Rachel means ewe and Leah means cow. There have been jokes about how Leah’s name reflected on her attractiveness. There might be something there. In the story Jacob is much more attracted to Rachel. But the story is the product of skillful, popular storytelling. Many scholars have argued that the underlying meaning is that Rachel was the mother of shepherd tribes and Leah the mother of cattleman tribes.
There does seem to be a social and geographical difference between the primary Leah tribes and the Rachel tribes. The primary Leah tribes,; Reuben, Judah, Simeon and Levi; are southern. They are the only tribes listed in Exodus 6 as being in Egypt with Moses. Jacob was supposed to be buried near Hebron. The Rachel tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin are more northern. Joseph had a different relation to Egypt. Joseph’s tomb was near Shechem. The stories about Jacob, Rachel and Leah are in Genesis 29 ff.
In what I take as the oldest account of a league of tribes in Judges 5, the Rachel tribes are there, although Manasseh doesn’t appear as a separate tribe. Of the Leah tribes only Reuben appears. Judah, Simeon and Levi are absent.
One proposal has been that storytellers early on conflated the history of two patriarchs. Jacob and Israel were not two different names for the same figure. They were names for different men. When the story of the league of tribes got told the storytellers told of one figure who fathered the tribes with two wives and two handmaidens.
Of course, some modern scholars say that the patriarchs are all mythical figures. They were just invented by the storytellers.
But I think that the stories we have arose as sanctuary traditions. Some of the sanctuaries were connected to graves. In other words, the sanctuary traditions likely go back to real men and women who were buried and remembered in a kind of ancestor cult.
Genesis 49:30-31 says that the patriarchs and their wives all were buried in a cave in the Hebron hills. It only mentions Leah being buried there with Jacob. Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, who died in childbirth had a well-remembered tomb near Bethlehem. Now Bethlehem is not that far from Hebron. The storytellers have Jacob brought all the way from Egypt to be buried near Hebron. But Rachel, buried just a few miles away, does not get buried next to her husband?
This strongly indicates that Rachel had a different husband. Rachel was the wife of Israel. Leah was the wife of Jacob.
So it looks like Rachel and Leah may have had simpler love lives than the current story in Genesis reflects. However, there are other factors to take into account.
First of all, I am not sure that the Hebron sanctuary tradition is accurate about where Jacob was buried. Perhaps other patriarchs were buried there, so they just added Jacob to their claims. The route of Jacob’s funeral caravan from Egypt goes into the Transjordan (Genesis 50:10). This makes no sense as a route to Hebron. So perhaps Jacob was actually buried across the Jordan. Or we may have no idea where Jacob was buried because we just have hints that both a sanctuary across the Jordan (the one at Nebo that Mesha of Moab claimed to destroy?) and near Hebron claimed his tomb.
Second, the conflation of Jacob and Israel must have happened very early. Just Israel is mentioned in the Mernephah Stele (about -1209) and the Song of Deborah (probably before -1150). But in the old northern texts such as Hosea 12:12 and the Psalm 81:4, Israel and Jacob mean the same thing.
I wish we knew more about the sanctuaries and priesthoods before the monarchy at Hebron, Shechem and Nebo. Also Bethlehem gets mentioned in Judges more than once in connection with Levites. Tending to the tombs of ancestors was a priestly function, so the Levites at Bethlehem may have looked after the tomb of Rachel.
The oldest traditions about the patriarchs probably got passed on in connection with these tombs by these priests. The traditions from Hebron held priority because Hebron priests took over Solomon’s Temple.
A while back, I wrote about Igor Lipovsky’s book, Early Israelites: Two Peoples, One History. He correctly saw the Bible written from a Judah-centric perspective that required much of the Bronze Age history of the northern tribes (the sons of Israel) to go away. While I did not agree with his use of the Amarna age Habiru soldiers-for-hire to fill in the gap, I do think there is something to his theory.
It is pretty clear the Leah and Rachel tribal groups had different experiences with Egypt. Beyond that, I so far have only found hints and traces of the tribes in the Bronze Age. Maybe if we finally find the library at Hazor. . . .