Who was Bilhah? Most believe that Bilhah was a maidservant to Lavan. When Lavan’s daughter Rachel married Jacob, Lavan gave Bilhah to Rachel as a maidservant. Later, when Rachel was unable to have children, Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. With Yaakov, Bilhah gave birth to two of the Twelve Tribes - Dan and Naftali. There is a tradition that as long as Rachel and Leah were alive, the Divine Presence rested with them. When they died, the Divine Presence rested on the tent of Bilhah.
Bilhah makes a very brief appearance in this week’s parsha. Rachel, the beloved wife of Yaakov, dies while giving birth to Binyamin. Following Rachel’s death, “… Reuven went and placed his couch beside Bilhah, his father’s concubine.” (Gen. 35:22).
In the book The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Lia Bass argues that in this incident, Reuven raped Bilhah. Her argument arises from the Hebrew grammar. The text says, “Reuven vayishkav et Bilhah.” – literally Reuven lay with Bilhah. Generally, when vayishkav is used, it is followed by the word im. However, where we would expect to read im, we read et. The Hebrew word et doesn’t translate into English. In Hebrew grammar, et is used to point to the object of a verb.
There are two other places in the Bible where vayishkav et is found – in the rape of Dina (Gen. 24:2) and in the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:14).
What do Dina, Bilhah and Tamar have in common? In each case, they are described, grammatically, as the object of the verb. In both Dina and Tamar’s cases, the most common translation of vayishkav et is that they were raped.
What does the tradition teach about Bilhah? What does it mean that Reuven “placed his couch beside Bilhah”? Did Reuven rape Bilhah?
The Midrash teaches that, after Rachel died, Yaacov moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah. Owing to the closeness of Rachel and Bilhah, we can understand that Bilhah comforted Yaakov after the death of his favorite wife. This is like a man who loses his wife and then marries her best friend as a way of keeping the memory of his deceased wife alive.
Reuven was the first son of Leah, the less favored co-wife of Yaakov. According to the Midrash, Reuven reasoned, “When Rachel was alive, she was my mother’s rival for the affection of my father. This was not so terrible, since they were sisters. However, my father has now chosen Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah, over my mother. Shall my mother now be a rival to a mere handmaiden?”
In order to correct what he perceived as an insult to his mother, Reuven moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent and placed it in his mother Leah’s tent instead.
The tradition teaches that whoever reads the text literally and concludes that Reuven raped Bilhah is mistaken. Reuven’s interference in the intimate life of his father was considered as sinful as if he had actually slept with Bilhah. The text is exaggerating to make a point. In fact, according to the Talmud, the episode of Reuven and Bilhah is read in public but is not translated, perhaps as a consolation for even appearing to accuse Reuven of rape.
Though he was motivated by love for his mother, Reuven’s error was that he interfered in his father’s private life. According to the Talmud, Reuven later admitted moving his father’s bed. As a result, he merited entry into the World To Come. Reuven's admission of his role in moving his father’s bed also removed his brothers from suspicion.
The rabbis tied this all up quite nicely for Reuven. But there are so many unanswered questions! Was Leah proud of her son for rushing to her defense, or was she embarrassed that he felt the need to? We know he had no more children, but did Yaakov return his bed to Bilhah’s tent or did he stay with Leah? What did Bilhah feel about her role in this conflict between father and son?
In general, the Torah is sparse in its description of feelings. We have to search out the less familiar Midrashim that have come down to us and content ourselves with the hope that someday, the rest of the story will be illuminated for us.