The Forgotten Matriarchs of Israel
Who are the forgotten matriarchs of Israel, and why have they been forgotten in the first place? Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel are the matriarchs of Israel and they have their honorable place in the nation’s history, as every Shabbat in the synagogues around the world the Jewish women are blessed in the name of “Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel”:
“May the Lord make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah!”
But why only in the names of the four matriarchs?
Little we know about the forgotten matriarchs of Israel, because they were silent and never spoke a word; they were unloved, although, they did nothing wrong; they were unsung unlike the other matriarchs were, although, they deserve to be sung.
Despite our forgetfulness, the forgotten matriarchs of Israel gave four out of the twelve tribes—something they should have been honored for, but they have not.
This study is a continuation of the article “The father and mother of many nations” and its purpose is to put the forgotten matriarchs of Israel back in the hearts of all of us where they rightfully belong, so that there will be no longer forgotten matriarchs.
After Rivka (Rebekah) tricked her husband Yitschak (Isaac) to give his blessings to her favorite son Ya’akov (Jacob) and not to Esav (Esau), she advised Ya’akov to flee from his brother’s revenge and go to her brother Lavan in Haran and remain there “some days” until his brother’s wrath was subdued.
But instead of remaining in Haran “some days”, Ya’akov was absent from home 22 years (20 years in Lavan’s house, and two years that he was on his way back to home, one and a half years in Succot and six months in Beth-el) (Gen. 31:41).
There Ya’akov fell in love with his uncle’s younger daughter Rachel for who he had to work seven years. But on the wedding night he was tricked by Lavan to marry his oldest daughter Leah instead, for whom he had to work another seven years, and only then to marry the woman of his heart, Rachel.
In return, Lavan gave Zilpah his handmaid to his daughter Leah for a handmaid (Gen 29:24), and Bilhah his handmaid to Rachel to be her handmaid (Gen 29:29).
Note: That bigamy of Ya’akov must not be judged according to the Torah, which prohibits marriage with two women (incorrectly rendered “two sisters”) at the same time (Lev 18:18), since there was no law in existence then.
And the rivalry between the unloved and the loved wives of Israel began: Ya’akov fathered six sons from Leah his unloved wife: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, and Zevulun, and two sons from Rachel his beloved wife: Yoseph and Binyamin.
But in that rivalry for the first place, Leah and Rachel used their handmaids to obtain more children in order to “be built up” through them. And Ya’akov fathered sons from their handmaids—Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali, and from Zilpah: Gad and Asher.
Despite the fact that Leah, the unloved wife who just wanted to be loved by her husband, made up the bulk of Israel’s heirs, more than all the other wives combined, and her children were the oldest of all his sons, yet, Ya’akov loved the beautiful Rachel more than Leah, and Rachel’s son Yoseph was clearly Ya’akov’s most beloved son.
This partiality for the favorite wife continues even today in the Rabbinic tradition in which Rachel is always mentioned before Leah, although it was Leah who gave the kings and priests of Israel, and although, it was Rachel who took her father’s idols with her.
One thing we should note here: although, Leah and Rachel pushed their handmaids into the hands of Ya’akov to obtain sons in their contest of who would be the favorite wife, the Scripture always lists the sons of the handmaids as sons of their biological mothers and never calls Dan and Naphtali sons of Rachel, nor Gad and Asher sons of Leah.
Indeed, we read in the narrative that the two rivalrous sisters named the children born of their handmaids, but we do not find any evidence in the narrative that they had adopted them, i.e. in the same manner Ya’akov adopted the sons of Yoseph in Egypt.
So, what was the status of Bilhah and Zilpah and what was the status of Ya’akov’s sons Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher? Because, if Bilhah and Zilpah were just handmaids in the family, their sons would be considered illegitimates. Yet, the Scripture always refers to them as the sons of Israel.
And this is the posterity of Ya’akov-Israel that went down to Egypt:
Of Leah there are given 6 sons, 23 grandsons, 2 great-grandsons, and 2 daughters, Dinah and another unnamed daughter; in all, therefore, 33 souls. (Gen 46:8-15)
Of Zilpah, there are given 2 sons, 11 grandsons, 2 great-grandsons, and a daughter Serach (see also Num 26:46); in all, 16 souls. (Gen 46:16-18)
Of Rachel, 2 sons and 12 grandsons are named, of whom, according to Num 26:40, two were great-grandsons, in all, 14 souls. (Gen 46:19-22)
Of Bilhah, 2 sons and 5 grandsons, in all, 7 souls. (Gen 46:23-25)
The whole number of Ya’akov’s family that went down to Egypt, therefore, was seventy.
Bilhah and Zilpah—the forgotten matriarchs of Israel
The common understanding among the scholars is that Bilhah and Zilpah were Ya’akov’s concubines and the sons from the concubines were the sons of his wives: Leah and Rachel. This understanding is derived from the incident after the death of Rachel, when Ya’akov took the handmaid of his favorite wife in his tent.
Reuven the son of Leah felt that his mother was ignored and in what looks like a revenge he seduced Bilhah. We read,
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.
But immediately, in the next verses, the Scripture makes it very clear that Ya’akov had twelve sons, and that Dan and Naphtali were sons of Bilhah, and Gad and Asher were sons of Zilpah, as we read,
Now the sons of Ya’akov were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, and Zevulun; the sons of Rachel: Yoseph and Binyamin; and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid: Gad and Asher. (Gen 35:22-26)
Now, a few things need to be clarified here. First, Torah is very explicit to say that these were the sons of Bilhah and these were the sons of Zilpah, thus indicating that they belonged to their mothers. On the other hand, the Torah also says that they were the sons of Ya’akov-Israel.
Second, why would Ya’akov have been offended by the act of his first-born son Reuven, who seduced Bilhah, if she had been just a servant and a “concubine” in the family?
Indeed, Gen 35:22 says that Bilhah was his father’s concubine, but we need to emphasize here that this is the only place in the entire Torah that refers to Ya’akov having “a concubine” and no such reference is made for Zilpah being his concubine.
We should also note that the phrase “Bilhah his father’s concubine” is not an accidental remark in the text. Genesis does say that Bilhah and Zilpah were handmaids of Rachel and Leah, respectively, but Genesis refers only to Bilhah as a concubine, not to Zilpah, contrary to the common and incorrect assumption that both Bilhah and Zilpah were Ya’akov’s concubines.
Also, if Dan and Naphtali were sons of Bilhah, and Gad and Asher were sons of Zilpah, and they were included in the total number of sons, that is, they were recognized as legitimate sons of Ya’akov with all legal rights of sons, what then was the marital status of Bilhah and Zilpah?
And if Bilhah was a concubine, what was the marital status of Zilpah the mother of Ya’akov’s sons? Did Ya’akov have two wives, Leah and Rachel, and one concubine, Bilhah? If that were the case, then at least the legal status of Gad and Asher, the sons of Zilpah, would be questionable, because Zilpah was not even a concubine. Yet, Ya’akov indeed had twelve sons from Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah.
Here comes in help the Jewish tradition that says that Bilhah and Zilpah were also Lavan’s daughters from a concubine [we learn this from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 36]. Therefore, if the tradition is correct, Bilhah and Zilpah were [half] sisters of Leah and Rachel.
And if Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher were equal to their brothers Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Yoseph, and Binyamin (the sons from the wives), then their mothers, Bilhah and Zilpah, must have been equal in rights to Ya’akov’s wives, Leah and Rachel.
Consequently, this can only mean that if Ya’akov considered Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher his sons, he also considered Bilhah and Zilpah his wives by the same token Leah and Rachel were his wives and mothers of his sons.
And indeed Bilhah and Zilpah were his wives, because we read further,
These are the generations of Ya’akov. Yoseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives … (Gen 37:2 JPS)
In the verse above, “These are the generations of Ya’akov” can only refer to all twelve sons of Ya’akov, including the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah: Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, and “his father’s wives” to Bilhah and Zilpah as his legitimate wives equal to rights and status of Leah and Rachel.
Then, why does the narrative of Gen 35:22 say “Bilhah his father’s concubine“, if in fact Bilhah was Ya’akov’s wife (Gen 37:2)? And how will that help us prove that Bilhah and Zilpah are the forgotten matriarchs of Israel?
This is why?
The narrative by the Messenger
In order to understand this seeming contradiction, we need first to find out who said what and when.
In the article “The Messenger of His Face and how Torah was given to Israel“, we studied that the history of mankind prior to Mosheh was a narrative of the Messenger of His [YHVH’s] Face (aka the Angel of His Presence) from the beginning of creation until His sanctuary was built among them (Book of Jubilees) And we also learned the identity of this Messenger, in the article “The revelation of the Messenger of YHVH“.
So, how could that help us understand why Gen 35:22-26 indeed called Bilhah “a concubine” and then Gen 37:2 called her his wife? Because, most certainly a woman cannot possibly be “concubine” and “wife” at the same time, either she is a concubine or a wife, but not both.
Partly, the confusion comes from the misunderstanding of what “concubine” means. In Hebrew, it is the word pilegesh (of uncertain derivation) and means a concubine; also (masculine) a paramour. The act of cohabitation with a concubine is concubinage. In the ancient cultures, a concubine was “a woman for cohabitation” without being legally married.
In other words, a concubine is a woman taken to be used in cohabitation to satisfy lust for sex. In the verse below, a male concubine, paramour, is used to describe this meaning of pilegesh.
And she lusted after her paramours, whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, and whose semen is like the semen of horses. (Eze 23:20)
As aforesaid, Genesis was a narrative by the Messenger of YHVH, which simply noted that Bilhah was “a concubine” of Ya’akov.
When the Messenger of YHVH indeed said to Mosheh that Bilhah was a concubine of Ya’akov, He said in it the context of her defilement by Reuven: Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22).
Then, seemingly out of place, the narrative is interrupted by the genealogy of Yitschak’s son Esav (see Gen 36), to continue in the next chapter 37.
And this is what Mosheh heard from the Messenger,
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Ya’akov were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, and Zevulun; the sons of Rachel: Yoseph and Binyamin; and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid: Gad and Asher. (Gen 35:22-26)
And Ya’akov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning’s, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Ya’akov. Yoseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives (Gen 37:1-2).
And this is what Mosheh must have understood: that Reuven seduced Bilhah and Israel was very displeased; that the generations of Ya’akov were: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Yoseph, Binyamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, and that Bilhah and Zilpah were his wives.
We will not be far from the truth to assume that what the Messenger implied was that Reuven, the son of the unloved wife, in his jealousy to protect his mother’s status and reputation in the family, as a first wife of Ya’akov after Rachel’s death, defiled Bilhah in order to degrade her to a lower status of “concubine” in the eyes of the other members of the family.
But immediately after that, the Messenger made it clear in the narrative that despite Reuven’s act of defilement, Bilhah was Ya’akov’s wife.
In other words, Reuven used the concubinage as a weapon against his father who chose to replace his beloved Rachel with his wife Bilhah, and although Ya’akov’s wife Bilhah was defiled and treated as “a woman for cohabitation”, she was still considered his wife.
Therefore, we see that without the knowledge we obtained from the Book of Jubilees (refer to the aforesaid articles), namely that the Book of Genesis was a narrative by the Messenger of His Presence to Mosheh, the different accounts of Bilhah being “a concubine” and “a wife” is as ambiguous as it appears on the surface.
With that being said, therefore, we have further substantiation that Bilhah and Zilpah were indeed wives of Ya’akov, as Leah and Rachel were, and that they are the forgotten and unsung matriarchs of Israel.
And indeed, if Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher are as sons of Israel as Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Yoseph, and Binyamin, so their mothers Bilhah and Zilpah are matriarchs of Israel as Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel are.
Therefore, the children of Israel have six matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah, and all Jewish women are to be blessed in their names, thus,
“May the Lord make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah!”
It is only according to the man-made tradition of Rabbinic Judaism that Bilhah and Zilpah are not considered matriarchs of Israel along with the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, and it is only the partiality of the Rabbis for the beloved Rachel that has robbed the children of Israel of their mothers: Bilhah and Zilpah, the forgotten matriarchs of Israel.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.