Women in the Bible
The Unloved Wife
The Woman Lacking Loveliness Was Yet Loyal
Scripture References—Genesis 29; 30; 49:31; Ruth 4:11
Name Meaning—Leah as a name has been explained in many ways. “Wearied” or “Faint from Sickness” with a possible reference to her precarious condition at the time of birth, is Wilkinson’s suggestion. Others say the name means “married” or “mistress.” The narrative tells us that she was “tender eyed” (Genesis 29:17), which can mean that her sight was weak or that her eyes lacked that luster reckoned a conspicuous part of female beauty which Rachel her sister “beautiful and well-favoured” evidently had.
Family Connections—Because Jacob was Rebekah’s son he was related to Leah by marriage. Leah was the elder daughter of Laban who, by deception, married her to Jacob, to whom she bore six sons and a daughter. By her maid, Zilpah, Leah added two more sons to her family.
The romantic story of Jacob and his two wives never loses its appeal. After fleeing from and meeting God at Bethel, Jacob reached Haran and at Laban’s well he met his cousin Rachel drawing water for the sheep. It was love at first sight for Jacob, and his love remained firm until Rachel’s death in giving birth to her second child. Going to work for his Uncle Laban, Jacob was offered wages in return for service rendered, but he agreed to serve Laban for seven years on the condition that at the end of the period Rachel should be his wife. Because of his love for Rachel those years seemed but a few days.
At the end of the specified period however, Jacob was cruelly deceived by his uncle. As it was a custom of the time to conduct the bride to the bedchamber of her husband in silence and darkness, it was only with the morning light that Jacob discovered that he had been deceived by Laban as he saw Leah and not Rachel at his side. Laban condoned his unrighteous act by saying that the younger girl could not be given in marriage before the first-born, and Jacob covenanted to serve another seven years for Rachel, his true love inspiring him to be patient and persevering. Perhaps Jacob treated the deception as a retributive providence, for he had previously deceived his blind and dying father.
Whether Leah participated in the deceit to win Jacob from her more beautiful sister we do not know. The moral tone of the home was low, and Leah may have been a child of environment. This much is evident, that although she knew that the love of her husband’s heart was not for her but for Rachel, Leah genuinely loved Jacob and was true to him until he buried her in the cave of Machpelah. While Jacob was infatuated
with Rachel’s beauty, and loved her, there is no indication that she loved him in the same way. “Rachel remains one of those women with nothing to recommend her but beauty,” says H. V. Morton. “She is bitter, envious, quarrelsome and petulant. The full force of her hatred is directed against her sister, Leah.”
The names Leah gave her children testified to the miraculous faith God had planted in her heart. Somewhat despised by Jacob, she was yet remembered by the Lord. In spite of the polygamous marriage, she became the mother of six sons who were to become the representatives of six of the twelve tribes of Israel. The names Leah chose revealed her piety and sense of obligation to the Lord.
Reuben, her first-born, means “Behold a son,” and Leah praised God for looking favorably upon her. Thus, divine compassion was carefully treasured in such a name which also the holder tarnished.
Simeon, the second son, means “Hearing,” so given by Leah since God had heard her cry because of Rachel’s hatred. Such a name as Simeon is a lasting monument of answered prayer.
Levi, the next to be born implies, “Joined” and Leah rejoices feeling that her husband would now love her, and that through Levi’s birth she would be more closely united to her husband.
Judah was the fourth son to be born to Leah, and she gave him a name meaning “Praise.” Perhaps by now Jacob had become a little more affectionate. Certainly the Lord had been good to both Leah and Jacob, and with the selfishness in her heart defeated, Leah utters a sincere Soli Deo Gloria—“I will praise the Lord.” Leah had two other sons named Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Leah was uncomely when compared to her lovely sister, but what she lacked in beauty she made up for in loyalty to Jacob as a wife, and as a good mother to his children. “It seems that homely Leah was a person of deep-rooted piety and therefore better suited to become instrumental in carrying out the plans of Jehovah than her handsome, but worldly-minded, sister, Rachel.”
One evident lesson we can learn from the triangle of love in that ancient Israelite home is that solemn choices should not be based upon mere external appearances. Rachel was beautiful, and as soon as Jacob saw her he fell for her. But it was Leah, not Rachel, who bore Judah through whose line the Saviour came. The unattractive Leah might have repelled others, but God was attracted toward her because of an inner beauty which the lovely Rachel lacked. “There are two kinds of beauty,” Kuyper reminds us. “There is a beauty which God gives at birth, and which withers as a flower. And there is a beauty which God grants when by His grace men are born again. That kind of beauty never vanishes but blooms eternally.” Behind many a plain or ugly face there is a most lovely disposition. Also God does not look upon the outward appearance, but upon the heart.
© 1988 Zondervan. All Rights Reserved
Women in the Bible
Women in the Bible: Leah the unlovely
October 18, 2015
‘… but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.’ (Gen 29:17, ESV)
Imagine if you were the first half of this sentence, the bit that comes before the ‘but.’ You’d be the one contrasted with the beauty. Whatever is said about you, it’s not flattering. Leah is the subject of this first half of the sentence, and it’s some kind of reference to her eyes. Commentators have all kinds of theories: was she slightly cross-eyed? Is it just a euphemism for ‘ugly?’ We don’t know. But we do know that it’s not flattering.
We also know that their husband, Jacob, loved Rachel not Leah. He worked 7 years to take Rachel and his wife and was not happy when he woke up next to Leah. He’d been tricked! Probably the pain smarted all the worse for Jacob because he himself is a trickster. But imagine that you are Leah. You’re the one he doesn’t want. You’re the unlovely one. You get a week with him, and then he’s going to marry your sister anyway, and by the time he leaves, he’ll have worked 14 years for her. She could definitely be the model for a L’Oréal commercial – she’s worth it! – while he’s probably thinking Nike for you – just do it.
How many of us feel like a Leah? We are too fat, or no curves; hair too limp, or too unruly; too dark, or too pasty; too flat-chested, or too big-bummed; too tall or too short. Maybe your eyes are too close together, or your skin too blotchy, or your chin the wrong size. There are a thousand reasons to feel ugly. We can and should interrogate those reasons and how they’re related to advertising for example, and what role appearance should play in our self-worth. However, the question I want to ask in this post is, ‘how does God treat Leah?’
Leah is not just overlooked or scorned by Jacob. She is loved less than her sister Rachel! (Gen 29:31) She is unlovely and unloved. Yet in the ancient world, there was another way for women to be considered valuable: by bearing sons. And Leah has four of them. This isn’t just luck of the draw; we’re told that it’s God who opens her womb, and that he does it because he sees how she’s treated. One of those sons is Judah, from whose line comes a great royal dynasty through King David from whom Messiah Yeshua [Jesus], comes, so Leah occupies a special place as one of the grandmothers of the Savior.
Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits on high, yet stoops down to look at the heavens and the earth? (Psalm 113:5-6) Who is this God who cares for the unlovely woman, who takes one who is unlovely and gives her great worth? The point here is not that if you’re ugly you get compensated with something else. It’s far more profound than that. Leah’s story tells us that there is nothing insignificant about feelings of ugliness. God does not brush that away, nor does he think the hurt that comes from it is invalid. God sees the Leah and he loves her.
How many single girls have been told that if they changed this or that about their appearance a guy would want them? (Never mind about their less attractive, already married friends!) How many partnered women are haunted by insensitive words about keeping fit so her man stays interested? None of these are God’s messages to you. He is not like others with their well-meaning words of advice. He is unlike all others. His love is an unfailing and unconditional love.
No one wanted Leah, but there was One who would not despise her. His regard is for the unlovely, and he acknowledges their grief. He loves them and because he loves them, they are lovely.
Leah: Discovering Love
During the Passover season, we are looking at some mothers of the Old Testament who trusted God through good times and bad. Sometimes they struggled to understand why God acted (as in sending a flood), or did not act-by giving a child. Eventually, they each came to believe that, as Paul says, “all things work together for those who Love God,” and certainly for those whom God loves.
Leah was a woman who doubted that she was loved. You remember the story in Genesis. Jacob runs off to his family in Haran to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. The first person he meets is Rachel. In storybook fashion, he falls in love with her and agrees to work for 7 years as an indentured servant to her father Laban in order to marry her. On the wedding night, Laban tricks Jacob and he discovers that he has married her older, and not as attractive (at least to Jacob) sister, Leah. Ultimately, Jacob works for another 7 years to earn Rachel, again. Surely this is more than enough to make even the strongest person doubt if they are loved by their husband?
In Beloved Leah, my book in which Leah tells her story, she doubts that she is lovely and lovable for most of her life. Despite bearing Jacob sons and faithfully caring for them, and raising her sister’s two sons Joseph and Benjamin, she never thinks it is enough.
How many of us wonder if we are doing all we can as mothers, wives, women, workers…whatever the titles we give ourselves might be?
It is not until she is nearing death that Leah finally realizes that she has been pushing away the very thing she has desired. Jacob has loved her, and so had God. As they journey toward Egypt and reunion with Joseph, Leah falls ill. We meet her at that moment:
A rustle of movement and the tent flap was pushed aside. The warm breeze from outside brushed across the woman on the pallet.
She roused to call again, “Rachel!”
“Hush, my wife,” Jacob knelt and took Leah’s hand. “Rest and be well. Rachel is not here. We will travel together to her son. I need you, do not leave me.”
The woman tossed her head restlessly and opened her eyes. They softened when she saw the man kneeling beside her. She seemed to return to the present from somewhere far away. His eyes filled with tears as he caressed her weak hands.
“My husband,” her voice was gentle. She tried to lift her one hand to touch the man’s face.
“I never understood,” she murmured.
“Leah, you are the strong, faithful woman I am honored to call my wife,” the old man kissed the hand he held. “Your belief in the One God has strengthened me in the darkest times. I need you now to go with me to Egypt. Together we will find our son.”
A slight smile crossed her lips as she reminded him, “Rachel’s son, my love.” She took a deep, ragged breath. “I never understood your love for Rachel. Through all her childless years and her whining your devotion remained strong. I was angry and bitter for I thought that you had nothing left for me. The God of your Fathers has taught me that love can be boundless.”
Her head moved fretfully against the pillows and Zilpah hurried to adjust them. Bilhah brought a cup of water. Gratefully the woman drank.
Slowly, she turned her hand in her husband’s so she held his fingers. Pleadingly she looked at him.
“Jacob, my husband,” she continued her confession, “my venom taught our sons to hate their brother. God has shown me that He has forgiven me, for Joseph is restored to you. Your God has taught me that even such grievous fury as mine can be forgiven.”
Tears trickled down the old man’s cheeks and he kissed her wrinkled cheeks.
“Leah, beloved Leah,” he whispered, “you too have I loved.”
With a great effort, the woman feebly touched the cherished face behind the graying beard. Her voice was a sigh. “I know that, now. All I ever saw was Rachel, loved by our father and then by you for her beauty. Never could I believe that I was lovable. My jealousy poisoned my sons against their brother. When you see Joseph, ask him to forgive me.”
She fell silent while the man wept unabashedly. Her eyes closed and she seemed to drift into a doze. Then suddenly she opened her eyes.
“Call my sons,” her voice was stronger and urgent, “I must tell them to let go of their hatred before it consumes them as it did me.”
At a nod from Jacob, Bilhah went to the tent flap and ushered in the eleven waiting men. Zilpah helped her mistress sit up. Jacob held his wife cradled in his arm against the mound of pillows. She seemed to gain strength looking at the big men she bore and raised.
“My sons, hear my story,” she said looking at each face in turn. “Give up the anger you hold in your hearts against your brother. It will only destroy you as it consumed my relationship with Rachel.”
Reuben, the first born, leaned forward. His mouth opened on a denial. A slight shake of his mother’s head stopped him.
“Hear my story,” she repeated, “it was always Rachel who was adored by everyone. She received special attention because she was lovely and pleasant. I was envious and my hostility grew.”
The men crouched around the pallet while Zilpah held the cup of water for Leah to take another sip. Then she began …[later, after she finished telling her story]
The old woman looked around at her sons. Tears glistened in their eyes.
“For too long, I raged against Rachel and against Jacob for not loving me,” she said. “I wanted them to love me for being beautiful. Too late I have learned and understand that they loved me for who I am.”
Jacob bent his head to kiss his wife’s forehead. “You are my faithful Leah. You are the strength of the family,” he whispered.
She seemed almost beautiful as she smiled softly up at the man.
“My husband, God is your strength. He will be with you to bring you to Egypt and back. Your God always keeps His promises.”
Turning her head, she admonished the eleven men still crouched near the bed.
“My sons, you are all my sons, though I didn’t bear you all. I have raised you and watched you grow into good men, true husbands and loving fathers. Do not forget the God of Israel, your father, when you are in Egypt. Remember and teach your children how He showed grace by redeeming your anger and restoring your brother to you. Joseph has forgiven you. Accept that gift. My God has forgiven you as He has forgiven me. Do not be afraid. Trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has promised to bring you back to this land as a mighty nation. Let go of the remaining fear and grudges against your brother. Do not continue to blame yourselves. The mighty hand of God has turned our evil designs and anger to great good for all.”
Lying back, the woman closed her eyes. A slight smile slid across her lips as a breath sighed, “Rachel, Rachel, I must tell…”
Jacob heard the softly spoken words fade.
“No!” The cry wrenched from him in agony as he gathered his wife close. Unashamed he wept. Zilpah and Bilhah raised the mourning cry. Dinah fell across her mother’s lap wailing and her brothers took up the keening through their tears. Throughout the camp, each person added a voice to the lament.
“We will bury Leah in the cave where Abraham and Sarah and my parents are buried.” Jacob instructed his sons in the morning. He looked very old and the men glanced at each other in concern.
“Leah, my beloved, here next to Abraham and his cherished Sarah you will rest. As Isaac and Rebekah are side by side, so shall I return to be buried beside you, my faithful Leah. My dearest wife, you reminded me of the faithfulness of the One God by your words and deeds. I will go to Egypt but my joy in Joseph is less for I am without you.” Jacob’s words were spoken through tears as he laid his hand on hers for the last time before leaving the cave.
The days of mourning ended and the caravan faced southward toward Egypt. The mood was sorrowful as sons and family missed the gentle hand of the woman. For so many years, she had been the inspiration of the tribe. Jacob was not the only one who missed her guidance and love. Dinah divided her days between her family and her father. Like her brothers, she missed the encouragement of her mother even as she took over the duties of overseeing the camp.
Gradually, however, the excitement of reaching Egypt and seeing Joseph again began to occupy everyone’s thoughts.
“I will see my son.” Jacob told his sons daily. Ten of the men wondered if their half-brother would turn on them after the family was safely settled in Egypt. “We must not be tempted by the ways and gods of this land,” the old man warned his sons. “The children must learn all that the God of our fathers has done. They must learn of the blessings and promises given to Abraham and to my father Isaac and to me.”
Levi nodded when Jacob added, “As my beloved Leah said, ‘God is gracious and has blessed me fully throughout my life.’ The One God will be with us in Egypt and like Abraham the Wanderer, we will return to Canaan a great nation.”
Leah found her long-sought-for love and her real faith in God too late. Each of us can take a lesson from her, and accept God’s love now. We can embrace the love of family and friends. Can you accept the love God offers through the lives of our parents and family and friends?
(c) Cynthia Davis 2017
Compilation and comments © by Dr. David G. Sloss, PhD – as edited by Stephen J Spykerman 2018