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


II: Leah and Rachel

20 02 2009

I. Intro to naming speeches

II. The backdrop

How the narrative leads us to the naming speeches or When Jacob met Rachel

Jacob has just left his home with his father Isaac’s charge to find a wife among Laban’s daughters (28:1-2).  Isaac also wishes the blessing of God to be upon Jacob by causing him to be fruitful and to multiply (28:3).  On his way Jacob has a dream in which God tells him that his descendants will be “as the dust of the earth” (28:10-22).  From early in the narrative, we see that God is in control of the progeny of Jacob, and only God knows how great that progeny is.

We are first introduced to Rachel at the well where her father Laban, Jacob’s maternal uncle, watered his flock.  Rachel is a shepherdess bringing her father’s flocks to the well (29:9).  This leads to the dramatic scene in which Jacob rolls the large stone away from the well by himself, kisses Rachel, and weeps.  Later, Jacob meets Laban and agrees to work for him for seven years so that the younger daughter, Rachel, might be his wife.  We are briefly introduced to Leah and told that she was the older of the two daughters and that she had “weak eyes”[1] (29:17[2]).  This is contrasted by the description of Rachel as being beautiful of form and face.  Rachel is the focus of Jacob’s affection; Leah (and Laban) is the foil to his love story.

            After seven years, Jacob has earned the right to marry Laban’s daughter.  He anticipates Rachel, but on the wedding night, Laban substitutes Leah.  Jacob awakens the next morning to quite the wedding gift: “So it came about in the morning that, behold, it was Leah!” (29:25). Angry, he confronts Laban who tells him it is customary to marry the older before the younger.  Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel.  This portion of the narrative ends by telling the audience that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah (29:30).  Yet, despite his greater love toward Rachel, it is Leah who is carrying Jacob’s first child.


It’s a Boy!  The Significance of Male Children in the Ancient Israelite context

Before learning of Leah’s conception, the reader is told that God saw that Leah was unloved (some translations such as the KJV use hated) and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  “The author juxtaposes the action and attitude of Jacob toward Rachel with those of God toward Leah.”[3]  Before both sections of Leah’s birth speeches, we are told that God is responsible for her fertility; God “opened her womb” (29:31) and “gave heed” to her (30:17).  Before the birth of Joseph, after Jacob has ten sons and one daughter, God finally remembered Rachel and “opened her womb” (30:22). 

The society in which Leah and Rachel lived is a far cry from the technologically advanced culture of American life.  Planned parent-hood and pre-natal care were not options.  The goal in the agrarian society was to have as many children as possible, and pray that they were male.  Children were needed in the daily operations of performing the household duties.  “In her kind of society an individual has no power unless he/she is protected by the family.  Therefore family continuity is a supreme value that ought to override matters of personal happiness and fulfillment.”[4]  The importance of boys comes from the fact that the ancient Israelite society was patriarchal.  Lineage was traced through the male, and with no sons, a man’s lineage ended.

“‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28) is the first command of God in the Book of Genesis, and fertility is always associated with blessing throughout the Hebrew Bible.  In a society where population growth was desirable and equated with political strength, and where infant mortality was high, neither men nor women believed that no wanting children was acceptable.  The stories of the matriarchs reveal the patriarchal goal of having sons to add to a man’s prestige and material well-being.  However, they also present the prominent theological perspective that the God who calls Abraham out of Ur keeps the promise of descendants and is a powerful God of fertility.” [5]

As the text establishes so many times, God is in control of fertility of the women and the lineage of Jacob.  Neither Jacob’s denial of love to Leah nor his favor of Rachel have any bearing on what God intends for this family.  Tune in next time for a discussion of Leah’s first four naming speeches!


[1] It should be acknowledged that scholars disagree concerning this phrases meaning.  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV) translates it as “lovely” with a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.  Footnote 29:17 reads, “The Hebrew adjective rakkot, used to describe Leah’s eyes, can mean either ‘delicate’ or ‘weak,’ and thus it may be either positive or negative.” Hiebert, Theodore, “Genesis” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2003).   The Jewish Study Bible translates it as “weak eyes” offering no explanation for their choice in translation.  I am intentionally using the “weak” translation as it differentiates physically between the sisters giving Jacob room to be physically drawn to one and not the other.  Perhaps I am wrong.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all references will be from the book of Genesis as translated in the New American Standard Bible.

[3] Ross-Burstall, Joan.  “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters.”  Word and World Vol. 14 Number 2 (1994). pg. 165.

[4] Brenner, Athalya.  The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative.  Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1985. pg. 93

[5] Jeansonne, Sharon Pace.  The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Leah and Rachel pt. I

6 02 2009

The women’s group at my church, FEMME, has decided to study and discuss women in our history (Scriptural and non-scriptural). I have decided to start with Rachel and Leah. I’d start with Eve or Sarai/Sarah but they are very controversial…I don’t think that’s the best starting point for me. I wrote a paper on them my first semester in Grad School that my professor quite enjoyed. I also enjoyed what I discovered about their story. I focused on the birth narratives of their sons, taking a literary approach (“What does the text say”). What I learned in my research is that the way they name their children mirrors the way they related to one another and to Jacob, their shared husband, and  Yahweh.

For now I will deal with the significance of the mothers’ naming their children, and, more than that, getting to explain why they named them what they did!

If you read through the book of Genesis closely, you will notice that only four women get to name their children. Two of those women are Eve (4:1 “I have gotten a man-child with the help of the Lord” thus naming Cain) and Tamar (38:29 “What a breach you have made for yourself!” thus naming Perez); the other two are, of course, Leah and Rachel. An interesting side note, Tamar had twins, yet only has a voice in naming one. There are several names in Genesis: Cain, Abel, Seth, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and lists upon lists of genealogies. But here in Genesis 29-30, two mothers have their voice in naming all twelve of their sons.

In much of the reading I did (outside the feminist perspective or very observant readers otherwise), I noticed that this portion was referred to commonly as the genealogy of Jacob’s sons. Yet Jacob is a secondary character at best, and, as we shall see in later blogs, a tool in the story more than anything else. This story is about Leah and Rachel, not Jacob, not the sons. As such, I believe it has much to say about the way women treat one another (and men). Eventually I will take on the application aspect of this piece, but for now you will have to be content on the doing some reading through the passage in an attempt to hear what it has to say to us.  

Finally, I wanted to include a rough outline of how I intend to work through this passage.  I reserve the right to scrap it and start over if I need to.

I. Intro to naming speeches

II. The backdrop/Leah’s first four naming speeches

III.  Rachel’s quarrel with Jacob/ Baby mamas.

IV. Love potions and Leah’s final 3 children

V. Rachel’s firstborn

VI. Application