A sad and demoralizing story about Jacob’s family occurs in Genesis 35:22. The text says: “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.”
Bilhah was the handmaid of Rachel, the servant whom Laban, Rachel’s father, gave to her at the occasion of Rachel’s marriage to Jacob (Gen. 29:29).
When Rachel realized that she was unable to give a son to Jacob, she gave her handmaid to her husband so that she might obtain children through her servant. Rachel said to Jacob: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.” Out of this arrangement, Bilhah gave Jacob two sons and became the mother of Dan and Naphtali (Gen. 30:3-8).
Such a practice was common in the Ancient Near East. The Nuzi tablets reveal that if a wife was childless she could provide her husband with a slave who would then become his concubine. When a son was born out of this union, the child would be adopted by the mistress of the slave woman as her own son.
Bilhah, then was Jacob’s secondary wife. After Rachel died (Gen. 35:19), Jacob moved to Migdal Eder (Gen. 35:21), a place probably within the territory of Judah (Josh. 15:21). After Jacob had settled down in that place, Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn slept with Bilhah, Jacob’s secondary wife.
Because of his transgression, Reuben lost the privileges accorded to the firstborn son. In the blessings of his children, Jacob said to Reuben: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it — you went up onto my couch” (Gen. 49:3-4).
Reuben’s rape of Jacob’s concubine is a tragic event in the history of Jacob’s family, a family that had experienced many other tragic incidents. It is interesting that the text says that Jacob “heard of it,” but does not say what Jacob did or said to Reuben in response to what his son had done.
That Jacob did or said something to Reuben is implied in the Hebrew text. Most readers of Genesis 35:22 do not notice a strange construction in the text.
In the Hebrew text of Genesis 35:22 that appears in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the verse has two sets of accents. The two sillûqs in the verse show that in antiquity, there were two different divisions of verse 22 (a sillûq is an accent that marks the end of a verse in the Hebrew Bible).
The Eastern tradition regarded Genesis 35:22 as two verses and the Western tradition regarded it as one verse. This means that the first sillûq that appears at the end of “Israel” (“. . . and heard Israel”) indicates the first ending of the verse (the Eastern tradition).
The second sillûq at the end of “twelve” is the second verse in the Eastern tradition, but it marks the end of verse 22 in the Western tradition.
The verse division of the Eastern tradition is confirmed by the number of verses listed in the Masorah of Genesis. In Pārāšâ 8 (Genesis 32:4-36:43) the Masorah says that the pārāšâ has a total of 154 verses. However, there are only 153 verses in Genesis 32:4-36:43.
In his explanation of the double accent, Gesenius (GKC 15p) wrote that the double accentuation “intended for public reading, aims at uniting vv. 22 and 23 into one, so as to pass rapidly over the unpleasant statement in v. 22.”
By leaving a gap between two sections of verse 22, the writer of Genesis was indicating that some of the text has been either lost or deliberately deleted. It is also possible that Jacob did or said something to his son, but unfortunately, we will never know Jacob’s reaction since the details are missing from the text.
In order to protect the reputation of Jacob and Reuben, the Targum Pseudo Jonathan changes the text by saying that no incest occurred:
Genesis 35:22 (Targum Pseudo Jonathan):
“And it was while Israel dwelt in this land that Reuben went and confounded the bed of Bilhah the concubine of his father, which had been ordained along with the bed of Leah his mother; and this is reputed with regard to him, as if he had lain with her. And Israel heard it, and it afflicted him, and he said, Alas, that one should have come forth from me so profane, even as Ishmael came forth from Abraham, and Esau from my father! The Spirit of Holiness answered and thus spake to him: fear not, for all are righteous and none of them is profane! So, after Benjamin was born, the sons of Jakob were twelve.”
The Talmud (b. Shabbath 55b) also seeks to absolve Reuben of incest:
“R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, Now the sons of Jacob were twelve, teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine? This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch, and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her. It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand.”
Notwithstanding Rabbinic effort to absolve Reuben of incest, the words of Jacob to Reuben in Genesis 49:3-4, clearly shows that Reuben violated his father’s marriage bed.
Later Israelite laws strongly condemned the kind of incest committed by Reuben: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father” (Lev. 18:8). In addition, Leviticus 20:11 says that any man who sleeps with his father’s wife shall be put to death. Deuteronomy 27:20 says that “The one who sleeps with his father’s wife is cursed, for he has violated his father’s marriage bed.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary