The Sons of Jacob

Jacob had twelve sons. Each of them was unique, with his own strengths and weaknesses. In the Genesis narrative, as each son is born, we learn not only their name but also the significance of the name to Rachel or Leah (Genesis 29:32-35, Genesis 30:1-24, Genesis 35:18). Some of these boys were their literal children, and others were the children of their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, but Rachel and Leah named them all and considered them to be their own.

These names give us an idea not only of their mothers’ gratitude for each child but also of their hopes for them. All of the names are expressions of joy and love, with the exception of Rachel’s youngest. She died in childbirth and with her last breath called him Ben-Oni (בֶּן־אוֹנִי), “son of my sorrow.” Jacob wisely gave him a more positive name: Benjamin (בִּנְיָמִין), “son of the right hand” (Genesis 35:18).

At the end of Jacob’s life, he blessed each of his sons (Genesis 49:3-27). They were now grown men and had made many decisions, some good and some bad. These “blessings” represent an assessment of what they had done with the promise of their names, and an invitation to future generations to live up to that promise.

The table below contains the meaning of each son’s name and Jacob’s words to them at the end of his life. It also summarizes the references to that son or his descendants in the Book of Mormon:

NameMeaningExplanationFinal blessings Book of Mormon references
Reuben (רְאוּבֵן)Behold, a son!Leah hoped that Jacob would see his son and would love her.Jacob is disappointed in the decisions of his firstborn.None
Simeon (שִׁמְעוֹן)HeardThe Lord heard that Leah was hated and gave her a son.Jacob will not counsel with Simeon because of his violent actions.None
Levi (לֵוִי)Attached or joinedLeah hoped Jacob would feel more attached to her.Jacob will not unite with Levi because of his violent actions.God will purify the sons of Levi (3 Nephi 24:3).
Judah (יְהוּדָה)Praised or celebratedLeah praised the Lord for giving her a son.Judah will rule; his brothers will praise him.
Scripture will be written by the descendants of Judah (2 Nephi 3:12).
Dan (דָּן)JudgeGod judged Rachel and rewarded her with a son.Dan will serve as a judgeNone
Naphtali (נַפְתָּלִי)My wrestlingRachel “wrestled” with her sister and prevailedNaphtali is like a deer set free.God would afflict the land of Naphtali, but Jesus would live there and bring His light (2 Nephi 19:1).
Gad (גָּד)FortunateLeah felt blessed to have another sonGad will triumph over his oppressors.None
Asher (אָשֵׁר)HappyLeah was happy to have another sonAsher will prosper.None
Issachar (יִשָּׂשׂכָר)Wages or recompenseGod blessed Leah for her good choicesIssachar would be a laborer, working the land.None
Zebulun (זְבוּלוּן)Honor or respectLeah hoped Jacob would honor herHe will live by the sea and would become a haven for ships.God would afflict the land of Zebulun, but Jesus would live there and bring His light (2 Nephi 19:1).
Joseph (יוֹסֵף)He adds or increasesGod added another son for RachelJoseph will flourish and overflow his boundaries.Lehi was a descendant of Joseph (1 Nephi 5:14, 16, 1 Nephi 6:2, 2 Nephi 3:4).
Joseph prophesied that one of his descendants would be a great seer (2 Nephi 3).
Benjamin (בִּנְיָמִין)Son of the right handJacob kept his youngest son close by. (See Genesis 42:36.)Benjamin will be a fighter, conquering his foesNone

These twelve names make other appearances in the Book of Mormon. There are three characters in the book with the same names as three of the sons: Joseph, the son of Lehi (1 Nephi 18:7), King Benjamin (Omni 1:23-25), and Levi, a Jaredite king (Ether 10:14-15). The Nephites had a city named Gad, which was destroyed by fire (3 Nephi 9:10). And there are many references to the kingdom of Judah, where Lehi and his family lived at the beginning of the book (1 Nephi 1:4).

Sister Wendy W. Nelson has invited us all to imagine that we came to earth with a scroll entitled “Things to Do While on Earth.” She said:

My dear friends, premortally you and I were each given wonderful missions to fulfill while we are here on earth.

We have opportunities to fulfill our mortal missions, but we don’t have to. No one will make us. We have our agency to choose how we spend our time and energy, our talents and resources. In fact, what we choose to do is actually part of our testing.

The choice is yours and mine. Will we choose to do whatever it takes to fulfill the wonderful missions for which we were sent to earth?

Hope of Israel,” Worldwide Youth Devotional, 3 June 2018, italics in original

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to receive a patriarchal blessing, which provides guidance and counsel for our lives, and which also declares our lineage as a literal or adopted descendant of one of Jacob’s sons. This blessing can help us better understand our missions in life, and can link us to the potential and promise of our spiritual ancestors.

Today, I will reread my patriarchal blessing and ponder my missions in life. I will think about how the blessing connects me to the family of Jacob. I will also remember that God has given me opportunities to contribute in many ways, but that the choice to do so is mine.

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