After the laborious events for Jacob in Genesis 29 that resulted in is two wives, one wanted (Rachel) and the other forced on him (Leah), Jacob begins to father children.
1-24: Mandrake drama
Rachel, jealous that Leah is having children while she appears to be unable to, demands of Jacob that he father children with her. Jacob becomes angry because he rightly understands that aside from the natural act, it is not up to him whether or not Rachel actually becomes pregnant; this is up to God. Rachel then, assuming that she is the problem (Jacob had already fathered four sons with Leah), gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a wife so that she can by proxy have children with Jacob too. Bilhah becomes pregnant and bears two sons for Jacob and Rachel: Dan and Naphtali.
Childbearing in this story is competitive and a source of jealousy. Leah stops bearing Jacob’s children around this time (not of her choice; she simply stops conceiving) and follows Rachel’s lead by sending her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob as a wife so that she may bear yet more children on Leah’s behalf. Zilpah has Gad and Asher.
Reuben was Jacob’s first son by Leah. One day he finds and brings mandrakes (a root that may have been used for medicine) to his mother Leah. Rachel, giving no break to the air of jealousy between the two wives, envies these mandrakes and asks Rachel for some. Leah, obviously perturbed, expresses frustration with Rachel because she sees Rachel as only taking things from her. Rachel, sensing this, offers her Jacob to sleep with, so that a deal of sorts is struck: Reuben’s mandrakes for Leah to sleep with Jacob. This deal gives us insight into their personal relationships: Rachel was the preferred or primary wife, while Leah was secondary.
Leah bears three more children with Jacob: two sons in Issachar and Zebulun and a daughter Dinah. After this, God answers Rachel’s prayers and finally blesses her with a first son of her own in Joseph. There are twelve children here, eleven sons and one daughter. The eleven sons will make up eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel as their progeny grows and spreads. The second and last son to be born to Rachel, Benjamin, will come in chapter 25. We see yet again, that despite the often poor and petty behavior of these ancient followers of God, God finds a way to complete His will.
25-43: Sight symbolism
Now that Jacob’s family is growing, it is time for him to leave Laban. Jacob asks permission to leave, but Laban has grown in riches since Jacob arrived and he recognizes this and asks that Jacob stay. A small negotiation takes place. Both Jacob and Laban know that God has blessed Laban because of Jacob. Jacob wants to take his portion of these material blessings with him when he leaves so that they can continue to be blessings for his family.
In dividing the livestock, Jacob devises a plan to make sure that he takes the high-quality livestock with him when he goes. Jacob lays claim to the spotted and white livestock. Through a system wherein he placed patterns before the animals while they were mating, he ensured that the strongest livestock were spotted and white. Placing the patterns before the animals is symbolic for the act of God blessing the strength of the livestock that are meant for Jacob. Jacob ended up “exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.” God continues to make good on His promise of blessing the seed of Abraham.
The throughline of God’s will is once again difficult to miss. Knowing what we know about the twelve tribes of Israel, here we are delighted to see the origin of eleven of them. Even though God’s people never have been (nor never will be) perfect, this will never stop God from directing things as He wants them on the earth.