The Girl Almost Nobody Loved
One of the many wonderful things about the Bible is how full it is of real people and their real struggles. It is not a sterile Book. God clothed His truth in skin through the hundreds of individuals He told us about.
Often overlooked is Leah, the wife of the patriarch Jacob, who lived nearly 4,000 years ago. Though the ancient culture of Genesis 29—31 seems strange to us, the dysfunction of Leah’s husband’s family reads like a modern soap opera. The account of her life is fascinating, resonating with the authenticity of human nature and drawing our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We all have desires, dreams, hopes, aspirations. It’s part of being human. Leah was once a little girl with her whole life in front of her until her father married her off to someone who didn’t love her. Her difficult life unfolds in Scripture, describing her four vital relationships: with her father, her husband, her sister, and her God.
The Unwise Father
When God called Abraham, He made an unconditional covenant with him, promising to bless the entire world through his son Isaac and later through Isaac’s son Jacob. The blessing included the coming Messiah.
Abraham found a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac from among his Mesopotamian relatives. She bore Isaac twins in his old age. The second-born twin, Jacob, colluded with his mother; deceived his blind and failing father; and defrauded his brother, Esau, to receive the covenant blessing. Jacob then fled from Esau to live with his mother’s relatives, the family of his Uncle Laban.
“Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance” (Gen. 29:16–17). The Hebrew word for “delicate” means “weak” and is difficult to interpret. Something about Leah’s eyes stood out negatively. Perhaps she had poor vision or was cross-eyed. Or perhaps her eyes were light when most people had dark eyes. Whatever the reason, she was not considered attractive and grew up in the shadow of her beautiful little sister, Rachel.
To make matters worse, Laban was unwise in guiding his daughters and in downplaying the comparisons between them. In fact, his behavior in arranging their marriages was that of a father who seemed to think the only way he could get a husband for Leah was to trick someone into marrying her.
Laban was also unwise spiritually. His dealings with Jacob indicate he was a crooked businessman living for material things. When Jacob finally left after serving Laban for 15 years, he told Leah and Rachel, “Your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not allow him to hurt me” (31:7).
Laban valued material possessions and was willing to deceive to obtain them. In addition, he was an idolater and not a believer in Yahweh, Jacob’s God (vv. 29–30). So Leah was raised by an unwise, materialistic, idolatrous father.
The Unloving Husband
Enter Jacob. Immediately infatuated with Rachel, he proposed working seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. It was an exorbitant bride price in that culture. Sensing the young man’s vulnerability, Laban gave an evasive answer: “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me” (29:19). After working seven years, Jacob demanded to marry Rachel.
It takes imagination to picture how Laban pulled off this hoax. Picture an ancient wedding feast going late into the night with plenty of wine, a heavily veiled bride, and no electric lights. Jacob thought he married Rachel. But “it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah” (v. 25). You can imagine his shock.
When Jacob confronted Laban, “Why then have you deceived me?” (v. 25), Laban’s reply must have pierced Jacob like a dagger: “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (v. 26). The Holy Spirit surely used these words to confront Jacob with how his father must have felt to have been deceived in his darkness by the younger son taking the place of the firstborn. The deceiver had been deceived.
Laban then let Jacob marry Rachel after a one-week wait, but only for the promise of seven more years of work. Jacob agreed, and the sad practice of polygamy reared its ugly head. Thus the stage was set for another devastating comparison in Leah’s life: “Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah” (v. 30).
The Unhappy Sister
Leah’s longing to be loved by her husband was unfulfilled. Ironically, Jacob in his old age chose to be buried in the family grave next to Leah (49:31), rather than near Bethlehem where Rachel was buried. Perhaps he finally came to appreciate her.
Through Leah, God quickly gave Jacob four sons, one after another: “When the Lᴏʀᴅ saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (29:31). After a few years, Rachel was frustrated and confronted Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” (30:1). Jacob’s answer was harsh but conveyed an important theological truth: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (v. 2). God is sovereign, and children are a gift from Him.
How ironic that each sister had what the other wanted. Leah had children, but not her husband’s love. Rachel had her husband’s love, but no children. Through it all, our wise and loving God was seeking to get the attention of both women and draw them to Himself.
Leah’s comments upon naming her first three sons showed a woman yearning for her husband’s love. She named her firstborn Reuben (from “to see”), saying, “The Lᴏʀᴅ has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me” (29:32). Her second son’s name, Simeon, came from “to hear.” Leah lamented, “Because the Lᴏʀᴅ has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also” (v. 33). The third son she named Levi (from “to be attached”). How heart-wrenching it is to read Leah’s lament, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (v. 34).
Something changed with the arrival of the fourth son. God did a great work in Leah’s heart. “And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Now [literally, “this time”] I will praise the Lᴏʀᴅ.’ Therefore she called his name Judah [from “praise”]” (v. 35).
It was as if Leah defiantly decided, “I will not let the men in my life or my difficult circumstances keep me from praising the Lord and enjoying His blessings!” Leah learned what God is trying to teach us all: True joy in life is found in the Lord alone. Marriage can be good and children are a blessing, but they are not the ultimate source of fulfillment and meaning. God is.
God did a great work in Leah, but He also did a great work through her. When all was said and done, He made her the mother of six of the sons of Jacob, from whom came the 12 tribes of Israel. She became renowned through the generations as one of the two women “who built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11).
God also made Leah the ancestor of the Messiah. Readers of Genesis who know the whole biblical account rejoice in the role of her son Judah (“Praise”) as head of the kingly tribe (49:10) through whom came King David and eventually the “Son of David,” Jesus the Messiah.
God delights in using the “foolish…weak…base…despised” things of this world to do His greatest work, “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). The Messiah Himself had “no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isa. 53:2). God took an unloved woman like Leah and, in His love, made her the mother of the Messianic line.
Like Leah, you can find your true longings met in the God who loves you and provided Jesus, who went to the cross to bring you to His Father. Take your longings to God, and see what He will do in you and through you.