We were not exactly slaves. We were not without some status even though we were called slaves. How could slaves produce sons for the master, sons who would inherit equally with the sons of the mistresses? No, we were not slaves. We were sisters.
Jacob married not two, but four sisters. We were the daughters of Laban just as much as Leah and Rachel. The only difference between them and us was our mother. Our mother was a slave who found herself the object of her master’s desire, just as we would.
We grew up as close as sisters could be. And we matched, one for one, the temperaments of Rachel and Leah. When Jacob came and our sisters were married to him, we went to our father and begged not to be parted from our sisters. We would go as their attendants rather than let our father marry us to lesser men. We were, after all, his daughters and deserved better. So we went with Leah and Rachel, hoping that Jacob would find husbands for us from amongst his kinsmen. We heard about Esau and both of us harbored the hope he would wed us both to him, thereby bringing helping to heal the rift between them. We were as beautiful as our sisters, and anxious to begin our lives in Jacob’s world.
I think the intent really was for both of us to be given to Esau. Jacob told us wonderful stories about his brother, and along the way, we heard even more. He was strong, he was handsome, he was a good provider...and his mother hated his wives. We would be the balm to sooth the old woman’s rage. We were kinswomen and worthy of the eldest son.
Things didn’t turn out the way anyone expected. Rachel couldn’t conceive, and Jacob, as patient as he was, was turning more and more to Leah who was popping them out with no effort. Rachel was getting desperate. She said prayers to his G-d, her father’s gods, to rocks and trees and anything else that appeared to be listening. When her menses was upon her, she would send me to Jacob with dinner just to keep him out of Leah’s tent. Oh, not that I minded. I liked sitting with Jacob and talking about all sorts of things.
And he wasn’t bad to look at either. I never understood why everyone got the impression Jacob was a soft, paunchy kinda guy. Maybe he was when he left his parents after his finagled Esau’s blessing, but by the time he married my sisters, he was not flabby. He was one handsome man. Dark curly hair, strong arms, a chest you just wanted to lean against, and shoulders that looked as thought they could carry the world. He used to amuse the children by cracking almonds with one hand. His eyes were the darkest amber eyes could be. If he caught you in his gaze.... but I digress.
The evenings we spent talking about sheep and goats, stars and the heavens, his parents and my parents grew longer and longer. More than once, I fell asleep in his tent. Usually, he carried me back to my own and gently deposited me on the cushions. He would kiss me on the forehead before covering me with my blanket. Then one night, I guess he fell asleep, too, because we were both awakened by Rachel’s cry of surprise in the early morning. “What have you done?” she demanded, although later we both wondered to whom that was directed.
“Nothing,” shrugged Jacob. “We fell asleep. Look, we’re both fully clothed.” He laughed as he got up and went to Rachel. He kissed her. “Bilhah is just sweet kid,” he assured her. “She is your sister. I think I have enough on my hands married to two of you.”
But Rachel just stood there. Her brows were knitted. This was not a good sign. Not at all. I knew Rachel well enough to know she was thinking something through. I don’t know if Jacob was on to that look, but I sure was. Jacob gave her a squeeze as he left us alone in the tent.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but stop,” I told her.
She shook her head. “I know what your cycle is. Lay with him. Get his child inside you...and you shall have it for me. You will make me a mother.”
I just stared at her. “Are you crazy?”
“No. This is a great idea. Tell him you’ve agreed to have a baby for me. It’s done all the time.”
“Yeah, if you’re a slave and I’m not your slave, Rachel.”
“And what is your official position in this household?”
I was stumped. I didn’t’ know how to answer. Slave on a technicality was what she was thinking, and she was right. Laban had never officially given us our freedom. Our position? There was an excellent question. If our father heard I’d spend the night in Jacob’s tent, there was no telling what he’d do.
On the other hand, I’d heard both Leah and Rachel moan with the greatest pleasure on the nights Jacob spent in their beds. They bragged to each other about the heights of ecstasy he wrought the mornings after. What could be bad about that? Just thinking about it made me squirm in a most unladylike manner. “If you can convince Jacob, I’ll do it. But what are you going to tell our father?” I asked her.
“Don’t worry about our father. I’ll tell him afterward when he can’t do anything about it. Just make sure you get with child.”
Jacob found me at the well late in the afternoon. “Are you sure you want to, Bilhah?” he asked. He touched my face with his hand; it was so warm against my skin that I blushed. Jacob threw back his head and laughed. “Is that a yes?” All I could do was nod. “Tonight is a night I was to be with Rachel; you come instead, and we’ll talk about it then.
Rachel helped me get ready. We did it secretly, without Leah or Zilpah knowing what we were doing. She even gave me a new dress, one with lots of embroidered flowers down the front and fit for a bride. Rachel had her shortcomings, but she was bound and determined to do this right. She arranged the meal, and had it plated on the most ornate tray we had. To make sure no one was suspicious, she wrapped me in a cloak before sending me to Jacob with the tray. I don’t know how I managed to walk the distance between her tent and Jacob’s; I was shaking.
Jacob took the tray from me as soon as I came in. He set it on the low table, then helped me removed my cloak. When he told me I looked beautiful, I started to cry. I have no idea why I started to cry; I just did.
“You are under no obligation, Bilhah,” he said. “We will only do this if you are certain this is what you want.” He sat down and patted the cushions beside him. “Come sit down. Let’s pretend there is nothing unusual about tonight, and if it happens, it happens.”
We ate, we talked, I even managed to laugh. And in a quiet moment, I turned my face to his. “Yes,” I told him. “I want this.”
I cannot tell you if the night was long or short. I cannot tell you if there was a moon or stars. I cannot even tell you that at the moment of his entrance into me there was pain. Jacob led me through the rites of womanhood with a gentleness I did not know existed. My heart soared, my body arched with pleasure, my soul floated above the bed. He took nothing I did not wish to give, but he gave me so much more. And I wanted more. I wanted him, his seed, and ultimately, his love. And he gave it all willingly.
I know what has been written, but it does not even touch the surface of the reality. My nights with Jacob were as precious to me as my sons. My father’s wrath was nothing compared to the freedom that motherhood brought me. My son’s name, Dan, was given by my sister, but not because he vindicated her barren state. He absolved me of my status of slave, for I was the mother of a son of Jacob even if Rachel called him hers. But I was his milk-mother and he knew me as mother all the same.
My second son, Naphtali, was named not for the Rachel’s struggle with G-d to have children, but her struggle to love my son as her own. Naphtali favored me, whereas Dan favored his father. Still, she loved Naphtali and cherished him as I did. We shared those children for we knew they would not exist had this not been a partnership between us. Our sisters’ bond was strengthened by our shared motherhood. So strong was that bond, that Leah and Zilpah followed our lead.
We were four sisters. We shared our husband’s bed and our husband’s children. We rejoiced as one, we commiserated as one, we danced as one, and we shed tears as one. Together, we founded a people.
As for our father? If you thought he was angry about the speckled sheep, you are sadly mistaken.