Man sees beautiful woman. Man falls in love. Man wins woman’s hand, weds her, and they live happily ever after. Throw in a fire-breathing dragon and a wart-nosed witch to spice things up, and you have all the makings of a fairy tale.
Fairy tales are fine, of course, but the stories that reel me in go something like this: man sees beautiful woman; man falls in love; man labors seven hard years to win woman’s hand, weds her, and rolls over the next morning and—jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!—it’s the sister of the beautiful woman in the bed beside him!
Welcome to the un-romance of Jacob and Leah. You can read all about it in Genesis 29 and following. But buckle your seat belt. You’re in for a narrative ride of wedding night deceit, sister wives, a baby-making competition, and all the trapping of a dysfunctional family on steroids. A family, we do well to remember, that was the Old Testament “church.”
Let’s first of all dispense with a couple of popular fallacies that people have of this story: one, Leah is not the ugly sister and, two, Jacob is not a young man when he marries her.
Eyeing Leah and Jacob the Octogenarian
We’re told two things about these daughters of Laban: their age and appearance. Leah was older, Rachel younger. That’s clear. But what about this? “Leah’s eyes were weak [rak (רַךְ)], but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen. 29:17). The Hebrew rak usually means “soft, tender, gentle” and can imply “youthful.” It does not mean “ugly.” Granted, Rachel was very easy on the eyes, but, as Victor Hamilton points out, Leah’s “eyes are the beautiful eyes of a person who looks much younger.”
And Jacob? That fellow was no spring chicken. Working our way backward in his life, we find this: Jacob was 130 years old when he left for Egypt (Gen. 47:9); at that time, Joseph was thirty-nine years old (41:46; 45:6, 11); Joseph was thus born when Jacob was about ninety-one; Joseph was born in the fourteenth year of Jacob’s time with Laban (30:25; 31:41); therefore, Jacob was about seventy-seven years old when he fled from Esau and headed to Uncle Laban’s house, where he fell head over heels in love with his good-looking cousin.
The upshot? By the time he “accidentally” married Leah, Jacob was an octogenarian. Given the cultural conventions of the time, Leah was presumably still a very young woman, possibly in her teens. Using modern life expectancy as a comparison, since Jacob lived to be 147 years old, he was the equivalent today of a man, say, in his forties. I know, that’s still obviously weird by our culture’s standards, but it turns out that ancient Near Eastern peoples did not consult modern, western, democratized relationship advice before making marital decisions.
Writing on the Birth Certificate with the Ink of Tears
Jacob wound up exiled in Haran because he had deceived his father and earned the murderous ire of his older brother (Genesis 27). Now in Haran, Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine. Wiley Laban out-Jacobs Jacob by tricking him into marrying his older daughter, Leah, though Jacob assumed he was leading his beloved Rachel to his marriage bed. Unanswerable questions arise: did Jacob frequent the keg too much during the wedding festivities? Was it too dark in the tent to see? Was Leah heavily veiled? My guess is that all three were involved. Either way, this memorable line of Jacob’s post-coital reaction says it all: “And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25).
And, behold, it was also Leah who, in the aftermath, sadly, depressingly, but not surprisingly, became the unloved wife. One week later, Jacob married his prized Rachel. We are told that “he loved Rachel more than Leah” and that Leah was “hated” (Gen. 29:30-31). So, which is it? Did he love Leah less or hate her? Based on its usage elsewhere, in a similar marriage context (Deut. 21:15-17), the Hebrew verb שׂנא (pronounced sah-NAY), translated here as “hate,” probably has the technical meaning of “unfavored co-wife” (as Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, argues). So, Jacob didn’t loathe Leah; he just preferred her sister.
But that certainly did not keep Jacob out of Leah’s arms. One, two, three, four sons she bore to him in succession. If we’re wondering about the emotional state of Leah during his time, the names she chose for her first three sons say it all. All three are Hebrew puns that convey the same dismal message: maybe this son will make my husband love me.
Leah wrote with the ink of tears on their birth certificates. She names her firstborn, Reuben, saying, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (29:32). Of the next son, Simeon, she says, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (29:33). Levi is so named because “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (29:34). Picture a modern mother naming her son, “Just,” saying, “If my husband would ‘just’ love me.” That’s the message these three names convey.
The Maternal Link Between Eve and Mary
Leah would go on to bear more sons with Jacob, as well as a daughter, but one thing never borne of their long marriage was happiness. Jacob had never wanted to marry her, nor is there any evidence that she wanted to marry him. Ironically, when Jacob died, he was buried alongside Leah not Rachel, as my friend, Jack Williams, once pointed out to me (Gen. 45:31).
Typical marriages are “till death they do part” but in this marriage, death joined them in a way that was strangely closer than they were in life.
In a sense, and in the bigger picture of Scripture, this was quite fitting. Together, as husband and wife, they became the parents of a boy named Judah (Hebrew: Yehudah), their fourth born son whose name meant, “This time I will praise [yadah] the Lord” (39:35). Jacob, who inherited the promise of the coming Seed from Abraham and Isaac, passed on this blessing to Judah (Gen. 49:8-12), adding that Judah would be the ruler among his brothers.
Leah’s life, for all its sadness and disappointment, is a vivid reminder that we mortals see only a pinprick of the grand vista of God’s merciful plan of redemption for our world.
From Judah’s tribe, eventually, came Boaz of Bethlehem, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jesse, who fathered a young shepherd named David, who became the greatest king in Israel’s history. And from David’s line was born a baby boy named Jesus, the Seed long-awaited by the people of God.
Rachel was the beloved wife, to be sure, but she was not the maternal link between Eve and Mary. That blessed position belonged to Leah. Women would later sing of the two sisters that they “together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). True, but the foundation of that house came from Leah. She bore Judah, patriarch of the tribe of Messiah.
In the same grave, side by side, lay Jacob and Leah. But the promise lived on. Long after their bones were dust, that promised Seed became flesh. He too, after thirty-three years, would take his place in a grave, but short-lived was his stay there. The Lion of the tribe of Judah roared life into the world three days later.
Leah’s life, for all its sadness and disappointment, is a vivid reminder that we mortals see only a pinprick of the grand vista of God’s merciful plan of redemption for our world. Out of this messed-up, polygamous family, full of frigid relationships, fraternal strife, and all manner of ugliness, arose a beacon of light and hope.
When Jacob awoke next to Leah, he shouted at Laban, “What is this that you have done to me?” Oh, if only he had known the good that our Father would one day bring from this marriage, Jacob would have kissed Leah and wept aloud for joy.