Leah, the oldest daughter, was given to Jacob as his wife by her father Laban:
“It is not our custom for the younger to be married before the older”
Her life for the next few years is marked by the birth of her children.
First Reuben – “Yahweh has seen my misery” (now my husband will love me)
Next Simeon – “Yahweh heard that I was unloved and so he has given me this one too”
Third Levi – “This time my husband will become attached to me because I have borne him three sons”
Fourth Judah – “Now I shall praise Yahweh”
Our earlier featured matriarchs were barren and miserable, now we have a fertile, but miserable wife. The misery of this unloved wife is expressed echoing through the centuries – happening at the same time as Jacob was working the seven years to earn the lovely, but barren Rachel. Leah, who is never mentioned as beautiful, is bearing the sons who become the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. She is pivotal in building up the family of the fugitive who fled his own family.
With her fourth son Judah, she forgets her misery for a while perhaps and turns to praise God – the God that Jacob too worships.
Meanwhile Rachel, has become increasingly desperate, so she takes the solution that Sarah tried – she gives her maidservant to Jacob, that children born of Bilhah might be considered hers. It sort of works – two children are born Dan and Naphtali. However that jealousy and competition has taken root between the sisters so Leah gives her slave Zilpah to Jacob resulting in Gad and Ashchar.
There are now eight growing boys running around, presumably out helping their father with his work of shepherding and looking after the flocks of his father-in-law, two wives and their two slave-girls (given as “presents” by their father Laban on their marriages), all building up the family of Jacob – what we have come to see as the basis of the tribes of Israel. By now probably the second batch of seven years has passed, years have gone by in a flash of competitive child-bearing and husband-attention seeking.
The hurt does not seem lessened. One day Leah’s oldest son Reuben finds some mandrakes, believed in ancient times to aid fertility. Rachel bargains for them paying the price of allowing Leah a night with Jacob in exchange. The fruit of that night is Issachar.
Fifth son – Issachar – “God has given me my wages for giving my maidservant to my husband.”
Sixth son – Zebulum – “God has brought me a precious gift. This time my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons.”
Finally (perhaps bringing a bit of relief into her boy-dominated world) a daughter Dinah.
It is perhaps heart-breaking to hear how she names her sixth son – still searching for her husband’s recognition – she has borne him six healthy children, without access to the modern healthcare we take so much for granted. Maybe it is heart-warming too, that she sees her sixth son as a “precious gift” from God, she does not grumble about having “another” child. The birth of her children and that of the maidservants serve to establish a growing tribe – who will be able to work together and build up the family enterprise. As Jacob’s family grows, so his flocks will and tending them will be the family business.
The birth of Leah’s children has marked the passing of the years – there is no indication of how many years have passed, but perhaps the birth of seven children equates to the passage of 14 years – probably by the time Dinah was born that second seven years had now been worked twice over. We leave the story of Leah here and next time will try and bring Rachel into focus before looking at how the next chapter of their life with Jacob unfolds.