There have always been stories in the Bible that puzzled me. Jacob stealing Esau’s blessings. Saul hunting down David. David taking Berthsheba for himself. Amazing men of God who were purposed for greatness and yet at the same time seemed to have so many hit-and-miss moments. Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself in many of these stories, gleaning for some level of wisdom or understanding. Afterall, the Bible is not just a guide for us on how to live life, but also very much a cautionary tale on how not to.
So I wasn’t surprised that I found myself wrestling today with the story of Rachel and Leah, the Desperate Housewives of Haran (and perhaps rightfully so).
Though many of you already know the story of Jacob and his wives Rachel and Leah, I’m going to share the TBE (Told By Eudora) version anyway, because this is just a whole lot more fun this way.
So basically, Genesis 29 opens with Jacob having fled home after he’s taken his brother’s blessing. He finds himself in Haran looking for his Uncle Laban. Instead he stumbles upon Laban’s gorgeous younger daughter Rachel and it’s totally love at first sight (*cough* not-a-real-thing *cough*). He decides he absolutely has to have Rachel for himself, so immediately rushes off to find his uncle and offer him a proposition: 7 years hard labor for Rachel as his wife. This is impressive to us, of course, because in 2017 you can barely get a guy to buy you dinner before he expects you to give it up. But even way back then Laban was equally as moved by the offer, and agreed to the terms: 7 years for his daughter.
Here’s the catch though: he never said which one!
So Jacob does his 7 years of hard labor, and his wedding night comes round and it’s all on and poppin… until he wakes up and realizes that he just spent the night with Rachel’s older sister Leah!
Jacob storms into Laban’s house demanding to know how he was ‘gonna play a brother like that.’ Laban responds by calmly telling him that he’s in HIS house now, and in Laban’s house, things are done a little differently: the older daughter has to be married before the younger one (Of course, this makes me think that Laban might possibly have been a Ghanaian parent, but history tells us otherwise). Jacob doesn’t protest. He knows the damage is already done and there are no backsies. Instead he offers another 7 years hard labor in exchange for Rachel this time, hoping to God there isn’t another middle daughter somewhere in the woodworks. Laban agrees, and after 7 years, Jacob gets his intended bride.
Hold on to your lace-fronts, because this is where the story gets juicy.
I’m not sure what Jacob or Laban expected would happen with two sisters marrying the same man and living in the same household, but the results were nothing short of catastrophic. Jacob clearly loved Rachel more, and Leah’s scorn for her grew. God of course was kicked back in heaven watching all this unfold, and felt compassion for Leah’s predicament, so decided to give her a son. And another. And another. And another. Meanwhile, Rachel’s womb was closed shut. So what does she do in retaliation? She has their husband impregnate her hand maiden – twice! Leah – 4, Rachel – 2. Of course, having been scorned in the affection department, Leah’s not going to be outdone or out-witted in the baby-making business, so offers HER maid up to Jacob, then pops out another 3 herself (including a baby girl), putting her in a comfortable 9-2 lead. God assesses the situation again and decides to give Rachel her hearts desire: her own son. Chapter 30 ends with the scores settled at 9-3.
So now that you know the story, let me tell you what I find most puzzling about it. Rachel was Jacob’s beloved and intended. Leah’s marriage to Jacob was, essentially, a mistake. And yet, it is through Leah’s womb that the promise of salvation and the reconciliation of man to God came. Jesus was a direct descendant of Leah’s son Judah, and not of Rachel’s sons Joseph or Benjamin (who would be born later).
It doesn’t quite seem… right, or fair. And yet there’s still many lessons we can learn from their story (RE: my IG post on Jacob and Esau and how favor ain’t fair, for one). I’ll keep this short and share the one which particularly caught my heart:
If you look closely enough, what Leah chooses to name her children is telling of her motivations. Genesis 29:31-35 tells us she named her first three sons in hopes that having them would cause her husband to finally love her at least as much as he loved her sister Leah. She was essentially looking for the approval of her husband, and looking to best her younger sister.
Leah gave birth to a son and named him Reuben, because she said, “The Lord has taken away my sorrow. Now my husband will love me more than he does Rachel.” She had a second son and named him Simeon, because she said, “The Lord has heard that my husband doesn’t love me.” When Leah’s third son was born, she said, “Now my husband will hold me close.” So this son was named Levi.
Sons 5-8 mirror this naming pattern, seeking the approval and praise of others. The only time Leah ever finds any semblance of true rest in this entire story (and Lord knows she needs some) is when she has her fourth son. She names him Judah, saying ‘This time, I’ll praise God’, and the Bible says that after that, she decided to stop having children ( of course the next chapter sparks a whole other round of sibling rivalry). Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame Leah for seeking her husband’s affection, but I also don’t think it’s coincidence that the one time in this entire story that Leah chooses to turn to God and offer up praise to Him instead of seeking praise and honor for herself is when God uses her to fulfill his promise to Abraham of all nations of the world being blessed through him.
Meditating on the story of Leah and Rachel definitely made me do a heart check because I was reminded that true purpose can only be found and fulfilled in God. That is, your motivation matters. We can’t do this Purpose thing without constantly reevaluating whether we are doing it for our own recognition and the praise of others, or for the glory of God and the applause of Heaven. I don’t want to live like one of these desperate housewives, constantly seeking to find validation from people and status, and not in the simple fact that God sees and wants to use them. That truth alone should be more than enough for you and me, and will guide us directly into God’s purpose and plan for our lives.