Jacob’s Concubines

1-Bilhah and Zilpah

References:  Genesis 29:16-30:12; Genesis 35:23-26. 

Heart of the Story: Both Leah and Rachel gave their maidservants to Jacob to bare children in their place. Although Jacob sired two boys with each servant, he didn’t value them as highly as his wives.

Story Line: Leah and Rachel were Laban’s daughters; both married Jacob. Jacob loved Rachel and resented Leah; he married Leah only because Laban tricked him. Following middle-east marriage custom, Laban gave both daughters a maid servant when she married. Leah’s maid was named Zilpah and Rachel’s was named Bilhah. Some Bible scholars believe that Zilpah was younger than Bilhah. Laban gave the younger Zilpah as maidservant to Leah to further Jacob’s wedding-night belief that he married Rachel, the younger sister. 

When Rachel realized she was barren, she gave Bilhap to Jacob to have children in her name. In doing so, she was following the example of Sarah giving her servant Hagar to Abraham to bear a son in Sarah’s name. Outcomes of Jacob and Bilhah’s unions were two sons. The first was Dan and the second Naphtali. After having four sons, Leah stopped conceiving. Then, Leah gave Zilpah to Jacob to bear children in her name. Subsequently Zilpah had two of Jacob’s sons, Gad and Asher.

In Old Testament times, it was acceptable for a maid servant to conceive children with a barren wife’s husband. Some ancient cultures, e.g., Nuzi, provided written instructions that a wife had full authority the children. Rachel and Leah named Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s boys.

Both Bilhah and Zilpah had their own tent in Jacob’s camp (Genesis 31:33). They were considered concubines, or secondary wives of Jacob. Despite their sons being adopted by Rachel and Leah, the sons are associated with their birth mothers. In the Bible record of Jacob’s children (Genesis 35:25-26), Bilhah was listed as the mother of Dan and Naphtali; Zilpah was identified as the mother of Asher and Gad. Likely, the sons of Bilpah and Zilpah lived in their mothers’ tents as the birth sons of Leah and Rachel lived in their mothers’ tents.    

Jacob didn’t value Bilhah and Zilpah and their sons as highly as he valued Leah and Rachel and their sons. When Jacob saw Esau coming with 400 men, he spread out his family with Bilhah and Zilpah and their sons going first; Leah and her sons were positioned second. Rachel and Joseph were in the rear and farthest from potential harm from Esau. If Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s sons were truly the son of Leah and Rachel, Jacob would have integrated them with their adoptive mothers rather than place them first in the family column. 

Analysis of the Relationships: Bilhah and Zilhap had little voice in what happened to them in either Laban’s household or in Jacob’s. For example, Laban gave Zilhap to Leah when she married Jacob and gave Bilhah to Rachel when she married Jacob. Similarly, Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine and Leah gave Zilhap to Jacob as a concubine. In none of these instances does the Bible give even a hint that the two maid servants had a voice in whom they served or whom they accepted to father their children. Some early Bible translations used the word “slave girl” rather than maid servant to describe the positions of Bilhah and Zilpah in Laban’s and Jacob’s household. Considering that both Laban and Jacob’s wives “gave” these maid servants to another person, slave is a better descriptor of Bilhah and Zilpah positions in these households.

For several reasons, Bilhah and/or Zilpah could have been willing to be Jacob’s concubine and mother to his sons. First, they may have loved their mistresses and wanted to help and please them. Second, they could have been attracted to Jacob as a man. Third, the maids could have reason that a child fathered by Jacob would have a birthright status never open to a child sired by another servant. Finally, being the mother of Jacob’s son would increase their status and security within Jacob’s household.

After Leah’s and Rachel’s maid servants birth Jacob’s sons, both Leah and Rachel had children. Leah bore two more sons and a daughter while Rachel gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel’s intense longing for and happiness when she birthed sons suggests that she may have been partial to Joseph and Benjamin over Dan and Naphtali. In reality she did not consider Bilhah’s sons (Dan and Naphtali) her own sons.

Both Bilhah and Zilpah knew the family history of Sarah insisting that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from Abraham’s camp after Isaac was born. In particular, Bilhah would have taken care not to offend Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, so that Dan and Naphtali retained their positions as sons in Jacob’s household. 

Conclusion: The Bible recorded when Leah and Rachel died and where they were buried, however, there is no record of the deaths of Zilpah and Bilhah. Although they were servants, these women were keys to building the Jewish nation.

If you want to learn more about the important roles that servants played in the Bible, go to my website Carolyn Roth Ministry (http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com). Check out my “Store” where I sell copies of Lesser Known Bible Characters. In the book there is an entire chapter devoted to Servants/Slaves in the Bible.

Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth, 12/13. All rights reserves.






8 thoughts on “Jacob’s Concubines

  1. Some Jewish scholarship has it that Zilpah and Bilhah were half-sisters to Leah and Rachel. Since they were slaves, given as wedding gifts to the two sisters, it seems to me likely that they were Laban’s daughters by one or two of his slave women, or perhaps concubines.
    Since once each slave bore no more after providing two sons apiece (at least none are mentioned), they may have only been slaves and not concubines. Slaves’ tenure was precarious: displease one’s master, or in the case of Bilhah and Zilpah, mistress, and one well could be sold to passing slave merchants, or sent to auction at a slave dealer’s.
    A concubine, on the other hand, could be sold only to her own family for the price they had received for her. She could not be sold to others, particularly foreigners, like a common slave.
    As Laban’s daughters even though slaves Bilhah and Zilpah had some more security. They had not been bought from the slave trade, but from their own father (if that is in fact the case), so it would have been quite an affront to Laban for them to be sold elsewhere. Best to just keep them, and beat them if they were surly or insubordinate.
    Either Jacob was only marginally fertile or he stopped having sex with Zilpah and Bilhah once their mistresses had gotten what they wanted, two sons each, from them. This was inconsiderate of both of Jacob’s wives as sex and childbearing were the high points in the lives of women of that age, after marriage, unlikely in the life of a slave woman.

  2. Then slaves were really abused and unloved or even raped by their masters or mistresses husbands’
    In other words Jacob never even had foreplay with them but had sex for child bearing only
    Leah on the other hand was unloved but had occassional sex for the sake of child bearing

    • “MM MOTSEPE,” you’re correct…by modern mores. But throughout the ages virtually every society, every culture had slavery. As to slave women, their masters were free to have sexual intercourse with them just as with wives and concubines. This was supported by custom and, where society was developed sufficiently to have formal law codes, supported by law.
      Jacob did not do right by Zilpah and Bilhah in that he apparently stopped having sex with them after each had borne two sons. However, they were not his own slaves but belonged to his wives, Leah and Rachel. It looks like the slave girls’ mistresses did not send.them to Jacob, so perhaps it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t keep on having regular sex with them.
      According to the law of Moses, given some four centuries later, once a man started using a woman sexually, he was obligated to keep on. Since they no longer were virgins, they would bring little if sold unless exceptionally beautiful.

    • Steve, The Bible does not identify who was Bilhah and Zilpah’s father. However, Christian scholars have proposed that both girls were daughters of Laban by concubines. This is just speculation as the Bible is silent on this topic.

      • Why does ruth 4:11 not say that bilhah and zilpah we’re part of the building up of the house of israel?

      • Steve, your question is a good one and I am postulating on an answer: possible because Bilhah and Zilpah were secondary wives and birthed children by Jacob for Leah and Rachel. In the ancient culture (Chaldean) where Jacob lived, a barren woman could give her servants to her husband to birth children for the mistress of the servant.

  3. Great article and posts! I find them very helpful in better understanding the difference between and a wife and a concubine. However the lines still seem a bit blurred to me. What distinguished a Hebrew servant/slave from a concubine? Were female Hebrew servants and concubines both basically mistresses, if owned by a man? Did either one have a written agreement/covenant with the man/owner? Thank you in advance!

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