Who was Leah in the Bible?

The story of Leah's family is recorded in Genesis 25—35. The oldest daughter of Laban, she was plain looking and may have had poor eyesight, but she was dutiful and virtuous. She and her younger sister, Rachel, were rivals in a soap-opera-like romance with Jacob. It was through their complicated love story that God would establish the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob was the younger son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. He tricked his almost blind father into giving him his older twin brother Esau's birthright (Genesis 27:1–46). When Esau discovered what Jacob had done, he wanted to kill him; so Jacob fled. Once safely away, Jacob came upon the land of his uncle Laban. He saw Laban's beautiful daughter Rachel working with the sheep and decided he wanted to marry her (Genesis 29:1–20). Laban agreed to give Jacob Rachel's hand in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor. After seven years the wedding had finally arrived. However, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. When Jacob woke up next to Leah the next morning, he was furious. Laban explained that it was his culture's custom to have the oldest daughter marry first. Jacob negotiated to also marry Rachel in exchange for another seven years of work. He and Rachel married a week after his wedding to Leah (Genesis 29:21–30).

Although Leah was Jacob's first wife, he loved Rachel. Leah knew she would never have her sister's beauty or her husband's full affection. "When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren" (Genesis 29:31). God saw Leah's distress and blessed her with many children. In fact, she named her first four children in response to God's gift of making her a mother. Reuben, her firstborn, means "Behold a son" for the gift of a child. Leah thought having a son would cause Jacob to love her. Simeon means "to hear" for God had heard her that she was hated and gave her a son. Levi means "joined" or "attached" for the hope she had in her children bonding her closer to her husband. Finally, Judah means "praised" for her response to God's love. When Leah had Judah she said, "This time I will praise the LORD" (Genesis 29:25). Levi would become the father of the tribe that would serve God in His temple. Judah was the child through whom Jesus descended, thus fulfilling God's promise to Abraham in Genesis: "Now the LORD said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed'" (Genesis 12:1–3; see Genesis 22:17–18; Galatians 3:16). Leah, then, is an ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah.

Since Rachel was unable to bear children, she had Jacob sleep with her maidservant Bilhah to produce children for her. Through Bilhah they had Dan and Naphtali. Leah responded by having Jacob sleep with her maidservant as well. Zilpah conceived Gad and Asher by Jacob. One day Reuben brought Leah a mandrake plant which was thought to have aphrodisiac properties. Rachel, still desiring her own children, asked Leah to give her the plant in exchange for a night to sleep with Jacob. Leah agreed and had three more children with Jacob: Issachar, Zebulun, and their daughter Dinah. God did, however, show mercy to Rachel and she had Joseph and Benjamin.

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