Jacob is the shining example in the Bible of polygamy, having two wives Rachel and Leah along with two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, who were all serviced by Jacob for the purpose of bearing children. In these times, families desperately needed heirs, and the dyadic social identity of a woman depended on her being not only a wife, but also a mother. Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah all had a proclivity to bear children and Jacob was going into each tent to keep his women satisfied. In ancient times most people did not go around complaining about their conditions or station in life, because they were survival oriented, thus all these women were all grateful for opportunities to be mothers producing heirs that may have a much better life with improved prospects for the future. Their announcement to Jacob that they were pregnant was a blessing for the whole family, except for all of the envy and jealousy part involved between them.
Jacob ended up creating a very large family with the help of his wives, and his concubines who were the property of his wives. Rachel and Leah were sisters and their mother was Adinah, and Bilhah and Zilpah were also sisters and their mother was Hannah, these four girls were all daughters of Laban. Thus Zilpah and Bilhah were the half sisters of Rachel and Leah. Jacob accepted a job from his uncle Laban where his pay consisted entirely of a woman. He was promised Laban’s daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of work. After the seven years were up, Laban pulled a fast one and swapped in his older daughter Leah who was hidden under a veil.
After the wedding Jacob took his new bride into his tent and Jacob was thinking that he was spending the night with Rachel. It was not till the next morning when Jacob woke up that he realized that he had married Leah, who he did not love like he did Rachel. Jacob never intended to have any other wife than Rachel and he only ended up in this polygamous situation because of Laban’s trickery. He chose to be a polygamist because he could not could not imagine living his life without Rachel in it, so he was willing to work a grand total of fourteen years to obtain her, and that showed his love. Jacob only had to wait one more week to marry Rachel and go in unto her, so now he had two wives and if the hand maids are included it was actually four wives.
The story becomes a competition between two women who are sisters and their maids who are also sisters, and each of the four girls are actually Jacob’s cousins as Jacob’s mother Rebecca was also Laban’s sister. Jacob ends up being shuttled from tent to tent because all of these women desperately wanted to be assured of his love and affection and having children was their way of getting Jacob to love them.
In ancient times, an effort was made to keep marriage within the family line, or at least to avoid marrying a stranger and a marriage within your own tribe was customary (as was marrying the oldest daughter first) or at the very least, preferred in order to maintain the tribe’s bloodline. Ancient Hebrews did marry their cousins pretty regularly, as Noah married his cousin Emzara and Abraham married his half-sister. Polygamy was common in ancient times, especially where people tolerated the practice of having a concubine, but eventually polygamy became considered to be a barbarian custom. Making polygamy illegal established the concept of legitimacy by excluding bastard children from the legitimate family and inheritance.