“While Israel (Jacob) stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel (Jacob) found out.” (Genesis 35:22)
These are the only details shared in the Torah that Reuben, son of Jacob and Leah, lays with the handmaiden of Rachel, his father’s other wife.
However, Bilhah is more than simply Rachel’s handmaiden, she is also the mother of Jacob’s sons, Dan and Naftali. In some parts of our text, she is referred to as his wife, in others his concubine. This is a troubling narrative, so much so that in the Mishnah we learn this is one of a handful of Torah texts that should be recited, but not translated into the vernacular, in order for it not to be understood.
The Torah does not immediately share with us the implications of Reuben’s actions, but we get clues later in the text. As Jacob prepares for his own death, he offers to each of his children a blessing. Reuben’s is more of a curse: “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer. For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace!” Reuben also loses his birthright as firstborn.
There is a mahloket (disagreement) in the Talmud. Some argue that Reuben did in fact lay with Bilhah and was deserving of his punishment, others that he was free from sin and spared at the last moment from being intimate with Bilhah. We can’t know what really happened but it is interesting, though unsurprising, that we never hear Bilhah’s account of the incident.
Nor do we hear her perspective or voice when she lends her womb to Rachel to support her and Jacob’s relationship when they are struggling with infertility. The silence of Bilhah, like so many other Torah narratives of women, speaks volumes about the marginalisation of women in our sacred literature.
- Rabbi Elana Dellal serves The Liberal Jewish Synagogue