Bilhah and the man who mistook his wife for his bed

The last sidra in Genesis brings the denouement of the narratives of the rivalries in the founding family down the generations.  Many of the themes we have seen in earlier texts return to be developed or reworked so that a number of outstanding threads can be tied off. Both Jacob and Joseph will die in this sidra, the deaths and burials of the patriarchs and matriarchs will be recalled as Jacob requests he be buried not in Egypt but in the Cave of Machpela where all but Rachel have been laid to rest. There is a deathbed blessing where the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, are blessed in a scene resonant of the blessings of Jacob and Esau by their father Isaac.  Except here the process of the blessing is explicit, both boys are present together, as is their father who tries to correct Jacob when he offers the ‘senior’ blessing to the younger boy. Jacob, whose eyes are now as dim as his own father’s had been, knows exactly what he is doing and refuses to be corrected, instead offering a blessing that harks back to the words given to his own mother when she enquired of God why she was in such pain – “[the older] also shall become a people, and shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”

Reference is made to the dream Jacob had as a young man leaving Canaan where he encountered God and received the covenantal blessing, and the struggle at the Ford of Jabok when he received the name “Israel”. And then he calls his other sons to his bedside to offer them words of – well, words that are described traditionally as blessing, but seem to me to be words of challenge and bluntly painful truth. In the text, only Joseph and his two sons are the recipients of a beracha, the verbal root is not used for any of Jacobs other sons.

I had set myself the task of writing about the women who often hide in plain sight in the weekly sidra. Sadly in Vayechi, the matriarchs are all mentioned, but only in terms of their burials. There are two other women alluded to in the text –the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh,  Osnat/Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (see https://rabbisylviarothschild.com/2016/12/30/miketz-the-strange-case-of-the-disappearing-women-2/ to read about her) and Bilhah, the maid of Rachel who also bears sons with Jacob on behalf of Rachel and whose status seems to move around in the texts . While she is not named here, the event between Reuben and her years earlier are recalled to devastating effect on Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, who should have been taking his place as the next link in the generational chain, but who is set aside instead, leaving the field clear for Joseph instead.

When we first meet Bilhah in Paddan Aram she is a servant maid: shifcha   השִׁפְחָ  belonging  to Laban and given by him to his younger daughter Rachel on her marriage, just as Zilpah had been given to Leah. (Gen 29:29)

When Rachel fears she will not be able to conceive a child, she gives Bilhah her שִׁפְחָה to Jacob as a wife – isha  הלְאִשָּׁ (Gen 30:3ff), and Bilhah has again been described in this passage as her maid, while  using a different word אֲמָתִי – a servant even less respected in the household than a shifcha.  The word shifcha is used again when Jacob divides his family across the ford of Jabok while fearing what Esau might do to them and her status with Zilpah and their sons is defined when they are put at the head of the procession, in the most danger. After Rachel’s death the narrative refers to her as פִּילֶגֶשׁ – pilegesh, often translated as concubine, but having real legal and social status, and therefore more correctly seen as a kind of secondary wife.

Bilhah herself never speaks. Yet as the mother of Dan and Naftali – albeit as a surrogate for Rachel – she is an ancestress. Even with the surrogacy/adoption process of her children, she and Zilpah (Leah’s maid) are still described as wives of Jacob (for eg Gen 37:2) but they are essentially only seen in relationship to their children. Her relationship with Rachel is coldly transactional from Rachel’s viewpoint. We don’t of course have any record of Bilhah’s feelings. So when Leah names the sons born to Zilpah there is at least some joy in the names and rationales she chooses (Gad= Fortune has come; Asher = happiness) but when Rachel names the sons born to Bilhah there is no such pleasure (Dan=God has judged me; Naftali=I have wrestled with my sister and won) so it seems that poor Bilhah really is only an object to those around her, her body to be used by both Jacob and by Rachel.

Bilhah is surely a candidate for being one of the saddest women in bible. And things only get worse for her after Rachel’s death. She now belongs to Jacob (she is his pilegesh) and in an almost entirely animal dynamic, Reuben his oldest son decides to stage a challenge to the older man by having sex with her.

The text in Genesis 35 is brief, but we can read into it if we look carefully:

 וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל   פ

  וַיִּהְי֥וּ בְנֵי־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר:

“And Israel dwelt in that land, and Reuven went, and he bedded Bilhah the pilegesh/secondary wife of his father, and Israel heard      [break in the text but not in the sentence]

and the sons of Jacob were twelve.”

Why is there a physical break in the written text? What is it telling us is missing in the story?

What does Israel hear – can it be the screams of pain and distress by the woman Bilhah who has been so victimised by his arrogant eldest son? There is no story of kindness between them as in the story of Dinah and Shechem that is often called rape – so just how terrible must this abuse of power been that poor Bilhah had to endure? And why is her protest erased?

Nothing is said at the time, at least insofar as the text reveals, but Jacob clearly does not forget, and so in our portion this week reference is made in his deathbed words to Reuben.

 רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז: פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֨יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה:

“Reuben, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch!”

I don’t know what I find more appalling. The act of Reuben who mindlessly slept with/raped a woman because he wanted to challenge his father and lay claim to his wife, or the ultimate response (after a long silence) by Jacob, who does not even name the woman, but refers to her as “my couch” יצוע, . To these men she is not a person, not a human being at all, but a possession akin to a beautiful piece of furniture whose only function is to show the status of its owner.  When Jacob tells Reuben that he no longer has the status and promise of the eldest son because of this action, it is because ‘hilalta’ – you have profaned/defiled – not the woman but his bed.  And the fact that he repeats the image of his bed being misused, (almost in a staged aside of disbelief at the actions of his son), only makes it clearer to us just how they ignore and erase the act done to this woman – she is either ‘mishk’vei avicha’ the beds of your father (the place where he has sex) or y’tzui – my couch.        Again contrast with the story of Dinah when Shimon and Levi justify their own horrific violence against Shechem with the question that hangs at the end “shall they treat our sister like a prostitute?” Yet here, there is no avenging the act done to Bilhah – she may be the mother to two of their brothers, yet she is less than nothing to them.

Bad as this text is in its erasure of Bilhah and her pain and outrage, sadly there is a tradition which goes on to blame her for Reuben’s act.

In the pseudopigrapha – specifically the text “the Testament of Reuben” we find the need to besmirch and defame Bilhah is given free rein. Written possibly in the second Temple period it follows the literary conceit of a farewell address written by the sons of Jacob. The words ascribed to Reuben tell his descendants not to be sexually profligate in youth as he had been when he slept with his father’s wife, as he had been struck by an illness and only the prayers of his father had saved him. He continues:

Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man’s wife, nor meddle with affairs of womankind. For if I had not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I would not have fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman’s nakedness, suffered me not to sleep until I had wrought the abominable thing. For while Jacob our father had gone to Isaac his father, when we were in Eder, near to Ephrat in Bethlehem, Bilhah became drunk and was asleep uncovered in her chamber. Having therefore gone in and beheld nakedness, I wrought the impiety without her perceiving it, and leaving her sleeping I departed.”

There are echoes here of Noah, of Lot and his daughters, of David and Batsheva. But whereas they were not held responsible for their actions, here Bilhah bathed where she could be seen, got drunk, slept in a lewd position and was not even aware of the rape – shades of what used to be called “contributory negligence”.

Rabbinic literature does not only not help Bilhah, but it seems more concerned with protecting the reputation of Reuben, even while explaining why the status that should have been his went to Judah. The Mishnah (Megillah 4:10) suggest that the verse should not be translated when read out in the synagogue, so that the people who did not know Hebrew would not learn about it.  Talmud (BT Shabbat 55b) has R.Shmuel bar Nachman quoting R. Jonathan and saying “Anyone who says that Reuben sinned is wrong, for it is said “now the sons of Jacob were twelve” so all were equal [in sin]..and when bible says he slept with Bilhah the concubine of his father, it means only that he moved his father’s bed without permission and scripture ascribes blame AS IF he had slept with her.” The rabbis are falling over themselves to find Reuben innocent of the terrible act that bible records quite bluntly. They are unaware of either the person or of the plight of Bilhah. How true it is that we don’t notice what is not important to us, but make our world only out of what we see and care about.

Bilhah is the ultimate victim – only her name and those of her two sons are known and recorded. Her life of service begins with being owned by Laban, then Rachel, then Jacob, then Reuben. What else happens to her? Who knows – no one seems to have cared.

Occasionally there is a move towards adding Bilhah and Zilpah to the matriarchs in our prayers. I have always been ambivalent about this, as neither of the women has any relationship with God or prayer that might add to ours. But I am pressingly aware that Bilhah and Zilpah bore and mothered sons to Jacob, they are the ur-ancestors of the twelve tribes just as the ancestors we name. And their story is as much part of our history. A real violence has been done to them – and in particular to Bilhah who is objectified beyond any awareness of her humanity. Her story must once again be told and the gross act of abuse condemned. It is said that the Shechinah weeps over the exile of the children of Israel. The weeping of Bilhah abused at the hands of those same children must also be heard and acknowledged.

2 thoughts on “Bilhah and the man who mistook his wife for his bed

  1. you express this tendency of people to dismiss the powerless, the victim, the silenced with such poignancy. it helps us to look around to see and hear those who aren’t front and center, in our face, to see what their stories and needs are. thank you for speaking on behalf of Bilhah.

  2. Pingback: Shabbat Shalom! – Vayechi – Coffee Shop Rabbi

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