When we talk about marriage, it’s good to go back to the very beginning where it all started:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18).
Once that was done, the writer of Genesis tells us:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (v.24).
You remember the story. Adam was alone, and God said, “It is not good.” To make Adam fully conscious of his aloneness, God brought a complete animal parade to pass in front of the only human being on earth to remind him that he had no counterpart in the universe. Adam needed someone to share life with him. He was created to be in a relationship. Alone, Adam was only half the story. So God created Eve and brought her to him. Then all the pieces were in place for a magnificent marriage.
The man and the woman had an ideal situation. They were created in the image of God and were placed in a garden where they had challenging work without fatigue and stress. But you know what happened next. It had to do with a command from God, a piece of fruit, and a choice. Out of that choice flowed alienation—alienation from God their Creator; alienation from nature, which would now master them, exhaust them, and eventually absorb them back into itself; alienation from one another as blame replaced trust and hierarchy replaced equality; and finally an internal alienation as each one became a walking civil war. They were torn between their hopes and fears, vacillating between their fundamental need for relationships and their resentment at having to pay the cost of those relationships. They were now flawed people living in a fallen world.
Within only six generations from Adam and Eve, the perfect relationship between one man and one woman had given way to polygamy. Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech had married two women, Adah and Zillah. The one-flesh relationship— a oneness that is not only physical but mental, emotional, and spiritual— is no longer possible for a man who acquires wives the way he acquires cattle, sheep, or gold.
In Genesis 29, we meet two women—Leah and her sister Rachel—who are rival co-wives locked in a polygamous relationship. Rachel, the younger one, is the apple of her husband’s eye. Leah is not loved. How does a woman live with a man who doesn’t love her? Examining Leah’s life can help answer that question.
We first meet Leah as a pawn in someone else’s deception. Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and had fled from Canaan back to the land of his ancestors. He came to the household of his Uncle Laban, his mother’s brother. Laban invited him to stay with him and work for him. Let’s look at the story as it develops in Genesis 29:
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her.”
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years (Gen. 29:16-30).
Your first sympathy probably goes to Jacob. After all, a bargain is a bargain. He bargained for Rachel, not Leah. His crafty uncle pulled a fast one and stuck him with Leah.
But Jacob had been pretty crafty himself. He had deceived his blind father Isaac and cheated his brother Esau. So he wasn’t exactly without blame. But we still feel sorry for Jacob. After 7 years of labor, he went through all of the traditional feasting to celebrate his wedding to Rachel. He waited in the darkened tent for his bride to be delivered to him, saw only dimly the heavily veiled woman enter, and assumed she was Rachel. What a shock the next morning to discover that plain Leah had been substituted for gorgeous Rachel!
It’s easy to get so caught up in feeling sorry for Jacob that we forget what it must have been like to be Leah the next morning. Some commentators speculate that Leah had also been in love with Jacob during those 7 years and that she was a willing accomplice to her father’s scheme. Nothing in the text confirms that. Whether she went to Jacob’s tent that night as a willing accomplice or as a dutiful daughter merely obeying her father, she could not have been thrilled the next morning when Jacob made a scene with his father-in-law Laban. If Leah had ever hoped for Jacob’s love, if she had ever dared think that she could compete with her beautiful younger sister, all illusions were dashed when Jacob hit the tent roof about the deception. She was unloved, undesired, and unsought. And one week later she was the displaced wife as Jacob took Rachel to himself.
I doubt that there are many, if any, women in America today who were married under the same circumstances as Leah. But deception of one sort or another has been part of many courtships. If you are married and you think back to your own wedding, did you get what you bargained for? Or did you feel cheated by your partner in some way? Life can seem bleak indeed when the most important relationship in our experience turns out to be marred at the outset by deception or disappointment. We live in a sinful world and build relationships with sinful people. We bring our own sinfulness to those relationships. No wonder deception and disappointment creep in.
In verse 31, this sad story of unloved Leah turns a corner:
When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.
God was not blind to Leah’s plight. He saw the ache in her heart and did something about her situation. He enabled her to give Jacob a son. The sovereign God saw Leah’s need and moved to meet it. And in the process, He was working out His plan for Jacob and Jacob’s descendants, even in the way He would send Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer, into the world.
Part of Leah’s handicap was that she was no candidate for Miss Mesopotamia and she had a sister who was. Rachel was beautiful. And when she first appears in Genesis 29:6-12, she dances off the page, full of vitality and energy. She simply had it all. It is no surprise that Jacob flipped when he saw her. No wonder the Bible tells us that working for her for 7 years “seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (v.20).
Then there’s Leah. The only thing we know about her is that she had “weak eyes” (v.17). Commentators and translators have had a field day with the Hebrew word here translated “weak.” We don’t really know what Leah’s eyes were like. Some say she was going blind and Laban wanted to get rid of her quickly before that happened. One Bible version translates the word “tender.” The Living Bible paraphrase tells us that she had “lovely eyes.” All of these are possibilities. Perhaps Leah had only one good feature—her beautiful eyes. Or perhaps her eyes were so disfiguring that everything else faded into insignificance. The important thing is that whatever she looked like, she grew up in the shadow of a beautiful sister.
Could God have created Leah as beautiful as Rachel? Certainly. So why didn’t He? It would have saved her great grief. Why did God wait until Leah was the unloved wife of Jacob to do something nice for her? Isaiah the prophet reminds us that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than your ways and [His] thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9). When we look more closely at Leah, we see that if God had made her equally as beautiful as her sister Rachel, the chances are good that she would not have been pawned off on Jacob. If that had been the case, Jacob would never have had the particular sons through whom God worked for Israel and for a fallen world. God often works in our lives not by giving us a perfect situation but by showing His power and love in our very imperfect situations. He works for our ultimate good by allowing us to struggle in less than perfect relationships.
Leah was unloved. But God saw that and opened her womb. Not once, but at least seven times. Each time that Leah held a tiny new life in her arms and named the child, we get a glimpse into her mind, into her heart, into her needs.
In Genesis 29:32, cradling her firstborn son, Leah “named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.’” Soon after, “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, He gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon” (v.33).
As if two sons were not enough. “Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.’ So he was named Levi” (v.34).
Three sons. Is that enough? Apparently not, for verse 35 tells us, “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.”
Four little boys all in a row. Can you see Leah outside her tent on a hot Mesopotamian summer day calling “Reuben! Simeon! Levi! Judah!”? Listen to the progression in Leah’s understanding and her faith as you hear those names.
Reuben—“Behold, a son!” Leah recognized that God had seen her misery, opened her womb, and given her a son. She interpreted that fact as God’s way of enabling her to gain her husband’s love. But did it work out that way? Apparently not. Probably less than a year later, Simeon was born.
Simeon—“hearing.” Leah was still unloved. Reuben’s birth had not caused Jacob to love her. He still had eyes only for Rachel. Now God had heard Leah’s sighs. He had seen her tears. He had understood her deep desire for the love of Jacob and had given her a second son. Surely this time Jacob would love her. But did he?
Again Leah gave birth to a son and called him Levi— “attached, joined.” She explained, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Leah hoped that each new little son would make a difference in the marriage, that somehow Jacob would begin to love her as he loved Rachel. She still hoped for equal if not first place in his heart. With the passage of time after the birth of each little boy, hope was deferred and then dashed to the ground. All of her efforts to win Jacob’s love—with God’s help—were fruitless. He still had eyes only for the beautiful but barren Rachel.
Many wives go to extraordinary lengths to win or to keep the love of husbands who do not respond to them in love. Just as often, as with Leah, that hope springing eternal becomes hope deferred or hope dashed to the ground.
It is tough to live in a relationship without deep, mutual, committed love. Everything in us cries out for it. After all, that was God’s original intent for marriage when He created the man and woman and brought them together in Eden.
Marriage in Eden was more than sex. It was a marriage of minds, goals, interests, and spirits. And it was a marriage of two bodies becoming one to symbolize all the oneness a man and a woman could experience in every other dimension of their lives together. It was a total unity that was possible only in Eden. In their perfection, Adam and Eve could have that relationship.
As a flawed woman married to a flawed man, I cannot have that total and unblemished union with my husband. My needs get in the way of his needs. His wishes collide with mine. It is easy to become disillusioned about a relationship that cannot be perfect. So we try and we long and we wish for something better. In today’s world, if we despair of achieving it with Mr. Wonderful #1, we may decide to try it with Mr. Wonderful #2 or Mr. Wonderful #3.
In a day when we are surrounded with media telling us that romantic love is the basis of strong marriages, it’s hard to hang on to the fact that a magnificent marriage can be built on something other than love. In the disappointment of feeling less loved than you’d like, is it possible to find resources for happiness in a less-thanperfect marriage? Look at Leah’s attitude when her fourth son was born. She named him Judah, which means “praising.” She explained that name by saying, “This time I will praise the Lord.” For the first time in naming her sons, Leah turned from expressing her yearning for Jacob’s love to accepting and basking in God’s love.
Leah’s focus had shifted from what she lacked to what she had. True, nothing had changed with Jacob. He was still starry-eyed over Rachel. Leah could not change him. But she could change herself. She could change her focus. She could recognize the hand of God in her life, giving her significance.
The most important step toward joy in a loveless marriage is to change our focus from what we do not have to what we do have. Leah had four sons in a day when sons were everything. She woke up to the richness of her situation and said, “This time I will praise the Lord.”
Genesis 30 opens with the spotlight on Rachel:
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family” (vv.1-3).
Bilhah had a son by Jacob who legally became Rachel’s child. We know this because it was Rachel who named the little boy. She called him Dan, saying, “God has vindicated me; He has listened to my plea and given me a son” (v.6).
If it worked once, maybe it would work twice. So Rachel sent Bilhah to Jacob again. The maidservant bore another son and Rachel named the baby Naphtali, which means “wrestlings.” Rachel explained her choice of names by saying, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won” (v.8).
Had she? The score was actually four to two in Leah’s favor. But nervous because her sister could close in on her, Leah jumped into the same game and gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob also. When Zilpah gave birth to a son, Leah called him Gad, meaning “fortune.” Yes, her riches were increasing. The score was now five to two, still in Leah’s favor.
It had worked twice for Rachel. Perhaps it would work twice for Leah. So once again she sent Zilpah to sleep with Jacob. Zilpah became pregnant and bore a son. Leah named him Asher, which means “happy.” She exclaimed, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy” (v.13).
What a switch! The loved and favored Rachel was desolate. The miserable, unloved Leah exclaimed, “How happy I am!” The tables were turned. The woman who had it all at the beginning was eaten up with jealousy and frustration. The substitute wife, who wanted so desperately to know her husband’s love, now had learned to focus on what she had, not on what she lacked. She could say, “How happy I am!”
I would be happy if the story ended with Genesis 30:13. Leah sounded victorious over her loveless marriage. She praised God for what she had and didn’t focus on what she lacked. It would be nice to think that she stayed that way for the rest of her life. But our battles seldom stay won. In the day-to-day rivalry of Rachel and Leah, a rivalry that lasted a lifetime, Leah’s battle to live above her loveless marriage had to be fought again and again.
We gain insights into the relationship between the two sisters in the story that follows:
During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” “Very well,” Rachel said, “[Jacob] can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night. God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son (30:14-17).
This incident demonstrates the daily tensions in Jacob’s household. Little Reuben had found some mandrakes in the field. The mandrake is a plant that bears a yellow fruit the size of a plum and is shaped like a tomato. This fruit was called a love apple. People believed that mandrakes helped a woman become fertile.
Rachel’s exclamation to Jacob at the beginning of Genesis 30, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” revealed the intensity of her desire to bear children. So you can understand why, when she saw Reuben with love apples, she asked Leah to give some to her. But you can also understand Leah’s answer: “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
The relationship between Leah and Rachel was still colored by rivalry. Rachel would do anything to get pregnant. Leah could not forget that Rachel held her husband’s heart in her careless hands. So the bargaining began. In the end Rachel agreed to let Jacob sleep with Leah that night in exchange for the mandrakes. Ironically, it was the woman without the mandrakes who became pregnant. The woman who believed in the magical qualities of those little yellow love apples remained barren.
When Leah’s fifth son was born, she called him Issachar, meaning “reward.” She explained his name by saying, “God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband” (v.18). Leah saw Issachar’s birth as a reward from God.
It appears that almost immediately Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son whom she named Zebulun, meaning “honor.” Her explanation was, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons” (v.20).
Note the ways in which Leah’s understanding of life had grown. After her first son was born, she said, “Surely my husband will love me now.” After the third son came along, she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me.” Now at the birth of her sixth son, she has scaled down her expectations. She said simply, “This time my husband will treat me with honor.” She was becoming more realistic about what would or would not happen in her marriage.
Contentment in a loveless marriage will never come as long as we cling to the ideal of romantic love and lose sight of the good gifts of God we have already received. Leah focused on Zebulun as “a precious gift” from God.
Many years had passed since that morning when Jacob awakened and discovered that the bride in his tent was Leah and not Rachel. During all those years Rachel wanted a child more than anything else in the world. After long years of waiting—with the score standing at nine (including daughter Dinah) for Leah and only two for Rachel by her maidservant—Rachel’s cry for a child was heard by God and she became pregnant. Son Joseph was born, and Rachel’s first request was, “May the Lord add to me another son” (v.24).
God heard her prayer, but with consequences she couldn’t have anticipated. By this time Jacob had worked for Laban for 20 years. One scoundrel was being fleeced by another scoundrel. So Jacob made the decision to return to Canaan with his large family of two wives, two concubines, ten sons and one daughter.
As the family journeyed west, the unthinkable happened. Rachel, nearing the end of the journey and pregnant with her second son, died in childbirth. What she wanted more than anything else in the world became the cause of her final separation from the man who loved her. The woman with every reason to be happy died giving birth to a son she named Ben-Oni, “son of my sorrow” (35:18).
It’s easy to look at a woman with breathtaking beauty and the undying love of her man and think that she must be the happiest of all women. But hear Rachel’s sorrow. Hear her complaint. Things are often not what they appear to be.
And what of Leah? God had sovereignly removed her rival from the family circle. Rachel was gone. Leah was now the number one wife. We do not know whether Jacob learned to love her any more than he had at the time of that first deception. We do not know how many more years they lived together. We know only that when Leah died, Jacob buried her in the ancestral burial ground, the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah were buried. He honored her in her death.
At the end of the book of Ruth, after Boaz had bested the nearer kinsman and had won Ruth as his bride, the elders of the city of Bethlehem prayed:
May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel (4:11).
Leah the unloved was Leah the foremother who helped build up the house of Israel. Of the twelve sons of Jacob who became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, six were born to Leah. Out of Leah’s personal sadness came rich blessing for Israel. It was Leah who gave birth to Judah, from whom came Israel’s greatest king, David, and from whom came the Lion of the tribe of Judah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Leah, the plain older sister of beautiful Rachel, lived in a very difficult situation and survived. Like her, we too are fallen people in a fallen world. We are people scarred by alienation from each other and from ourselves. Life seldom, if ever, comes to us in a way that is fully satisfying. Most of the time it comes with an edge of dissatisfaction— not quite enough love, not quite enough care, not quite enough honor, not quite enough esteem. Almost, perhaps, but never as much as we’d like.
Like Leah, we can focus on what we lack and be miserable. Or also like Leah, we can decide to focus on what we have and make up our minds that “this time we will praise the Lord."
How do you live with a husband who doesn’t love you? You change your focus. In the process, you will not only end up exclaiming with Leah, “How happy I am!” but you will someday find that God has worked His miracle through your sadness, touching the world with blessing through you.