my misery.” Here are perhaps the saddest words Leah ever uttered: “Surely my husband will love me now” (29:32). Unfortunately, her hopes were dashed but not her ability to get pregnant.

Leah conceived again, and when she gave birth, she said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too” (29:33). She named her second son Simeon, which means “one who knows.”

One of the redeeming features that grew out of Leah’s pain is that it evidently drove her to prayer. She probably spent hours pouring out her heart to God, just as Hannah did many years later when she wept and prayed “in bitterness of soul” (1 Sam. 1:10).

Obviously, Leah could not share her deep feelings of anxiety with Jacob. He would not understand. Nor would he want to understand. But she did share her frustration with God. He became her Source of strength, and she acknowledged her gratitude to the Lord with the very name she gave her son.

Leah named her third son Levi, a word that in Hebrew means something like the English word “attached.” She affirmed this definition with her own exclamation when her son was born: “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34). In other words, how could he not love her since she had given him three boys in a row and Rachel had born him none?

What a tragic picture! Jacob continued to love Rachel and to reject Leah. There was no emotional bonding whatsoever. Though sexually intimate, there was no emotional and spiritual relationship. But Leah was still hoping against hope that her ability to continue to bear children would win Jacob’s love. Alas, it didn’t happen.

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she had come to the conclusion that she might as well give up on winning Jacob’s love and attention. Understandably, she didn’t want to set herself up for another disappointing experience. Consequently, she turned her thoughts heavenward and said, “This time I will praise the Lord” (29:35). She named her fourth son Judah, which sounds like the Hebrew word for praise.

At some time when Leah was bearing children, Rachel’s jealousy reached a point of despair. Her anger inevitably led to intense depression. She had Jacob’s love, but she couldn’t conceive. In agony and bitterness, she cried out to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (30:2).

Rachel’s verbal explosion threatened Jacob. It was an accusatory statement; she was blaming him for her barrenness. Predictably, Jacob responded with his own anger: “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” (30:2). Jacob was terribly irritated. This was something over which he had no control. It was particularly frustrating since he had been spending a great majority of his time with Rachel. What else could he do? He found himself in a no-win situation.

Rachel must have reached an extremely low point in her life to do what she did next. Though it was culturally acceptable—and even an obligation if her husband insisted—Rachel must have been at her wits’ end to give her servant girl, Bilhah, to Jacob. Jacob hadn’t requested this arrangement since Leah had already borne him four sons. But to please Rachel, he cooperated.

Bilhah bore Jacob two sons. In both instances, Rachel’s response is very telling. She named the first boy Dan, which means “he has vindicated.” Elaborating on her reason for this name, she said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son” (30:6).

When Bilhah gave birth to her second son, Rachel named him Naphtali, which in Hebrew means “my struggle.” She revealed her heart and her motives when she cried out with glee, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won” (30:8). How sad! Her “victory” was hollow and pathetic.

The picture is clear. From the moment Leah and Rachel had married Jacob—and even before—they had been in a power struggle. They were vying for Jacob’s attention. From the birth of her very first son, Leah was determined to win Jacob’s affection, and with the birth of each child, Rachel became more and more frustrated and angry. Ironically, she had Jacob’s love, but she couldn’t bear a child—a state of affairs that was considered disgraceful and very disappointing in her culture.

While all of this was happening, Leah’s emotions were not in neutral. Though she had resigned herself temporarily to a “loveless” marriage, she also became jealous when Rachel’s maid gave her children. Since she could no longer get pregnant (29:35), she fought fire with fire.

Leah insisted that Jacob continue to give her children through her maidservant, Zilpah. Again, Jacob cooperated. The first son was named Gad, which in Hebrew means “good fortune.” Elaborating on her happiness, she said, “What good fortune!” (30:11). Literally, she was saying “a troop is coming!” In other words, in her mind this was just the beginning. I’m sure she wanted her response to get back to Rachel. In her mind, the race was on!

Zilpah bore a second son, and this time Leah named him Asher, which means “happy.” Again elaborating on her good fortune, she said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy” (30:13).

The battle between Leah and Rachel was raging. Imagine what Jacob was thinking and feeling! At times, he may have been amused, but he must have often thought about Laban and what he had done to get him into this mess. On the other hand, it’s possible he realized more and more that the real cause of his problems were his own sinful actions that began years before in his relationship with Esau. Seeing two sisters battle it out at close range for positions of prestige and to gain attention must have served as a mirror of his own battle with Esau.

The next maneuver by Leah demonstrates the extent to which some people will go to please themselves and hurt others. Her son, Reuben, found some mandrake plants out in the field and brought them to his mother. Leah had no doubt shared her frustration with her eldest son, and wanting to help, he presented her with what these people believed to be an aphrodisiac that would help a woman get pregnant. Clearly, he wanted his mother to be happy and to continue to win the battle over Rachel. How sad when children get involved in parental conflict.

Rachel’s back was against the wall. She appears beaten down. “Very well,” she said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes” (30:15). A very revealing statement. Though Leah had an edge in this emotional war, Rachel was still in control of the relationship.

Whether or not Leah had expected this response, she wasted no time in taking action. That very evening she met Jacob as he came home from work. In fact, she “went out to meet him” before he even arrived on the scene. She did not ask him to be with her that night; she told him! “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (30:16).

Rachel was in for an incredible shock: Leah got pregnant—not once, but three more times. She gave birth to two more sons plus a daughter. The first boy she named Issachar, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “reward.” She named the second boy Zebulun, which probably means “honor.” And she named her daughter Dinah. Evidently, Jacob decided to continue to visit Leah’s tent, no matter how Rachel felt about it! Even though he loved Rachel, he may have been retaliating because of her constant resentment and bickering—and making him the scapegoat.

Predictably, Leah was elated. When Issachar was born, she said, “God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband” (30:18). When Zebulun arrived on the scene, she said, “God has presented me with a precious gift” (30:20). However, her concluding remarks are a reflection of her continuing struggle to be accepted by Jacob. “This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons” (30:20).

How sad! She has spent all of these years trying to win her husband’s approval, but it never happened. Leah spent the rest of her life in a loveless marriage, even though she had borne half of the sons who would be the fathers of half the tribes of Israel.

Inall of this God did not forget Rachel. She had suffered long enough. Though He had rewarded Leah with sons because of the way she had been treated, He eventually allowed Rachel to become pregnant. The text reads, “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb” (30:22).

Whatever prompted Rachel to pray, God responded. We read that “she became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace” (30:23). She named him Joseph, which actually means “may he add.” Rachel herself gives us an interpretation of what she had in mind. The name Joseph was actually the essence of another specific prayer. Elaborating, she said, “May the Lord add to me another son” (30:24b).

God answered Rachel’s prayer for another son, but it would happen later, sometime after Jacob had fulfilled his seven-year commitment. In fact, they were on their way back to Jacob’s original homeland.

Ironically, Rachel died in childbirth. It was after Jacob had returned to Bethel, the place where he had encountered God years before. We read: “Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.’ As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin” (35:16-18).

The name Rachel gave her second son literally means “son of my trouble.” She knew she was dying, and she wanted her son’s name to reflect her predicament and perhaps her whole married life.

Jacob disagreed! He changed the boy’s name to Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.” Jacob did not want to remember Rachel in this way. She was his first love ever since they married, and at her death, he wanted everyone to know it!

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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