A womanist retelling – or Midrash – on the story of two sisters Rachel and Leah by Wil Gafney with it’s interpretation below. The original version is in Genesis 29, the first book of the Bible.
Rachel and Leah: A Womanist Midrash
Rachel and Leah were ordinary sisters.
They had largely separate lives. Leah preferred indoor life, and Rachel preferred outdoor life. Neither was much interested in marriage. Following the rules of the household established by Milcah, their great-grandmother, whose name their grandfather Bethuel ben Milcah bore, they were asked if they would marry each time a suitor came forward, as their aunt Rivqah had been asked.
And each time they said no. They said no to their brothers and cousins. They said no to intrafamily unions. They said no to the neighbors and to strangers. They said no to unions outside of their family.
Then one day their cousin Ya‘aqov came to town looking for a woman from their family, his family. Their father said one of them would have to marry him. Auntie Rivqah would not take no for an answer. Ya‘aqov asked for Rachel and offered seven years of his labor in exchange for her.
She spent the seven years getting to know him, but she never came to love him. He turned to Leah to help him win her over. The more he pursued her, the less interested she became. The more time he spent with Leah, the more she came to love him.
When the time for the wedding feast and consummation came, Leah and Rachel agreed to switch places and told their father what they had decided. They waited until deepest night and put out all the lamps in the wedding tent.
Leah hoped that Ya‘aqov would realize that is was she whom he truly loved. Ya‘aqov was angry and disappointed. He demanded Rachel. Lavan tried to dissuade him. Rachel hoped he would give up, but he stayed another seven years. Ya‘aqov’s pursuit of Rachel broke Leah’s heart. The love she held for him and for her sister soured.
When Rachel finally consented to marry Ya‘aqov, she was at the end of her childbearing years. He did not care. He wanted her, and finally he had her. That Rachel still did not want him and that he never wanted Leah wounded Leah deeply. Leah carried that hurt to her grave. She held on to and acted out of her deep hurt. She was never reconciled to her sister…
This midrash gives Rachel an agency with regard to her marriage that the text does not. As the story progresses in the canon, it will appear that Laban used his daughters to secure Jacob’s labor.
By design neither Leah nor Rachel married in the womanist midrash I composed for the entry on Rachel; Leah and Rachel rejected their would-be suitors. There was another possibility.
Perhaps their father Laban rejected their suitors, not wanting to pay a dowry, let alone two. Laban’s attachment to his material wealth lies beneath all of these stories. Leah is not described as ugly, deformed, or blind, which may have impacted her ability to marry. As the daughter of a relatively wealthy man, Leah was a desirable bride.
Nothing in the canon to this point suggests that women were chosen as potential mates based on their looks alone—however much female beauty might occasionally be celebrated in the text. And Leah was from a family that practices internal marriage: Her aunt Rebekah married her cousin Isaac. Her great-grandmother Milcah married her own uncle, Nahor. Her great-grandaunt Sarah married her own brother, Abraham. And her great-granduncle Lot fathered children with his own daughters.
I submit that in the tangled branches of this family tree there were certainly viable candidates, but for some reason they were all rejected. In this reading, I choose to place that responsibility squarely on Laban.
It is clear that Laban is the primary actor in the wedding deception. He takes Leah to Jacob. And in an odd note in Genesis 29:24, he gives her his woman-servant Zilpah, seemingly as a consolation prize, on the way to the marriage bed. The text does not offer a conversation between Laban and Leah.
It does seem to suggest that Leah does not have a choice to marry. This is very much at odds with her aunt Rebekah’s choice whether or not to go with Isaac. Surely she had heard the story. Laban’s excuse that tradition required the deception in Genesis 29:26 does not hold water. The so-called tradition was not previously voiced in the text or in the canon, and if it were so, then why not tell Jacob when he asks for Rachel?
Leah is in a horrible position. She has heard her whole life how beautiful her sister is. But she has never been called beautiful. Perhaps she’s been told by well-meaning folk that her eyes aren’t that noticeable. She is unmothered. Her father has used her for his own devices.
She is married to a man who does not love her as much as he loves her sister, if he loves her at all. For whatever reason, she enters into competition with her sister for Jacob’s love. There is no competition. She is eclipsed the moment Jacob sees Rachel. But she tries and finds that he has a weakness; he cannot stay away from her bed, even when he has a male heir and a spare (and another, and another); Jacob returns over and over again to her bed. What is that about?
The All-Seeing One takes note of Leah in Genesis 29:31, that she was hated, senu’ah, and grants her children. God knows that Leah is not (merely) loved less by Jacob than Rachel, as in Genesis 29:30, or that she is not only “unloved,” as the IB, NRSV, JPS, and GSJPS translate verse 31’ in truth, she is hated (so Fox). The text does not say that she is hated by Jacob, leaving open the possibility that she is hated by her husband, sister, and/or father, and perhaps others.
What is compelling here is that God-of-the-Holy-Name cares about Leah when no one else does, and gives her the one thing that will grant her status and standing in her androcentric society and now-patriarchal household. Moreover, God withholds children from Rachel for Leah’s sake. This begs the question, was God punishing Rachel for being loved, or was she guilty of something else?
And what does it say that God afflicts one woman with infertility in that culture to assuage the betrayed broken heart of her sister? The text does not say God made Rachel infertile or did so because of the hatred for Leah. However, in the text the link between Rachel’s love, Leah’s hatred, and their wombs is not incidental.
Another possibility is that Leah was simply God’s favorite, as God would prefer David over Saul.
Excerpts from Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne