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.