Genesis 29: 15-28 (NRSVA)
15 Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19 Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26 Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
Two years ago I stood in the Temple of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Three biblical couples are said to be buried there — Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Leah is one of the ‘four mothers’ or matriarchs of Israel. Her sister Rachel, the fourth Matriarch, is reputed to be buried in Bethlehem, where she was believed to have died in childbirth. So it is Leah, unloved, ‘married by trickery’ Leah, who lies beside the husband she shared with her sister — a husband who apparently never wanted her, but with whom she had six sons and a daughter.
Is posthumous honour any compensation for a life married to a man who loves your sister? A sister you have to barter into giving you an extra night with him so that you can boost your status and try to win his love via more male offspring?
The Hebrew word used to describe Leah’s eyes means ‘tender’. Some scholars reckon this means lovely, others that it means weak or tired.
Lovely, tired, tender-eyed Leah fought for her place within a splintered marriage. The sisterly fertility war which ensued used tactics which today would get them on the Jeremy Kyle show (“so I offered him my maidservant, and that gave me another two ‘sons’…”). We can’t admire the strategy, but we can respect the fact that as a woman in a man’s world — and an unwanted woman at that - she used what God gave her to to build a future for herself, one that was to see her laid to rest in one of the holiest sites in both Jewish and Muslim tradition.
What use are lovely eyes
if no-one looks into them with love?
What good a tender gaze
if others only see weakness?
How easily tenderness can become bitterness when all our plans turn to dust.
Tender God. Lover of the unloved.
The unwanted, the abandoned, the weak, the neglected, the abused, cry out to you.
Look into their lovely eyes and whisper,
“You are my child. You matter. My strength is yours. You shall endure and leave a legacy of love.”