Leah: unexpected matriarch

By JubileeCentre 20 Jul 2016

by Guy Brandon

In the star-studded cast of the story of the Patriarchs, Leah sits in the background. She is the daughter of Laban, and becomes his nephew Jacob’s first wife.  She plays second fiddle to her beautiful sister Rachel, who herself plays a relative bit-part against the backdrop of the rivalry with Esau and Jacob’s ambivalent relationship with Laban himself. But Leah is a more interesting character than the attention paid to her would usually suggest. Her actions throughout – tragic, deceptive, desperate – act as a kind of barometer of the unpleasant situation in which she finds herself.

‘Weak’ eyes

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah 1855 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05228 Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

Much is indicated by the introduction to Laban’s two daughters. As the NIV has it, ‘Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.’ (Genesis 29:16-17) The name Leah is possibly derived from a Semitic root meaning ‘wild cow’, whilst Rachel means ‘ewe’. Little can be concluded from this alone, other than that Laban lacked imagination or (more likely) was too preoccupied with his wealth – livestock being the reserve currency of ancient nomads – to think of a better name for his daughter.

Of etymologically more interest are Leah’s weak [rakkôt] eyes. Rak means tender, soft, delicate; the word is used of gentleness as well as weakness. The Talmud suggests that Leah’s eyes were weak from crying, because she feared that she might be married off to Esau. The rabbis praise Leah for her faith – in fact, they state that both sisters are both beautiful and righteous. Hebrew’s parallelism naturally suggests that Leah and her eyes stand in antithesis to beautiful Rachel and her lovely figure, but it’s not clear from the biblical text whether Leah’s eyes were pleasing, unattractively faulty in some way, or just kind. One way or another, the implication is that she was disadvantaged against her sister, who was yaphah [fair, beautiful] in both tô’ar [form, outline] and mar’eh [appearance].

Chalk and cheese

The juxtaposition of two descriptions of siblings is reminiscent of the comparison between Jacob and Esau. Esau is described as a hairy man, ‘but I am a man with smooth skin’ (Genesis 27:11). This hints at more than differences in appearance. Esau was born covered in red hair, Jacob grasping his heel; ‘Esau became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.’ (Genesis 25:25-28) Esau rashly sells his birthright, plans to murder his brother and marries a Canaanite woman solely in order to upset his parents. Jacob uses guile to get ahead in life. The difference in looks points to difference in character, and the rivalry and favouritism this brings with it. So it is with Leah and Rachel.

Just because Jacob chose the beautiful Rachel as his wife does not make Leah powerless, any more than Jacob is powerless before the physically stronger Esau. Her father Laban is on her side and contrives to marry Jacob to Leah instead. Perhaps it really is the local custom to marry the older daughter off first (29:26); perhaps, as seems more likely, he was worried about his chances of marrying off Leah and prospects of making some money out of her. This way, he secures the bride price for Leah, seven years work from Jacob, and another seven for the daughter he knows Jacob really wants.

Unexpected matriarch

556px-MinhagYerushalayim3909 A Jewish wedding today (Credit: יעקב, CC BY-SA 3.0)

After the wedding feast Laban substitutes Rachel for Leah. Presumably it was dark and Leah was veiled, which makes the deception easier. Neither Rachel nor Leah’s reactions to Laban’s plan are recorded, but Leah must have played some kind of active part in it. She colluded with her father, if only by her silence, thereby paving the way for the greatest bait-and-switch in biblical history. ‘When morning came, there was Leah!’ Readers might wonder how drunk Jacob must have been after the feast not to have had any suspicions.

Jacob makes both Leah and Laban pay for their parts in the scam. He does not love Leah, who is consequently miserable (29:32), and favours Rachel. God gives Leah children – so Jacob doesn’t find her that unattractive – but not Rachel. Leah bears four children in the years immediately following their marriage: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.

Sibling rivalry

The rivalry between Rachel and Leah is intense. At the very latest, it starts with their marriage to Jacob, but it would be surprising if it did not have much deeper roots. Both see marriage as a competition, with a running tally of children being the means by which the winner is judged. Leah hopes that by bearing children she might bring Jacob to love her (29:32-35). This is tragic but understandable, whilst Rachel’s motive is outright jealousy (30:1). She resorts to the (culturally accepted) trick of offering Jacob her maidservant Bilhah as a surrogate, just as her husband’s grandmother, Sarah, had given Abraham her own maidservant. The results are Dan and Naphtali. Leah, eager to keep her lead, notches up another two children, Gad and Asher, by offering Jacob her maidservant, Zilpah.

There follows a curious incident with some mandrakes that Leah’s oldest son Reuben discovers. Mandrakes have roots shaped like a human figure and hallucinogenic properties, and have long been used in magical rituals. In biblical times, they were coveted for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities, either consumed or used as a talisman; their only other mention in the Bible occurs in Song of Songs 7:13. The fact that Leah is prepared to purchase a night with her husband in return for giving her barren sister some mandrakes indicates the depth of Jacob’s neglect for his first wife at this point, and the extent of Leah’s resentment of her sister. ‘Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?’ (30:15) Leah has three further children: the sons Issachar and Zebulun, and her daughter Dinah. Rachel, finally, has two sons, Joseph and later Benjamin.

Jacob sheep breed; credit Brooke Anderson Jacob sheep breed; (Credit: Brooke AndersonCC BY 2.0)

Once Jacob has finished paying the bride price for Rachel, his second seven years of tending Laban’s flocks, his uncle offers him a new deal. Understanding that his own wealth depends chiefly on Jacob’s efforts, he lets Jacob set the terms of the agreement. Jacob spends another six years in Paddam Aram, during which time – either through or perhaps despite some programme of selective breeding, the details of which fall outside of modern protocols – he vastly increases his wealth at the expense of Laban’s own flocks (30:25-43). Once he realises how persona non grata this makes him with Laban and his sons, he wisely decides to head back home.

This episode marks the end of recorded hostilities between Leah and Rachel, though from the perspective of the narrative this could be because they have finished bearing the children who will become the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. From this point, the rivalry between the two women will be played out in the interactions of their children. Nevertheless, this is the only time they seem to agree on anything: the unpleasant reality of living under the influence of their father Laban. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the prospect of getting out of that toxic environment may have changed the dynamic between them. ‘Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what   was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”’ (31:14-16)


The popular maxim is that ‘What goes around comes around’. These chapters show, from a human perspective, the dangers of dishonesty. Jacob is a con-man. He runs from his brother Esau after defrauding him of his birthright and blessing, only to find himself defrauded by his uncle. In return, he tries to out-con the con with his curious selective breeding programme; Laban changes the terms on him repeatedly.

Francesco_Hayez_061 Esau and Jacob reconcile by Francesco Hayez (1844)

Leah is dragged into this toxic mix. She colludes with the deceptive marriage, offers Jacob her maidservant and hires him from her sister with her son’s mandrakes. All can be considered acts of desperation, borne out of her anguish at her unjust situation and fully understandable, but they still betray the attitude – prevalent throughout the Jacob narrative – that God helps those who help themselves.

Those 20 years must have been pretty miserable for Leah, as well as Rachel and probably Jacob and Laban at times, but from a distance of several thousand years there is a kind of wry humour here. The joke, of course, is that God does not help those who – especially so ineptly and dishonestly – help themselves. God shows grace to Leah, as he does to Rachel and Jacob. Leah becomes the mother of Judah, the head of the tribe from which King David and ultimately Jesus were born. This is a story of God’s purposes being worked out despite the very best efforts of humans. As we go about our own business, hopefully trying to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through our different activities but so often thwarted by chance and injustice and tempted to compromise our principles on the grounds that the means justify the ends, it’s worth remembering the words of Proverbs 19:21, ‘Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’ Or the old Yiddish proverb: ‘We plan, God laughs’.






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