And when the LORD saw that Leah [was] hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel [was] barren
Poor Leah! If it is rough being a neglected middle child, how much worse to be a despised (sane’) second wife? Yet Yahweh is watching (ra’ah). It seems a bit harsh on Rachel, though. Still, “is she not her sister’s keeper?” Perhaps there is story of how Leah goes from being loved less to being hated — with Rachel playing the villain.
And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me.
Ouch! One can almost feel the desperation, like a 50-year old man trying to win his father’s approval. Men today pursue success in business, women then pursued success in childbearing (yalad) — especially sons (ben). Reuben (R@’uwben, “behold a son”) reflects her valid insight that the Lord beheld (ra’ah) her, but her assumption that this will win her husband’s (‘iysh) affection (‘ahab) is sadly mistaken.
So she tries again:
And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Because the LORD hath heard that I [was] hated, he hath therefore given me this [son] also: and she called his name Simeon.
And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi.
Levi (Leviy) reflects her desire for intimacy (lavah) with Jacob. And clearly not just physical intimacy — she already has that. Earlier she wants to be cherished, protected, kept, guarded, valued; now she wants him to share his thoughts, feelings, decisions with her. I wonder if this change of phrase reflects progress in their relationship, or in her understanding? (or just random word choice).
Still, there’s a world of meaning contained herein. We haven’t really seen much of marriage before this in Genesis (if you don’t count Adam and Eve squabbling over blame); certainly not from the woman’s point of view. The most visible women (Sarah, Lot’s daughters, Ishmael’s mother, Rebekah) are all worried about kids. Leah, perhaps because God has satisfied that longing, is the first we see articulate that she really wants to be loved.
And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the LORD:
therefore she called his name Judah; and left bearing
A powerful statement regarding Judah (Y@huwdah), probably implying that she will stop focusing on her painful marriage and instead praise (yadah) God. A powerful blessing to give a child, which will one day bear fruit. One would like to think Leah managed to find peace through all this.
Rachel, on the other hand, learns the opposite lesson:
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, [Am] I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
But, alas, no more backbone than his grandfather :
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan.
I’m not so sure I agree with Rachel’s interpretation of God’s judgment (diyn) against her sister leading to Dan (Dan). I suppose it’s possible — arguably the reverse is why God gave Leah children — but this seems like merely spite and manipulation on Rachel’s part rather than divine mercy.
And Rachel said, With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali.
This is even more telling. While Leah was primarily seeking her husband’s love (however dysfunctionally), Rachel sees Naphtali (Naphtaliy) as part of a fight (naphtuwl) again her sister. Not that Leah is above playing that game:
When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife.
One wonders what Jacob is thinking in all this. While it might be tempting to think he finds the catfight and procession of young maids to his bedchamber amusing, I seriously doubt it. Well before I got married, I noticed that “men with happy wives lead happy lives.” Jacob surely still loved Rachel, and I’m sure he must’ve at least appreciated Leah for four sons. I can imagine him unhappy with the situation, but (due both to cultural stricture and an absence of role modes) unable to even think of intervening. As humorist Mark Twain quoted when asked the Bible’s position on polygamy, “No man can serve two masters.”
And Leah said, A troop cometh: and she called his name Gad.
Certainly Gad (Gad) makes quite a host (gad); 4+2+1 = seven sons, though Leah’s probably counting it as 5 vs. 2. Her happy (‘osher) blessedness (‘ashar) continues with Asher (‘Asher). One gets the impression, though, that she is rejoicing in humbling her sister, not in blessing her husband — much less in the children themselves.
Relations between the two women seem barely on the edge of civil:
And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes.
And she said unto her, [Is it] a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with thee to night for thy son’s mandrakes.
Ouch! Perhaps Leah has constructed a fantasy world where Jacob would’ve loved her if Rachel hadn’t interfered — understandable, if unfair. Then again, one could interpret this more narrowly, to reflect that Rachel (as head wife) made decisions about the marriage bed, and had told Jacob to not sleep with Leah anymore. Apparently she’s desperate enough for the mandrake to reverse that decision.
And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
Rachel’s plan backfires, for God takes pity on Leah again:
And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son.
Though I’m not sure Leah draws the right lesson:
And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband: and she called his name Issachar.
And Leah said, God hath endued me [with] a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me, because I have born him six sons: and she called his name Zebulun.
One must admit, Zebulun (Z@buwluwn) makes for a pretty impressive inheritance (zebed), especially given the prestige of bearing an heir. Yet, there’s still something plaintive in Leah’s desire to be honored by (zabal) Jacob, like a little girl wanting to be loved. Perhaps it is a downward progression: first she desires love, then settles for companionship, now just wants to be respected; though I could probably argue just as well for an upward trend.
One wonders what it must’ve been like growing up with Laban for a father. Probably not a cruel man, but a sharp one. The sort who’d always tease his kids, without being aware of the impact; who never taught them to fight fair, but perhaps enjoyed their competing for his favor; who’d weasel out of his promises, and expect them to deal with the consequences. No wonder they’d be desperate for a prince charming to love them and make it all right. Though of course it doesn’t work that way.
Still, for Rachel at least there’s a happy ending:
And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.
Why? And more importantly, why now? Its not like Rachel had learned her lesson:
And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach:
That may be true, but her naming betrays a deeper motive:
And she called his name Joseph; and said, The LORD shall add to me another son.
Sigh. Now that she has Joseph (Yowceph), she still wants God to do more (yacaph). Even with her maid, Rachel’s counting three vs. a natural six for Leah. She just can’t enjoy her children for who and what they are. Any more than Laban could.
God, my heart breaks for the story of Rachel and Leah. I am reminded of how desperately we all long to be loved; and how foolish we are in how we go about pursuing it. Four thousand years of progress have made surprisingly little impact, though I like to think we’ve learned a few things about how to have a happy marriage — for those who have eyes to see. God, teach me to love my wife as you love the church, to nurture her into your image. May that love overflow into our children, that they would feel (and be) secure and protected. And may that empower them to find mates to share their happiness, rather than drive them seek love in all the wrong places. Amen!