Zilpah (Genesis 30, 33)
“Toda raba, Elohim. Thank you, God.” she cried as she fell to her knees sobbing.
As she fell, she pulled the two young boys she had been attempting to hide behind her into a tight embrace. Zilpah’s body began to shake as the terror that had gripped her heart for weeks began to dissipate. The nightmare was over; they would live.
Her eyes darted up to the two men standing only a few feet away. One was intimately familiar to her; Jacob, the father of her children and the man who held her enslaved. The other, she surmised, must be Esau, Jacob’s older brother.
For weeks now Jacob had been pushing his entire household across the vast expanse of wilderness toward this moment; this meeting. And with each step, Zilpah’s terror had grown. For years she had heard Jacob’s tales of his hulking red-haired older brother; the beast whose only goal in life was to take vengeance on his “innocent” younger brother. Zilpah had to admit she always questioned the innocent part, but had no trouble believing the vengeance part. After all, the haughty and crafty Jacob had more than his fair share of enemies.
And then the moment they had all been dreading was upon them. Esau had been sighted in the distance with an army at his back. With the long-avoided encounter now imminent, Jacob had decided to arrange his household in order to protect those most precious to him.
Which was how Zilpah and her sons found themselves at the front of the line.
Zilpah never had any illusions about where she fell in Jacob’s affections. Everyone in the household knew full well Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, and their children would find themselves safely ensconced at the back of the line. Jacob would never put them at risk. She was also unsurprised when her fellow slave, Bilhah and her children were placed behind her in the line. Zilpah knew full well where she stood. As Jacob took the lead Zilpah stepped out behind him, holding her sons behind her as best she could. She was prepared to face death head on, if only to protect her beloved sons.
In a moment, the world had turned upside down. The hulking red beast she had heard so many terrifying stories about stood before her. Esau suddenly reached out, grabbed Jacob, and pulled him into a tight embrace all while laughing with joy.
As Zilpah’s fear subsided, she sat back on her heels, watching this wholly unexpected family reunion.
Suddenly, Esau’s gaze turned toward her. His dark eyes lit with curiosity at the woman and children kneeling at his feet.
Stepping forward, he drew closer to Zilpah and her children. A smile touched his eyes as he asked, “Who are these with you?”
Zilpah bent forward until her forehead touched the ground. Reaching out for her sons’ hands, she drew them down alongside her and waited. How would Jacob answer the question. Would he claim her boys as his own? Would he acknowledge them as “sons of Jacob?” Would he bless them as they deserved? Or would he deny their existence, their personhood, as he had denied hers each time he called her “slave.”
Jacob turned and stared for a moment at Zilpah. Turning back to Esau he answered, “This is Zilpah, mother of my sons. And these are my sons, Gad and Asher.”
Joy tinged with grief erupted in Zilpah’s heart as the true meaning of Jacob’s words sunk in. She may be enslaved, but her sons would not be. Their future was assured. And so was hers. She too could now take her place among the matriarchs, alongside Rachel and Leah, Rebekah and Sarah. Because she too was the mother of a nation.
Questions to ponder
What was your favorite part of the story?
Where did you see God in the story?
What is God inviting you to try on today in light of the story?
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