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The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash

The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash

by Jerry Rabow


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The Lost Matriarch offers a unique response to the sparse and puzzling biblical treatment of the matriarch Leah. Although Leah is a major figure in the book of Genesis, the biblical text allows her only a single word of physical description and two lines of direct dialogue. The Bible tells us little about the effects of her lifelong struggles in an apparently loveless marriage to Jacob, the husband she shares with three other wives, including her beautiful younger sister, Rachel. Fortunately, two thousand years of traditional and modern commentators have produced many fascinating interpretations (midrash) that reveal the far richer story of Leah hidden within the text.

Through Jerry Rabow’s weaving of biblical text and midrash, readers learn the lessons of the remarkable Leah, who triumphed over adversity and hardship by living a life of moral heroism. The Lost Matriarch reveals Leah’s full story and invites readers into the delightful, provocative world of creative rabbinic and literary commentary. By experiencing these midrashic insights and techniques for reading “between the lines,” readers are introduced to what for many will be an exciting new method of personal Bible interpretation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827612075
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jerry Rabow is the author of A Guide to Jewish Mourning and Condolence and Fifty Jewish Messiahs.


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The Lost Matriarch

Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash

By Jerry Rabow


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8276-1180-1


Waiting for Leah

Where Was Leah When Jacob First Sees Rachel?

As we view Leah's life unfolding in the Bible, we will observe various expressions of the powerful theme of how she struggles with being unloved. We might naturally expect that the most important aspect of her story about the consequences of love or the lack of love would relate to romantic love. After all, our contemporary culture is steeped in it, driving much of what we experience today in literature, film, theater, opera, popular music, television drama, advertising, and social traditions.

Scholars don't agree on when romantic love became such a major cultural expectation in Western society. Depending on definitions, some argue that the concept had its genesis in twelfth- or thirteenth-century notions of chivalry (perhaps due to influences from Arab cultures). Others believe that the modern Western cultural concept of romantic love was not fully developed in life or literature until the nineteenth century. Under either understanding, we shouldn't be surprised if discussion about Western-style romantic love were largely absent from the ancient biblical story of Leah. But the real surprise is that the very opposite turns out to be true. Even the limited description of the Matriarch Leah that seems grudgingly expressed in the Bible leaves no doubt that the major issue in her life is what we think of as romantic love—or, rather, the lack of romantic love in her marital relationship with Jacob.

At the outset, nothing could speak louder about Leah, her future romantic relationship with Jacob, and the resulting rivalry with her sister, Rachel (who will also become Jacob's wife), than the Bible's delay in introducing Leah. The contrasts are evident: We first read at length about Jacob's early life beginning from even before the time he emerges from the womb. When Jacob arrives at Haran to seek a wife, the Bible immediately details his emotional meeting with Rachel at the well, a meeting that we are about to examine.

Paradoxically, although the other party in this familiar scene of Jacob at the well is Rachel, the scene nevertheless will serve as our first exercise as literary detectives attempting to uncover the hidden story of Leah. Leah is not only absent from this meeting, she is not even referred to in Jacob's dialogue with the local shepherds or his statements to Rachel. However, the Rabbis know, as we readers know, what will be the eventual outcome of the sisters' marriages to Jacob. Although Rachel will be Jacob's beloved, Leah will nevertheless be the first wife. Jacob may have preferred to spend his nights in Rachel's tent, but it will turn out that Leah will be the one lying next to Jacob for eternity, buried with him in Machpelah. In light of these measures of Leah's ultimate triumph over her sister, the commentators feel impelled to account for Leah's absence from the Bible's opening story of Jacob's sojourn in Haran. Indeed, the Rabbis use Leah's initial absence from the biblical narrative to help us understand what awaits Jacob in Haran.

[And Jacob said to the shepherds of Haran:] "Water the flock and take them to pasture." But they said, "We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep." While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's flock; for she was a shepherdess. (Gen. 29:7–9)

So we start Leah's story with a close reading of the Bible's introduction of Leah's sister, Rachel (several passages before the first express mention of Leah). If we stopped with a straightforward reading of the biblical text according to its plain meaning (a method of interpretation called peshat, discussed below), we would read the text as a simple descriptive introduction of Rachel coming to the well. But the midrashic process goes beyond the surface, peering into even the most incidental words to search for significance. The first question that midrash asks about this seemingly simple description of Rachel's appearance at the well actually serves as our first encounter with Leah. The Rabbis ask: How is it that Rachel is serving as the sole shepherdess for her father's flock? From the fact that Rachel can handle the herd alone, the Rabbis deduce that Laban's flock must be a small one. Laban, apparently once prosperous, must have fallen on hard times.

But even if Laban's flock is small enough for one girl to manage, midrash persists in its examination: Why is Rachel, and not Leah, caring for it? The Bible soon tells us that Rachel is the younger sister (Gen. 29:16), but it doesn't directly state the ages of Leah and Rachel. The commentaries are in conflict about the sisters' ages. However, the text seems to offer abundant clues that Rachel is not a young child when she meets Jacob at the well. It would be highly surprising if Laban sent a young child to handle the herd alone, especially with an older sister available to help. And it certainly becomes difficult to visualize Rachel as a young child once we read the Bible's description of her as having a beautiful face and a shapely figure (Gen. 29:17). It seems more logical to presume, as most commentators do, that Rachel is already a young woman by the time she meets Jacob at the well. This certainly is more consistent with the romance that appears to develop between them.

But analyzing Rachel's age still gives no direct clue as to Leah's age. We just know that she is older. And while it may be tempting to imagine Leah as an older spinster sister, the many close parallels in this story between the twin brothers Jacob and Esau and the sisters Rachel and Leah suggest an interesting possibility. Since Esau is slightly older than his twin, then perhaps the sisters are also twins, and Leah is likewise only moments older. Note that even if the sisters were both young women at that time, the fact that Leah is the older sister could explain why Rachel is herding alone: Perhaps their father fears that Leah will be at risk of romantic entanglements or worse if she goes out in the fields with the shepherds of Haran. As for Rachel, even if she is the equally mature but technically younger twin, this status may be enough to protect her from similar romantic involvement with the locals because of the community custom her father later expresses to Jacob: that in Haran everyone understands that the older sister has to marry first (Gen. 29:26).

Without the benefit of more helpful clues in the text, midrash offers a range of other answers to the question of why Rachel is tending the flock alone. One commentary offers a provocative suggestion: Rachel may have volunteered for the burdensome and perhaps undignified task of tending to the flock among the town's shepherds out of respect and honor for her older sister. Under this insight, Rachel serving as sole shepherdess in place of Leah would mark the beginning of a lifelong pattern of unexpectedly generous behavior between these competitive sisters. We will see how the Rabbis depict both sisters—even while in the grip of intense rivalry and mutual jealousy—performing selfless acts of kindness out of concern for the reputation and feelings of the other.

Before leaving our first examination of the midrashic process, perhaps it should be our turn to raise a question: The Bible hasn't yet mentioned Leah, but the Rabbis nevertheless use a statement in the text about Rachel to begin their speculations about Leah and the relationship between the sisters in the context of both their family's economic and social background and what the Bible will reveal later about their lives. Is this a valid method of interpretation? We will be better able to wrestle with this issue later, after we have had the opportunity to work with a broad range of midrashic interpretations. But for now, perhaps we should simply note that midrash is not limited only to restating the interpretations found in a simple, direct reading of the text (the peshat method). Midrash may propose possible alternative interpretations with deeper meanings, often related to other biblical passages (the derash method)—understandings or possible understandings that we, as intelligent readers, can accept, modify, or reject.

Jacob and Rachel Meet

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother, that he was Rebekah's son; and she ran and told her father. (Gen. 29:11–12)

The opening scene of this family drama is not an auspicious one for Leah. Jacob's arrival in Haran is immortalized by the text's marvelous description of his meeting Rachel at the well. Here, in two brief verses, we read the dramatic story of the first romantic meeting described in the Bible. Jacob meets Rachel, kisses her, cries, and speaks to her. There is no room for even a mention of Leah in this text. But we readers know that Leah will soon become Jacob's first wife. In order for us to understand her marriage, we need to know whether Leah ever had the possibility of being loved by Jacob. Was all hope for love immediately lost because Jacob had already met and fallen in love with Rachel? To answer this, midrash goes all out to understand not just what the Bible says but what must have happened when Jacob met Rachel. The Rabbis trust their knowledge of human nature. Their commentaries begin by dissecting each word of this text.

Jacob's Kiss

Jacob kisses Rachel. While biblical Hebrew may not have had a sufficiently sophisticated vocabulary to express all the possible nuances lurking in such a powerful word as "kiss" (va-yishak), the Rabbis are not constrained by the limitations of vocabulary, and they certainly don't suffer from lack of curiosity. Much like modern readers of Hollywood gossip, they want to know: was this just a kiss or was this a KISS? It might appeal to our modern sensibilities to agree with the few commentators who suggest that this may have been an ecstatic kiss of romantic first love. However, even on the theory that this meeting at the well was an occasion of love at first sight, it seems contrary to the Bible's general literary style to read this as a kiss of passion.

So the great majority of the Rabbis agree that this must have been a socially acceptable kiss. From analyzing the Hebrew grammar, some conclude that this was not a kiss on the lips or even on the face, but only a kiss on the forehead or shoulder. Others point out that Jacob and Rachel were first cousins, and that kissing between relatives is permissible.

Of course, according to the text, at this point Jacob is still a stranger to Rachel. Only Jacob recognizes their relationship, and therefore only in his eyes would the kiss be proper. For Rachel, the kiss may have signified more, but she accepts it without comment, perhaps because she too regards it as innocent. However, one modern commentator speculates that Rachel's silent acceptance of Jacob's kiss is a sign that Rachel might not fully reciprocate what already was Jacob's romantic interest. This could be the first warning to us that their marriage might not prove to be a mutually ideal one.

Jacob's Tears

Immediately after Jacob kisses Rachel, he breaks into tears. Some commentaries claim that these are the emotional tears of a romantic lover. It will become clear in the subsequent biblical text that Jacob is permanently infatuated with a deep and abiding romantic love for Rachel. Since there are no particular later events described that suggest a separate basis for such a love, it makes sense to presume that this first meeting at the well is indeed "love at first sight."

One commentary offers the midrashic speculation that Jacob's instant romantic attraction at the well may have been due to Rachel's natural physical resemblance to her aunt Rebekah, Jacob's mother (a surprisingly modern Freudian/Oedipal observation despite its origin in the thirteenth century). As part of the dramatic narrative, this interpretation would fit in well with some earlier textual suggestions that Jacob grew up as something of a "Momma's boy": He spent his time in the (women's?) tents rather than hunting in the fields; he was his mother's favorite; and his role in the birthright episode started with his performing what the Bible seems to consider a woman's task (cooking a stew, a chore similar both to the task that Rebekah undertook in the blessing episode and to the one that Abraham assigned to Sarah when he was visited by the three strangers). Jacob's special relationship with his mother continues into his adulthood, ranging from her initial favoring of him to her orchestrating and commanding his reluctant participation in the blessing episode and its aftermath.

Some commentators agree that Jacob's tears at the well are indeed tears of joy but avoid attributing the Patriarch's joy to romantic ecstasy. Instead, they strive to come up with other, more dignified reasons for that joy that are not related to love. Conversely, many other commentators see Jacob's tears as tears of distress, although they likewise offer a variety of explanations as to the cause for this distress. One noteworthy midrashic analysis of Jacob's tears as being tears of distress presumes that the source of that distress is Jacob's concern that the shepherds and other local townspeople might misunderstand what he intended as an innocent kiss of kinship. They might gossip against Rachel's character. Under this explanation, Jacob's tears express the previously mentioned motif of heightened sensitivity for another's reputation, embarrassment, and shame—a motif that can help explain many of the most powerful turning points in this family's complex story.

Several commentaries attribute Jacob's tears to his prophetic foreknowledge that he and his beloved Rachel will not be together forever—that she will die young and moreover will not be buried next to him in the family burial cave at Machpelah. With this analysis, the commentators interject a foreshadowing of what will turn out to be one of the key consequences of Leah's upcoming marriage to Jacob: Leah will be the only one of Jacob's four wives to be buried next to him at Machpelah (Gen. 49:31). In contrast, Rachel will be buried alone, on the road to Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19).

In our eyes, having Leah lie in eternal sleep next to Jacob in Machpelah may not seem to fully compensate her for the nightly conjugal sleeping arrangements that she so ardently but apparently unsuccessfully pursues at times during her married life. Nevertheless, her interment in Judaism's most revered burial place will provide one mark of ultimate victory for Leah. Even if romantic love eludes her during life, her perseverance in pursuit of her husband's affection eventually secures her this place of honor in the history of the Jewish people.

It is one thing, however, to recognize the literary device of measure for measure—the presumption that God works though history by imposing consequences of past actions on individuals or their descendants. It is a much less palatable literary device to create convenient motivations by selectively imputing to a character occasional prophetic knowledge of future events, such as attributing Jacob's distress at the well to his awareness of Rachel's destiny. In examining Leah's story, we will find it impossible to totally avoid discussing some of the many classical interpretations that rely on reading back future events as the basis for a character's present actions. But even without relying on this handy midrashic device of presuming that a character acted from prophetic foreknowledge, we can still consider the possibility that the character may have acted out of a more general motivation, such as a concern for others, a desire to share in a greater destiny, and so forth.

The Lovers' Missing Conversation

When the Bible describes Jacob and Rachel meeting at the well, we can't help being disappointed: this first meeting of the Bible's first lovers tells us almost nothing of what was said. We learn only that Jacob tells Rachel he is her father's "brother" and Rebekah's son (Gen. 29:12). Rachel says nothing, and Jacob says nothing more. But just as we immediately recognize a narrative lack here, the Rabbis likewise recognize that this is not the real stuff of lovers' talk. Midrash therefore imagines what Jacob and Rachel might have said to each other. And the Rabbis begin by dealing with something puzzling in the biblical text.

The Rabbis first want to know what Jacob means when he tells Rachel that he is the "brother" (ahi) of her father, Laban. Perhaps Jacob was simply saying that he was "kin." Indeed the most prominent early Aramaic translation (Targum) of the text, by Onqelos, ignores this awkward word, "brother." Instead, Onqelos combines it with the immediately following reference to Rebekah, changing the verse to have Jacob say that he is "the son of her father's sister."

But classical midrash takes this word "brother" seriously (as it does every word in the Bible) and asks what could it mean for Jacob to say he was the brother of Laban. Laban is an Aramean, a pagan people known later in the Bible for their repeated attacks against the Israelites. More important here for the Rabbis is the play on words hiding in the Hebrew name for that nation. Ha-arami is "the Aramean"—ha-aramai (related to ramah, "deceive") is "the swindler." So every time the Bible refers to Laban the Aramean, the Rabbis read a caution: "Watch out for the swindler!"


Excerpted from The Lost Matriarch by Jerry Rabow. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Note on the Sources xv

The Family of Jacob and Leah (chart) xvii

Introduction: We Meet Leah 1

1 Waiting for Leah 13

2 What Really Happened on Leah's Wedding 45

3 Leah Begins Married Life in Conflict 67

4 Leah Continues the Conflict 101

5 Leah and the Family Leave Haran 119

6 Leah Comes to the Promised Land 137

7 The Deaths of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob 165

Conclusion: Learning from Leah's Story 187

Acknowledgments 191

Glossary of Names and Definitions 195

Notes 203

Bibliography 229

Index 235

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