Leah and Rachel

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.

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18 Responses to Leah and Rachel

  1. Pingback: Leah and Rachel | Manosphere.com

  2. Maea says:

    This was a good study on the context of Leah and Rachel, outside of the “weak eyes” phrase. Intentions matter with receiving grace and redemption.

    I can’t recall where, but there was a study/analysis on the women of the OT and their respective roles. Rachel was known for her beauty, but it was contrasted by her character (she was more deceptive by stealing the teraphim) and Leah was praised for seeking righteousness despite her deception by marrying Jacob first.

    Although this post was meant to focus on the working of Leah’s beauty, it combines another lesson about deceit.

  3. Hi – I recently came across your blog, and took an interest because it had “manosphere” in the title.

    I’m curious – Just how much does ex post facto revisions of Biblical accounts really matter, even if they were written by a rabbi? Seems to me that if you’re going to go that route, why not include the book of Jubilees, which makes an excuse for Abraham selling off his wife Sarah to the Pharaoh?

    This brought out some aspects about Leah I hadn’t considered:

    http://www.libertygospeltracts.com/question/prequest/leaheyes.htm

  4. hearthie says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard that Leah was thought to “belong” to Esau before, I’ve heard the usual theories about her looks generally or her eyesight. Certainly those chapters about Jacob’s wedded “bliss” would discourage any sane man from marrying more than one woman. Yikes.

  5. @ hearthie

    Certainly those chapters about Jacob’s wedded “bliss” would discourage any sane man from marrying more than one woman. Yikes.

    I would think more than one women who are actual sisters as there is extreme competition between them.

    But two women would probably be too much of a handful as well.

  6. @ kevinwaynesongs

    It’s hard to say. I generally hold tradition in high regard overall.

    I would generally give more credence to the interpretations those who have much more historical background in knowing the culture than just off the cuff remarks. However, obviously even then you can still get things wrong like the Jewish rabbis and not seeing Jesus as their Messiah.

    That link does give a bit more insight though the second link which I listed above has some similar interpretations along those lines as well.

  7. AMathai says:

    I have to say, maybe because of my great contempt for Rachel, who I saw as a bad mother, I always felt a bit sorry for Esau. His family was hand picked by God, but none of them were written to trying to lead him to good. But I never got Leah weeping because of a potential marriage to Esau. It isn’t written anywhere that Esau’s reputation got back to them, it isn’t even written that Laban and his family even knew Rachel had twin boys. I thought it was the jews trying to establish how much better they were because they were descended from Jacob.

  8. @ AMathai

    You mean Rebekah?

  9. *shrug* I just haven’t seen any real reason to give much credence to something just because it’s in a rabbinical commentary, and I think I’d have to call that what it is: Extra-Biblical. or even unbiblical. Otherwise, why not ask the Gnostic Gospels about Jesus? That’s somebody’s tradition!

    More than just not seeing Jesus as the Messiah, they expelled the saints out of the synagogue as well.

    Plus a Rabbi isn’t as learned as some might assume, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain.

  10. @ kevinwaynesongs

    Tradition typically has cultural contextual clues in it which gives credence to a particular exegetical approach. The gnostic gospels don’t have some of that or just straight up contradict Scripture in some cases.

    Basically, my point is that in this particular example Leah’s supposed “lack of beauty” isn’t really supported by the text. We as English speakers could assume that given Leah is compared to Rachel’s appearance, but the Hebrew wording doesn’t actually reveal that is the case. Thus, it’s likely that the Hebrew wording interpreted through the lens of Hebrew cultural context would provide a clearer understanding of why Leah is described the way she is.

  11. Looking Glass says:

    Context from those closer to the situation is quite useful. We’ve used this to much better understand what Jesus was attacking in much of his ministry. He dealt with both the Eternal and also the stupidity of the day. So as long as one doesn’t take it too far, you can help highlight the context of the situations, without buying everything the other sources are saying.

  12. I’ll have to look further into the Hebrew translations myself. It could be possible that you’re right about how the text should be read, but I still don’t see warrant for all of this stuff about Esau.

    I agree with Luther on the Perspicuity of Scripture. If extra-biblical accounts are needed to flesh out the meaning as you’re doing here, then how much is enough? Until what I have agrees with me?

    Do you see how one could cherry-pick sources in order to come to a particular conclusion?

  13. Looking Glass says:

    Words have cultural meaning & context. There is no way around that, as we couldn’t even translate them without understanding some of them. The problem you’re trying to shove in is a lack of Listening to God over reading what he made available to us. It’s the Theologians Disease and the failure of modern Theology, actually.

    In this context, I wouldn’t put much credibility in how much the rabbis beat up on Esau, but the discussion highlights how they took in what is a rather strange comparison.

  14. @ kevinwaynesongs

    I agree with Luther on the Perspicuity of Scripture. If extra-biblical accounts are needed to flesh out the meaning as you’re doing here, then how much is enough? Until what I have agrees with me?

    Do you see how one could cherry-pick sources in order to come to a particular conclusion?

    Certainly.

    The Scripture contains all that is necessary for knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation. It is the revelation of the relationship between God and man.

    Though understanding cultural context and broaden our view of what we consider simple things. For example with the prodigal son. Cultural context is that the men never run and they never show their legs. Showing their legs is shameful, and the only running that was done is when they gird up their cloaks for war. Additionally, if a son lost an inheritance he would be ceremonially disowned.

    Hence, the father in the story probably runs out of the village to his son to bear the shame for him, and his son when he sees his father running thinks his father hates him or is coming against him. This gives much more context to the son’s statement that he’s no longer worthy to be called his son. This is not even including the shame of the son with pigs even though we know about Jewish kosher.

    A bit more about this here:

    http://magazine.biola.edu/article/10-summer/the-prodigal-sons-father-shouldnt-have-run/

    We can see without cultural context that the father loves his son… but we can see more clearly that the father loves his son enough that he would break many cultural taboos to express his love and take him back no matter what the shameful circumstances. Now that’s more powerful than just an ordinary English understanding.

  15. @ kevinwaynesongs

    I’ll have to look further into the Hebrew translations myself. It could be possible that you’re right about how the text should be read, but I still don’t see warrant for all of this stuff about Esau.

    Forgot to answer this but Jewish culture back in the day had semi-arranged marriages.

    Isaac and Rebekah specifically send him:

    “Genesis 28:6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take to himself a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he charged him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Paddan-aram. 8 So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased [c]his father Isaac; 9 and Esau went to Ishmael, and [d]married, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.

    And then Jacob specifically asks for Laban, and seems to recognize Rachel’s appearance:

    Genesis 29:4 Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.” 5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “We know him.” 6 And he said to them, “Is it well with him?” And they said, “It is well, and here is Rachel his daughter coming with the sheep.” 7 He said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.” 8 But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered, and they roll the stone from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”

    9 While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. 10 When Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept. 12 Jacob told Rachel that he was a [c]relative of her father and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father.

    That lends some credence to the fact that Esau and Jacob were ideally suppose to marry the two daughters of Laban as they were relatives.

  16. AMathai says:

    @Deep Strength

    Sorry , yes Rebecca.

  17. @Looking Glass I don’t understand what you mean by “the problem you’re trying to shove in?”

    @Deep Strength Yeah sorry, not very convincing. The arranged marriage thing is a no-brainer, since that was why Jacob didn’t get the wife he wanted first.

    The Prodigal Son proves too much and too little at the same time. There are many layers to it that can be understood without even going into a lot of historical background.

  18. Looking Glass says:

    This is a rather long-ago topic to bring up, but I was reflecting upon the physical effects that Faith produces and it finally clicked what “tender eyes” meant. Leah was the righteous of the sisters and, though married by deception, there is a reason that David’s line would come from Judah, one of her sons. “Tender eyes” wasn’t an insult; it was a reflection of righteousness.

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