Leah: The Unloved Wife

A wedding is supposed to be a joyful occasion; and Jacob’s wedding promised to be no exception.  He had loved Rachel from the moment he saw her, and when Laban, Rachel and Leah’s father, asked him what wages he desired, without hesitation Jacob asked for Rachel as his wife.  “Jacob loved Rachel; and he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel’” (Gen 29:18 RSV-CE).  Jacob was so smitten with Rachel, that the seven years he served for her “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen 29:20).

The Hebrew word for “love” used to describe Jacob’s love for Rachel is the same as that used when Isaac immediately loved Rebekah.  And it is the same as that used in The Song of Solomon, when both the woman and the man express their passionate and sexual love for each other.  It is the kind of love that sees the loved one as the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the most everything, of any person living or who has ever lived.  It is exciting, heady, intoxicating: “your love is better than wine” (Song 1:2).  It causes us to think of the other all the time we’re not with them, and to long for them.  We can’t seem to get close enough to our beloved; we can’t get enough of them.  “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth…..let me see your face, let me hear your voice for your voice is sweet, and your face is comely” (Song 1:2; 2:14).  Every aspect of them fills us with delight: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful!  Your eyes are doves behind your veil.  Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.  Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.  Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely.  Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.  Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an arsenal, whereon hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors.  Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies…..You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you…..You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.  How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!…..” (Song 4:1-5, 7, 9-11).

Such was the love that Jacob had for Rachel; and because of it, the seven years he had to wait before he could consummate his marriage to her, seemed like a few days.  Knowing that she was betrothed to him, a bond more binding than our modern custom of engagement, and would soon be his, must have kept him going through those years, as he watched over Laban’s flocks, baking in the sun, enduring the cold desert nights, suffering from lack of sleep, moving the flocks from one pasture to another, watching them, protecting them – through it all, with the thought of Rachel warming his heart, he was spurred on to endure the hardships for the sake of his heart’s love.

Leah and Rachel Compared

It’s hard to know whether the description of Leah, which focuses on her eyes, regards them as a point of beauty or detracts from her beauty.  Calvin puts it thus: “whether it was that Leah, on account of her tender eyes, was less beautiful, or that she was pleasing only by the comeliness of her eyes…” (Commentary on Gen 29:17).  Whatever the case, she is compared unfavourably with her more beautiful younger sister, Rachel.  The bible itself draws the comparison, and says “Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful and lovely” (Gen 29:17).  On this same passage, Calvin comments “Rachel excelled her (Leah) altogether in elegance of form”.

Calvin, however, has a problem with Jacob’s preference for the younger and more beautiful daughter.  He says “he who shall be induced to choose a wife, because of the elegance of her form, will not necessarily sin, provided reason always maintains the ascendency, and holds the wantonness of passion in subjection.  Yet perhaps Jacob sinned in being too self-indulgent, when he desired Rachel the younger sister to be given to him, to the injury of the elder; and also, while yielding to the desire of his own eyes, he undervalued the virtues of Leah; for this is a very culpable want of self-government, when anyone chooses a wife only for the sake of her beauty, whereas excellence of disposition ought to be deemed of the first importance”.

Calvin was a very austere man, which is evident in this comment, and he apparently died earlier than he might have because of his severe self-discipline.  He was almost monastical in the way he sought to subdue the flesh, disciplining his body and bringing it into subjection (1 Cor 9:24-27).  And he is right in warning against choosing a spouse based on beauty alone, deeming “excellence of disposition” as being most important.  “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Prov 31:30).  And: “Like a gold ring a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Prov 11:22).

But I don’t think that Jacob was guilty of simply having his head turned by a pretty face.  No doubt that did happen when he first saw her; but he soon got to know her because for the next month he stayed with her family (Gen 29:14).  During that time, Jacob would have been getting to know Rachel as a person, and observing how she related within her family context; and he would have had opportunity to also observe and get to know Leah, and see her in her natural setting amongst her family.  And he still preferred and loved Rachel.  At the end of the month, when he was asked what his wages should be rather than continuing to work for nothing, Rachel was his immediate choice.  He had met the woman he wanted to marry, and he asked for her to be his wife.  During the time he had waited for her, Jacob demonstrated respect, for he didn’t touch Rachel inappropriately, but waited until he had served his time.  But when that time came, he wanted to claim his bride and consummate the relationship.  “Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed’” (Gen 29:21).  He had waited seven years for this, and he wanted no more delays.

The Wedding Night Deception

So, the time had come.  Jacob would receive his long-awaited bride that very night, and they would consummate the marriage.  “So Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast”.  Everybody was having a good time, eating, drinking, and being merry.  However, Laban knew that things weren’t as expected.  “But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid).  And in the morning, behold, 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?’” (Gen 29:22-25).

Laban’s part in the deception

We can imagine Jacob’s outrage.  He had served Laban in good faith, and given him seven years of his life as the bride price for his daughter, Rachel.  Laban had knowingly and deliberately brought Leah to him and handed her over, allowing Jacob to believe it was Rachel.  By the time Jacob realised what had happened, it was too late, for he had “gone in unto her”, and she was now his wife.  The shock to Jacob must have been overwhelming as the scale of the deception dawned on him.  The idea of this deception had never occurred to him. It wasn’t as if he was wary of Laban, expecting him to try something shifty; after all, Laban was his uncle; he trusted him.  Jacob and he had agreed that Rachel would be his wife in return for seven years of labour for Laban.  And now this!  Laban had planned it.  He probably decided this at the time the agreement was made.  He had deceitfully and cunningly handed over the wrong daughter to Jacob.  He had deceived and betrayed Jacob.  These thoughts must have come into Jacob’s mind like a flood, taking his breath away as all the implications for him sank in.

Leah’s part in the deception

And this was not all.  Leah knew.  She knew!  She was fully aware of the deception being perpetrated.  She had allowed her father to hand her over to Jacob; she said nothing when Jacob and she were alone together, just the two of them; she kept her face concealed for the whole night they were together; she allowed Jacob to consummate the marriage in the belief that he was doing so with her sister; she said nothing when he whispered Rachel’s name in her ear, professing his heartfelt love for her in the belief it was Rachel; expressing his delight in her, thinking it was Rachel; she lay beside him that whole night while they slept – and she said nothing at any time to undeceive Jacob.

No doubt her father had told her what he planned, and instructed her to go along with it – as an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, she was under his authority.  But she also had an obligation to Jacob, her husband, once she came under his roof.  Her obligation to obey her father ended when Jacob took her into his tent as his wife – she was no longer under the authority of her father but of her husband.  And she should have told him what had happened.  Leah had deceived Jacob massively.  These thoughts, too, must have overwhelmed Jacob as he sought to come to terms with what had been done to him.  What Leah had done, even if there was a degree of pressure against her, would have burned itself into Jacob’s heart, causing a scar that could never be removed.  And even though Laban was the architect of it all, Leah was the one who was in Jacob’s face every day, a constant reminder of the way he had been betrayed, and that she was a major player in it.

It mustn’t be forgotten that the culture that Jacob lived in was a shame-based culture; men did not take kindly to losing face.  Jacob had been totally humiliated by this action before the whole family and “all the men of the place” (Gen 29:22).  He would not get over it quickly, if ever.  And Leah paid the price, apparently for the rest of her life.  She fervently wanted Jacob’s love but she never received it (Gen 29:31).  “Oh!  What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” (“Marmion” by Sir Walter Scott).

How could Leah expect that marriage by such circumstances would produce a loving relationship?  The fact that Jacob continued to have sexual relations with her is, to me, amazing.  He didn’t love her (Gen 29:31-34; 30:15, 20), and their relationship was born in deception and betrayal; such a toxic origin could never produce healthy relationship fruit.

Naïve…..?

At first glance, however, Leah seems to think she’d done nothing wrong.  For example, years later, when Rachel asked Leah for some of her son’s (Reuben) mandrakes, Leah replied “Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband?” (Gen 30:15).   What!  Shouldn’t it have been Rachel asking that question of Leah?   What was Leah thinking?  How could she ask that, of all questions?  Did she really believe that Jacob was hers because she spent the first week with him?  Was she unaware of the agreement Jacob had made with her father for the hand of Rachel?  Had she forgotten that she and her father had deceived Jacob into marrying her, Leah, while he thought he was getting Rachel?  For all the years when she pined for Jacob’s love, did she not once ask herself why he didn’t love her?  Apparently not, because she here blames Rachel for stealing him from her.  She just doesn’t get that Jacob had given his heart to Rachel from the beginning.  He had never loved Leah, even before they married.  He only ever had eyes for Rachel.  Leah’s only claim on Jacob was that she was married to him – but she stole that marriage, from both Jacob and Rachel.

…..or deceived?

On the other hand, however, it may be that the reason for her accusing Rachel of stealing her (Leah’s) husband is that Laban may have deceived her too, in telling her that she, not Rachel, would have Jacob to herself, when all along, unbeknown to anybody else, he planned to marry both daughters off at once, and make double the money.  Under this impression, she would have thought that all she had to do was to go along with her father’s plan and, once she had bedded Jacob, that would be the end of it; that once she had weathered the storm of Jacob’s anger and dismay at having been betrayed, he would get over it; and then she could get on with happy married life.  And, if the cultural practice (mentioned below) was real, she would have believed that Jacob was hers by right anyway, because she was the firstborn daughter.

Laban Unrepentant

When Jacob confronted and challenged Laban for his deception, Laban attempted to justify his action by claiming a doubtful (?) cultural practice.  “Laban said, ‘It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born.  Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another years” (Gen 29:26-27).  If Laban was an honourable man, and this excuse was genuine, he would have been up front with Jacob at the time they were making their agreement.  From the way scripture tells us of Jacob’s great love for Rachel, he may very well have agreed to take Leah to wife as well.  Then harmony would have prevailed, Leah would have had a happier life because Jacob would have had no reason to reject her, Jacob would not have felt humiliated and betrayed, and Rachel would have borne more children, because it was only that Jacob loved her over Leah that God closed her womb (Gen 29:31).  There is no indication of him being reluctant to take the two handmaids as wives, so I don’t suppose he would have refused to marry Leah as well.

But Laban was a deceitful and unscrupulous man, who thought of no one but himself.  This becomes increasingly evident the more we read about him.  This was only the first of ten occasions when he swindled Jacob (Gen 31:6-12).  By his deception, he had stolen seven years of Jacob’s life by making him serve a second seven years in his service; Jacob could not refuse Laban’s terms if he wanted Rachel.  He had nothing else to offer except his service, and Laban took full advantage of this.  Although Laban couched his terms as an offer, it was more like an ultimatum, and Jacob could only agree to it.  For Laban, it seems that Jacob was just another sucker to be taken advantage of, and his daughters as cattle to be sold for the best price.  Indeed, his daughters stated that he had sold them and stolen their money (Gen 31:24-26).

Laban’s desperation

And in yet another agreement with Jacob, when he thought Jacob was going to leave him, he said “’f you will allow me to say so, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you; name your wages, and I will give it” (Gen 30:27-28).  Subsequently, God prospered Jacob.  He said to Rachel and Leah “Thus God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me”.  And he told them of a dream he had, in which God said to him “I have seen all that Laban is doing to you…..Now arise, go forth from this land, and return to the land of your birth” (Gen 31:9-13).

But when Jacob did leave, taking his wives, his children, his servants, and all his livestock with him, Laban pursued him with murderous intent.  But God intercepted him before he caught up with Jacob and warned him in a dream: “Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad” (Gen 31:24).  Despite the agreement he had made with Jacob for his daughters, despite God’s warning to him, despite Jacob’s complaint that Jacob had stolen from him, despite Jacob saying how Laban required from him every animal lost through wild animals or rustlers, Laban, with breath-taking audacity, says “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.  But what can I do this day to these my daughters, or to their children whom they have borne?  Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me” (Gen 31:43-44).

Henry Morris comments on this passage, “When Laban finally had opportunity to reply to Jacob’s outburst, he could not say anything at all by way of denial of his claims and charges.  He tried to divert attention away from Jacob’s embarrassing facts by changing the subject.  How could Jacob suppose that he would do anything to hurt his daughters or his grandchildren?  Further, all of Jacob’s cattle had come from Laban’s flocks; so why wasn’t Jacob grateful that he had made a way to acquire them?  Though he realized he was in the wrong, a self-seeking hypocrite such as Laban cannot bring himself to repent or to make public acknowledgment of his guilt.  He must try by whatever means he can to shift the attention away from his own culpability to whatever real or imagined grievances he can find in others.  He therefore proposed a formal covenant between himself and Jacob” (“The Genesis Record”, Henry Morris, Baker Books, 1976).

God: The Just and Loving Father

The first mention of what God thought about the events surrounding Jacob’s marriage doesn’t occur until Genesis 29:31. Up to this point, with the deception perpetrated on Jacob, God makes no comment.  And when we are told, it’s not what we would have expected.  God seems to have nothing to say and no point of view, either on Laban’s deception, or Leah’s willing involvement; nothing to say by way of comfort for Jacob; nothing to say about Rachel being pushed aside at the last minute to be robbed of her betrothed husband.  It’s not until chapter 31, about 14 years later, that God reveals his view of Laban’s sin; but by then many things have happened in all their lives, and Laban has cheated Jacob, changing his wages ten times.  The Lord seems unconcerned by the deception of the wedding; he doesn’t seem bothered that Jacob has been placed in a position where he is to take two wives; he doesn’t seem bothered when Jacob marries two sisters, when much later he forbids a man marrying sisters (Lev 18:18) – what does concern him is Jacob’s treatment of Leah.  “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Gen 29:31).  Although we’re told that Jacob did not love Leah; that, in fact, he hated her, he did his duty as husband by maintaining an ongoing sexual relationship with Leah (1 Cor 7:1-5) – but God required that he love her as well.

Why was that?  Why was it that God considered Leah with such sympathy?  She was simply suffering the consequences of her deception.  Why did God vindicate the guilty Leah, while innocent Rachel was made to suffer for many years?  There is no indication that Rachel did anything wrong.  She doesn’t even seem to have treated Leah harshly.  The only reason given is that Leah was unloved/hated.  But envy and strife did gradually develop between the sisters as rival wives, as we saw in Genesis 30:15, where Leah accused her sister of stealing her husband; and verse 1 of the same chapter, where we’re told that Rachel envied her sister for being able to have children whilst she, Rachel, was barren.  Each sister had something that the other desperately wanted but couldn’t have.  No doubt it is this kind of scenario, at least in part, that God wanted his people to avoid when he later placed various restrictions on who could marry whom, the relevant one for the present being “And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive” (Lev 18:18).

It is remarkable that Jacob didn’t shun Leah, and that he still had a sexual relationship with her.  Despite that, Leah must have felt keenly the distance between them.  Perhaps he behaved coldly towards her, while she would see the tenderness, affection, and familiarity in the way he treated Rachel.  She would feel the absence of his passion, the absence of expressions of love and delight that she would have heard on that first night, words whispered in her ear but never intended for her, words she would never hear again.  And it hurt her deeply.

Even at the birth of her first son, the pain of her rejection was present, “for she said, ‘Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me’” (Gen 29:32).  But nothing changed; the joyous occasion of Jacob’s first son did not cause him to love Leah.  A year (at least) later, Leah gave birth to her second son, and, regarding him as a kind of compensation from God, she said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen 29:33).  The narrative continues: “Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have born him three sons’” (Gen 29:34).  And still, Jacob did not love her.  I wonder if she ever asked herself “Was it worth it?  Why did I let my father talk me into this?  Why didn’t I tell him what was being done to him before he lay with me?  Why did I allow myself to deceive him?”  There is an old adage: “Marry in haste; repent at leisure”.  Leah now had her whole life before her, knowing Jacob didn’t love her – and he never would.  Yet, despite this, she continued to hope that Jacob would relent.

Leah’s Faith

What is clearly evident as we read this story is Leah’s faith.  In the practical matters, the realities of life which are of concern to a woman, she acknowledged God.  “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov 3:5-6).  Thus, at the birth of her first son, she said Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction (Gen 29:32).  When her second son was born, she said Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this on also” (Gen 29:33).  In naming her fourth son, no longer did she express hope that her husband would love her, but said simply, “This time I will praise the LORD” (Gen 29:35).  She seems to have resigned herself to the fact that Jacob did not love her, and never would; and she praised God anyway, with Judah’s name being a perpetual reminder of God’s goodness.

Years later, following the deal Leah made with Rachel to trade her son’s (Reuben) mandrakes in exchange for Rachel’s right to sleep with Jacob that night, she must have prayed that she would conceive, for we’re told, “And God hearkened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son” (Gen 30:17). And when she conceived and bore her sixth and last son, she said, God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons” (Gen 30:20).

We don’t read of Leah complaining to Jacob that he didn’t love her, nor of her trying to make life difficult for her sister.  Leah was a woman who trusted God, and for that she received his blessing.  God overlooked her act of deception, just as he overlooked Jacob’s act of deception when he stole Esau’s birthright.  Leah was a faithful and obedient wife (1 Pet 3:5-6), and a faithful and obedient servant of God.  She acknowledged him and looked to him in all things, trusting him even when they didn’t go her way.  She was a true “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7; 2 Sam 20:19), her name was recorded in the annals of Israel, and she became a household name.  For example, when Boaz was obtaining the right to marry Ruth, “Then all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses.  May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel’” (Ruth 4:11).

This is not to say that Rachel was ungodly – far from it.  She, too, was a faithful and godly woman, although there are two instances we’re told of which don’t reflect well on her; her outburst against Jacob (Gen 30:1-2), and her theft of her father’s household idols (Gen 31:19), about which she also lied (Gen 31:34-35).

And when Jacob expressed his fear of Laban, and his desire to leave his service and set up on his own terms, both Leah and Rachel supported him, and encouraged him to obey God.  “Then Rachel and Leah answered him, ‘Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house?  Are we not regarded by him as foreigners?  For he has sold us, and he has been using up the money given for us.  All the property which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children; now then, whatever God has said to you, do” (Gen 31:14-16).

From the womb of Leah, the unloved wife, came six of the twelve sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.  And of these were the patriarchs of the two most important and significant tribes; Levi, the priestly tribe, and Judah, the royal tribe.  From Levi came Moses, who led Israel out of the bondage of Egypt and through whom God gave the Ten Commandments, and Aaron from whom came the priests who offered daily sacrifices before the Lord for the sins of Israel.  And from Judah came David and the kings of Judah, and the great Son of David, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind.  Leah, the unloved wife, was greatly loved and honoured by God.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

References

Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright 2006, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America

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