Issues in Polygamy Based on Jacob and Wives
Jacob became a polygamist by responding to circumstances that arose before him regarding marriage and marital relationships. His marriages sowed seeds for family expansion but also of discord that threatened healthy interactions within his family. Thus, Jacob’s polygamy formed the foundation for fulfillment of God’s promise but also exposed features of such family structure to enable an understanding of the issues of polygamy applicable to present day husband-wife interactions and relationships.
Interactions within Jacob’s family provide opportunity to understand various issues of polygamy. Jacob found himself a polygamist by responding from the heart to circumstances before him regarding marriage and marital relationships. He loved one woman, his uncle’s daughter Rachel, and worked hard to fulfill his part of an agreement to satisfy the dowry requirements by serving her father Laban for seven years as a shepherd. However, on the wedding day he was deceived into wedding her senior sister Leah. He remained determined to marry Rachel. The girls’ father appealed to him to complete the wedding process with Leah and marry Rachel as well thereafter. Jacob accepted. He fulfilled his dream of marrying the woman he loved but also honored her senior sister’s right to wed first. He accomplished these by marrying both sisters, the older before the younger.
Later, as Rachel’s hope of having a child with Jacob began to fade, she offered her maid Bilhah to Jacob: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her” [Genesis 30:3]. Jacob accepted and had two male children with Bilhah. Leah became jealous of Rachel’s success with Bilhah and offered her maid Zilpah to Jacob. He accepted the offer as well. The two maids became his wives in addition to Leah and Rachel. He married Leah, Rachel, and Bilhah because of his love for Rachel. He married Zilpah to extend to Leah the same opportunity that he extended to Rachel.
Thus, he became a husband of four wives because of responding positively to circumstances that arose in his relationship with Rachel. He became an incidental polygamist, thus sowing seeds for the family expansion that God promised his grandfather Abraham. Furthermore, his polygamy sowed seeds of family discord that initially threatened to derail fulfillment of God’s promise of prosperity but ultimately became a vehicle to convey fulfillment of the promise. Thus, Jacob’s polygamy formed the foundation for fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham but also exposed features of polygamous relationships to enable an understanding of the issues of polygamy applicable to present day husband-wife relationships.
We discuss Jacob’s polygamy in a two-part study. First, in the current study, we examine his becoming a polygamist by responding positively to circumstances that arose before him regarding marriage and marital relationships. Also, we examine how his polygamy sowed seeds for family expansion as well as seeds of discord that threatened healthy interactions within the family. In the second part, we examine the unhealthy family interactions and relationships that resulted from his polygamy and triggered events that initially threatened the family but ultimately led the family to multiply and prosper.
Jacob fell in love with Rachel, the second daughter of his uncle Laban, while living with them in Padan Aram. He proposed to marry her and to satisfy the dowry requirements by serving his uncle for seven years: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter” [Genesis 29:18]. Laban accepted. Jacob courted Rachel and served her father as a shepherd and general help for seven years that he cherished so much they seemed like a few days: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her” [Genesis 29:20].
However, on the morning after the wedding night, Jacob was disappointed to find Leah had been switched for Rachel [Genesis 29:25]: “So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?’” Laban appealed to Jacob to accept Leah as his wife, complete the customary wedding process with her, and marry Rachel as a second wife thereafter. Jacob likely realized his only chance of marrying Rachel was to accept her father’s proposal and explanation that their custom prohibited giving the younger into marriage before the firstborn. He accepted Leah as wife and completed the week-long wedding process. Thereafter, he married Rachel also and served her father for an additional seven years to satisfy the dowry requirements.
Each of Leah and Rachel received a maid as wedding present from their father. Leah received Zilpah while Rachel received Bilhah. After the weddings, Rachel’s fortunes appeared to sour. She was unable to conceive while Leah conceived four times and gave birth to a boy each time. Rachel was desperate to have a child, appeared to have lost hope of conceiving, therefore offered her maid to her husband so “she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her” [Genesis 30:3]. Jacob accepted the maid, Bilhah, as wife. She conceived two times and gave birth to a son each time. Leah, believing her child-bearing was over and in apparent jealousy of Rachel’s success with Bilhah, offered her own maid Zilpah to Jacob as wife. Jacob accepted, apparently to provide Leah the same opportunities he provided to Rachel.
Consequently, Jacob became the husband of four wives. He married Leah, Rachel, and Bilhah because he loved Rachel; and Zilpah in order to offer Leah similar opportunities as he provided to Rachel. He became a polygamist in responding positively to marital circumstances that arose before him.
Jacob’s Family Expansion
All four wives contributed to bearing the twelve sons of Jacob. Leah gave birth to six: the first four and the sixth and ninth. Each of the other three women gave birth to two. We need not speculate about what the numerical strength of the family would have been if Jacob had only one wife as he apparently intended. We know he had four and fathered twelve male children with them. His family, thus, started the great numerical expansion that God promised his grandfather Abraham [Genesis 15:5]: “Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
The numerical expansion began with the polygamous structure of Jacob’s family.
Polygamy Issues in Jacob’s Family
Jacob’s polygamy not only began the great numerical expansion of the family but also gave rise to issues that threatened healthy inter-family interactions. The issues started with unequal love for the wives. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah: “Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah” [Genesis 29:30]. Furthermore, Leah understood that her husband loved her junior sister (and now co-wife) more than he loved her. She knew how they got married and probably experienced other occurrences that made the unequal love clear to her.
There is no direct information about how Jacob felt about the other two wives. However, they joined his household as maids and subsequently were offered the status of wife, not because of love but in an attempt to re-balance family relationships. Therefore, though their status changed to “wife,” Jacob most likely did not love them any more than he loved Leah. They also must have known they were loved less, knowing they related to their husband indirectly through their mistresses. That is, Bilhah would have to relate to their husband as Rachel’s maid and Zilpah as Leah’s. Therefore, unequal love of the wives by Jacob must have been evident: He loved Rachel, loved Leah less, and the other two much less.
Our discussion in Part 2 of this study leads to a conclusion that unequal love of the wives dominated family interactions and sowed seeds of discord that poisoned interactions among the children. Furthermore, we draw from a previous study under Joseph Called to Mission to conclude that the seeds of discord resulted in a family tragedy. We also know from the study that God harnessed the tragedy to launch one of the children onto a mission to establish a sanctuary for the family in Egypt. However, notwithstanding that God used the tragedy to accomplish a great purpose, the fact that seeds of discord sowed by polygamy resulted in such tragedy provides opportunity for understanding the issues of polygamy applicable to present-day husband-wife interactions and relationships.
Summary of What We Learned
Jacob became an incidental polygamist by responding to circumstances that arose before him regarding marriage and marital relationships. He thus sowed seeds for the family expansion that God promised his grandfather Abraham but also for family discord that threatened healthy interactions within his family. Therefore, Jacob’s polygamy formed the foundation for fulfillment of God’s promise but also exposed features of such family structure to enable an understanding of the issues of polygamy applicable to present day husband-wife interactions and relationships.