The Unlikely Origin Of The Tribes Of Israel

Genesis 29:31-35 When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” 33 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. 34 Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. 35 And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing.

Genesis 30:1-24 When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” 2 Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” 3 Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” 4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. 5 And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. 7 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.

9 When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Then Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad. 12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.

14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.

19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!”


Imagine growing up in a large, very well-off family. Imagine being told for generations that your family was special, one of great nobility and prominence. Imagine having a family history that included participation in events that caused awe and wonder—inexplicable military victories, unmatched influence on world rulers, etc. Imagine knowing that your family had significantly impacted the world more than once. If you believed all of those things, you might at some point wonder how it all began. Surely your first forefathers must have been truly remarkable people. Perhaps an athletic genius married a beautiful industrialist in perfect matrimonial holiness, surrounded by angels. It had to be something like that, right?

Well, at the time the Israelites first received this book (Genesis), most of those things were already or about to be true of them. They were a very large family (according to Numbers 26 they had to be in the millions). They had been a part of unimaginable miracles at the hand of God. They had been told for generations that they were destined to be a family of kings and power and wealth and strength and light, and all of that was about to come true. They were God’s people. And yet, what isn’t quite right, however—as we find out in this passage—is that their origin wasn’t as noble and remarkable as they might have expected for a family with all of that in their past and near future.

In considering this passage we’ll find the unlikely (and sketchy) origin of the tribes of Israel, and in that a few more familiar lessons. We’ll see clearly that God is greater than anyone could ever imagine (particularly in His power to write history and give life), that going against the will of God is always foolish (even if God turns it for good), and that Jacob truly was the chosen one (though not based on any merit of his own). Let’s pray that God would make all of these clear in the text and then drive them deep into our minds, hearts, and lives.


Before we get to the three main themes of the passage, let’s quickly consider its basic storyline. As has been the case with many of the short scenes in Genesis, the story in our passage for this morning isn’t difficult to follow.

God began to fulfill His promise (of many offspring) to Jacob in unlikely ways. Leah, the wife whom Jacob didn’t love, who was made his wife by deception, was able to bear him sons by the LORD’s hand. God had pity on her since Joseph didn’t love her as he did Rachel, her sister and his other wife. Thus, in rather rapid succession, Leah gave birth to four sons. All of that we find at the end of chapter 29 (vs.31-35).

This, coupled with the fact that she was unable to have children of her own, made Rachel angry, jealous, and bitter. Thus, much like her grand-mother-in-law, Sarah, according to custom (though not according to God’s design), gave her servant to Jacob to bear children on her behalf. Thus, Bilhah too became Jacob’s wife and bore him two sons for Rachel (30:1-8).

During this time Leah stopped having children and began having a self-pity party of her own. Thus, she too gave a servant to Jacob for him to marry and give her more children. Zilpah, Leah’s servant, bore two more sons (30:9-13).

At this point, then, Jacob had eight sons (four through Leah, two more through her servant, and two through Rebekah’s servant).

However, neither of the sisters were content with the current score so they each schemed a way to gain on the other. Rachel sought to make use of mandrakes (a natural aphrodisiac), purchased from her sister at the cost of the night with Jacob. That very night, Leah conceived another son. Soon after, yet another. The last child birthed by Leah was a daughter, Dinah (30:14-21).

Finally, God “remembered” Rachel and “opened her womb” for the first time. She bore a child of her own to Jacob. His name was Joseph. Overjoyed, but not content, Rachel asked God to grant her one more child (30:22-24). God would grant her request, but it would cost Rachel her life (35:18-19). Final score: Leah-8 and Rachel-4.

Throughout all of this, as we’ll consider as we move on, in the various characters in this story there are all kinds of motivations and aims and relationship dynamics and theologies. As I said in the beginning, though, three things carry the day: God is greater than we could possibly imagine, it is always, only folly to go against the will of God, and in spite of this unlikely and shady origin of the tribes of Israel, Jacob’s line was God’s chosen family.

Let’s look closer at the text and its themes, beginning with its several displays of the greatness of God.


The first thing to see, and the main point of Genesis, the entire bible, and all of creation, is that God is greater than Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you and I, or anyone else could possibly imagine. As every Christian teacher worth being taught by has always acknowledged, our problem as humans isn’t that we want to be happy or satisfied or safe or blessed or known or significant or loved. Our problem, rather, is that we don’t want these things enough and so we content ourselves with people and things that give us quick, temporary, and partial fixes rather than the real deal. That is, sin’s most diabolical scheme is that it leads us to places where these things can’t really be found and blinds us to the one place they truly can—in fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.

Because the immeasurable greatness of God is the center storyline of the bible, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that it shows up in specific ways over and over again throughout Genesis and in the life of Jacob in particular. In this passage we see some new and some familiar aspects of the immeasurably great nature of God.

First, we see it in the fact that God sees and hears everything. If you slow down a bit when you read this passage, you’ll notice the repeated use of various versions of seeing and hearing attributed to God. God “saw” and “heard” that Leah was hated (29:31, 33). God “looked” upon her affliction (29:32). Rachel acknowledged that God “heard my voice” when she cried out for a child (30:6). God “listened” to Leah when she prayed for a fifth son (30:17). And God “listened” to Rachel before opening her womb for the first time (30:22) and the last time (30:24). God’s greatness is beyond measure and we find that in the fact that He sees and hears everything, everywhere, always. Who sees and hears all things like our God?! No one, Grace. How great is our God?! Take a moment to consider the wonderful and awesome God we serve. Praise Him for it.

Second, we see God’s greatness in the fact that He is perfectly in control. That God sees and hears everything, everywhere, always, is awesome. But He does not do so merely as a passive observer. He does so in order that He might order all things according to the counsel of His will, for His glory, and the good of His people.

To those ends, having seen and heard the cries of the sisters, He sovereignly opened both Leah (29:31) and Rachel’s (30:22) wombs. Likewise, we learn from Jacob that God was also the one who closed their wombs. When his wife, Rachel, demanded that Jacob get her pregnant, he angrily replied, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb!” (30:2). Jacob along with each of his wives acknowledged God’s hand in every blessing and withholding of blessing (29:32, 33, 35; 30:2, 6, 18, 20, 23, 24).

Above all, the immeasurable greatness of God is plain in this passage in that this passage makes it plain that God is the author of this story. He is the one moving things along as He fulfills His promise to grant Jacob as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. Again, Grace, this is a familiar theme in Genesis, but please fight the temptation to let it cause you to tune out. Instead, use it as another pile of logs for your worship fire. Let that stir you to greater awe and wonder as you consider the power of God’s repeated words. If God says something once, it is of infinite and eternal importance. What, then, does it mean when He reveals some aspect of His nature over and over?

God is in control here and always. Let us praise God for this aspect of his greatness and let us find rest in it as well. If you love God, nothing that you experience is for your ultimate harm. God has a great purpose for all that He does; every blessing and honor, along with every wound, scar, and sorrow.

Third, we see God’s greatness in the fact that He cares for the lowly (31). He didn’t open the wombs of the woman for no reason at all. He opened them because they were “hated” (29:31), afflicted (29:32), and reproached (30:23). That is, God helped the woman because He had compassion on them in their lowliness. Know, Grace, that while most people in general, and most rulers in particular, associate only with those who are deemed worthy and beneficial, our God cares for the lowly—those who have nothing to offer in return. None of us have anything that we can bring to God, none are worthy or beneficial to God in ourselves. We are the lowly! God cares particularly for the lowly, then, to teach and remind us of these things.

This is clear here, but clearer still in the Lord, Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). We give ourselves to care for the hurting and vulnerable, like God does, therefore, because it provides the clearest picture of the gospel.

Forth, and finally, we see God’s immeasurable greatness in the nature of the births of each of the sons and the names given to them. With respect to the nature of the births, we see the greatness of God in that He brought them about through otherwise barren women. We also see God’s greatness in the births in the facts that they show that God is in control and in that God did so through unworthy people (more on both of those in a bit).

Likewise, we see the greatness of God in the names given to many of the sons born to Jacob. Ruben’s name (31-32) helps us to see that the LORD sees in affliction. Similarly, Simeon’s name (33) highlights the glory of the God who hears. Judah’s name is a declaration that God so great that He is worthy of our praise (“Judah” sounds like “praise”). Dan means “judge”. It is a reminder that God is the great judge of all (of whether or not we have conformed to His perfect will). Gad, Issachar, and Zebulun are all likely acknowledgements of the fact that God’s good providence is continually working for the good of His people. And Joseph is a reminder that God is a God who is worthy of our hope.

Seeing, hearing, worthy of praise, righteous judge, providentially ruling all, and the great bearer of our hope. That is our God! Again, the point in the names of most of the sons is to highlight some aspect of the greatness of God. My hope and aim and prayer all week is that the God who sees and hears would help us see and hear His glory through all of this.


The second main theme in this passage is the perfect folly of going against the will of God. This passage is filled with people consumed with worldly desires. God kept His promises and integrity, but He did so, not through people who imitated Him in either of those things, but through people filled with selfish ambitions. Worldliness is seen in Jacob in his passivity and sexual rebellion. It is seen in the women in their competition with one another and several other ways as well.

Jacob’s Folly

Oh, guys, there is much for us to learn here. God made men to reject passivity and embrace initiative. Jacob, once again (as he was while still in his parents’ house), is seen here as passively accepting whatever the women in his life concoct. He is silent until the women tell him what to do—who to marry and who to sleep with. He gets angry when they put too much on him, but is otherwise entirely passive. Guys, God has given us great charges to disciple the world, love and lead our wives and kids, strengthen our churches, exercise dominion over the earth, etc. To obey and honor God in these charges is to continually be men of initiative. There is no place for passivity. It’s easy to see this in Jacob here. May we learn from his folly such that we reject it in our lives.

Jacob also acted foolishly in his marriage and sexual proclivities. Both of these things would later become explicitly unlawful for God’s people, but they were already against God’s design and their folly is plain to see here. It’s especially plain to see in that his folly kept compounding. He foolishly took two wives. That led to the trouble of favoritism. The favoritism led to more trouble in the bitterness and competitiveness between the women. And that led to adding more wives and more discontentment and frustration.

While God means righteousness to produce righteousness, Jacob’s sins produced more sins. By taking matters into his own hands (or passively leaving them in his wives’), Jacob’s “common sense,” path-of-least-resistance solutions show their true nature (folly) rather quickly. Going against God’s will is always foolish. Again, guys, we need to look right at this in order that we would flee from it and all its troubles.

Leah and Rachel’s Folly

While Jacob’s folly was present (albeit mostly in the background), folly of the women was front and center. And ladies, there is a lot for you here as well (though most of it is a warning for all of us really).

Leah foolishly believed that she could force Jacob’s love by giving him children (32-35). Even if it were somewhat true, it was foolish to believe that kind of love was worth having. (Consider also the condemnation this is of Jacob’s character that his wife believed his love could be bought.)

Consider Leah’s folly in reserving some kind of praise to God until her fourth child. Her declaration that “This time I will praise the LORD (35)” is subtle expression of her foolishness.

While wisdom calls God’s people to contentment in the providence of God and gladness in the blessings of others, Rachel showed her folly in her envy of her sister’s fruitfulness (30:1). Worse yet, her envy quickly led to even greater folly in the form of pride and idolatry. Rachel’s exclamation to Jacob, “Give me children or I will die (30:1) showed (as Jacob would immediately point out) a foolish, prideful misunderstanding of what she (and Jacob) had the power to do as well as an idolatrous view of children.

Leah lacked the affection of her husband but had children. Rachel had the affection of her husband but lacked children. Both were willing to forsake just about anything to gain what they lacked. Utter folly.

It gets worse. Because of the bitter competition, pride, and idolatry, rather than imitate God, they imitated their sinful relatives. Like her grandmother-in-law, Rachel foolishly cared more about her reputation and earthly desires than God’s will (3).

The woman put their folly on display yet again in that they only half sought God and only in times of trouble. Even then, they didn’t seem to want God, but foolishly only wanted Him to meet their worldly desires.

Ladies of Grace, affection and fruitfulness are God’s to give out as He pleases; in His time and measure and content. Had the sisters accepted this in faith, it would have dissolved their envy and bitterness and competition and sinful remedies they sought for those things. Again, ladies, resting in the love and provision God has for you will keep you from seeking those things in ungodly places and in ungodly ways. The love of God for you in Jesus is more than enough. To accept the perfect provision of God is to be content with any and every earthly lack; actually, it is to recognize that you lack nothing of true significance for God withholds nothing good from His daughters.


God is greater than we could ever imagine, it is folly to go against God’s will, and finally, this passage helps us to see once again that Jacob was indeed the chosen one of God. In spite of the unrelenting folly of God’s people, the unrelenting greatness of God overwhelmed it all. God is so great that He wove the dysfunctional choices of this dysfunctional family into the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the light of the world.

Soon God would change Jacob’s name to Israel (chapter 35), the twelfth son (Benjamin) would be born (chapter 35), and the descendants of these twelve sons would become the twelve tribes of Israel. All of this was meant to humble the first recipients as they received it as their family history. They were great, and soon to be greater. But they were not the cause of their greatness, God was. This story was meant to remind them of those things.

Likewise, all of this is meant equally to humble us in the knowledge that God still chooses us, not on the basis of anything in us, but on the basis of His sovereign will alone. We are chosen by God in spite of our folly, not because we are wise; in spite of our unworthiness, not because we are worthy; in spite of our rebellion, not because we are righteous; in spite of our lowliness, not because we have something to offer; in spite of our brokenness, not because we are whole.

And all of this only because God’s love and mercy and grace are so great that He chose to send a Rescuer. He sent His only Son, Jesus, who became a man, dwelt among us, and alone was perfectly wise, worthy, righteous, sufficiency and completeness; who alone was worthy to take our sins upon Himself on the cross; and who alone is able to offer us reconciliation with God through faith. The larger point of this text, therefore, is to point us to Jesus. Look to Him today even as you consider the great glory of God, the great folly of man, and the unconditional grace God extends to all who would humbly receive it in Jesus.