Understanding the Old Testament

Jacob's Twelve Sons

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

Jacob had 12 sons by his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Jacob’s prolificacy was primarily due to the rivalry between his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Like Sarah and Rebekah before her, Rachel had trouble conceiving children. Leah, on the other hand, was very fertile and gave Jacob four sons in quick succession—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

A woman’s worth in those days was frequently measured by how many children she could bear—because those meant unpaid farm workers, security in a parent’s old age, and a legacy to carry on after a parent’s death. Being barren made a woman a second class citizen, a person to be scorned or pitied by other women. So in desperation Rachel allowed Jacob to conceive children through her maid, Bilhah, who gave birth to Dan and Naphtali—sons whom Rachel could claim and raise as her own.

Leah, now past childbearing age but not to be outdone, offered her own maid to Jacob. That maid, Zilpah, gave Jacob two more sons, Gad and Asher. And after this, Leah miraculously had two more sons of her own: Issachar and Zebulun.

Finally, after years of being Jacob’s favorite wife but unable to give him children, Rachel became pregnant with Joseph, and later Benjamin. Unfortunately, Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin.

With one qualification, these 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel. The qualification was that there were actually 13 tribes, because Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would each be treated as a separate tribe—in other words, as if they too were sons of Jacob.

Questions to ponder or discuss: Today children are often more of a financial burden than they are an economic asset, yet most couples still yearn to have them. Couples unable to conceive will often turn to fertility drugs, surrogates, or adoption. Do you think this desire for children is due to genetics, instinct, culture, a combination of these, or something else? How do verses like Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1 impact your answer?

Copyright 2017 by Don Davidson

My book, Beyond Blind Faith: Reasons for the Hope We Have (1 Peter 3:15), is available on Amazon.com as either a print book or a Kindle e-book. Here's the link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074MVHVHP Read Chapter 1 (pdf format)



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