III: Leah and Rachel

19 03 2009

1. Introduction

2. The Backdrop

3. Leah’s first four naming speeches

“Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved” (sane’).  This word is used only seven times in Genesis.  Twice it is used in the Rebekah/Isaac narrative, twice referring to Leah, and three times referring to Joseph.  Based on the uses within the Joseph/brothers story[1], I suggest that the term does not necessarily mean rejected or unloved, though that may be part of it.   

In the Joseph narrative, the brothers “hate” Joseph.  He is arrogant and acting as if he were the oldest of the sons.  They first hate him when they see that Jacob loves him more (37:4), they hate him more when Joseph tells the brothers his dream (37:5), and they hate him even more when they realize that the dream means Joseph will have dominion over them (37:8). 

Within this context, at least, this word seems to mean more than an emotional response, though not completely separate from it.  Joseph is hated because he is a younger son acting as if he is the eldest.  He’s operating in a position that, at least in his brothers’ minds, does not belong to him. 

Taking this into consideration, the problem in the Leah/Jacob union is not Leah.  The problem is that Leah is not Rachel.  The problem, then, lies truly in Jacob.  Leah is the first wife, the chief wife.  She is also the wife that is producing offspring.  Jacob worked fourteen years for Rachel.  Rachel is the woman he wanted from the moment they met.  Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah.  It comes as no surprise that Jacob despises Leah since she is in the position Jacob wishes for Rachel. 

Whatever this meant for the couple sexually is unclear.  What the text does reveal about their marital relationship is two-fold. First, she bore him six children, presumably within the (second set of) seven years he was working for Laban to “earn” Rachel.  This indicates the fertility of Leah.  Secondly, Leah did not have the same control of Jacob’s sexual activity as Rachel did.  This is indicated in 30:15 when Rachel gives Leah permission to lie with Jacob (to which I will return). 

In Leviticus 12, the days of ritual uncleanness after the birth of a child are laid out for women based on the sex of the child.  It is unlikely that Jacob and the women would have practiced such strict guidelines, as this story is set in a time prior to the giving of the law.  Regardless, of the amount of time spent after the birth of one child and the conception of the next, it is evident that Leah spent very little of her first years of marriage without being pregnant (she had seven children in seven years!).  Leah’s perpetual pregnancies may be the cause of minimal sexual activity between the couple.  Genesis 30:9 says that “Leah saw that she stopped bearing,” but the text gives no indication that it is due to a sexual abstinence with Jacob.  What the text does indicate is that, regardless how many children Leah were to bear for Jacob, he would never satisfy Leah’s desire for him.  This is evident in the speeches that accompany the naming of her children.

There could be several reasons why Jacob did not rid himself of Leah.  Perhaps he was afraid of what Laban might do if he divorced her.  Perhaps he felt an obligation toward his kinswoman that would not allow him to forsake her completely.  Or perhaps he realized that she was the wife that would provide the children to carry on his lineage.  The text does not indicate any reason why Jacob did not divorce Leah.  In his setting, there was no Torah to define his actions.  There was something that kept Jacob bound to Leah, but whatever that something is, the author either takes it for granted or finds it to be of little import for the purpose of this narrative.

 

Leah is the first to become pregnant, and the narrative sets Leah’s fertility and rejection by Jacob in contrast with Rachel’s barrenness and favor.  “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (29:31).  Leah bears four children consecutively in 29:31-35.  The first three naming speeches are all linked to her relationship with Jacob, and three of the four are connected to her belief in God. 

“Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me'” (29:32).  Reuben is her first-born.  His name literally means “see, a son.”  Her speech is two-fold.  She first acknowledges the favor that God has shown her.  God has indeed seen her affliction and allowed her to bring forth a son (see 29:31).  She concludes that since she has given Jacob his firstborn son, “surely now my husband will love me.”  The narrator quickly moves on to the conception and birth of Leah’s next son, which, though not explicitly stating it, assumes the paternal role of Jacob.[2]

“She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon” (29:33). Leah’s naming of her and Jacob’s second son indicates that the birth of Reuben did not solve her problem as she thought it would.  “The name Simeon is associated with the term sm’, literally, ‘he who hears.’[3]”  Leah believes that God has heard that she is unloved, and has therefore given her Simeon also.  She does not mention Jacob in this speech, but he may be understood as the one that hates her.  Perhaps she views Simeon as a means of making up for the fact that she is hated, or as a means (as she hoped with Reuben) of gaining Jacob’s love.  The text is ambiguous at best.  Regardless of the way Leah interpreted the birth of Simeon, it was not enough to satisfy her longing for her husband, as is evident with the birth of her third child.

“Again she conceived and bore a son, and said ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi” (29:34). For the first time, Leah recognizes Jacob as a father.   She does not mention God in this speech, and it is the only one of her naming speeches for her own sons that does not.  Levi’s name is connected with the word yillaweh, which literally means “he will be joined[4].”  Leah is still not satisfied with her lot.  She has three children and boys at that, giving her a place in her society, but she does not have her husband’s love.

“She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing” (29:35).  With the birth of her fourth child, Leah’s attitude seems to shift.  Her first three sons encouraged her hope that Jacob would love her, but there is no mention of her relationship with Jacob in this speech.  Leah simply says, “This time I will praise the Lord.”  Judah’s name has an “association with the term ‘odeh, literally ‘I will praise.’[5]”  There is no clear reason why she changes with the birth of Judah.  Perhaps she recognized that, despite being rejected by her husband, she was favored by God.  Or she may have, only momentarily, felt as though Jacob’s attitude toward her had changed.  Or she may have been grateful simply for having another son.  Whatever her reasoning, Leah is resolved, if not content, to praise God.  Rachel is another story.


[1] I will use this text as it deals with family relationships and not that of nations as in 24:60 with Rebekah.

[2] Joan Ross-Burstall. “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters,” Word and World Vol 14, no 2 (1994). pg. 169

[3] ibid., pg. 170

[4]Ibid., pg. 170

[5] Ibid., pg. 170



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