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Marriages & families in the Bible

A Bible passage you probably won't hear
mentioned in any religious service soon.


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Genesis 2:24 is frequently quoted as "God's plan" for marriage to the exclusion of all other family /marriage types:

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

So is Exodus 20:14:

"Thou shalt not commit adultery."

However, there are seven other family/marriage styles mentioned in the Bible that differ from the Genesis 2 model. These are rarely mentioned today, because they show that God sometimes blesses family structures that are quite different from that described in the above quotations.

The following story describes one such marriage/family. It is found in Genesis 29 and 30. It involves Jacob who ended up creating a very large family with the help of not one wife, but a total of four wives, two of whom were slaves -- that is, the property -- of his first two wives. It must have made for interesting family dynamics.


The family of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah and their children:

God favored Jacob and appeared to him in a dream. Yahweh said:

Genesis 28:13-15: "... I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." (King James Version)

According to the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob, who had twelve sons, each of whom became the patriarch of one of the twelve Tribes of Israel.

Charles Laymon's "The Interpreter's one-volume commentary on the Bible" states:

"Jacob's sons ... are conceived in a passionate rivalry and bitterness, born of preferred and despised wives and concubines, in startling fulfillment of God's promise to make of Abraham a great nation."

Jacob had reached a deal with his uncle Laban: Jacob would work for him seven years and in return receive Laban's daughter Rachel as a wife. In that culture, women were regarded as property, and so to accept a woman as payment in a work contract would not have been particularly unusual.

Genesis 29:20-24: And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her. And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her. And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid.

The King James Version of the Bible frequently uses terms like maidservant and manservant. However, they do not refer to a maid or butler in today's terms; these were female and male slaves. Human slavery was condoned and regulated in the Bible, and not considered particularly immoral.

Laban had tricked Jacob by substituting his older daughter, Leah, for the Rachel, the daughter that Jacob was in love with.

Genesis 29:25-30: And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me? And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfil her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years. And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also. And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her maid. And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years.

So, Jacob ended up with two wives and another seven year obligation to pay for Rachel.

Genesis 29:31-35: And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Leah had four sons apparently in quick succession. Rachel remained childless, and so offered her female slave to Jacob to marry. Bilhah probably would have experienced this arrangement as multiple rapes:

Genesis 30:1-4: 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. 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? 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. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.

The slave Bilhah had two sons which Rachel considered her own:

Genesis 30:5-8: And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son. 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. And Bilhah Rachel's maid conceived again, and bare Jacob a second son.
And Rachel said, With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali.

Leah then gave her female slave, Zilpah, to Joseph in marriage; he had two more sons:

Genesis 30:9-13: When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife. And Zilpah Leah's maid bare Jacob a son. And Leah said, A troop cometh: and she called his name Gad. And Zilpah Leah's maid bare Jacob a second son. And Leah said, Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed: and she called his name Asher. ...

Next, Leah became pregnant three times and had two sons and a daughter:

Genesis 30:14-20: And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son. And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband: and she called his name Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and bare Jacob the sixth son. 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.

Leah's first comment about "hire" means that God had rewarded her for giving her slave to her husband as a wife.


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Copyright © 2007 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-JUN-24
Latest update: 2011-JAN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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