The birth of Jacob’s sons

By Admin | Joseph

Mar 16
Birth of Jacob's sons:

Some people have no children at all, while others have many children. However many we have, though, we are used to the fact that it normally takes about 9 months of pregnancy for each child. So what happened with the birth of Jacob’s sons?

At first glance, we could think that this 9 month limit wasn’t true in the family of Jacob, the son of Isaac! However, his was no ordinary family, thanks to the trickery of Laban, his father-in-law.  This post looks at Jacob’s speedy transformation from having neither wife nor child to having 4 wives and 11 sons.

The birth of Jacob’s sons

While Jacob’s son Joseph was second in command in Egypt, his brothers came to buy grain because there was a famine in Canaan where they lived.

Joseph recognised his brothers and provided a feast for them. They did not recognise him, though; in fact, they were sure that he was dead – after all, they had sold him as a slave.  At that feast, he astonished them by arranging their seats in order of age.

And they sat before him,
the firstborn according to his birthright
and the youngest according to his youth.
And the men looked at one another in amazement.

Genesis 43:33

Yet why should it be so amazing?  Surely just by looking at them an observer would be able to go some way towards ordering them by age?

Well, no!  This was an especially difficult case.  Not only did Jacob’s 12 sons have 4 different mothers, but the first 11 were born in only seven years.  No wonder they were amazed when an Egyptian, whom they were sure could not know them, somehow managed to put them in the correct order of birth from oldest to youngest!

Seven years?

How do we know that the first 11 sons were born in just seven years?

Genesis 31:41 tells us that Jacob had been with Laban in Paddan-aram for 20 years.  He had served 14 years to pay for his two wives and 6 years to take over the best of Laban’s flocks.

The first seven years paid for his first wife, Leah, then one week later he was given her sister Rachel as well.  This was based on an agreement that he would work another seven years for her.

During those seven extra years of work, the first 11 sons were born.  We know this because Genesis 30:25-28 tells us that Jacob began to be paid after the birth of Joseph, who was the 11th son.

So the twenty years were split in three:

  1. Seven years of work for Leah before marrying both Leah and Rachel (one week apart).
  2. Seven years of work to pay for Rachel, during which 11 sons were born, concluding with Joseph.
  3. Six years of working for payment in the form of flocks and herds.
From this we conclude that Joseph was born at the end of Jacob’s initial 14 years of service, probably just before he asked Laban for permission to return home.  At Laban’s request, Jacob subsequently stayed another 6 years, during which he acquired much of Laban’s livestock.  Thus, Joseph was 6 years old and his 10 older brothers were between 6 and 13 years old when they left.

11 sons?

From time to time I am asked how the birth of Jacob’s first 11 sons could fit into seven years.  Here is my answer.

For a start, we must acknowledge that these 11 sons came from four women: Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and their two servant girls, Bilhah and Zilpah.  Sadly, both sisters believed that having children was essential to winning or keeping Jacob’s love.  The description of their machinations begins in Genesis 29:31 and continues through to Genesis 30:24.

Here is one way in which the birth of the 11 sons could fit in those 7 years (84 months):

  • Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah were all born consecutively from Leah.  They came in a hurry: probably within 36 to 40 months of marriage.
  • At some stage, Rachel decided that she was not able to have children.  This probably happened within a year of marriage, since there seems to have been a general expectation that women would become pregnant immediately after marriage.  She gave her servant girl Bilhah to Jacob as a wife/concubine, and I guess that Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali at around the same times as Levi and Judah were born.
  • Leah understood that she was not having any more children.  This probably happened within a few months of the birth of Judah.  She gave her servant girl Zilpah to Jacob as a wife/concubine and I guess that Zilpah bore Gad about 9 months later.
  • Zilpah then had another son, Asher, so I assume that Leah was still not becoming pregnant when Asher was conceived.  The two servant girls appear to have been wives to Jacob solely for the purpose of producing children in the competition between Rachel and Leah.
  • Leah then has Issachar and Zebulun.  I would guess that Issachar was not much younger than Asher.
  • Rachel finally became pregnant after a little more than 6 years of marriage. I would guess that Joseph was very little younger than Zebulun.

A timeline built on this basis is shown below.[1]

Timeline: (click on the timeline to view the image full-size)

Timeline of Jacob's 20 years in Paddan-aram

Overall, I think that the birth of Jacob’s sons could occurred in the length of about 8-9 ordinary pregnancies as an absolute minimum.  That is 72-81 months, and we have 84 months to work with.  I believe it can all work – just.

However, the timeline shows just how difficult it would have been to work out the order of birth of these 11 sons if you didn’t know what it was.  No wonder Joseph’s brothers were amazed when he put them in the order of their birth!


Joseph, Rachel’s son

This is one of a series of articles on Joseph published as back-up material for the Bible-based fiction novel Joseph, Rachel’s son.
[ More information | Purchase ]

Joseph, Rachel's son book cover


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1 Note that the dates given in the timeline are not certain, nor are they important for this article.  There are a few possible ways of dating the time of Jacob and this is just one.  The important content of the timeline is the relative timing of the events while Jacob was in Paddan-aram.