The story of How the Twelve Tribes of Israel Came to Be (Gen 30)
Despite human frailty, God’s purposes were not thwarted, but humans suffered a lot more than they had to in the process.
Our sin makes it harder for ourselves and others along the way, but even our sin does not thwart God’s purposes.
The first thing we learn from this story is that God sometimes has to even the score because of our sinful practices and attitudes (Gen. 29:31- 35).
If you remember the story behind all this, you know that Jacob loved Rachel, but he got stuck with Leah, who was apparently no beauty queen. No doubt it was devastating—for both of them.
But a week later, Jacob gets the woman he really loves while Leah is left to suffer for the rest of her life. So you’ve got a couple of co-wives. Jacob loves Rachel, and everyone knows it. Leah got the black bean.
Well, God is just. And sometimes in His justice he intervenes to equalize the suffering. In this case, the text says, “When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” One got the love of a man; the other got the love of children.
So we see in verse 33, “Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the LORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” The name Reuben sounds a lot like the Hebrew expression “He has seen misery.” The women in this day and age often gave their children names with wordplays involved.
Verse 34 says she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. The Hebrew sounds more like “Shimeon.”
Have you heard of the “Shema”? You know, “Hear, O Israel …” Well, Shema is to hear. Simeon’s name means He heard. Notice that both of these two names say something about Leah’s faith. Her husband didn’t love her or hear her, but she knew God did.
The third time, it says in verse 34, “Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi.” That name was a play on the words about being joined to her husband. She still has hope here after three kids.
But after this it looks like her focus matures a bit. In verse 35 it says, “She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the LORD’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.”
So the score is Leah – 4; Rachel – 0.
Now we’ve seen God intervene. The wife with the upper hand has been brought down to more even footing. But we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Is there anything I’m doing that would prompt God to have to intervene?” Is there some injury I might be causing that would necessitate His taking something away to even out an imbalance?
Unfortunately, Rachel took the pain she felt over her childlessness and she turned it into an opportunity to compete. Which brings us to the second thing we learn from this story—that we should expect to suffer the consequences of our wrong actions.
Actually Rachel does four things to make the situation worse. She begins with envying her sister. In chapter 30 verse one we read, “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister.” And then to make things worse, she accuses her husband. She told him, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” Jacob pointed out that she had a faith problem, and her words made him really angry. In verse two we read his response: “Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Rachel has an opportunity here to trust God. But instead she offers Jacob a semi-surrogate. Read verses three through five: “Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son.” And then it gets really ugly. Notice that Rachel sort of engraves the competition in stone by means of her kids’ names. The first time her maid gives birth they name the child Dan, which suggests God has acted as judge and Rachel has won. But it gets worse. In verse eight we read that the next child, Naphtali, is so named because, “I have wrestled with my sister and prevailed.” This is sibling rivalry at its worst.
And now can’t you just hear Leah say, “Well! If you’re gonna be that way about it…” So Leah gives her servant to Jacob, who now has a total of four wives. And that servant has 2 kids. We read in verse eleven that she named them “Gad” for “good fortune,” and “Asher,” for “happy.”
Now the score is Rachel – 2 sorta; and Leah 4+2 = 6. It’s the new math, I guess.
It has gone from ugly to uglier. Rachel is determined to have her way, but God won’t let her. And what Rachel does next really shows God’s poetic justice. The little vignette begins in verse 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.”
You have to figure that Reuben is about ten years old by now, and when he’s out in the field he finds mandrakes. Mandrakes are plants with long roots and a white flower—nothing really special until you know that in that culture mandrakes were considered a fertility enhancer. Today people tell infertile couples, “Just relax,” back then they said, “Go get some mandrakes.”
Well, when Rachel finds out Leah has some, she asks Leah to share so she can get pregnant. And now we get a picture of Leah’s bitterness. She’s been married for a decade or more, and she tells Rachel, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” But then who can blame her? Rachel’s been competing like crazy. So we’ve had a decade of utter misery. Two people who could have loved and empathized with each other have made each other’s lives miserable by a sibling rivalry based on one-upping.
Well, what Rachel does next is pretty low. She allows superstition to motivate her to use sex as a bargaining chip. In this case she tells Leah, “I’ll let you sleep with him tonight in exchange for the mandrakes.” She basically sells a night with her husband.
Now talk about a dysfunctional marriage. Look at what verse 16 says: 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.”
And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.
Leah said, “God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar.” Which is a play on the word “hire.” Notice it’s not because she hired her husband with mandrakes, but because she gave her maid to him. She could’ve been really cruel here, but she doesn’t go there.
But do you see what God did? When Rachel was engaging in the latest superstition instead of having a faith perspective on the whole thing, he made sure she understood that the very thing she had wrongly trusted in became the means to add to her own misery. The mandrakes didn’t help her get pregnant—they gave her sister the opportunity to be with Jacob again.
Then Leah goes on to have two more children. Verse 20 introduces Zebulun—”now my husband will honor me.” And Dinah, a daughter. We aren’t told the meaning of her name—not because girls are less important, but because it would be a bunny trail off of the author’s point here in telling us how the 12 tribes of Israel came into existence. And we’re almost there. The score is Rachel – 2 sorta; and Leah – 9 sorta. Though one of those is a girl.
Do you see all the misery that didn’t have to happen? Do you see how Rachel’s lack of faith led to even greater suffering for herself? Sometimes we suffer the consequences of our own actions. So ask yourself, “What actions have I committed or am I committing for which I would not want God to have to intervene to ‘even the score’ or bring consequences?” Are you slandering someone? Do you want to be slandered? Are you complaining about how someone handles something? Do you want others complaining about how you handle something? We need to do unto others… And in the meantime, I suggest begging for the mercy of, “Lord, please don’t bring back to me what my actions deserve.”
God made it good and clear to Rachel that children don’t come from using mandrakes. They come from His hand. She’s learning some hard lessons here. And if we read on, we learn another thing from the mistakes she makes: We see that our “idols” will be the very things that destroy us (Gen. 30:22-24). Let’s take a look at how that plays out in Rachel’s life. Look at verses 22 and 23: Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach.”
Finally! Rachel has the good news she has waited and manipulated and prayed for. So we expect her to name her child, “God is good,” or something like that. But look at verse 24. It says, “And she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!” God finally gives her what she wants and she gives him a name that means to “add.” She wants more. And you want to know the sad part? Rachel later goes on to have another child, Benjamin, but she dies in childbirth. The very thing that consumed her life took her life. The thing that became more important to her than God destroyed her.
What do you want more than God? We call stuff addictions and issues; Paul calls it sin. What drives you? What are your longings? A love relationship? Achievement? Status? Wealth? Food? Good grades? What you make your god will be the thing that consumes you. Is God Himself what ultimately consumes you? If anything besides God is our passion, it has the potential to destroy us.
If anything besides God is our passion, it has the potential to destroy us.
The competition between Rachel and Leah to have kids, more kids, the most kids, through whatever means necessary brought a lot of preventable misery. But the good news is that in the process God’s ultimate purpose was not thwarted. The last thing we learn from this story is that even our sin can’t thwart God’s plans.
We sometimes like a good love story, so we tend to root for Rachel here. And we may even think of her son, Joseph, as the son of promise, but Judah is the line through which David and Jesus come, and Judah was a son of Leah. And regardless of the sinful attitudes and actions involved, Rachel and Leah built the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). In the story of Ruth, the villagers pronounce a blessing on Ruth when she marries Boaz. And they say, “May you be like Rachel and Leah who build the house of Israel.” The women are remembered not so much for their bickering but for the fact that God used them. And even though the humans involved were sometimes awful to each other, God accomplished His ultimate will.
So think about your failures and shortcomings and offer them to God as a sacrifice. Where sin abounded, grace abounded more. They’re part of the “all things” that God can work together for good.
So we can learn four things here from the mistakes of Rachel and Leah:
We should expect God to even the score when we engage in sinful practices and attitudes;
We should expect to suffer the consequences of our actions;
Our “idols” will be the very things that destroy us
Even our sin can’t thwart God’s purposes.