Reuben, Bilhah, and a Silent Jacob
Following the story of Rachel’s sudden death while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:16–20) and before listing all twelve of Jacob’s sons along with their mothers (“Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number. The sons of Leah: Reuben — Jacob’s first-born — Simeon, Levi…” [vv. 22b–26]), the Bible inserts a very short story about the family’s move to a new home (“Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder”) and an incident there involving Reuben: “While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” (vv. 21–22a). The event is left without any real response from Jacob, about whom it is only said: “and Israel heard.”
By all accounts, the list of Jacob’s sons should have been brought directly after the story of Benjamin’s birth (i.e., after verse 20), Benjamin being Jacob’s youngest son. We therefore must ask: Why was the continuity between the story of Benjamin’s birth and the list of sons interrupted by the story of Reuben and Bilhah? Evidently, the story’s insertion at this point can be explained by the juxtaposition it creates between Rachel’s death and Reuben’s intimate relations with Bilhah: after the death of Rachel, who was his mother’s nemesis, Reuben (Leah’s firstborn) seeks to dissolve any ties between his father and the memory of his father’s favorite wife by defiling her maidservant, Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. Now that Rachel has died and Bilhah is defiled, Leah can emerge as the family’s matriarch, with no one to challenge her status.
A son who sleeps with his father’s concubine, thereby making her forbidden to the father, is found also in the story of David’s concubines