Reuben’s Deed: The Rape of Bilhah

The book of Genesis does not tell us about Bilhah’s genealogy. The Testament of Naphtali suggests:

And my mother is Bilhah the daughter of Rotheus, a brother of Debora, Rebecca’s nurse who was born the same day as Rachel.
And Rotheus was of the family of Abraham…  god-fearing, freeborn and noble.
And after having been taken captive he was bought by Laban, and he gave him Aina his handmaiden as wife [and she] bore him a daughter and she called her … Zilpah, after the name of the village where he had been taken captive. Next she bore Bilhah, saying: My daughter is eager for what is new; for immediately after she was born she was eager to suck.

According to the Testament of Naphtali, Bilhah and Zilpah were sisters, and their genealogy is from the family of Abraham. Their mother was a handmaiden who was given to Rotheus. Later on the sisters are given as handmaidens to Leah and Rachel.

Reuben’s Deed

After the death of Rachel, when Jacob is old, we are told that Reuben is having intercourse with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden:

And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it (Genesis 35, 22). Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.  Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it–he went up to my couch (Genesis 49, 3-4).

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant re-interprets Reuben’s deed as an act of love. Bilhah and Reuben love each other. This forbidden love causes Reuben’s banishment and Bilhah’s death:

… a lifetime of unspent passion and unspoken declarations of love for Bilhah and of hers for him. When that dam broke, they went breathlessly into each other’s arms, embracing in the fields, under the stars, and even inside Bilhah’s own tent. They were the truest lovers, the very image of the Queen of the Sea and her Lord-Brother, made for each other yet doomed for it.

It is easier to interpret the relationship between Bilhah and Reuben as a relationship based on love, and read Reuben’s deed in the context of romantic, tragic love. The romantic context is easier to accept than a context of sexual violence.

In the bible, the rape of a man’s wife (or concubine) indicates a power struggle between men. Inheriting the ruler’s wives (or concubines) by the new ruler, indicates the transference of government. In Reuben’s case, Reuben, the eldest son, wants to establish his superior position as first born, and to prevent Jacob from choosing the son of Rachel, his beloved wife. Reuben’s punishment is in line with his intention and deed: Reuben loses his status as first born.

Other cases in which the king’s wives (or concubines) are taken (a euphemism for rape) by the aspiring new king are David, who takes “his master’s wives;” rebellious Absalom who follows Achitophel’s advice and takes his father’s wives; and Adoniah who asks to marry Avishag, his father’s concubine, a request that leads to his execution because Solomon rightly interprets this as a rebellious act that threatens his rule.

Bilhah has a name, but her voice is not heard. She is taken and used: first to bear sons, and then to symbolize the change in power and government. Have things changed?

In an interview to Quartz, Yrsa Daley-Ward, a British poet of Jamaican and Nigerian descent, suggests that sexual violence is “a shared experience that a lot of women have… but it’s been going on since the beginning of time.” In her poem, “Bone,” Daley-Ward describes sexual violence as an invisible tear in the fabric of life, a tear that is rendered horrific when it is normalized and ignored by society.

From One
who says, “Don’t cry.
You’ll like it after a while.”

and Two who tells you thank-you
after the fact and can’t look at your face.

To Three who pays for your breakfast
and a cab home
and your mother’s rent.

To Four
who says,
“But you felt so good
I didn’t know how to stop.”

To Five who says giving your body
is tough
but something you do very well.

To Six
Who smells of tobacco
and says “Come on, I can feel that
you love this.”

To those who feel bad in the morning yes,
some feel bad in the morning

and sometimes they tell you
you want it
and sometimes you think that you do.

Thank heavens you’re resetting
setting and

How else do you sew up the tears?
How else can the body survive?

   ~ Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward

Feature Photo: Etienne Valois, Douleur

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