Leah—The Mother of the Covenant Nation
Did Ya’akov hate his wife, Leah? It appears so, when we read the verse which clearly says that YHVH saw that Leah was hated. But was she indeed hated by her husband Ya’akov? For the purpose of this study, we will focus on a single verse in Genesis 29 which indeed says that Leah was hated.
In the following, however, we will argue that Ya’akov did not hate Leah, on the contrary, he loved her. By this we will not question the credibility of the Torah, let it not be, but we will question the way we read the Scripture through the prism of well established “authoritative” beliefs that have impacted in return the way we think. A good departure point is the patriarch’s journey to the land of his future wives.
Ya’akov escaped to Charan, the land of his uncle Lavan, fearing a revenge of his brother Esav. Upon arrival in Charan, he fell in love at first sight with Lavan’s daughter, Rachel. But because Ya’akov did not have money to start a family, he had to work for her father seven years. Even though Ya’akov had spelled out which daughter, namely Rachel, was his choice, he added the word “the younger one” so that there would be no misunderstanding as to which daughter he wanted to marry. He worked for Lavan seven years as agreed upon, the marriage was consumed, but in the morning after the wedding night it was Leah, the older daughter of Lavan in his tent, not Rachel. And this is where the story made an unexpected turn: Ya’akov did not consume the marriage with the beloved Rachel.
This is the moment when every reader becomes perplexed. Ya’akov did not seem to have noticed that he had slept with the wrong woman that night, and he appeared surprised the next morning, even though he made a very direct reference to intercourse in Gen 29:21. Was it indeed so dark in the tent that he could not see that the woman he slept with was not Rachel? Did Ya’akov and Leah not exchange a word all night or did they not kiss each other, as he kissed Rachel upon their first meeting (Gen 29:11)? This is where all troubles in the family started.
Evidently, Ya’akov had not noticed the difference between his beloved Rachel and her sister Leah for a whole night even if we assume that they were entirely silent during the intercourse. According to the rabbinic tradition, Ya’akov was drunk that night based on the fact that he came from Lavan’s feast. We find a similar situation of confusion after the consummation of lots of alcohol in the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen 19:30-38) and the story of Noach (Gen 9:20-27). This interpretation of the rabbis only explains Ya’akov’s failure to notice the wrong woman in the wedding night but fails to explain how Leah and Rachel were involved in Lavan’s trick.
When silence speaks a lot but answers little
Why however were Rachel and Leah silent with the bride-exchange? Should we not expect to see Rachel as angry as Ya’akov was, when she saw Leah in the tent. This leads to the natural conclusion in this strange story, that Rachel and Leah knew nothing about their father’s trick. The reason being is that in the next morning, Ya’akov did not confront the sisters, as if they had something to do with the deception, but he went straight to Lavan for explanation, because it was him who said, “It is not done this way in our place, to give the younger before the first-born” (Gen 29:26). Ya’akov must have suspected his uncle as the culprit of the deceit, not the sisters.
If this was so, then it could have been that Rachel and Leah were also victims of their crafty father. And indeed, from Leah’s point of view, Ya’akov was supposed to be her husband, if her father had told her that she would be the bride. In Leah’s mind, it was her wedding night. Thus, much later when Leah accused Rachel of stealing her husband, she must have meant that fateful night. Leah said to her sister, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel seems to have agreed with her when she said, “Therefore let him lie with you tonight in place of your son’s mandrakes” (Gen 30:15). Therefore, according to this reading of the story, Leah was just as shocked that morning as Ya’akov was.
Note: Radak in his note on Genesis 30:14 says the following concerning the mandrakes (Hebrew, dudaim): “The popular belief in the efficacy of the dudaim in this respect is not based on fact. If it had been true, why did Rachel not get pregnant after eating them? Also, Leah did not get pregnant as a result of eating dudaim, for the Torah says that God listened to Leah’s prayer (verse 17).
But what about Rachel? Rachel knew it was her wedding night, because she believed that the feast her father made was in the honor of Ya’akov and Rachel. But Gen 29:22 does not explicitly say that. It simply says, “And Lavan gathered all the men of the place and made a feast.” The Hebrew word for “feast” in the verse is מִשְׁתֶּה mishteh, which literally means “drinking party”, not a wedding party. We are not told that this “drinking party” was in honor of his daughter Rachel. The trickery Lavan knew how to set the scene.
But why was Rachel silent and did not say a word? We do not know. Nevertheless, as we remain perplexed, we will leave the whole night story in the tent unexplained. In neither case, however, Ya’akov’s drunkenness explains the silence of the sisters, nor can the whole story in the tent be explained with the confused identity of the bride, if Leah and Rachel were identical twins. That could have been the reason for their father Lavan to replace Rachel with Leah without Ya’akov noticing. But we are explicitly told that Leah was the older daughter of Lavan, meaning they were not identical twins.
Leah—the unloved matriarch of Israel
To marry Rachel Ya’akov had to work for Lavan seven more years and the end of which he married her. Then the narrator of the story tells us that Rachel was loved, but Leah was hated.
And Yehovah saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Gen 29:31)
It is thus clear to the reader that the perception of hatred is expressed by the words, “And Yehovah saw that Leah was hated”. The Torah implies here that only YHVH knew that Leah was hated; she herself only felt that she was unloved. When it is said that YHVH saw that Leah was “hated”, probably, it is meant that she was hated not just by Ya’akov, but also by her sister who felt deceived. Later in the story we will see this resentment, even hostility, developed in the competition between the two rivalrous sisters to provide more children to their husband. But why did Ya’akov have the reason to hate Leah? Perhaps, Ya’akov might have hated Leah for having deceived him and for not giving him a signal that night that she was not Rachel, even though Leah might have remained silent for respect to or fear of her father, who brought her into the tent.
But YHVH, knowing that Leah did so only in order to be married and be loved by, showed her compassion. Leah’s fear was, as it was the fear of every woman in the ancient world, that she might remain unmarried and childless, and thus be vulnerable to uncertainty. The narrator goes on to say that Rachel was barren to indicate that it was hoped that by making Leah fruitful Ya’akov’s hatred towards Leah would die away with the birth of the first child. But if that were the case, then, how are we to understand the statement, “Yehovah saw that Leah was hated”?
“Hatred” as a shade of love
We are told that Leah’s eyes were weak, and Rachel was beautiful. We read,
And Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. And Ya’akov loved Rachel … (Gen 29:17-18)
Rachel was indeed beautiful enough for Ya’akov to fall in love with her at first sight. But by no means this verse even implies that Leah was unattractive that Ya’akov should have had the reason for rejecting Leah as a wife, much less to hate her. This whole idea that Ya’akov loved Rachel and hated Leah comes from the seeming contrast presented in the text, namely, “Leah’s eyes were weak” versus “Rachel was beautiful, and Ya’akov loved Rachel”. Why would Ya’akov have had the reason to hate Leah? Because of her weak eyes? For if he had indeed disliked her outward appearance, that was not the right reason to hate her. He could have divorce her on the legal grounds that Leah was not the bride he worked for seven years. But that was not the case, because either did YHVH incite fear in Ya’akov of his father-in-law not to seek divorce, when He saw that Leah was hated, or her look was not an issue for Ya’akov.
Radak in his commentary on the verse says that in a case of two wives, one of whom is loved exceedingly, the other, the less beloved, is called “hated” only relative to the first, but not that the husband hates her. Leah was ashamed of being hated, and so YHVH saw her affliction and came to her help. Radak wrote on Genesis 29:31,
Ya’akov did not hate her; in fact, he loved her. However, seeing that he loved Rachel better it appeared as if he hated Leah. We find a similar situation in Deu 21:15 where the Torah speaks about a husband “hating” one of his two wives. The meaning there is also relative to the wife he prefers.
Why would Radak say such a thing, when the Torah is very clear on the issue that Leah was indeed hated? The Hebrew word שָׂנֵא saney, means to hate and is used in the Scripture with only this meaning. Other than “to hate”, שָׂנֵא saney, is translated also as “enemies”, i.e., the hated ones. Again, if we are told that Leah was hated, why would Radak say that she was loved? Because in the preceding verse, we are also told, “he also loved Rachel more than Leah”. Let us read both verses in context,
And he also went into Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Lavan still another seven years. And Yehovah saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Gen 29:30-31)
This entire paragraph requires analysis. A closer examination of the text shows that the Torah is not merely being informative here. The comparison between “he also loved Rachel more than Leah” and “Yehovah saw that Leah was hated” will help determine the meaning of what is being conveyed here. The reason why Scripture mentions that he also loved Rachel more than Leah is that it is natural for a man to love the woman he loved first. And although his first experience of marital intimacy had been with Leah, he continued also to love Rachel. By this the Torah means that while Ya’akov did love Rachel, he loved Leah also. Just as he had cohabited with Rachel, he cohabited with Leah. The Torah had to write this in order to convey that Ya’akov loved Leah also, even though originally, he had not chosen her to become his wife. Now that she had become his wife, he loved her, however, he loved Rachel more. This is hinted at by the use of the word גם gam, which means “also” and “moreover”, to inform us that Ya’akov loved Leah also, even though she was not his choice. The reason that the word גם gam, “also” appears twice in this verse is also to indicate that Ya’akov spent more intimate time with Rachel than with Leah. All of this is alluded to in the repeated use of the word גם. We therefore can translate our verse without changing its meaning thus,
And he cohabited with Rachel more, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. (Gen 29:30)
It is thus made obvious that Ya’akov loved Rachel, but he also loved Leah. Although this may appear surprising, this conclusion follows naturally from the plain words of the text.
And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Re’uven, for she said, “For Yehovah has looked on my affliction, because now my husband is going to love me”. (Gen 29:32)
With the birth of the first son of Ya’akov the competition between the two wives for his heart began.
The genealogy of the covenant nation
And this is the genealogy of the children of Ya’akov by their mothers and order of birth:
Re’uven = “behold a son”
Shimon = “heard”
Levi = “joined to”
Yehudah = “thank YHVH”
Of Bilhah (Rachel’s servant):
Dan = “judge”
Naphtali = “wrestling”
Of Zilpah (Leah’s servant):
Gad = “fortune”
Asher = “happy”
Issaschar = “he rewards”
Zevulun = “residence”
Dina = “judgment”
Yoseph = “YHVH has added”
Binyamin = “son of the right hand”
According to tradition, both Zilpah and Bilhah were half-sisters to Rachel and Leah paternally, born to different mothers. Some commentators, like Weiser and Kimchi, say that Dinah was Zevulun’s twin. For this reason, the Scripture omits the phrase “and she conceived” with regard to Dinah’s birth, because the phrase “And afterwards she bore a daughter” (Gen 30:21) implies one conception and two births, without making any mention of Leah again becoming pregnant. Also, what is peculiar here is that no mention is made of why she named her daughter “Dinah”, a particular omission made in contrast with the naming of all her sons. What is also peculiar here is that according to Gen 37:35 and Gen 46:7, Ya’akov had other daughters, though they were nowhere mentioned by name. But it is possible that these two verses refer to his sons’ wives, i.e., daughters-in-law, since in Hebrew, there is no word for “daughter-in-law”.
Leah—the unloved wife
It is to be noticed in the text, that Leah regarded her first four sons as the gift of Yehovah, as the Name appears when she was naming her sons, while Rachel speaks of Elohim only. In this variation of the names of the Creator, the attitude of the two women and how they were seeing the births of their children, is made apparent. Leah the unloved, who had been forced upon Ya’akov and for that reason she was put by him as a second wife after Rachel, formed the backbone of the numerous seed promised to Avraham. Leah thus became the mother of the greater part of the Covenant nation.
Leah was the first to conceive and bore a son, and gave him the name Re’uven, saying in her heart: “My husband will love me as much as he loves my sister”, for she said, “For Yehovah has looked on my affliction, because now my husband will love me.” (Gen 29:32) When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she said, “This time I will thank Yehovah!” Therefore, she called him Yehudah, and she ceased bearing. (The word Yehudah comes from the word hoda’ah, which means “to thank). Because of these words the sages have said that since the creation of the universe there was never anyone who thanked Elohim until Leah. Leah, who was not desired by Ya’akov, proved herself by giving him four sons to be the wife provided by YHVH, but by the fact that these four sons formed the real stem of the promised numerous seed, she was proved still more to be the wife selected by YHVH, in realization of His promise, to be the tribe-mother of the greater part of the covenant nation.
It is also to be noticed in the Torah that none of the twelve tribes were born to women who were merely called concubines. The only time when the word “concubine” appears is when it is used with regard to Bilhah and Zilpah mentioned in comparison to Rachel and Leah, when the indiscretion of Re’uven is alluded to by the Torah in both Gen 35:22 and Gen 49:4. In support of this interpretation, Radak comments thus,
We find with each of the four sons born to Ya’akov by the servant maids that the Torah adds the word ליעקב, [Ed. “for/to Ya’akov”] that these were born for Ya’akov, although this word is missing when Leah gave birth to her first four sons. The reason is to underline that these sons by servant maids had the same status in Ya’akov’s eyes as the sons born by Leah and Rachel.
We have already pointed out in the article The Forgotten Matriarchs of Israel – Time of Reckoning Ministry that the patriarch Ya’akov had four wives equal in status: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah; Bilhah and Zilpah were not his concubines, and their sons were not considered “second class” sons of Ya’akov. Refer to the source for the complete explanation of this issue.
In conclusion, we need to say that the reason why this whole account of the birth of Ya’akov’s children has been preserved in the Torah is to demonstrate that what motivated the matriarchs Leah and Rachel to please their husband was exclusively their desire to produce as many children for Ya’akov as possible, as the narrator of Genesis duly has noted it. The matriarchs were not concerned with indulging their desire but with building the Covenant nation according to the prophecy regarding which Ya’akov must have told them.
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