One of the recent guest posts on peaceful single girl brings up the topic of beauty and Leah and Rachel. In particular, it focuses on the difference in beauty of Leah and Rachel:
Genesis 29:15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my [d]relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 And Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and [e]face. 18 Now Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Weak eyes — or tender eyes via the Hebrew — seemed like a weird analogy to me to describe someone who was not very attractive so I ended up doing some research on Jewish tradition which typically gives more insight into OT stories.
I ended up finding a bunch of different sources which describe the traditional Jewish interpretations of this passage:
Here’s a quote from one of them about this passage.
Why does the Torah choose to describe one of its great female figures as a woman with “tender” eyes? Why does the text bring out something seemingly negative, when Leah has so many attributes? The Torah at times criticizes character flaws, sins and the like, which are the result of free will, but in Leah’s case her “tender” eyes are a part of her physique, which is God-given and beyond her control as an individual. Why then would the Torah focus on something she has no power to change? What is the deeper meaning behind Leah’s tender eyes?
Rashi tells us, “Leah’s eyes were tender, because she wept constantly in prayer that she not have to marry Esav. People used to say that since Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters, the elder daughter would be married to the elder son, while the younger daughter was destined to marry the younger son.” This is to say that Jacob was to marry Rachel, while his brother Esav was to wed Leah.
Given that Leah had the option to accept or reject the match with Esav, why did she choose to cry over it, rather than simply refuse to marry him? The answer lies in the fact that Leah was a prophetess. She knew that, in reality, people’s mundane talk about her marriage to Esav reflected God’s will for her. She saw prophetically that the two couples – Jacob and Rachel, with Esav and herself – were to establish the Jewish Nation, by spawning six tribes each. Leah was fully committed to this mission, while Esav was clearly not interested. Leah’s grief reflected her fear that, because Esav was not up to the task, she might not have a share in building the Jewish people.
Essentially, it seems that in Jewish tradition both were beautiful, but just as Isaac took a wife from his relatives so too were Esau and Jacob going to take a wife from the relatives. Since Laban had the two daughters it seemed like the were the most likely choices. Hence, tender eyes was more of a description that she was distressed and crying about her prospects of marrying Esau.
The second article above is probably the most descriptive and talks about various exegesis on the passage from Rabbis.
Leahs’ Weak Eyes
Gen. 29:17 states: “Leah had weak [rakot, literally, soft] eyes.” The unclear meaning of the adjective “rakot” provided an opportunity for various Rabbinic expositions. According to one interpretation, this description was given in praise of Leah, since the Torah does not speak disparagingly of the righteous. Consequently, the word “rakot” is to be derived from arukot (long), since God gave Leah gifts that continued for all time: the High Priesthood, the throne and the anointing oil (Tanhuma, ed. Buber Vayeze 20).
According to another exegesis, Leah’s eyes were actually soft, from weeping. This is not understood as disparagement, but rather as praise. At the crossroads she would hear people say: “Rebekah has two sons, and Laban has two daughters. The older girl for the older boy, and the younger girl for the younger boy” (BT Bava Batra 123a). According to another exposition, this was not merely what people said, rather, Rebekah and Laban sent letters to each other, settling among themselves that Esau would marry Leah, while Jacob would take Rachel as a wife (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayeze 12). Leah would ask: “What does the older one do?” They told her: “He is an evil person, a highway robber.” She continued to ask: “What does the younger one do?” She was told that he was (Gen. 25:27) “a mild man, who stayed in camp.” Leah would cry until her eyelashes dropped (BT Bava Batra loc. cit.). Accordingly, her weak eyes teach of Leah’s good traits: that she did not want to be married to Esau. Another exposition has her weeping and saying: “May it be His will that my lot not fall in the portion of the wicked Esau,” and her prayer was efficacious in saving her from this fate (Gen. Rabbah 70:16).
Now, Laban and Leah ultimately deceive Jacob on the wedding day giving him Leah instead or Rachel. Jacob is angry and works another 7 years for Rachel. This ultimately gives a bit of credence to Laban’s words when Jacob asks about the deception: 26 But Laban said, “It is not [g]the practice in our place to [h]marry off the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also for the service which you shall serve with me for another seven years.”
Jacob didn’t get angry at this logic which hints that it was indeed customary, and he consents to work for another 7 years. This gives credence to the above exegetical approach of Esau and Leah and Jacob and Rachel were expected. Jacob had already deceived Esau for the birthright and the blessing, so he’s on the receiving end of the deception in this case also for what would have probably been Esau’s.
If you want to read the rest of the links the second one goes much deeper into the situation with various traditional Jewish exegetical approaches which tie Leah’s weeping to righteousness when it comes to her being unloved and God opening her womb.
According to another exegetical approach, however, God did not give Leah children because of her unhappiness, but because of her merits. He saw that “Leah was unloved” because Esau’s actions were hateful to her and she was willing to deceive Jacob in order to be married to him and thereby be saved from Esau; He accordingly opened her womb (BT Bava Batra loc. cit.).
The fact that Leah was unloved isn’t enough for God to open up her womb since it was afforded by deception which is fraud. God’s law against another particular fraud of virginity in marriage in Deuteronomy 22 is clear. Indeed, one approach is that God opened up her womb when she was unloved because she was earnestly seeking righteousness as she knew Esau was evil but ended up committing fraud. In other words, God does take into account the state of the heart even if things turn out poorly. That was one I found interesting even though there are a few more.
It’s important in my opinion to look at the OT in terms of Jewish tradition because it’s much more informed about the euphemisms and analogies that the Scriptures use. It’s easy to say “weak/tender” eyes is ugly given it’s compared against Rachel’s beauty. Though that’s probably incorrect because the Scripture don’t mince words like that. All of the wording has a purpose.