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The Life of Leah

Leah is often thought of as the ugly sister, but was she? What was her life really like?
The Bible doesn't give us much to work with when it comes to the life of Leah, first wife of Jacob, but there are definitely tidbits to be gleaned. As one of the most relatable women in the Bible, I think it's important we look at her story and try to understand it from all angles.

Was Leah Ugly?

Many people assume Leah was ugly because when she is introduced, she is contrasted to her sister's beauty.
Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured. Genesis 29:17 KJV
There are actually several reasons the author could have made this contrast, some of which don't end with Leah being "ugly." In fact, it might not even be a contrast! Below are some thoughts and research on this particular verse.

Dominant Attributes

Have you ever been in an interview where they ask you to describe yourself? Or better yet, they ask you how your friends would describe you? Think of someone you know well; what is the first word that pops in to your head to describe them? Now, thinking more broadly, if you did this exercise for everyone you know, how many times would beautiful be the first word that came to mind? Just because that isn't the descriptor that first comes to mind doesn't mean the person is ugly; it simply means other adjectives are more prominent. Even for someone as high profile as Beyoncé, this first thought that pops in to my head is not beautiful (it's along the lines of her dedication to putting on a high quality show). What we can say for a fact is that the most distinguishing feature for Rachel was beauty, but something else shined brighter for Leah.

Comparisons

Speaking of Beyoncé, can you imagine being Solange? I could definitely see someone penning a sentence like "Beyonce was beautiful, but Solange was deep." Both women are beautiful and perhaps both women are deep, but Solange is known more for her sound than her looks. Most people are average looking (that's the definition of average after all). Each of us would be the Solange to Beyoncé, but that doesn't mean we're ugly. Fortunately, most of us aren't surrounded by models, which means it's not as obvious how average we are.

What Was With Her Eyes?

Granted, a lot of speculation hinges on just want Leah's descriptor means. There's no ambiguity in the description of Rachel as beautiful, but what does it mean to be "tender eyed" (KJV)? Some translations render this as "weak eyes" (NIV, NASB). One translation actually says "Leah had lovely eyes" (Good News Translation). So what does that actually mean?

Weak eyes sounds like someone with vision trouble to me. Someone in my Sabbath school kept saying she had a lazy eye (I'm not sure where the person deciphered that). Tender eyed makes me think of someone who is gentle and meek being contrasted with someone who is more "in your face." Of course I wouldn't be me if I didn't suggest we go straight to the source!

The Hebrew text uses two words to describe Leah: רַךְ and עַיִן.

רַךְ can mean anything from tender to fainthearted. The official definition says that it means tender or soft, which by implication means weak.[1] Note that this isn't weak in the sense of failing, but weak in the sense of gentle. The same word is used in Deuteronomy 28:56 to describe dainty women and in 2 Samuel 3:39 to describe David as vulnerable. Another example is in Proverbs 15:1: the word rendered "soft" is the same in Hebrew.

The second word (עַיִן) is usually translated as "eye" but it is also translated as face, color, or presence in some places—sometimes it's even translated as fountain or well![2]

The phrase could mean anything from she had a soft presence to she had poor sight (or a lazy eye). What's more is that using Hebrew grammar and the use of the letter "waw" to join the clauses, an argument can be made to tranlsate the verse to use the disjunctive "but" or the conjective "and." Given the latter, the text would read, "Lead was tender eyed and Rachel was beautiful."< a href="#three">[3] Combining that with the ambiguity of the original text, it could actually read "Leah was of soft presence and Rachel was beautiful." We really don't know...

There are several theories about what this phrase actually means, and some of them include a belief that Leah was also beautiful.[4]

Marriage to Jacob

One of the biggest mysteries in the Bible (in my opinion) is how Leah ended up married to Jacob in the first place. There are so many questions:
  1. Israelite weddings have several part—like the marriage feast. Presumably these traditions either date all the way to Hebrew traditions (meaning Laban would have honored them too) or are some combination of Egyptian and Caananite traditions with the Hebrew traditions. Either way, during that time, weddings were more than just the one day of feasting and ceremony, so did Leah have her face covered for every part of the celebration?
  2. Where was Rachel? If you have identical twins and swap them, it makes sort of makes sense that the groom doesn't know the one he wants to marry is in the audience, but if they aren't identical twins, wouldn't Jacob have looked out in the audience and seen Rachel?
  3. If Rachel didn't look enough like Leah to pass as being Leah in the audience, why didn't Jacob wonder were Leah was? Surely the sister of the bride would be in attendance to your wedding, right?
  4. Did Rachel know the wedding was happening? Why didn't she say anything?
  5. Why did Leah agree to marry a man who wanted to marry her sister? Did she have a choice?
I'm sure there are other questions to be asked, but these are the ones that popped in to my head immediately. There are equally as many scenarios that could have lead to this union.
  • Jacob could have known what was happening and chosen to go alog with the cherade, knowing Laban would have to give him Rachel eventually. This would imply he also wanted Leah as a wife.
  • Leah could have had feelings for Jacob despite his desire for Rachel.
  • Leah may not have had any suitors and it may have been her only shot at marriage.
  • The same way Abraham and Isaac sent for wives from among their own people, Laban may have thought the other men were not worthy of his daughters and thus desired both be married to a near kinsman.
  • The Red Tent (a fictional novel inspired by Jacob's family and his only named daughter, Dinah) postulates that Rachel asked Leah to take her place because Rachel was afraid

Getting to Know Leah

Not much is said about Leah, but we do get a glimpse of her thoughts as she names her children.
Birth Order
(to Leah)
Birth Order
(to Jacob)
Name Meaning Leah's Comment
1 1 Rueben Behold a son Surely God has looked on my affliction (Genesis 29:32)
2 2 Simeon Heard Because the LORD has heard I was hated (Genesis 29:33)
3 3 Levi Joined to Now this time will my husband be joined to me (Genesis 29:34)
4 4 Judah Praised Now I will praise to the LORD (Genesis 29:35)
5 9 Issachar There is recompense God has given me my hire (Genesis 30:18)
6 10 Exalted Zebulun Now will my husband dwell with me (Genesis 30:20)
7 11? Dinah Judgment -
There are a couple interesting things here. The main thing is that after all but one of her sons' births she makes reference to her posistion with Jacob. The inference being that she thought Jacob would love her if she gave him a son or that she was being rewarded for not being loved through children. Note that in that time (really even through modern day) a woman's only value was her ability to provide a male heir. The one child she seems to have for herself and simply praises God for without mentioning Jacob is Judah. It is from Judah that we get Boaz, David, Solomon, and eventually the Messiah. It is from Judah that we have the lineage of kings! It is from Judah that the southern region of Israel inherited the name Judea and it's inhabitants would eventually be known as Jews...

Also from Leah is the tribe of Levi, the priests of Israel. All other tribes of Israel were "lost" to Assyria;[5] so we only know of Leah's descendants today and only Leah's descendants are carrying on the legacy.

Happily Ever After?

Based on the expressions she has after each child, it would seem that Jacob never cared for Leah, but when you look at the overall story, I'm not so sure. We know that Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, her second child and Jacob's 12th son. How long after that did Leah live? It's possible that their relationship thrived after the death of Rachel.

I make this observation because it is Leah, not Rachel, who is buried in the family tomb. Jacob chose to be buried with Leah instead of Rachel which I find odd.

Another thing I'd like to point out is that just because Jacob favored Rachel, it doesn't mean he mistreated Leah. The fact that Leah had seven children proves that something was going on between them. Now sure, it could have been "duty," but if Leah was "ugly" and truly hated Jacob could have neglected to sleep with Leah. Do you really think Solomon slept with all 1000 of his wives regularly?

I don't know that we'll ever know the exact situation for Leah, but I like to think that even though she wasn't Jacob's favorite, she still managed to live a happy life.

References and Footnotes

  1. "H7390. רַךְ". Blue Letter Bible; visited May 20, 2022
  2. "H5869. עַיִן". Blue Letter Bible; visited May 20, 2022
  3. Paul Tanner, ThM, PhD. Hebrew Syntax. 1997-2004; visited May 20, 2022
  4. John J. Parsons. "Leah's Weak Eyes". Hebrew 4 Christians; visited May 20, 2022
  5. I put lost in quotations because there is a verse that says people from the other tribes moved to the southern kingdom during the split, and the tribe of Benjamin also resided there. Thus, technically these tribes still existed, but it is generally thought that they were absorbed in to Judah and Levi.
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