Anyone who says that the Bible is bland and boring has not read it lately – particularly the Old Testament. One story that would have made it onto Jerry Springer is the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah – the original love triangle. Throw in a couple concubines and things really get interesting.
In my previous post, I wrote about Rebekah who was the mother of Jacob, and if you remember, she sent him to her brother Laban under the pretext of finding a wife – although really, it was to let Esau cool down from his murderous rage.
When Jacob arrived at his Uncle Laban’s, one of the first people he saw was Rachel. She is described as being beautiful in face and form, and when Jacob saw her, he fell hard for his cousin.
He also had another cousin, Rachel’s older sister Leah. Leah is described as having weak eyes. There are a variety of explanations of what that means – anything from her being cross-eyes or near-sighted, to her having light eyes which were not considered beautiful in that culture. Whatever it means, her sister Rachel was considered the beauty in the family, and Jacob didn’t look twice at Leah.
After he had been staying with Laban about a month, Laban offered him wages because Jacob had been working for free up to this point. Jacob offers to work 7 years to marry Rachel. The Bible says that he loved her so much, it only seemed like a few days to him.
When the seven years were up, Jacob immediately went to Laban. I imagine that Jacob had been marking off the days, and on the very one that his agreement was completed he sought out his uncle and demanded his wages – in other words Rachel.
Laban says “Sure thing,” and organizes a wedding feast. In those days, a wedding would go on for a week – full of food, wine and song. It was also the custom in those days to heavily veil the bride. So, Jacob weds his bride. They attend the feast where much wine was probably flowing – perhaps Jacob imbibed a little more than he should have.
In the morning, imagine Jacob’s shock when he realizes he spent his wedding night, not with Rachel, but with her older sister Leah. To say he was furious is a massive understatement. He demands of dear old Uncle Laban why he has tricked him. Laban answers quite calmly that the custom is to marry the older daughter first – probably shrugging his shoulders as if to say, what can you do?
As a side note – anybody else find the irony here interesting? Jacob tricks his dad that he’s Esau, and then Laban tricks Jacob by passing off his older daughter as the younger. While I feel sorry for Leah, I’m not quite as sympathetic toward Jacob. He sort of had it coming, kwim.
Laban tells Jacob to give Leah her marriage week and then he can marry Rachel – for which he has to work another seven years. So, within an eight day period, Jacob has two wives – one he had wanted and one he didn’t.
In Genesis 29, which records the whole story, it says that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. It also says that God saw that Leah was unloved. In the Hebrew, the word unloved is sane and it actually means “to be hated.”
Apparently, Jacob didn’t hate Leah too much because she has four sons in quick succession. Each one reflects her desire to be loved by her husband. Their names and her thoughts on each occasion breaks my heart a little each time.
Her first son she named Reuben which means “behold a son.” In ancient culture, giving birth to a son conveyed a lot of status. For Leah, though, she hoped that by giving her husband a son, she could earn his love.
Her second son was named Simeon which means “heard.” She states that God saw that she was unloved and gave her a second son because of it.
Her third son is named Levi which means “joined to.” She has sort of given up on the idea of being loved, but she is hoping that having a third son will at least bond her husband to her.
By her fourth son – Judah meaning “praised” – her focus has shifted from trying to gain her husband’s love to praising God for the blessing of having four sons.
At this point, Leah stops bearing. In the original Hebrew, “stopped bearing” has an interesting translation. It means “to take one’s stand.” I have no idea what this means in the context of the story, but it seems to point to more than her body just simply stopped conceiving.
In Genesis 30, Leah gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob. She did this mostly because her sister Rachel had given HER maid to Jacob. There was a definite rivalry between the sisters. Leah was not the favored wife, even though she was the first wife and she gave Jacob six sons and one daughter.
Leah was very aware of her non-favored status. In chapter 30, there is the bizarre story of the mandrakes. Mandrakes were used in ancient culture as both an aphrodisiac and for fertility. In reality, they have narcotic properties – something similar to ecstasy from what I read. Leah’s son Reuben found some in a field that had been harvested for wheat. The root had probably been pulled up during the harvesting process.
He runs to give them to his mother. Rachel sees them and pleads to have them since she is still barren. Leah’s words to her say volumes. She basically says, It’s no small thing that you’ve married or snatched away my husband, but now you want the mandrakes too? In other words, now you want to take away the only advantage that I have – bearing children.
Rachel makes a deal with Leah (which says a lot about her too) – she tells Leah she can sleep with Jacob tonight in exchange for the mandrakes. Leah agrees to this deal. She runs out to Jacob as he’s coming in from the field to inform him that she has paid for his, um, services. (again this story makes me question the meaning of stopped bearing – could Leah have put a stop to Jacob’s marital visits because it hurt to know you were unloved yet used physically?)
Leah conceives and has a fifth son whom she names Issachar which means recompense. She feels she has been repaid by God.
She has a sixth son soon after, who she names Zebulun or “exalted.” She says surely my husband will dwell with me – but dwell in this case actually means honor or exalt.
Throughout her life, Leah felt unloved. The circumstances of her marriage soured things from the beginning. Whether she had a choice or not, I’m sure Jacob felt deceived by her actions that night. I can’t imagine how Leah felt the next morning when Jacob drags her to her father and demands to know what he’s done. How humiliated and unwanted she must have felt.
Then, only a week later and as soon as Jacob could manage it, her husband marries her younger sister. It is obvious from day one that Jacob loves Rachel. He may sleep with Leah, but she knows his heart is with her sister.
Yet, she is Jacob’s first wife and God honors her for that and has compassion on her because she is unloved. God sees her unhappiness and blesses her with many sons. She is really the only matriarch that was fertile. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel certainly weren’t.
It is through Leah’s son Judah’s lineage that Jesus is born. It is through her son Levi that the priesthood is established.
In the end, it is Leah who is buried beside Jacob in the family tomb. Rachel is buried along the roadside between Bethel and Ephrath.
God honored Leah, even when her husband did not. I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from Leah’s life. Like Sarah and Rebekah before her, God protected her when her husband didn’t treat her the way he should have.
God saw Leah’s plight and had compassion on her. God cared about Leah and her heartache. It mattered to God, just as He cares about our sorrows and difficulties.
We can also learn that we can’t make someone love us by our behavior. In this story, Leah has child after child in the hopes of gaining her husband’s love. While this is an old story, it also applies to today, too. I do some Bible teaching with a group of women, some of whom are unwed teen moms with no place to go, some who are serving time in a low security prison, and some who are just troubled and struggling. I can tell you, that for many of them, the root of the problem started with a guy – specifically, turning themselves inside out to get that guy to love them.
I don’t mean that men are all horrible – this isn’t a man bash. What I do mean is, in these women’s efforts to gain love, many of them made really bad choices. Their desire to be loved and cherished trumped their reason, their common sense and often their very conscience.
The idea of trying to get someone to love you isn’t limited to troubled women. It happens all the time. Maybe you think if you give your boyfriend sex, he’ll love you more or he’ll stay with you. Or maybe you think, if you just put the perfect meal on the table every night and make sure the house is spotless, your husband will love you again and he’ll not let his eyes wander anymore.
The truth is, sex outside marriage may keep your boyfriend around a little longer, but in the process, you are giving away a piece of your soul that you can’t get back. And if he does leave, it is only that much more painful because having gone against your moral conscience, you are left not only hurting but feeling guilty and used.
It isn’t wrong to take care of your husband – cooking a nice meal and cleaning the house are good things. If you do them lovingly, it’s even better. But if you do them to try to earn your husband’s love, when that doesn’t happen, you are left resentful, bitter and hurt.
The thing is, desperation is never a place where love flourishes.
Wanting to be loved is a pretty basic human need, but even if you have a wonderful, loving husband, he can’t meet all of that need. The only one who can truly fill that need is God – because He IS perfect love. When we are filled up with God’s love and know our identity in Him, we are able to love freely – not desperately. We don’t need someone else to validate who we are because we already have an identity in Christ and a place to belong.
Despite Leah’s efforts, Jacob didn’t love her, but her focus changed. As she had son after son, you can see her working through her need to be loved, reaching a place of peace.
I have no idea what Jacob and Leah’s relationship was like after Rachel died in childbirth, but I do know that Jacob’s last request was that his sons bury him beside Leah in the family grave plot. Maybe, in the end, Leah was no longer unloved but cherished. I like to think so anyway.