Bilhah (בִּלְהָה "faltering; bashful", Standard Hebrew Bilha, Tiberian Hebrew Bilhâ) is a person mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 29:29 describes her as Laban's handmaid, who was given to Rachel to be her handmaid on Rachel's marriage to Jacob. When Rachel failed to have children, Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob "to wife" to bear him children. (Genesis 30:3-5) Bilhah gave birth to two sons, who Rachel claimed as her own and named Dan and Naphtali. (Genesis 30:6-8, 35:25) (the use in the Torah of the prefix "to", as in "took to wife", may indicate that the wife is a concubine or inferior wife). Genesis 35:22 expressly calls Bilhah Jacob's concubine, a pilegesh.)
The Testament of Naftali, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, says that Bilhah and Zilpah's father was named Ahotay. He was taken into captivity but redeemed by Laban, Rachel and Leah's father, who gave Ahotay a wife named Hannah, who was their mother. Rabbinic sources (Midrash Raba, and elsewhere), on the other hand, state that Bilhah and Zilpah were also Laban's daughters, through his concubines, making them half-sisters to Rachel and Leah. (See also, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, xxxvi.)
Reuben's adultery with Bilhah
Reuben was Jacob's (Israel) eldest son with Leah. Genesis 35:22 says "And it was during the stay of Israel in that land, and Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard..." As a result of this adultery, he lost the respect of his father, as Genesis 49:4 says: "Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it."
However, Rashi, an 11th-century commentator, interprets the story differently. He suggests that, as long as Rachel was alive, Jacob kept his bed in her tent and visited the other wives in theirs. When Rachel died, Jacob moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah, who had been mentored by Rachel, to retain a closeness to his favourite wife. However, Reuben, Leah's eldest, felt that this move slighted his mother, who was also a primary wife, and so he moved Jacob's bed into his mother's tent. This invasion of Jacob's privacy was viewed so gravely that the Bible equates it with adultery, and lost Reuben his first-born right to a double inheritance.
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In popular culture
The idea of handmaidens is used in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. In the novels The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and Rachel and Leah by Orson Scott Card, Bilhah and Zilpah are half-sisters of Leah and Rachel by different mothers, following the Talmudic tradition.
- Women, similar to wives from vadimcherny.org
- Ginzberg, Louis (1909) The Legends of the Jews, Volume I, Chapter VI: Jacob, at sacred-texts.com
- 1 Chronicles 4:27-29
- Genesis 35:22, this is from Wikisource translation, but King James and all other translations are essentially identical.
- Genesis 35:22, 49:3,4; Deuteronomy 21:17
- Genesis 22:21-22: Uz, Buz, Kemuel, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, and Jidlaph