Gen.29:31-30:24 “Jacob’s Children: A Nation Is Born, Part I”

Posted on October 9, 2011. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Bryan E. Walker

 Read Genesis 29:31-30-34

            When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” 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 called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his nameJudah. Then she ceased bearing.

(Genesis 29:31-35 ESV)




Today we are beginning this central point in the Jacob section of Genesis, which in some ways is the central point of the book. Today we shall look at the literary structure of the entire passage but then only go in to depth on the first part of the text, 29:31-34, the story of the births of Leah’s first four sons.  The main ideas we will be looking for are that God hears the prayers of those who are lonely and hurting, the cries of the unloved, and that he sovereignly uses people for his glory. Here we see the beginning of the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, despite a woeful lack of faith on the part of Jacob.

But first, we have just a little bit of left over business from last week.

EXCURSUS: The Problem of the Age of Jacob

Last week in class there was a question asked about the age of Jacob at the time of his marriages to Leah and Rachel. Here is one way to answer that question.

According to Gen. 25:20 Isaac was 40 yrs old when he married Rebekah, and in 27:3 Isaac was 60 years old when Rebekah bore Esau and Jacob. Jacob died when he was 147 yrs old and had lived in Egyptfor 17 years (Gen. 47:28) thus moving to Egyptat 130 yrs. in the famine’s 2nd year, (Gen. 47:8-9) preceded by the 7 good years. Joseph was 30 years old at the beginning of the 7 good years (Gen.41:46) and Jacob would have been 121, so Joseph was born when Jacob was about 91. Reuben was about 7 years older than Joseph so it looks like Jacob was about 83 when he married. Besides the natural difficulty with thinking that Jacob was 83 when he married his cousins who appear to be young maidens, there is the problem with the stated age of Esau at his marriage in 26:34, forty years old- the same age as his father at his marriage. It appears from 27:46 that this was part of Rebekah’s reason for sending Jacob toHaran- to find a wife that would be pleasing. Esau and Jacob were twins so the story looks like it takes place when Jacob was 40 when he left home and met Rachel. This makes more sense.

Is this then, a contradiction? I do not think this qualifies, technically, as a contradiction because the Bible does not state his age at his marriage as being two different ages in two different places. This does illustrate that there are some problems in our ability to understand the ancient text in regards to how numbers and ages are presented. Numbers and ages can be representative in some ways and for us to seek to impose a 21st century standard of accuracy on numbers and ages is perhaps not the best way to evaluate or understand what the text is saying. Nonetheless, I do not want to sugarcoat this: it is one of the problem areas for Christian apologetics. In this particular text I would say that we have insufficient material to discern exactly Jacob’s age at his weddings and I would add that, while problematic, it does not affect the major teaching of the text nor any doctrine. If this is the best that the skeptics can throw at our doctrine of the divine inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of the text then that is a pretty lame attack.

In my limited study time I have not found a sufficient answer for this question, so I will have to admit, “I don’t know”, and study further.

Literary Analysis of 29:31-30:24

Structure- There is no geographical shift in this passage; Jacob remains inHaran, the ancestral homeland. The time frame is probably longer than the 7 years of his obligation to Laban because during this time Leah had 7 children (32:38 says that Jacob had served Laban for 20 yrs.). This passage can be broken down into 5 sections if you go by each woman’s pregnancies: Leah (29:31-35), Bilha (30:1-8), Zilpah (30:9-13), Leah again (30:10-21), and finally, Rachel (30:22-24). But perhaps a better way to divide the text, according to Waltke (p.408), is topically: (1) The Lord enables Leah alone (29:31-35); (2) Rachel and Leah struggle for children via Bilha and Zilpah (30:1-13); and, (3) Leah and Rachel struggle via mandrakes and prayer (30:14-24). Mathews, pp.477-78, sees a chiasmus structure and outlines it this way: A-29:32, The Lord Saw; B- 30:1, Rachel Saw; B’ 30:9 Leah Saw; A’ 30:22 God Remembered.

 My Outline: (1) Leah’s Faith, 29:31-35; (2) Leah and Rachel Struggle Using Their Handmaidens, 30:1-13; (3) Leah and Rachel Struggle Using Mandrakes, 30:14-21; (4) Rachel’s Faith, 30:22-24.

Key Words- The bookends that Moses uses to mark the borders of this story are the opening of Leah’s womb in 29:31 and the opening of Rachel’s womb in 30:22-24; the key words of the bookends are “opened her womb.” Mathews, p.477, on the other hand sees Rachel’s being barren in vs. 31 as the first of the bookends. Other key words are “conceived and bore”, “barren” though only used once continues the theme introduced in11:30. “My husband” is used 5X. “Called his name” (or a variant) occurs 12 times.

Characters- Jacob is seen as being weak, almost out of the picture as his wives fight. Again he is prayerless and seems to just follow his wives suggestions much as his grandfather did with Sarai in ch.16 with Hagar. Waltke points out (pp.408-9) “He [Jacob] is addressed once by Rachel, ‘Give me children,’ and once by Leah, ‘I have hired you.’ Both statements reveal a dysfunctional home without a spiritual leader. In addition, Jacob speaks only once in response to Rachel: ‘Am I in the place of God who has kept you from having children?’” Compare this response to Abraham and Isaac, both of whom prayed to the LORD for their wives in20:17 and 25:21. Jacob is really not coming across as much of a good guy.

Leah and Rachel seem to have as much of a problem as Jacob and Esau had. While it is certainly possible that Leah had nothing to do with her father’s plan to wed her to Jacob first, is it probable? Boice (p.307) writes, “Leah had been guilty of conspiring with her father to deceive Jacob on the night of the marriage. She had been substituted for Rachel, whom Jacob was expecting, and there is n way that could have been done without her willing participation. She probably loved Jacob. She wanted to be married to him.” Given the competitive nature of these two it really looks like she might have played her part willingly. In 30:8 Rachel clearly states that she has wrestled her sister and prevailed (pointing to 32:24-25 where similar words are used of Jacob and the man). Leah earnestly wants what Rachel has, the love of their husband, and Rachel covets what Leah has, children. Boice (p.307) writes, “A blessing as great and as highly anticipated as this should be ushered in with trumpets. But it actually came with whining and bitterness.”

The main idea- Moses is here showing his people,Israel, their origins. In some ways this is the central point of the book. But what humble, disgusting origins! The very subtle point is that God’s people are sinful and apart from God’s grace, just like the rest of the world, lost and headed to hell. But look at what God does with these poor sinful people! Ross writes, p.506, “The unit reports the births of the ancestors of the Hebrew tribes as part of the fulfillment of the promises. God’s blessing on Jacob is thus the predominant theme. This unit along with the next forms the central focus of the Jacob stories; here the tribes ofIsrael took shape, and in the next unit they flourished. The emphasis in this text is on God’s sovereign provision of the seed…”

  1. I.                   Leah’s Faith, 29:31-35
    1. A.        Leah Was Hated, Yet Loved, 29:31
      1. 1.        When the LORD saw- the LORD sees all, and knows all, and he is genuinely, deeply moved by human suffering. He does not remain distant from us in our distress, though we often feel that way. The omnipotent, Sovereign and Holy God of the universe, sees the hurt of the one lowly, lonely, distressed, unloved wife of Jacob. This reminds me of the Angel of the Lord finding Hagar in the dessert, twice. The Lord sees and hears your deepest sorrows and heartaches. Those things that you do not share in Care Group, do not share with your spouse, but which you may post on Facebook, the Lord knows and cares about.
      2. 2.        Jesus said in Matt.10:28-33, and Paul writes in Rom.8:28-39; and see Psalm 139:1-16.
      3. 3.        Leah was hated- (NIV- Leah was not loved) this is a strong word that does NOT mean that Jacob simply loved her a little bit less than he loved Rachel. This is in direct contrast with verse 30, “and he loved Rachel…” Apparently Jacob had some real bitterness towards her for that dirty trick she and Laban pulled.
      4. 4.        But Calvin, p.135 “When Moses asserts that Leah was hated, his meaning is, that she was not loved so much as she ought to have been. For she was not intolerable to Jacob, neither did he pursue her with hatred; but Moses, by the use of this word, amplifies his fault, in not having discharged the duty of a husband, and in not having treated her who was his first wife with adequate kindness and honour. It is of importance carefully to notice this, because many think they fulfil their duty if they do not break out into mortal hatred. But we see that the Holy Spirit pronounces those as hated wh are not sufficiently loved; and we know, that men were created for this end, that they should love one another. Therefore, none will be counted guiltless of the crime of hatred before God, but he who embraces his neighbors with love. For not only will a secret displeasure be accounted as hatred, but even that neglect of brethren, and that cold charity which ever reigns in the world.”
      5. 5.        he opened her womb- the Lord shows compassion on Leah the unloved by opening her womb. Jacob hates her, but sleeps with her, and the Lord blesses her with fruitfulness. She is hated by her husband yet loved by her God.
      6. 6.        But Rachel was barren- here is the old obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac. Each generation faced barrenness and fruitlessness in the face of God’s promises of a multitude of offspring. Sarah, Rebekah and now Rachel faced the shame of barren wombs; yet each was loved by their husbands. The barrenness of the wives of the patriarchs is to teachIsrael and us that the covenant is based upon God’s mighty works, not our own, God’s grace, not our efforts.
    2. B.        And Leah Conceived, 29:32-35
      1. 1.        Reuben- Heb. see, a son!  The LORD saw her situation and now, See, a Son! (a wordplay in the Heb. but also reflects her understanding of the work of God in her body.) The unloved wife bears the first born son. Reuben would carry on the feud between his mother and father in his actions later in 35:22 Reuben lays with Bilha, the deceased (by that time) Rachel’s handmaiden, Jacob’s concubine. But in 37:21ff it is Reuben who prevents the murder of Joseph by his brothers.
      2. 2.        Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction- like the angel said to Hagar in chapter 16:11.
      3. 3.        for now my husband will love me- you can hear her broken heart in this forlorn hope.
      4. 4.        Simeon- Heb. heard or hear based on the wordplay between “the Lord has heard that I am hated”. Again, she sees the Lord at work in her life through giving her another son, but…she remains the unloved wife. Simeon will team up with his younger brother, Levi, in 34:25, to attack Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah.
      5. 5.        Waltke writes, p.410- “Leah names three of her first four children with reference to ‘the Lord’ (29:32-33, 35). By giving these names, she confesses her faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the gods of Laban, and validates the faith and reasoning of Rebekah and Isaac for sending Jacob into exile.”
      6. 6.        Boice writes, (p.308)- “The passage indicates that Leah was (or became) the more spiritual of the two wives. She did not have the advantage of having been taught about the true God by her parents, but she seems to have learned from Jacob and therefore saw her plight in relationship to Jehovah…it is not the mere word ‘God’ (Elohim) that Leah used. Leah used the covenant name of Jehovah (LORD) in connection with the births of her first four sons, though later she did resort to the lesser name (30:18,20). Apparently, she was being drawn to God in her misery…And she was praying. This comes out in the birth of her second son,  Simeon. His name means ‘hearing’…”
      7. 7.        Levi- Heb. to join-comes from ‘my husband will be attached to me’. This will be the Priestly tribe, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. The hated wife produces the first born son and the tribe of priests.
      8. 8.        Judah- Heb. I will praise the LORD- despite bearing 4 sons now, she remains unloved and her only hope is in the Lord. Because of the sins of the first three sons, at Jacob’s death, as he is giving out the blessings in 49 he tells Judah, vv8-12, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you…your father’s sons shall bow down before you…The scepter shall not depart from Judah”. It is from the tribe of Judah that the line of David comes as the kingly line. Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, the messianic tribe. Jesus is known as the Lion of Judah Rev. 5:5. Wenham, p.244, writes, “here, as in the psalms, lament turns to praise.”
      9. 9.        This time I will praise the Lord- Leah is making progress in her sanctification and seems to be seeking the Lord as her comfort now because she does not mention seeking the love and respect of her husband.
      10. 10.    Then she ceased bearing.- Waltke writes, p.410, “The narrator blanks the reason. Probably Jacob has stopped his conjugal duty (see. 30:15; Ex. 21:10). If so, was it out of his love for Rachel? His absence, however, is brief, for Leah bears six children in seven years (see 30:20).”  This break in the timeline of the births of Leah’s children may indicate that this list of births took longer than the 7 years. If the timeline is precise and correct, Leah bore Jacob 7 children in 7 years. One would hope for a break. It may be that some of the children were born in the next 6 years of Jacob’s service (see 31:38) and that in 30:25 (when Jacob was first thinking about leaving, after his 14 yr obligation was up) that he did not yet have all 11 boys and Dinah. The story has a break in the timing, perhaps.
      11. 11.    Application- here we see the beginning of the keeping of the promise made to Abraham about his descendants being as numerous as the stars or the sand on the seashore. It took 3 generations, but it is now starting. We Americans like things to happen quickly, instant this and instant that. We are not good at looking at the long term. Faith, however, requires of Believers to look at the long haul, the Big Picture, without neglecting the here and now. This world, in the here and now, is not our home, not our reward, not our destiny, but it is important. It is real and it matters, but what is most real and matters most is Eternity.
      12. 12.    Luther, p.314-316.
      13. 13.    Application- time and again we have seen that God chooses people who are nobodies and makes them somebodies, by his grace. Leah’s struggle is about someone who was unloved, hated even, but who turned to the Lord in faith and became the ancestor of our Lord. In God’s eyes, she was loved, she was important to his plans, and he poured out his grace upon her. There are no “little people” in God’s eyes. Here is the hope of the gospel for you: in those dark, lonely, bitter moments, when you look at your life and tell yourself, “Nobody loves me, nobody understands me, I might as well just crawl into a dark hole and pull the blackness in over my head…” Jesus loves you the same way that he loved Leah of the weak eyes. Did Leah know that her son Judah would produce kings? The Saviour of the world? I doubt she understood it in those terms. But she came to a place of accepting God’s plan for her life and she gave praise to the LORD. That is the least we too, can do.
  2. II.                Leah and Rachel Struggle Using Their Handmaidens, 30:1-13
  3. III.             Leah and Rachel Struggle Using Mandrakes, 30:14-21
  4. IV.              Rachel Turns to Prayer and God Blesses, 30:22-24


Boice, James Montomery. Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Volume 2, Genesis 12:1-36:43. Zondervan:Grand Rapids, MI. 1985 (pp.306-311).

Calvin, John. Genesis, in the Geneva Series of Commentaries, translated and edited by John King, two volumes in one. Banner of Truth Trust:Carlisle,PA 1847 (originally published in Latin 1554). Vol.2, pages 134-137.

Luther, Martin. Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 26-30,Luther’s Works, Volume 5, translated by George V. Schick and Paul D. Pahl, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen. Concordia Publishing House:St. Louis,MO 1968. (These lectures were given by Luther in 1541-1542.)

Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary, Volume 1B, Genesis 11:27-50:26. Broadman & Holman Publishers:Nashville, TN. 2005. (pp.472-481).

Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic:Grand Rapids,MI 1998 (pp.505-511.)

Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan:Grand Rapids,MI 2001 (pp.407-416.)

Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 2, Genesis 16-50. Word Books, Publisher: Dallas, TX 1994 (pp.238-244.)


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2 Responses to “Gen.29:31-30:24 “Jacob’s Children: A Nation Is Born, Part I””

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Thank you for posting your Sunday Bible Study material. You never know who’s going to read it or what effect it will bring. Today, I feel small, second best, second choice, unloved and empty. I wonder at how the Lord can love a people who give up so easily and can stop loving. We crucified His son and yet Jesus asked Him to forgive us for what we did to Him. That seems to be just one of the many things that separates us from God. We love and stop loving when we can bare no more pain and God just keeps on loving us. I wish I knew what He knows about me, it might be some comfort to know that in the end, I just might not fail Him. So, I remind myself that God does love me, despite myself. Then I read what you wrote about Leah and Rachael. It’s interesting to realize that this generation did not corner the market on dysfunctional families. It seems that, that began with Adam and Eve.

Thanks for the encouragement Kimberly!

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