Leah and Rachel were the daughters of Laban, the brother of Rebecca, the mother of Jacob. This makes Leah, Rachel and Jacob cousins. When Jacob came to the land where Laban lived, he fell in love with Rachel. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years in order to win Rachel as his wife, but on their wedding night, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel. Laban explains his action by saying that Leah was the elder daughter, and that the younger daughter could not be married before the elder. Laban agreed to also give Rachel to Jacob, and they were married a week later, although Jacob had to work another seven years in exchange for having received Rachel as his wife.
The rivalry between Leah and Rachel is intense. Leah quickly gives birth to four sons in a row: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, however, is not able to have children. Rachel then gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to her husband in order that she might have his children (remember Hagar and Ishmael?). Bilhah gives birth to two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Leah then gives her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob, and she gives birth to two sons, Gad and Asher.
Leah, at this point, seems to be having trouble conceiving more children, so she has sent her son, Reuben, to gather mandrakes for her. Mandrakes were thought to be good for fertility; if you read the Physiologus's mystical story of the elephants, you will discover that they too use mandrakes to conceive!
Rachel, however, persuades Reuben to give her the mandrakes, and in exchange Leah got an extra night with Jacob. Leah conceived her next son, Issachar, on that night. She also gave birth to a sixth son, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.
Rachel, for her part, finally gave birth to two sons: Joseph, and the youngest of all of Jacob's sons, Benjamin.
Leah is primarily defined in the Biblical text by the fact that she gave birth to six of Jacob's sons, including his four eldest sons. There is, however, one tantalizing detail in the Biblical text about Leah herself. It says: "Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful."
What about those weak eyes? Some commentators (including commentators in the ancient "targums") explain that Leah's eyes were weak from crying all the time, in her prayers to God. Why was she praying to God? Apparently she was praying to him to save her from being married to Esau. That seems to make sense: Jacob had an older brother, Esau, so it is easy to imagine a scenario where Jacob married Rachel while the elder Esau married Leah, the elder sister. Yet Esau was not favored by God and he had a falling out with Jacob. Thus Leah, as the commentators tell us, wanted to enjoy God's favor, and did not want to marry someone like Esau. Fascinating! Here is Louis Ginzberg's summary of this tradition:
Leah, like her younger sister, was beautiful of countenance, form, and stature. She had but one defect, her eyes were weak, and this malady she had brought down upon herself, through her own action. Laban, who had two daughters, and Rebekah, his sister, who had two sons, had agreed by letter, while their children were still young, that the older son of the one was to marry the older daughter of the other, and the younger son the younger daughter. When Leah grew to maidenhood, and inquired about her future husband, all her tidings spoke of his villainous character, and she wept over her fate until her eyelashes dropped from their lids.For thousands of years, people have been telling new stories in order to expand on the Biblical texts or in order to fill in the gaps that people find in the text. Leah and her "weak eyes" are a prompt for just such a story.
Ginzberg also reports another fascinating story about Leah's mercy upon her sister, Rachel. Leah had foreknowledge that Jacob would have twelve sons, so she kept careful track of the number of Jacob's wives, since she was anxious to have more sons than any of the other wives. At the same time, she did not want Rachel to come up totally short. So, when eleven sons had been born, and Rachel had only one son, compared to the six sons of Leah, and the two sons each for the handmaids, Leah was worried when she got pregnant. If the child was a boy, her seventh, that would mean that Rachel would have only the one son. Leah did not want that to happen! So here is what she did:
Leah bore once more, and this last time it was a daughter, a man child turned into a woman by her prayer. When she conceived for the seventh time, she spake as follows: "God promised Jacob twelve sons. I bore him six, and each of the two handmaids has borne him two. If, now, I were to bring forth another son, my sister Rachel would not be equal even unto the handmaids." Therefore she prayed to God to change the male embryo in her womb into a female, and God hearkened unto her prayer.Amazing: this is a legend I had never heard before. Dinah's own story is full of tragedy, of course. I did not know that, at least according to some storytellers, the very beginning of her story was so extremely unexpected.
Curious? You can read more about Leah in the wikipedia article. Here is an early 17th-century painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen which shows Jacob protesting to Laban on the day after his marriage to Leah: