The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children


12 Children in 7 Years?

Bereshit 29–30 describes the rapid process in which Yaakov moved from being a bachelor to a father of twelve (eleven sons plus Dinah). The simplest reading of the text seems to be that Yaakov married Leah after completing his first seven years of labor for Lavan,1 and that Yosef, his twelfth child, was born at the end of his second seven year stint.2 This leaves a period of only slightly more than six years for the births of all twelve children, including seven from Leah alone. How did all of the pregnancies and births, sandwiched around Leah's intervening hiatus from giving birth,3 fit into this almost implausibly short time frame? Did any of these pregnancies overlap?4 Were they all full term births? Could there have been any multiple births?5 Is it possible that any of the twelve births occurred before or after this brief period?6

Shimon and Levi at Shechem

The chronology of the births of the Twelve Tribes has a significant impact on how we understand subsequent stories as well. The story of the rape of Dinah and the resultant avenging of her honor by Shimon and Levi is recorded in the midst of Yaakov's return journey from Lavan's home to his father, Yitzchak, in Chevron.7 The Torah does not say exactly how long this journey took, but let us assume for the purposes of our calculations that it took a maximum of two years.8 If Yaakov married Leah after spending seven years working for Lavan and Shimon and Levi were born in the ninth and tenth years of Yaakov's stay, that would make them only twelve to thirteen years old when they wiped out the entire male population of Shechem!9 Is this a tenable proposition?10 Are there alternatives to this chronology?

Chetzron and Chamul Counted in the 70

An additional narrative which forms a piece of this puzzle is the story of Yehuda and his descendants in Bereshit 38. In the course of this chapter, Yehuda marries, has three children who marry or arrive at marriageable age, and only then sires two additional children from Tamar: Peretz and Zerach. Somewhat astonishingly, it appears from Bereshit 46:12 that by the time Yaakov and his family descended to Egypt, Peretz himself had already produced two sons, Chetzron and Chamul.11 However, if one assumes that Yehuda was born in the tenth year of Yaakov's sojourn in Charan, he would have been only forty-three years old12 at the time of the descent, and would already have produced three generations of progeny.13 Once again, one wonders: Are there any alternatives to such a chronological reconstruction?