Leah and Rachel, the OG Sister Wives
Recently, I’ve been reading She Reads Truth devotionals on women in the Old Testament. The past couple of days have been on Leah and Rachel. Let me start by saying that the story of Jacob and Esau used to be a favorite of mine — I would always imagine these brothers as dashing opposites, so complex as any human is, but deeply distraught because of their approval-seeking behavior from both of their parents. After Jacob took Esau’s birthright and went to work for Laban, I followed him with interest.
I always thought it was so romantic how he worked for seven years for Rachel, the one who had outstanding beauty both inside and out, only to have to work seven more to marry her. And I always thought it was so sneaky, when I was younger, of Laban to hand off Leah to Jacob instead.
But there are things I’ve learned revisiting this story in-depth and with guidance years later.
1. Culture, Culture, Culture.
Near East culture over 2,000 years ago (and even today) is vastly different than what I know here in the United States, and there are still many things I don’t know or understand. From this story, though, I feel the need to point out two. First, Laban was Jacob’s uncle, the brother of Rebekah. Isaac, Jacob’s father, had already told him to seek a wife from Laban’s daughters (his first cousins!). This is weird and illegal for most of us now, but during this time period, it was accepted. Leah, the eldest, was said to have “weak [or delicate] eyes” while Rachel had a “lovely figure and was beautiful” (Gen. 29:17). So, of course, Jacob fell head over heels for Rachel. He agreed to work seven years, which the Bible tells us felt only like days because of his love for her. *sigh* The night of the wedding, Laban tricks Jacob and gives him Leah, along with her servant, Zilpah, instead. When Jacob wakes in the morning, who is he lying next to? Not the love of his life, Rachel. This is cultural point number two.
Laban then explains that, “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” (29:26–27). We can see this influence in other, more recent texts. Most notably we see it in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Lady Catherine de Bourgh chastises Mrs. Bennett for letting all of her girls out into society at once, instead of allowing the eldest to be married first (I also understand this is English society in the 1800s and not the Near East, but the nuances and influence are what I’m hinting at).
While Laban may have been sticking to cultural traditions, let’s be real. Leah wasn’t as desirable as Rachel. He was also probably doing it to make sure she would be out of his care and married off since the chances of that happening were slim.
2. Psychological Damage, Please Take One
How many of us have kind of been in Leah’s shoes? We all have the pretty friend, or in this case, sister. And we’re always comparing ourselves to them. According to She Reads Truth, Leah’s name meant “cow” while Rachel’s meant “ewe.” This is crazy to me — can you imagine the kind of psychology going on in that family already? Without Jacob in the picture?
Now, enter Jacob. He wants Rachel. He gets angry with Laban when he gives Leah to him. Place yourself in Leah’s position that next morning. Jacob was furious when he woke up to find her instead of the woman he loved — her prettier sister, Rachel. The one who made seven years seem like . . . days. Even worse for Leah, her father felt the need to trap Jacob into marrying her. Can you imagine?
So, despite all of this, the Lord opens up her womb. In one of the sweetest verses of this story, “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive” (29:31). The last part of that verse also says, “but Rachel remained childless.” Not as sweet, but stay with me. How many times have you heard women say that few things rival the love a mother has for her children? This was a way for Leah to finally feel love. God gives her a lot to be proud of through her children: two of her sons would become the priestly line of Levi, and the Messianic line of Judah would be established. The Messianic line of Judah was the bloodline of David, and the bloodline of Christ.
But let’s go back a moment to Rachel, the beloved one. Jacob works a total of 14 years for her, marries her after the first seven and a week, and then she can’t have his children (read: sons). Meanwhile, she sees Leah giving birth to four boys — it’ll be six in total. It gets to the point where Rachel does a couple things out of absolute desperation: she gives her servant, Bilhah, to Jacob to have sons through her, and then, much later, she seeks out Reuben (Leah’s eldest) for mandrakes that he brought back home. Mandrakes were viewed as “Love Apples,” aiding in conception (Song of Songs 7:13). She tells Leah that if Reuben will give her these mandrakes, Leah can have Jacob for the night.
If you read the dialogue from Genesis, things get dramatic in chapter 30.
Even though Rachel was loved by Jacob, in a society where children (especially boys) equaled a woman’s worth, she felt worthless.
Talk about a soap opera, amIright?
In the end, Rachel has two sons: Joseph and Benjamin. Spoiler: she dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob loves his youngest two the most. Why? Because they were given to him by Rachel.
Also, side note: can we talk about Jacob for a second? Getting tossed between four ladies (because he also has two sons through Leah’s servant, Zilpah and two with Bilhah). It must have been tough dealing with all of that. Right? Maybe not? No?
3. God Remembers
In Genesis 30:22, almost as a quiet footnote on that section of the chapter, it says, “Then God remembered Rachel; He listened to her and enabled her to conceive.” What most people may think about in this verse is, well, if He remembered, He must have forgotten about her. How could He? What we have to realize is that God remembering doesn’t mean He forgot in the sense of forsaking or abandoning. When God remembers, we almost always see a favorable action accompanied by it. As She Reads Truth points out, all around Genesis, we see God remembering: Noah and his family spared from the flood (8:1), and Abraham’s nephew, Lot, spared from Sodom and Gomorrah (19:29).
So, it is important when reading that passage to keep in mind the context of God’s action of remembering. Rachel wasn’t forsaken. She was about to be blessed with children.
Realizations I’ve Had Through This Story
Revisiting this story later in life has changed my perspective. While I still really love the story of Jacob, particularly his wrestling with God, this particular section has become more relatable to me now.
I can see the dysfunction more than I did before. Rachel and Leah struggled with a lifetime of competition through comparison, resentment, and psychological damage. This, on a level that is far more complex than I realized as a child, teen, and young adult. Whose family is perfect? It is refreshing for people from the Bible become human. Instead of stories I hear in Sabbath School over and over again that I become de-sensitized to them, I can relate to them in some insignificant way, and I feel like I know them a little bit better. While I definitely haven’t experienced all of their drama, I can understand dysfunctional families, comparing myself to someone else, resenting someone else, and being hurt through competition or by the actions of other people.
I can also see the compassion of God in a more personal, intimate way. He created an outlet for Leah to feel loved through her children. He opened Rachel’s womb when she was desperate to feel a sense of worth. He built a nation for Jacob that would lead to Christ. God cares. All the time. No matter the circumstances.
I never gave much thought to the story of Rachel and Leah before. However, that just goes to show you can hear the same stories a hundred times and get new things from it every time. We can always be learning and growing, learning and growing.