The Sport of Competitive Conception

Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.

When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad. 12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.

19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” Genesis 30:3-24 ESV

This story reads like a 1970s television soap opera. The interpersonal intrigues are difficult to keep up with and the sheer number of births is mind-boggling. Moses provides no timeline for this narrative, but suffice it to say, Jacob was a busy man. In the span of 19 verses, Moses describes Jacob as fathering seven sons by four different women. And it’s impossible to read this story and not see the similarities found in the lives of Jacob’s parents and grandparents. But it is if Jacob, Rachel, and Leah have taken the art of conception to a whole new level. It has become a competitive sport, with the women in Jacob’s life batting him like a helpless shuttlecock in a game of badminton.

In fact, it got so bad that Jacob functioned more like a prostitute than as the patriarch of his own family. When his wives ordered him to sleep with their maidservants, he seemed to passively comply. At one point, his wife Leah actually sold some mandrakes to Rachel and used sexual access to Jacob as her bartering chip. Having paid for his services, she simply informed Jacob of the arrangement.

“You must come and sleep with me tonight!” she said. “I have paid for you with some mandrakes that my son found.” So that night he slept with Leah. – Genesis 30:16 NLT

It’s difficult to keep up, but at this point in the story, Jacob has fathered 11 sons. Leah has given him Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Her handmaid Zilpah has added Gad and Asher. Rachel’s handmaid provided Dan and Naphtali. And, after God opened her womb, Rachel delivered Joseph.

Due to her barrenness, Rachel had been unable to bear Jacob any children – until God had intervened. As her husband’s favorite wife, she found herself shamed by her infertility and her frustrating inability to give Jacob the one thing he desired most: A son. So, in an effort to compete with her sister’s prolific child-bearing capabilities, she had come up with the idea to have children through a surrogate.

“Take my maid, Bilhah, and sleep with her. She will bear children for me, and through her I can have a family, too.” – Genesis 30:3 NLT

In a fit of jealousy and driven by purely selfish motives, Rachel ordered Jacob to father a son through her servant. And just as Abraham had followed the same advice from his wife, Sarah, Jacob complied. Not once, but twice. And this little act of competitive conception encouraged Leah to take up the sport. She too offered her servant to Jacob and, once again, he willingly took her up on the offer. The result? Two more sons.

It would be easy to read this story and be left with the impression that things have gotten completely out of control. There is no referee in this game of one-upmanship. Each of these women seems to make up the rules as the game unfolds. And Jacob comes across like a triple-A prospect who suddenly gets called up to the big leagues. This little country boy from Beersheba was going up against the pros.

But, Moses wants his readers to know that this is not some no-rules, make-it-up-as-you-go-along free-for-all. God is fully in control and operating behind the scenes in order to accomplish His divine will. Yes, it’s messy and incorporates all the subterfuge and self-promotion that Rachel and Leah bring to the table, but it is far from out of control. As Moses lists the various names of the boys born to Jacob, his Jewish readers would have recognized the names of their individual tribes. These boys would grow to become men and father 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. And on two separate occasions, Moses deliberately pauses the narrative at the mention of the names of Judah and Joseph. When Leah had given birth to her fourth son, she had named him Judah, then Moses wrote, “Then she ceased bearing” (Genesis 29:35 ESV). It seems that God had turned off the tap. He sovereignly sealed her womb, not permanently, but for a period of time.

As stated in yesterday’s blog, Judah was to become the tribe through whom the Messiah of Israel would be born. Judah was going to play a major role in the national affairs of Israel and the future fate of the world. And the same thing is true of Joseph.

Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob, could not bear children. That is until God sovereignly ordained it. And when He miraculously opened her womb, Rachel gave birth to a boy named Joseph. Little did Rachel know that this long-awaited son would play a vital role in the future salvation and preservation of the people of Israel. Moses readers would have been highly familiar with the story of Joseph. He would grow to become the favorite son of Jacob, a designation that would make him the envy of his 10 older brothers. Jacob would lavish the favored son of his favorite wife with affection and gifts, a move that would make Joseph the target of his brothers’ ire.

Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph—a beautiful robe. But his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him. – Genesis 37:3-4 NLT

Yet, like Judah, Joseph was destined to play a special role in his family’s future. While Rachel and Leah were busy conniving and competing, God had more serious and world-changing plans in mind. He was using the selfish and shortsighted machinations of these two women to fulfill the covenant promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and now, Jacob. As usual, the characters in the story remain oblivious to the unseen actions of God. They believed themselves to be in control and driving the narrative. Oh, they give God lip service.

“God has vindicated me! He has heard my request and given me a son.” – Genesis 30:6 NLT

“God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband as a wife.” – Genesis 30:18 NLT

“God has given me a good reward.” – Genesis 30:20 NLT

“God has removed my disgrace…” – Genesis 30:23 NLT

But they were operating according to their own agendas and in keeping with their own selfish desires. Yet, God was righteously redeeming their flawed actions in order to bring about the plan He had developed long before any of them ever existed.

With the birth of Joseph, a new chapter in the story will begin. For nearly two decades, Jacob had been living in Haran with his father-in-law Laban. He had been waiting on word from his mother, Rachel, informing him that Esau had forgiven him and it was safe to return home. But that message had never come. In all likelihood, Rachel had died while Jacob had been away. He now had two wives, two concubines, and 11 sons. God had blessed him and he realized it was time to return to Canaan. According to God, it was there that his inheritance would be found. When Jacob had stopped in Bethel on his way to Haran, God had appeared to him in a dream and said:

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Now, it was time to go back to the land because Jacob knew that Canaan was where the promises of God would be fully fulfilled.

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