BILHAH (; LXX. Βαλλά; but in I Chron. vii. 13 Βαλάμ or Βαλαάμ).
Rachel's handmaid, given by Rachel as a concubine to Jacob, to whom, according to Gen. xxx. 3 (compare Gen. xxix. 29, xxxvii. 2), she bore Dan and Naphtali upon Rachel's knees. The expression signifies that Rachel, who is also represented as choosing the names "Dan" and "Naphtali," regarded them as her own children or actually adopted them. In Gen. xxxv. 22 (I Chron. v. 1) there is a reference to an incestuous intercourse between Bilhah and Reuben.
According to Gen. R. lxxiv. 14, Bilhah was one of the daughters of Laban. When Rachel died she was replaced by Bilhah in Jacob's affections, and he took up his residence in her tent. This displeased Reuben, who saw in Bilhah a new and favored rival of his mother Leah; he therefore removed Jacob's couch from Bilhah's tent. It was to this episode that the Rabbis considered Jacob to allude in the farewell to his children (Gen. xlix. 4): "Because thou wentest up to thy father's bed" (Gen. R. xcviii. 4; somewhat different in Shab. 55b). After Jacob's death Bilhah was the "messenger" sent by the brothers to Joseph to crave his mercy (Gen. l. 16). They told her she had been deputed to relate to Joseph all the words of the parting blessing conferred by Jacob upon his favorite son; which untruth was regarded by them as permissible for the sake of peace (Tan., ed. Buber, iii. 18). This legend seems to have been contained in the passage, Gen. R. l. 16, as read by the ancients, Rashi, and Yalḳut, although not found in modern editions.
It is no longer disputed that in this and in every other genealogical account, tribal and not personal relations are designated. Marriage symbolizes in these early traditions the fusion of two tribes originally distinct. The husband represented the stronger tribe and gave his name to both; and the wife represented the weaker whichmerged in the stronger. If the weaker tribe was greatly the inferior of the stronger in authority and power, it was represented as a concubine (compare Stade, "Gesch. des Volkes Israel," 2d ed., i. 30). Consequently Bilhah (like Hagar, Keturah, and others) is to be regarded as the name of a tribe; even though there are no further indications of the fact, and the meaning of the name has not been determined. There is no proof of the accuracy of Ball's conjecture ("S. B. O. T." on Gen. xxx. 3) that "Bilhah" is connected with the Arabic "baliha" (simple, artless, easily misled).
Since Dan and Naphtali appear as the sons of the handmaid of Rachel, the mother of the tribe of Joseph, they are thus characterized as tribes of the second rank subordinate to Joseph. This is confirmed by such historic evidence concerning the tribes as has been preserved. It has not been determined whether Naphtali was always joined to Dan or was added at the period when the latter was driven from its settlement and forced to move to the north. It is possible that at first Dan was only a clan of the tribe of Joseph, like Benjamin, unsuccessfully trying to establish itself outside the original tribe; and it is not improbable that the portion of Dan which settled in the north came into intimate relations with the adjacent tribe of Naphtali. Such circumstances as these are reflected in the genealogical accounts.
According to Gen. xxxv. 22a, Reuben committed adultery with Bilhah; and according to Gen. xlix. 4, his downfall was due to his defiling his father's couch. The meaning of this story is doubtful. Dillmann, in his commentary on the passage, and Stade, ib. i. 151, think that reproach is attached to Reuben for adhering to the old custom by which the son inherits his father's concubines, at a time when the other Israelitish tribes had adopted different customs. A point against this assumption is that there are proofs of the existence of the custom in the land west of the Jordan as late as the time of the kings (compare II Sam. xvi. 21; I Kings ii. 13-25). The following explanation, suggested by Holzinger in his commentary on Gen. xxxv. 22, seems more likely: Reuben's position as first-born designates his greater power, which, however, was soon lost in one way or another. In the time of his strength he had tried to extend his power westward through the tribes descended from Bilhah; and later generations regarded this as a sin against Jacob. An analogy to this interpretation is to be found in the disapproval expressed in Gen. xxxiv. 30 of the treacherous attack on Shechem made by Simeon and Levi.