Jacob’s Twelve Sons (Genesis 29:31-30:24)


Jacob is in Harran living with and working for his Uncle Laban. He has been there over 7 years now and has married both of Laban’s daughters:  Leah and Rachel.  Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah.  In this passage we see 11 sons born to Jacob, and the twelfth would be born later in chapter 35.  This dramatic passage shows these 12 sons of Jacob are born to 4 different women:  his two wives and their two servants.  Leah would have six sons, and then Rachel and the two servants would have two each. 

Let’s Read the Passage…

This passage doesn’t cut easily into nice sections for sermon points.  So what we’re doing today is summarizing the passage, reading the passage, then explaining some key points about the passage.  Along the way we’ll point out some applications – because there are good ones!


First: I want us to understand the importance of these sons historically. The passage is very important because these 12 sons are the foundation of the nation of Israel.  They are the 12 sons of Jacob, whose name will be changed to Israel, so they are the 12 sons of Israel.  Each of these sons will become what the rest of the Bible refers to as “the nation of Israel” or “the children of Israel” or the “tribes of Israel.”   Here we see their births.  In chapter 49 we will see their blessings.  In the very end of time, Revelation 21 says that the New City will come down from Heaven and have 12 gates.  On each of the 12 gates will be one of the names of the 12 tribes.  One gate will be Reuben, another Judah, another Asher, another Benjamin, etc.

You want to know this because as you read the Bible you may read names like “Jacob” and “Israel” and “Judah” and “Zebulun” and think “Who in the world is God talking to?”  Often he’s addressing these tribes corporately.

Second, we need to understand the sadness of this passage.  It is sad indeed – and on multiple levels:   Leah is unloved, Rachel is childless, Jacob feels blamed by Rachel, and the intense contest between the sisters, all make this passage not only dramatically intense but really sad.  

Let’s start with Leah.  She’s older than Rachel, but she’s not as pretty and she’s not as loved as Rachel.  Across thousands of years and vast cultural differences she is human, like we are, and so we can imagine how she feels:  hurt, rejected, lonely, insecure, bitter… at Rachel for sure, and a lot at Jacob, and maybe some days her dad for getting her into this situation, and when she’s most honest maybe even at God.  

Leah lived every day seeing and feeling how different Jacob treated her and Rachel.  She saw all the things he did with Rachel that he didn’t do with her:  how he smiled affectionately at her, how he looked at her adoringly, how he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her, how he flirted with her, got her gifts, or talked with her and opened up his heart with her, or how most nights he spent with her at her lodging, or how he held her hand and strolled on walks with her, how he held her body, and pillow talked with her long into the night.  Not Leah though.  She forced smiles that never reached Jacob’s eyes, short and curt answers, coldness, indifference, and avoidance.  Hers was a marriage empty of love, with no warmth for her heart, and the bitter sting of watching all the love she will never get given every day to her sister.   

Notice in the text that God never gives Leah what she wanted most:  her husband’s love.  God didn’t change Jacob’s heart so that he had affection for her and desired her.  WHY doesn’t God give us what we want?  

On the one hand, Rachel was suffering similarly.  Think about it:  On the one hand Rachel had what Leah wanted when it came to Jacob’s love.  But on the other hand Leah had what Rachel wanted:  children.  Leah had 6 of Jacob’s 12 sons.  That is as much as all three other women combined.  She had that honor, that pride, that joy.  

Yet, still, with all these children God never gave Leah Jacob’s love.  What made this sting so much was that God did give Rachel what she wanted so badly when he gave her a son, Joseph.  Rachel had her husband’s love and a son.  Leah, though surrounded by children the Lord has given her, would live all her days with a great aching hole in her heart that only the love of Jacob could fill.  And God left it empty.  This is a very sad passage   

APPLICATION:  God doesn’t always answer our most intense desires or most longed for requests.  How many people live with aching loneliness?  How many people live their days praying and hoping that God will change someone – and they never change?  How many unanswered prayers has humanity lived with?  How many have gone to their graves not living happily ever after?  The application is that God does not always give us what we yearn for so badly.  

What do we do with that?  

APPLICATION:  For one thing God may be teaching us to humbly come to terms with his sovereignty over our lives.  My life is His, “Not I, but Christ!”  “Whoever would follow me must deny Himself.”  Learning to deny ourselves is part of submitting to God’s sovereign will for my life.

APPLICATION TO THE APPLICATION:  Is God enough?  In the midst of shattered hopes and hearts is God enough?  “Whom have I in heaven but you, O Lord?”  Psalm 73 cries out, “And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”  We must step more fully towards God in such pain.  We must trust in Him with greater trust.  We must seek Him more wholeheartedly, and make our hearts more open to Him.  We have to realize He is our Creator and knows us better than we know ourselves.  We have to know more certainly that He “sees” us like He saw Leah in her heartache.  But that means that just like with Leah we have to trust God is compassionate towards those whom He sees are suffering. 

God may allow our most longed for desires to go unmet but there is nothing we go through in this life where God is not with us.  Never can we say what Jesus said on the cross:  “My God why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus was forsaken so that we never would be.  Hebrews 13 says, “Never will I leave you or forsake you.”  

In our unanswered prayers and longings, being without the deepest of human needs, do we find our Savior Jesus?  Do we find Him filling us in that emptiness?  Or as our new song today says as it takes the words from Psalm 63:

For Your love is far better than life

My lips will glorify You

I will praise You as long as I live

In Your name I lift up my hands

I will seek You as long as it takes

Till I behold You face to face

My soul is satisfied

With the richness of You

I think of You all through the night  

My soul will rest in You only

For You alone are my rock   My hiding place

O Lord You are my help  I sing in the shadow of Your wings

A song of Your goodness and grace  Your infinite love

APPLICATION:  While you’re seeing your unanswered longings are you seeing God’s other blessings?  God may not have given Jacob’s love to Leah, but He gave her the great honor of having the most children, and the most significant children.  Whatever whispers in the household or the village about Leah being unloved and unwanted, it was counterbalanced with everyone having to honor her for personally giving Jacob 6 sons out of twelve – eight if you count her servants.  We cannot be blind to all the other blessings God gives while we wait for that “one” blessing we’re hoping for.  We cannot rob God of our gratitude – We must see all the ways God is kind to us and give thanks for them.

APPLICATION:  Happiness is not God’s first concern for our lives.  Leah’s happiness was not God’s first priority.  A lot of people today live by the rule that their own happiness is the most important thing in life.  Do whatever makes you happy, don’t do whatever would threaten happiness.  We are not Epicureans, we are Christians.  We are not Hedonists, we are the children of God.  Our highest rule as followers of Jesus Christ is not our happiness but God’s “happiness” with us.  We live to please God, not ourselves.  “And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:15).  This is the essence of Jesus’ words, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”  Or as Paul said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the LORD Jesus has given me…”  (Acts 20:24).  God wants us to learn the delight of knowing Him, as one commentator put it:  

He is the God who fulfills all our longings.  He is the water to our thirst, the bread to our hunger, our shade in the heat, our peace in the struggle, the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings, the satisfaction of all our soul’s desires. 

Yet the bare-knuckle fact of life is that often God uses our unhappiness to form us more into Christ’s image.  It says Christ was made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10) and learned obedience through suffering (Heb 5:8).  It will be the same with us.  We must keep this in mind when like Paul we may cry out to God to remove the thorn in our flesh, that thorn of suffering and aching and longing.  But like with Paul, God may very well say, “No.  I’m leaving it, that you may learn how my grace is sufficient for you and how my power is made perfect in your weakness.”  Then like Paul, when you see your pain anew you will also say, “Therefore I will rejoice all the more in my weakness…for when I am weak, God’s strength rests on me.”  

So often God strips a person down from nearly everything and anything this life could give for happiness and “well-being.”  Yet in doing so, to whatever degree, God is opening a door for us to come into a “Holy of Holies” with Him, a place of such spiritual intimacy with Him and such close fellowship that is simply not available when we have everything we want or so much of what we want.  In other words when God strips a man’s life down to nothing, he may painfully feel Job’s words“Naked I came into this world and naked I leave it,” – it is then that that man has absolutely nothing to obscure or obstruct his sight of God.  Nothing to distract or divide his path to God.  A door is open to an inner sanctum with God for knowing God through suffering.  

What I’m saying is that happiness is not God’s first concern for our lives.  Holiness is.  God will not hesitate to use unhappiness to form more holiness in us.  Yet the believer who’s maturing through that pain will come to find that there is happiness in holiness.  As one poet put it:

No comfort peace so sweet

No equal joy apart

Than all delights in Him we meet

Once with Him we start

Third, we need to see the relevance of the names of these sons who were born.  The names indicate something.  The names the mothers gave were related to their situations.  But more than that, the mothers gave names that reflected their own faith.  The names reflected the attitude of faith the mothers had towards God in the midst of their situations:


  1. Reuben:  He [God] has seen my misery [unloved]
  2. Simeon:  One who hears, God heard I was unloved
  3. Levi:  attached, hoping now Jacob would be attached to her
  4. Judah:  Praise, Leah will praise the Lord.  Perhaps Messianic overtones?  
  5. Issachar:  reward, GOD has rewarded me
  6. Zebulun:  honor, hoping Zebulun’s birth will make Jacob love her
  7. (Through Zilpah) Gad:  good fortune, the good feelings Leah had that God blessed her with another son through her servant Zilpah
  8. (Through Zilpah) Asher:  Happy, Leah was happy as this son was born


  1. Joseph:  May he add, she hoped with Joseph’s birth that God would add another son to her.  He did, in chapter 35:18
  2. Benjamin:  son of my right hand.  The only son named by Jacob
  3. (Through Bilhah) Dan:  He has vindicated, Dan’s birth was Rachel’s first son, thus ending her “barrenness” legally, if not biologically, and was “God’s vindication” of her
  4. (Through Bilhah) Naphtali:  My struggle, God saw her struggle with Leah and made her “win” by enabling her to have a child through her servant.
    1. How is this winning?  She still didn’t have any children from her own body like Leah and Leah was having way more children than her.  
    2. It must simply mean that she was “on the board” and had finally had a child

A couple things stand out about the names here.

First, the women are naming the children.  Benjamin is the only one that Jacob names.  In light of the fact that Leah “hired” or “bought” Jacob from Rachel for a night of love with some mandrakes (love apples), it seems that Jacob didn’t have a say in anything!  Women still run the show even in patriarchal societies!  LOL

Humor aside, another thing to see in these names is that the names reflected the faith of the mothers in their situations.  A number of these names reflect praise to God and faith in Him as the cause of their conception:  “He who hears” or “He who sees my misery” or “Happy” or “Vindicated”  

And it struck me that the names are a lot like stones or stone altars setup as memorials like we’ve seen in Genesis.  Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all at times erected memorial altars after an encounter with God.  It was a way of worshipping God and memorializing the faithfulness and kindness of God at that moment.  These women, for all their bitter rivalry and domestic contest, showed their faith in God by memorializing God’s power in bringing life to their wombs by the very names they gave their children.

APPLICATION:  How do we memorialize God’s faithfulness?  How do we “remember” how God has been faithful to us in our struggles and hardships?  How do we name something “Judah” in our own lives and “Praise” God?  How do we name something “Asher” in our own lives as a way of saying “Happy” in the midst of our hurt?  You don’t even have to invent new things to do but instead take what we’ve already got on our calendar and improve it.  How can you make Thanksgiving about actually giving Thanks to God?  How can you make Christmas NOT about Santa and instead about Jesus Christ?  What can you this season, and the day of these holidays to setup symbols and signs to keep pointing you to our Savior?  

Fourth, we need to see t hat while Jacob chose Rachel, God chose Leah.  Jacob preferred Rachel when it came to love, but God preferred Leah when it came to Redemption.  What I mean is Leah had more sons than any other woman in Jacob’s life, she had the same number as all the othe women combined.  But her honor from God was even greater because two of her sons stand out historically:  Levi and Judah.  Levi would become the extremely important priestly tribe in Israel.  Judah was the son from whom the Messiah would come, Revelation called Jesus, “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (5:5).  These were Leah’s sons, not Rachel’s.  I’m sure Jacob would’ve wanted such significant sons to have been born to the woman he loved.  But they weren’t.  They were born to the woman he didn’t love.  

The reason why is on one hand God’s sovereign choosing, yes.  But explicitly in the text we see it was God’s compassion.  It says, “God saw that Leah was NOT loved, so he enabled her to conceive.”  Pay attention to the language of divine senses:  “God saw.”  God’s eyes don’t miss anything.  But often when God sees his servants hurting it is in connection with his compassion.  

All that said,  while historically Leah’s sons would be most important, for the rest of the book of Genesis it is Rachel’s son that is central.  Joseph is Rachel’s first son and his life will be covered extensively.  As a matter of fact, a full 13 + chapters will cover the life of Joseph, which is way more than Isaac and Jacob.  It’s about the same amount of attention as Abraham’s life.  That is a tremendous honor for Rachel.

Now the question we should ask ourselves is:  Why would Genesis trace the life of Joseph?  Why not Levi or Judah, since they would become such important tribes in God’s plans?  The answer is because Joseph’s life was more important to understand the history that is covered in Genesis and Exodus.  If you started reading the Bible in Exodus, you would see from the first chapter that the Hebrews were a huge population within the nation of Egypt.  You would ask yourself:  “Who are these Hebrews?  How did they get there in Egypt?”  If you flipped back to the book right before Exodus, you would read Genesis and see that Joseph is the answer to those questions.  His life shows us the answers for why all of Abraham’s children ended up leaving the Promised Land and going to Egypt. And if God told Abraham back in chapter 15 that his descendents would be in a foreign land as slaves and God would rescue them from that nation and punish that nation, then the question is:  If Abraham and all his family were in the land God gave to them then how would they all end up in some other foreign land?  The answer is in Joseph’s life.  Following the life of Joseph will show us how the family of Jacob ended up in Egypt.  

Now I see a lesson for us right here.  God providentially moves us.  We are where we are because this is where God has moved us.  I’m not anywhere else because God hasn’t moved me there.  He has used my decisions, my ambitions, my circumstances to have me right here right now.  And the same is true for you.  

Think about this:  God foretold that Abraham’s descendents would be enslaved in another nation.  How would God get Abraham’s descendents into that situation?  He used a famine to move Jacob and his family of 70 members to Egypt.  That is God’s providence.  So now the Hebrews began as 70 in Egypt but several hundred years later they were several million and ready for God to deliver them.  Just like God foretold.  Thus you have the Exodus out of Egypt into the wilderness.


  1. Memorialize God’s faithfulness in your own life.
  2. Remember God is the God of all life.
  3. Make holiness first in your life, and trust God with happiness
  4. Trust God “sees” you in your hurt and has compassion for you
  5. Don’t miss all the other blessings He gives while you’re focused on that one longing

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