Jacob’s heart was set on marrying Rachel. She was the woman of his dreams. He worked seven years for her “and they seemed to him but a few days.” As we saw in our last issue, his greedy uncle Laban switched girls at the wedding and he ended up marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. She was not the one he was in love with. “Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Genesis 29:17). Not everyone gets to marry the most beautiful girl in the class, but in Jacob’s case, that was the deal he had made with his uncle. Being stuck with the ugly sister was not what he had agreed to work for. It wasn’t fair.
We also saw in our last issue that what Laban did to Jacob was the very same thing Jacob had earlier done to his own father. That had not been fair, either. God had brought Jacob’s sin back on him. God does the same thing with us today, but most of the time we are too upset about what is happening to us to step back and reflect about what we have done to others. If we would do that, we would realize we don’t have nearly as much to complain about as we thought we had.
When Jacob complained to his uncle, his uncle gave him Rachel in addition to Leah (since he was already married to her). Of course, he had to work another seven years to pay for Rachel (which was why Laben pulled that trick in the first place). The question we would like to look at in today’s story is how did Jacob handle this disappointment? Also, what did God think of how he handled it?
The narrator of our story wastes no time in telling us how Jacob handled his disappointment. “He loved Rachel more than Leah” (verse 30). Can you blame him? He hadn’t asked to marry Leah. Why should he love her like he loved Rachel? Surely God would agree. When we think like that we show that we do not know God. The very next verse tells us, “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” So Leah had four sons one after the other while Rachel was left childless.
Throughout the Bible God shows that He is the God of the unloved and mistreated. While Jacob was feeling cheated and misused, God knew how it felt to be in Leah’s place, and He didn’t like it. So He gave her children and withheld that gift from her favored sister.
If we really understand this lesson, it has to come as a major shock to us. Like Jacob, all of us have been in unfair situations at times. We know what it feels like to be treated unfairly. Yet few of us have been put in a situation as unfair as what Jacob was in. He never asked to be married to Leah. Surely God would not expect him to love her as much as he loved the girl he had worked seven years to marry. The shock comes when we realize that that is exactly what God did expect from him. God really was displeased when he showed favoritism toward Rachel over Leah.
In the following chapters we never learn that Jacob changed his attitude. When Rachel eventually had a child, that boy became Jacob’s favorite. The resentment of his other sons at that favoritism was so great that it did great harm to his family.
Well then, how should Jacob have handled his disappointment? The Bible teaches that God is in control of everything (Matthew 10:29 and many other scriptures like it). Instead of blaming his uncle (and possibly Leah, too), Jacob should have recognized that God had given him Leah as his wife. Had he done that he could have had a good marriage with her. Certainly, his family would have been a lot better if the leader of that family had learned to accept God’s actions toward him as good.
Most of the stories in the Bible are told through dialog. The narrator (Moses) stays mostly in the background and lets the characters tell the story by what they say to each other. The story of the first seven years of Jacob’s marriage (Genesis 29:30—30:24) is indeed told through speech, but in a rather unusual way. Most of the story concerns sons being born to Jacob (eleven in all by the end of those seven years). The speeches that carry the story forward are the speeches of the mothers as they name their sons and explain why they picked that name. It is an interesting storytelling technique.
Leah was the first to have children. She named her firstborn Reuben (which in Hebrew means, “See, a son”) and explained, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (verse 32). She continued the same theme with the second son, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also,” and the third, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
You have to feel sorry for this lady. She wanted what her sister had—a husband who loved her. Time after time she thought the son she provided for her husband would make him love her. And time after time she was disappointed.
Her sister, meanwhile, was also dissatisfied. The first words we have of her recorded in the Bible are to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1) That really angered Jacob, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” When Jacob’s own mother had the same problem of being unable to bear children, her husband Isaac had prayed to God for her and God had answered with twin boys (Genesis 25:21). But Rachel came up with her own plan, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” Jacob agreed, and Bilhah had two sons in succession. Rachel named the first one Dan, explaining, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” For the second one’s name she explained, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.”
So each sister wanted what the other had. Leah wanted her husband to love her. Rachel wanted children of her own. Each of them strongly believed that her life would be complete if she just had that one thing. Rachel eventually got what she wanted. Around the end of the second seven years that Jacob worked to pay for her she had a son that she named Joseph. She explained the name, “May the Lord add to me another son!” It does not seem that having a son solved her problem as completely as she thought it would. Her older sister Leah, on the other hand, never got what she wanted. But through her suffering she learned a deeper lesson. When her fourth son was born, she named him Judah, and explained, “This time I will praise the Lord.”
That is an amazing statement. For the first three sons she had hoped each time that having a son would cause her husband to love her. It never worked. Finally, she appears to have accepted the loss and turned her attention to what really mattered. She began to see God in her life and it delighted her. She praised the Lord.
After her sister gave her servant to Jacob to have children by her, Leah did the same thing with her own servant Zilpah. Zilpah bore two sons. Leah named the first one Gad, explaining, “Good fortune has come!” She named the second Asher, explaining, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.”
How can Leah say she is happy? Doesn’t she still want her husband to love her? Certainly she did, though she never got that wish. But she learned a deeper lesson—to find her satisfaction in God, rather than in her husband. Her sister, unfortunately, never learned that lesson.
After those eleven sons in seven years, Jacob’s wives went years before giving him any more. Rachel ended up finally having a second son. Tragically, she died giving birth to him, though the baby survived (Genesis 35:16-19). Having sons was not the panacea she thought it would be.
Of those twelve sons, one of them was destined to be the ancestor of the Messiah—the great leader who would save His people—Jesus. That ancestor was Leah’s fourth son Judah. It was at his birth when Leah finally turned the corner and announced, “This time I will praise the Lord.”
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible.