When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” 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. 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. 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. Then she stopped having children.(Genesis 29:31-35)
Jacob, the seed of Abraham, and heir of the Abrahamic promise, was tricked into marrying Leah, the sister of the woman he really loved, Rachel. We have pointed out that Genesis is an account of the contrast between man’s choices and God’s.
Abraham wanted Ishmael to be the heir, but God chose Isaac. Isaac wanted Esau to be the heir, but God chose Jacob. Here Jacob wanted Rachel to be his wife, but God had chosen Leah to be the bearer of the seed of the woman.
God opened Leah, the unloved wife’s womb, and gave her a son, whom she called Reuben…which means Behold, a Son, but sounds close to the Hebrew phrase, “He beheld my misery”.
Leah’s next son was named “Simeon,”for the unloved woman rejoiced, saying,” Because the Lord heard ,”i.e. Simeon- He has heard”, that I wasn’t loved, He gave me a son.”
A third Son was granted to Leah, the unloved wife, whom she called “Levi”, i.e. “joined, or attached”, for she was sure that these sons would “Attach her to her husband”.
A fourth son was given to the wife which Jacob found unattractive, who she named “Judah”, ‘Praise’, because she praised the Lord for his bounty to her.
Now Rachel, the loved wife, was hurt and angry that her sister was bearing children, and she wasn’t.
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!” Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”(Genesis 30:1-2)
Thus began a competition among the sisters, holding nothing back in the quest to bear sons to Jacob.The sisters even enlisted their personal handmaidens into the child-bearing race!
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.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 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.(Genesis 30:3-6)
The first son born to Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, was named “Dan”, “Judgment”, for she said “God has vindicated me, and heard my plea…”
Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali. (Genesis 30:7-8)
“Naphtali” means, “my wrestling”, because Rachel thought she had won a “Wrestling match” with her sister.
When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “What good fortune!” So she named him Gad. 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.(Genesis 30:9-11)
Now Leah, the unloved wife enlisted her handmaiden, and she bore “Gad”, i.e. ‘good fortune’, and “Asher” i.e., ‘happy’.
By this time Reuven was a little boy, and he was enlisted in the “baby-race” because he found Mandrakes, also called “love apples” , and considered an aphrodisiac. When he brought them to Leah, his mother, Rachel asked her sister for some. What follows seems surreal, for they traded Mandrakes, for sleeping rights.
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.” 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.” 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.( Genesis 30:14-16)
That night Leah conceived another son, Issachar, which means “Reward”, and eventually a sixth son, Zebulun, “Precious gift”.
Fnally God opened the womb of Rachel, the beloved wife, and she bore Joseph,”He shall add”.
Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” She named him Joseph,[h] and said, “May the Lord add to me another son.”( Genesis 30:22-24)
Thus far between Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah and Rachel, so far we have 11 sons. The last son would be born after Jacob and his family have returned to the promised Land. Rachel was the mother, but because the family had to flee suddenly, due to an incident involving Simeon and Levi, she died in Childbirth, but only after naming the child, “Ben -Ami”, ir”son of my sorrow”. But Jacob, though mourning greatly for his dear wife, changed the name of the child to “Ben Yammin”, i.e.,’son of my right hand”.(Benjamin)
Why does the initial book of scripture take such great pains to tell us the birth and naming stories of the twelve Sons of Israel? Somehow or other this sordid story is of vast and eternal significance, and has universal application to the whole world, jet as Abraham’s covenant did.
In the years to come the high priest of Israel would enter the presence of the Holy God, with a breastplate with precious stones and the names of each of these sons.
We are told in Heaven that the names of the Sons of Israel are engraven on the very walls of the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal city of God and of the Lamb!
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.(Revelation 21:10-14)
The story is so sordid; here we have a sad story of two sisters as wives, competing for the affection of their one husband, enlisting even their servants in the conception of sons, trying to gain the upper hand over each other, using any advantage, even bargaining nights with Him!
When we read on, we are shocked at the disfunction of this family.
As a new reader of the Bible and coming out of the Catholic tradition, I couldn’t wait to read about these pious sons of Israel, and expected to see halos on each of their heads!
What a shock! Reuven slept with one of those handmaids. Simeon and Levi used circumcism to trick a town into rendering themselves helpless, so that they could slaughter the men in revenge for the rape of their sister. All of the brothers except Benjamin hated Joseph and actually sold him into slavery.
How do such sordid people get their names engraved on the walls of the eternal Holy city?
But then it struck me, that this is a message, a gospel from heaven, that salvation is not for the “Righteous” and “good” people of the earth, for there are none. Salvation is the gift of God to the rued, stained, spotted and tattered who have turned to God in all of their sin and allowed him to redeem their lives and make them “new Creations”.
How could God do this?
Perhaps there is clue in the meaning of the name of the last one. Remember he had two names, “Son of my sorrow” and “Son of My right hand”. The Messiah would come centuries later, to the children of Israel first. He would be the “Son of sorrows” first, despised and rejected of men, bearing our grief, sorrow and shame as a substitute.
But at the completion of his suffering, He would be vindicated by God the Father, and elevated to the right hand of God, “Son of my right hand” and become a source of Salvation to the children of Israel first, then to the entire world.
The Story of Joseph typifies this because Joseph is a type of Messiah.