Welcome to the fourth week of our Summer Bible journaling challenge, Women of Valor. It’s hard to believe that we’re already a third of the way through our study! Today, we will be studying and journaling Leah’s story from the Book of Genesis.
This week’s reading: Genesis 29:16-35; 30:9-21; 31:4, 14, 17; 33:2-7; Ruth 4:11
This week’s journaling focus: Genesis 29:35
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In last week’s study, we learned about Rebecca and her two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau are twins, and they are born with Jacob clutching the heel of his older brother, as though he is vying to be first. This later turns out to be true; as young men, Jacob tricks his brother into giving away his birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup (Gen 25:29-34). But the old saying applies: what goes around comes around. Only a few years later, Jacob, too, is deceived — and, with a touch of irony, this deception involves a pair of sisters, who may themselves also have been twins.1
But the story of Leah and Rachel is about far more than Jacob’s deception. It is a narrative of joy and grief, of life and death, and of the love and competition that can arise between sisters. However, as much as they were filled with jealousy and competition, we may be reminded of the words of the elders in the Book of Ruth: “Rachel and Leah… together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). They lived their lives in competition, and didn’t always work with each other, but Rachel and Leah built a lasting legacy — together.
Leah’s Story (in Two Parts)
Leah and Rachel’s stories are so intertwined that it is difficult to study one and not the other, so as we journal alongside Leah today, you will also get a taste of Rachel’s side of the story.
Part One: A Loveless Marriage
Rachel and Leah were the daughters of Laban, who we encountered last week as Rebecca’s brother. They lived with servants and livestock in Canaan. Rachel, the younger sister, was “beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen 29:17), but all we know of Leah’s appearance is her eyes. The word used to describe them has been translated many different ways. Sometimes “fair” or “lovely,” other times “soft” or “weak.” Perhaps her eyes were Leah’s defining feature, bringing beauty to an otherwise plain countenance. Even if they had been weak, they would have stood out, because as we will soon learn, Leah was a strong woman, made of grit and resilience.
Leah and Rachel probably lived fairly routine lives in their father’s home, with the same habits and events repeating themselves day in and day out. We can only imagine the excitement and confusion on the day that Jacob entered their lives, weary and worn from his journey through the desert. All the more confusing was his entrance: upon seeing Rachel at the well, he kissed her and wept.
Jacob was brought back to Laban and struck a deal with him: in exchange for seven years’ labor, he could marry Rachel. The Bible tells us that those seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen 29:20). A beautiful description of a love that ran deep.
At the end of Jacob’s seven years of labor, the story takes a dramatic turn. When Jacob comes to Laban to ask for his new wife, Laban throws a great feast, but doesn’t bring him Rachel. Instead, Jacob wakes up the next morning, and “behold, it was Leah!” beside him (Gen 29:25). Many have wondered what could have happened that night. J. Ellsworth Kalas suggests that Jacob so drunk that he couldn’t tell the difference between his beloved and her sister. The midrashic tradition of Jewish Biblical interpretation wonders if maybe Rachel was whispering outside the tent, so Jacob heard her voice in the dark. Author Anita Diamante puts forth in The Red Tent that maybe Jacob knew about the switch, but allowed it to be so. We don’t know exactly what happened that night, but we do know what happens the next morning: he goes to Laban and demands that justice be done. The following week, he marries Rachel, in exchange for seven more years of service.
This is how Leah and her sister Rachel end up married to the same man. The Bible doesn’t mince words about Jacob’s affections: “he loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen 29:30).
We know that Leah loved Jacob, and craved his affections. We can only imagine how it must have felt for her to have watched him toiling in labor to win Rachel’s hand, while she herself was overlooked. Being given to him in marriage, but only due to a deceitful trick on her father’s part. Being given the man she loved, and the very next week seeing him marry her sister, Rachel.
So Leah’s story begins in sadness. But soon, we will see her brought to life with love: not from her husband, but from her children.
Part Two: A Loving Family
While Rachel remains barren, Leah has child after child. First is Reuben, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (Gen 29:32).
And still, Jacob doesn’t love her.
Next is Simeon, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” (Gen 29:33).
And still, Leah is unloved.
Third is Levi, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen 29:34).
And still, Jacob remains unattached.
Finally is Judah. With his birth, Leah says “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen 29:35). Leah was not born in to Jacob’s faith; rather, she adopted it as her own when she married him. Here we see that Leah truly was a woman of faith, who praises the Lord with every birth of her children, and mentions God in these chapters more often than any other figure. She took the faith of her husband and made it her own. Rebecca would have been proud.
Jacob may not have loved Leah, but God saw and heard Leah, and he blessed her through family. Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah, has two sons for Jacob, and Leah eventually bears another three children: two sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and finally a daughter, Dinah. And just as Leah for years had to watch her sister Rachel be loved and adored by Jacob, now Rachel watches in jealousy as Leah has a family of her own and Rachel remains barren. Rachel eventually does have two sons; but we’ll save that story for next week.
Leah may not have received the love of her husband, and her life was not without trials. But we know that she was brought honor and love through her children, and they brought her joy. When Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah has two sons of Jacob, Leah sings of her “good fortune” and even says, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.”
Children are also how Leah creates a lasting legacy. Her sons become the fathers of most of the tribes of Israel. It is through these children that the blessing of Abraham is passed down: first to Isaac, then Jacob, and then to Jacob’s twelve sons, through, among others, Leah.
Their lives may have felt small and inconsequential on the day that Jacob first entered their world at the well. But ultimately, the words of the Book of Ruth ring true: “Rachel and Leah… together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11).
Here’s a little reminder from last week’s study on Rebecca:
“[Rebecca] was not raised to know God; we know that her brother Laban worships idols (Gen 31:19) and we can assume that Rebecca was taught to do the same. However, after marrying into Abraham’s family, she has come to believe in God, and not only that, but rely on Him to answer her questions. She inquires with God, rather than simply complaining or being angry. Rebecca is truly a woman of faith.”
While we don’t get the chance to hear Leah pray, through the names of her children, we can see that she has a strong faith in God, as well. Though her first three sons are named in the hope that she will receive the love of her husband, when she names Judah, she says, “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen 29:35).
Rebecca and Leah both came from a home outside Jacob’s faith, where idols were worshipped. Both show through their prayers and praises that they find support and joy in God even when trying circumstances trouble them. How might we learn from their example to find joy even in hard times?
Questions for Contemplation
- Leah had to watch her sister, Rachel, receive love while she did not. Rachel had to watch Leah have children while she remained barren. Have you ever been in a position where you had to watch another person receive love or blessings that you yourself wanted? How did you deal with that?
- When Jacob dies at the end of Genesis, he is buried next to Leah, rather than next to Rachel. Though Jacob loved Rachel more in life, he chose to honor Leah more in death. How does this final note on Leah’s story change how you see her?
- Though Leah had many children and gifts, she is often best remembered for not receiving the love of her husband. God saw what Leah “lacked” and still built her up and honored her through family and a lasting legacy. How might God see and honor us despite what we feel we “lack”?
When three children still didn’t bring her the love of her husband, Leah named her son Judah, to “praise the Lord” full stop, with no conditions. We will be journaling Genesis 29:35 this week, when Leah says, “This time, I will praise the Lord.” You may choose to illustrate Leah in praise, holding her newborn son. Or you may choose to letter her words at Judah’s birth. Finally, if there was another part of this story that resonated with you, you may choose to illustrate or dwell on that. Don’t let your inhibitions hold you back as your journal today. Whatever you may feel you “lack” in skill, God still sees and hears you just as you are.
If you’d like to read more about Leah and her story, please feel free to check out these resources. All links to Amazon throughout this post are affiliate links.
- “Leah” in Women of the Bible: 52 Bible Studies for Individuals and Groups by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, pages 64-70. This is a great book that I’ll be referencing a lot in this series. It reflects on 52 different women of the Bible and includes context, prayers, and reflection questions. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “They May Have Been Twins — But Not Identical” in A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament by J. Ellsworth Kalas, pages 49-60. This is a great book of reflections on women of the Bible, written by famed pastor and professor J. Ellsworth Kalas. It is an easy read and offers new insights. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- The Red Tent by Anita Diamante. This is a fictionalized telling of the life of Dinah, Leah’s only daughter. Part 1 of this book focuses heavily on the story of Leah and Rachel. Though this book is fictional, it is beautifully written and has brought many people to be interested in the stories of women of the Bible — including me when I was thirteen years old!
- While this isn’t in the Biblical text, it is suggested in the Midrashic tradition. The Midrash is a collection of exegetical or interpretive texts on the Bible, compiled over the course of hundreds of years by some of the greatest minds in the Jewish tradition. For more on this and how it relates to Leah and Rachel, read J. Ellsworth Kalas’ A Faith of Her Own. ↩