Reuben and Bilhah and the thirteenth tribe

Of particular interest in the interchange of names between Jacob and Israel is when immediately after the death of Rachel, Jacob’s dearest wife, we come across the strange instance where Reuben sleeps with Rachel’s maidservant, Bilhah. After he sleeps with Bilhah the Bible states ‘And Israel heard it” and immediately afterwards it states: “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve”. The question is why are the two names Israel and Jacob are used adjacent to each other and why are told ‘out of the blue’ that the sons of Jacob are twelve.

And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Beth-Lehem: And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel's grave to this day: And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar: And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in the land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve (Genesis: 35:19-22).

For this act Reuben, the first born is chastised by Israel not only at this instance, but also in his blessing of Reuben at the time of his death:

Reuben thou art my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel, because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed and then defilest thou it; he went up to my couch. (Genesis 49:3-4).

As we have seen previously (see hyperlink The mandrakes) Reuben, as the firstborn, is very concerned about the fertility of his parents and the number of his brothers. In the incident of the mandrakes it is Reuben who delivers the mandrakes to his mother after the birth of Asher, the 8th child. Reuben sees that his mother has stopped becoming pregnant. He knows that Rachel is barren and so he tries to induce pregnancy of his mother, Leah, by using mandrakes. Later in the story the mandrakes get passed on to Rachel providing the catalyst for the birth of Joseph.

Similarly, here, after the death of Rachel he takes Rachel’s maidservant and sleeps with her. Moreover, later when his brothers intend to slay Joseph, it is Reuben who tries to save him that he might rid of him out of their hands and deliver him to his father again (Genesis: 37:22).

Reuben understands that there should not be twelve sons of Jacob, and hence twelve tribes of Israel, but thirteen: twelve is the measure of the phenomenal world, whereas thirteen is the measure of unity.

As indicated previously 13 is the gematrical value of achad, אחד meaning ‘one’, 13 is half the value of the components of the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, having a value of 26. It is also half the value of the tetragrammation YHVH. (See hyperlink aleph, the name and the 26 generations)Twelve’ is for the tribes of Esau who will not reach unity, 13 is for the Children of Israel. For this reason he tries to help to bring his number of brothers to 13 by bringing the mandrakes to his mother, and by sleeping with Bilhah. And finally in the case of Joseph, he becomes even more desperate for sees that if Joseph is slain there would only be 11 sons.

Reuben is aware that there should be 13 sons and that the transition from 12 to 13 should be from Rachel’s womb, or at least her maidservant’s which would count as the same{1). However whereas Reuben is aware that this should take place, he is impatient for the result. It is God who decides how and when this should take place, as indeed it does through the birth of Ephraim and Manasseh, the son’s of Joseph and hence also through Rachel’s womb. And Jacob incorporated Ephraim and Manasseh into the tribes of Israel when he blessed them upon his deathbed, saying: In thee shall Israel bless, saying God make these as Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:20). And so there were 13 sons and 13 tribes.

Here we see that both in the event of Reuben sleeping with Bilhah and the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh the name ‘Israel’ is used instead of Jacob. For these events are significant in determining the future of Hebrew race (See hyperlink Jacob and Israel and the changing of names).


{1} In accord with Nuzi tablets in the Mesopotamia region, it was common for a wife to give her maidservant to her husband should she be barren and a child of a maidservant would be as a child of the wife.


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