Abraham and Sarah introduced a wildcard in the form of Hagar, we might think that was almost an anomaly as Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael cast out. However—a big however, at that—even with Abraham’s story there is a kind of precedent. The very fact that Sarah wanted them cast out was all the proof necessary to establish that Ishmael was capable of inheriting Abraham’s property. So Ishmael was a legitimate heir. Hagar was not his wife, but Sarah’s handmaiden. So, a man having children through his wife’s handmaidens is considered a legitimate practice, even in Abraham’s time.
Now we have Jacob, where one wife and one handmaiden has become two of each. Jacob is married to both Leah and Rachel, and also has children by their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah, respectively. The way the handmaidens factor in is similar to Sarah and Hagar, but now it’s competition between the wives.
We are given this with no explanation, no elaboration, no justification as to why polygamy is allowable. This, in itself, actually is very important, as it signifies that the practice was so normal as to need no explanation. Jacob didn’t hesitate at serving another seven years to marry Rachel. There was no question of taking a second wife. The Hebrews at the time understood this practice implicitly. It’s not worth explaining because it’s as normal as driving on the right side of the road to Americans. Only those who are outsiders would even question it.
So we have our
first second case of polygamy within the Bible. Okay, so Jacob wasn’t
the first. He might have been the most significant of the first people with
polygamous marriage, but he wasn’t the actual first.
For that honor, we go to his brother, Esau, who “married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite” (Gen 26:34). The casual mention is yet more proof that this is a pretty standard practice for the time, even lacking more textual examples.
Jacob, however, does retain the honor of the most important person to have multiple wives within Genesis. And he won’t be the last with multiple wives in the Bible.