Jacob’s family interactions highlight inability of a man to love multiple women equally and potential to extend unequal love to the children and, thus, jeopardize positive family relationships. His unequal love for wives and children led to hatred of Joseph by older brothers and a tragic event in the family. Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him in Dothan as he visited to check on them and their flock. However, kindly interventions by Reuben and Judah changed his sentence from death to enslavement and thus launched him onto his Egypt mission.
The life of Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob (also known as Israel), illustrates potential tragic family interactions resulting from polygamy as well as God’s grace in using an adversity to launch a positive change in a person’s life.
His life story begins with interactions with senior brothers (half-brothers, from the same father but different mothers) that hated him: partly because they believed he “stole” their father’s love and partly a manifestation of intra-family rivalry passed to them from their mothers. The hatred culminated in a tragic event that could have ended his life. However, the tragedy triggered a sequence of events in Joseph’s life that ultimately led him to the highest administrative position in Egypt. There he had an opportunity to retaliate against his brothers. However, he did not retaliate. Instead, he put them through tests to verify their repentance so he could forgive and reconcile with them. By doing so he cleared the way for fulfillment of God’s promise to their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to lead them to a foreign land where they will multiply and prosper before returning to the Promised Land.
In a previous bible study under Joseph Called to Mission, we focus on Joseph’s life as an illustration that God could use adversity to bring about a positive change for a person. Joseph’s mission to Egypt started with his tragic experience in Canaan: almost like burning part of a rocket to launch it into higher orbit. His brothers first threw him into a dry well, where he languished until they changed their mind about killing him and instead sold him as slave to merchants travelling to Egypt. That is, God used the adversity brought to Joseph by his brothers to “launch” him into his Egypt mission.
The current bible study focuses on understanding the tragic events among Jacob’s family in Canaan as the product of seeds of discord that Jacob sowed inadvertently through polygamy.
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.
A tragic event in Joseph’s family that nearly claimed his life at a young age challenges us to think about the roles of parents and siblings in managing unequal opportunities among the children of one family; potential problems of polygamous relationships; and God’s willingness to direct our life events, including events that appear tragic, toward his purpose.
In this bible study, we learn about interactions within Jacob’s family during the birth of the children. The interactions illustrate an inherent problem in polygamist households. Because the husband cannot love two or more wives equally, the wives compete for their husbands love. The resulting rivalry among co-wives could dominate family life. For example, of the twelve sons of Jacob, nine were named in reference to rivalry between Leah and Rachel, two were named in reference to relationship with God, and one was named in reference to love. The passage reminds us of Paul’s counsel to Timothy to not appoint polygamists as overseers or deacons [1Timothy 3:2 & 12].