Women of the Bible - Leah
Passage: Genesis 29:14–29:30
When I designed and outlined the plan for this sermon series, the person we are spot lighting this morning was the main inspiration behind the whole thing. The genesis, no pun intended, of this series was wanting to tell this woman’s story.
For the summer we are looking at different women of the Old Testament. We are looking at their stories, who they were, and how their faith and their life can impact our faith and our life. Last week we talked about Sarah and about what it is to be faithful to God’s promise over a lifetime. This week we are progressing a bit further into Genesis to talk about a woman who is often overlooked. She is overlooked as we read and talk about the different stories and people in Genesis and she is overlooked within the story itself. This morning we are going to talk about Leah, not princess Leah, but Leah who was one of the sons of Laban and one of the wives of Jacob.
But before we get to Leah, let’s go caught up in where we are in Genesis. So God calls Abraham and tells him to leave his tribe and that God would bless Abraham with a new tribe who would in turn bless the nations. Abraham follows God taking his wife Sarah with him. After a lot of stuff happens, most of which we covered last week and you can check it out on our sermon podcast on iTunes or our website, and eventually Abraham and Sarah give birth to a son named Isaac. A lot of stuff happens with Isaac, but eventually he marries Rebekah and how that happens is its own endearing story which you can find in Genesis 24 if you’d like some Sunday afternoon reading. Isaac and Rebekah have two children, two boys, twins. The older son is named Esau and the younger son is named Jacob. Jacob came out clutching the heel of his older brother in an attempt to try to be the first born. And that typified Jacob and Esau’s brotherly relationship for the rest of their lives.
There are a couple interesting episodes with these two boys where in one Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for one bowl of lentil stew. That better have been the best lentil stew, like it would Beat Bobby Flay good. Then in another episode, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was due to his older brother by basically walking into his father’s room in disguise. So the two things that were due to Esau as the firstborn, the symbols of his family superiority and his right to continue on the family line, were taken from him by Jacob.
Jacob realizes that when Esau finds out about all this he’s probably going to kill Jacob, so Jacob flees going to his uncle’s tribe. And this is where we pick up our story.
Genesis 29:14-30 Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.” After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.” 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 had a lovely figure and was 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 make love to 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 brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant. 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 Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her attendant. Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
Now this is a rich, deep story that has a couple different things going on. On the surface we have a Biblical “Taming of the Shrew” type story and I’ll have much more to say about that in a minute. But when we have the context of this story within the larger story of Genesis we see that Jacob, who has been a trickster and a cheat all his life, is finally getting a taste of his own medicine. Jacob tricked his brother out of everything and now it’s Jacob being on the other end of a trick.
Often sermons are given from Jacob’s perspective. When we tell this story and think about this story we think about the main character and how it must have felt for him to be the one getting tricked. We think about him toiling another seven years in order to marry the woman he was in love with. But that’s not who I want to talk about.
Sometimes we might talk about Rachel, the woman who loved Jacob who first met Jacob and the woman Jacob wanted to marry. We might talk about how she might have felt having to watch him given away to her older sister. That certainly is the Taming of the Shrew angle.
But this morning, I want us to focus on Leah. Leah was the eldest child of Laban. Her younger sister, Rachel, was the shepherdess. Rachel was also the pretty one. The Bible tells us precious little about Rachel and Leah, but one thing the Bible makes clear: guys liked Rachel. Leah was passed over.
We first meet Rachel when she is taking her flock to the watering hole where Jacob and all the other male shepherds are. So this is what it was to be Leah: everyday she would watch her younger sister leave the house to tend the sheep. She’d know that her sister would take the sheep to the watering hole where the men would see her and want her. Being desired and wanted was something Leah never experienced.
I think it’s a shame the Bible doesn’t tell us anything more about Leah. All we know is that in this one area, physical appearance, she envied her sister. And for her I’m sure it was the most significant area. How often do we put more emphasis on the areas or characteristics where we are deficient and not properly rate ourselves in areas where we are blessed? I wonder if Leah was wonderful at managing the household. I wonder if Leah could sing beautifully. I wonder if Leah knew medicines and remedies. And yet the Bible tells us noting of her strengths, nothing of her gifts. So all we know about her is that she wasn’t the pretty one. And I wonder if that myopia is emblematic as to how she felt day in and day out.
Then cousin Jacob comes to town. Looking for a wife. But instead of being here for Leah, the firstborn, the one who he would rightfully be here for, he’s interested in marrying the pretty younger sister. And her father agrees. Her father agrees to let her younger sister marry Jacob provided Jacob work for her father for seven years.
Now we know that just as it was in Shakespeare’s time, in ancient times the younger sister did not get married before the older sister. So this would have been shameful for Leah that her sister could be promised before her. But she would have seven years to find another man and be married before her sister. And yet no one comes for her. And so with each passing day the possibility that her sister might wed before her becomes ever greater. She wakes up each morning watching her aunt’s son work and toil in order to marry her younger sister. She wakes up each day and the scandal, the horror, the dreadful possibility that she will not be wed before her sister grows and grows.
We fast forward a bit to the day of the wedding. Ancient custom dictated that the consummation of the marriage was done at night and in the dark. We don’t know who knew what, who was in on the plot. We only know that when Jacob awoke the next day he found that the woman to whom he was now married if Leah. We know he goes to Laban in horror and shock. What only Leah was have seen, and I imagine what Leah could never unsee from that day forth, was the look of shock and horror and disappointment he gave her when daylight revealed her identity.
Leah’s new husband immediately goes to her father and confronts him over this treachery. Why was I not given the wife I was promised, Jacob says. Why was I not given Rachel, whom I wanted. “I served you for Rachel,” he says. And everything Leah has ever thought about herself, the worst things Leah has thought about herself are confirmed by the words that her new husband speaks to her father.
And to Leah’s horror, Rachel is also given to Jacob in marriage. For her role in the plot she is forever sentenced to be the unwanted wife of her sister’s husband.
To me this story is all about identity. Who do we see ourselves as? What is the central piece to our identity? The Bible does Leah no favors when it comes to our reconstruction of who she was, what her identity was. But I wonder if the Bible in its imagery and storytelling conveys precisely the point. I wonder how much Leah’s identity was caught up in being the forgotten sister, the passed over sister? I wonder how much of Leah’s identity was in what she wasn’t. Or in what others were.
But isn’t that true for all of us on some level? Where do we find our identities? How do we define our identity?
My little brother was a really good athlete, a really natural athlete. It seemed like when we were kids there wasn’t a sport he wasn’t good at. I remember when I was 11 or 12 I was playing rec league basketball. We had a game one Saturday and only had five kids show up to the game. My coach asked the other coach if it would be ok if my little brother played on our team that way we’d have at least one sub. The other coach looked over at this little 9 year old kid and said sure, what harm could it do. Yeah, my brother was the leading scorer that game. In little league my brother made multiple all star teams. He made a travel soccer team that played in one of the highest divisions for the league. His junior year in high school he was third in the state in the mile. The kid could flat out play sports and it didn’t really matter which one.
As for me, I had fun playing sports. Saying I had fun is a euphemism for saying I wasn’t good. Now here’s the thing, I wasn’t so bad that I embarrassed myself. I was good enough to keep up. But I wasn’t great. And I was vastly inferior to my little brother.
Now I am not a person lacking in confidence and no one would ever accuse me of false humility. There are many areas where I am gifted and I have been fairly successful in other pursuits. But it’s crazy how much of my identity formation was about my not being as good an athlete as my little brother. It’s crazy how much more emphasis I placed on athletics than on other areas. It’s crazy how much I defined myself by the ways that I was deficient from my little brother.
How often do we define ourselves in relation to other people? How often do we make one of the center pieces of our identity an area where we are deficient relative to others? How often do we pick the areas where we don’t measure up to the best?
There’s a particular theological tradition called apophatic theology. The gist of this is that God is so much greater than we are, so far above and beyond us, that we can only define who God is by saying what God is not. So God is not coercive. God is not corporeal. God is not temporal.
How often do we define ourselves, how often do we construct our identities apophatically? How often do we focus on what we are not? I’m not a skilled athlete. I’m not pretty. I’m not as smart. I haven’t made this promotion. I don’t have this house.
Sadly this way of identity formation continues in our story. Leah and Jacob immediately conceive and have children. But Rachel does not get pregnant. And Rachel sees her identity by what she doesn’t have. She is dejected that she does not have children while her sister has four. And throughout the rest of their story the sister are constantly comparing themselves to each other not by what they have, but by what they don’t have relative to the other sister.
God wants us to find our identity another way. God wants us to find our identity in other places. God wants us to find our identity positively. God wants us to find our identity in what He has done in our lives and what He is doing in our lives. God wants us to find our identity in relation to who He is. God wants us to find our identity in Him.
We see this in Leah’s story. In our story today all we knew about Leah, the only identity Leah has in this story is as the undesired sister. The unwanted wife. But her identity in God and her identity in God’s story is much greater. It’s not defined by what she lacks but in what she is and what God will do through her.
You see, Leah had the most of Jacob’s children. And she had one child in particular that would prove to be of infinite significance. Leah gives birth to a boy named Judah. And Judah is the tribe out of which King David comes. And Judah is the tribe out of which Jesus Christ comes.
The book of Genesis is the story of the promise, of God’s promise to save the world. That promise goes through King David and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Leah, the unwanted, the overlooked, the undesired sister is given a prominent place in God’s plan to save the world.
God can give you a prominent place in His plan to save the world, too. God can use you and let your identity be about your place in God’s plan and in God’s saving works. Will you let God change your identity? Will you give you life to God and let God change your story?
We’re doing this thing this summer where at the end of each sermon you all talk to each other. So here are two questions to discuss with the person sitting next to you:
--How do you define your identity? What is your identity based on?
--How can God use you in His story? What is your identity in God?