People

Leah by Jennifer M. Matheny

Leah is a central yet often forgotten matriarch in the Genesis story. She is the older sister of Rachel (Gen 29:16) and the first wife of Jacob (Gen 29:25-26). Her character is intentionally juxtaposed to her sister Rachel, from comparison of their physical descriptions (e.g., Leah’s soft or weak eyes) to discussions of their fertility. Yet the sisters are remembered in unison as mothers who “together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). Leah is often described as the less favored and unloved wife, but her status as the primary wife is quite significant. From her sons, Judah and Levi, will come influential tribes on the pages of Israel’s story and Israel’s greatest king, David.

What kind of treatment did Leah receive from her father, Laban?

Leah’s story is shaped by her troubled relationship with her father, Laban. This can be seen in two distinct episodes: (1) Laban’s actions on Jacob’s wedding night and (2) Leah’s description, along with Rachel’s, that they have been “sold” by Laban and treated as “foreigners” (Gen 31:14-15). These moments demonstrate that Leah is viewed in the family system as an object, a foreigner, and property.

In Gen 29, Laban uses Leah to trick Jacob. The trickster, Jacob, is tricked by his uncle! On Jacob’s wedding night to Rachel, Laban “takes” his firstborn daughter Leah and gives her to Jacob as a surprise bride swap (Gen 29:23). Leah is silent through this episode, and Jacob is unaware of this plot until the next morning. In the morning, Laban explains that marrying the oldest daughter first was customary. He cunningly withheld this piece of information until after the wedding night (Gen 29:26). Jacob is instructed to finish the bridal week with Leah, and then Laban will offer his younger daughter Rachel, the one Jacob loves, in exchange for another seven years of work (Gen 29:27). Leah is therefore but a means to an end for her father. Though silent in this exchange, Leah will later voice in Gen 31:14-16 that she is treated like “property.” Laban’s actions have unforeseen consequences, and what he imagines he is gaining is short-sighted.

Laban gives Zilpah as a servant to Leah and Bilhah as a servant to Rachel, which suggests that Laban recognizes some paternal obligation to his daughters. In an ironic twist, Rachel and Leah treat their servants in a similar manner as they have been treated, giving the two women to Jacob as “wives” so that they may bear his children on their behalf (Gen 37:2). Thus, these two women, Bilhah and Zilpah, will also be mothers of Jacob’s children. The use of women as servants and surrogates without consent is frustrating and appalls readers in our modern context. But it reveals the importance of childbearing for a family’s continued lineage (e.g., Sarah [Gen 16]; Tamar [Gen 38]; Ruth).

In Gen 33, Leah and her sister, Rachel, express frustration with their father’s treatment of them. The Lord had instructed Jacob in a dream to return home to the land of Canaan (Gen 31:3). Upon hearing about the situation, Leah and Rachel both say that their father treats them as “foreigners” and as property (Gen 31:14-16). All that Laban hoped to gain through the trickster marriage will come to an abrupt end. In this scene, Leah voices with her sister that they are mistreated. They therefore agree with Jacob that it is time to leave their father and travel to the land of Canaan, Jacob’s homeland. Even though this “return home” is not home for Leah and Rachel, they side with Jacob’s innocence at Laban’s accusations (Gen 31:1-13). Perhaps the idea of homeland and belonging is not only connected to geographic space but to Jacob, their children, and each other.

How did the Lord provide for Leah in this difficult marriage situation?
Leah’s difficult situation provides an opportunity to engage God (Gen 29:33, Gen 35; Gen 30). Leah is distressed in her marriage to Jacob and by her rivalry with Rachel for his affection. The Lord “sees” Leah’s distress, that she is “unloved.” The Lord enables Leah to conceive, and she names the first three sons after her misery (Gen 29:31). Leah’s first son is named Reuben “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen 29:32). Next is born Simeon, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen 29:33). The third son of Leah and Jacob is Levi. With this birth Leah proclaims, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen 29:34).

It becomes clear through these three names that Leah feels unloved and alone in her marriage. Nevertheless, it is also apparent through these names, that she understands that the Lord sees her and hears her. Her fourth son will be named without reference to Jacob. Leah names him Judah and says, “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen 29:35). God sees Leah’s struggle for favor with Jacob and answers Leah’s prayers with three additional children: Issachar (Gen 30:18), Zebulun (Gen 30:20), and Dinah (Gen 34:1).

Although she experienced feeling unloved in life, Leah is honored in death. Though the text is silent concerning the timing of her death, her burial is in the cave in the field of Machpelah, previously purchased by Abraham. This is the resting place for Jacob’s family in the promised land. Leah is thus honored by being buried alongside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob (Gen 49:31). Moreover, she is remembered by future generations as one of the mothers of Israel.

Jennifer M. Matheny , "Leah", n.p. [cited 17 Aug 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/leah

Contributors

Matheny-Jennifer

Jennifer M. Matheny
Assistant Professor of Old Testament , Nazarene Theological Seminary

Jennifer M. Matheny is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. She is the author of Joshua (GlossaHouse, 2019) and forthcoming Judges 19–21 and Ruth: Canon as a Voice of Answerability (Brill).

ability to bear offspring

wife of a patriarch of Genesis

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Gen 29:16

16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

Gen 29:25-26

25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived m ... View more

Ruth 4:11

11Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rache ... View more

Gen 31:14-15

14 Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he ... View more

Gen 29

Jacob Meets Rachel
1Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.2As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of ... View more

Gen 29:23

23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.

Gen 29:26

26 Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.

Gen 29:27

27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”

Gen 31:14-16

14 Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he ... View more

Gen 37:2

2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah ... View more

Gen 16

The Birth of Ishmael
1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that ... View more

Gen 38

Judah and Tamar
1It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.2There Judah saw the ... View more

Gen 33

33 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maid ... View more

Gen 31:3

3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

Gen 31:14-16

14 Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he ... View more

Gen 31:1-13

31 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; he has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our fathe ... View more

Gen 29:33

33She 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.

Gen 35

35 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So ... View more

Gen 30

1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”2Jacob became very angry with ... View more

Gen 29:31

31When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

Gen 29:32

32Leah 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.”

Gen 29:33

33She 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.

Gen 29:34

34Again 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 Lev ... View more

Gen 29:35

35She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.

Gen 30:18

18Leah said, “God has given me my hire because I gave my maid to my husband”; so she named him Issachar.

Gen 30:20

20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons”; so she named him Zebulun.

Gen 34:1

34 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region.

Gen 49:31

31There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah—

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