When Jacob is sent to Paddan-Aram to procure a wife from his mother’s family (Genesis 28:2), he finds his uncle Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:16-17). The text introduces the sisters together and provides rare physical descriptions. Rachel, the younger sister, is described straightforwardly as “beautiful of form and face” (Genesis 29:17, NASB). In contrast, elder sister Leah is said to possess “weak” eyes (Genesis 29:17, NASB). With these physical portraits, the reader is presented with the same first impression as Jacob.
If someone were to define your physical appearance for posterity with only one phrase, what would it be? What would you want it to be? Who do you compare yourself to physically? Beauties like Rachel?
Leah’s description is ambiguous. The Hebrew word, rak, means “tender, soft, delicate, weak”. The Septuagint (Greek New Testament) utlilizes the word astheneís meaning “sick, ill, feeble, weak, poorly”. This adjective does not fit neatly with the noun eyes and the meaning of rak may have changed over the centuries. Popular translations are “weak” (ESV, NASB, NIV, RSV), “tender eyed” (ASV, DARBY, KJV, YLT), and “delicate” (HCSB, NKJV). The CEV and NLT interpret that Leah’s eyes “didn’t sparkle” (CEV, NLT).
The translation “weak eyes” has been prevalent since H.F.W. Gesenius (1786-1842) incorporated it into his foundational Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament. “Weak” eyes also fits the context as Jacob has just cheated a a man with weak eyes (Genesis 27:1) and he will be deceived later in the chapter for failing to see which woman he married (Genesis 29:22-25).
The designation has traditionally been interpreted as disparaging with the implication that Laban might have had a hard time marrying off his eldest daughter. In this reading, weak eyes is like a modern person describing someone as having a“nice personality”. Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) states that fiery eyes were considered the epitome of beauty in this culture and that the verse indicates that Leah’s eyes lacked luster and as such detracted from her beauty. 1 The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100) puts it bluntly - “she was of no comely countenance (Antiquities, I, xix, 7).”
Given the uncertain intent, some modern interpreters and translators have taken this clause to be complimentary, a case of synthetic instead of antithetical parallelism. This reading may have some merit as nowhere else in Scripture is rak used in a demeaning manner or with reference to a defect. The Message reads that Leah had “nice eyes” (MSG) and the NRSV translates that her eyes were “lovely” (NRSV). Some have claimed that the expression denotes “delicateness of upbringing”2 Could the era of political correctness be influencing translators?
One thing is certain - Jacob had eyes only for Rachel (Genesis 29:18).
Do you interpret Leah’s description as a compliment or an insult? How important is physical appearance? How important should it be?
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7, NASB)
1Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library). (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961) 291.
2Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 230.