My heart always goes out to Leah, the wife Jacob didn’t want. Here is the sermon I preached on this story from Genesis 29: Revised Common Lectionary, Ordinary Time 17A.
The Unwanted One
A Sermon on Genesis 29:15-35
You know there’s going to be trouble the minute Leah’s name comes up in the story. The text sets up an unfavorable comparison between Leah and her sister Rachel. The writer wants us to know there’s something wrong with Leah in comparison with Rachel. There’s something delicate or odd about Leah’s eyes. We’re not sure exactly what the Hebrew means there. But the writer is loud and clear when he continues, “But Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” The implication is that of course Jacob would prefer Rachel. Of course he wouldn’t want to “settle” for Leah. The text makes it seem like the only thing worth knowing about these two women is that Rachel was prettier.
There’s plenty here to make us uncomfortable, plenty that’s alien to our experience and even distasteful: polygamy—multiple wives, common in that day, women as property to be sold and bought, women primarily valued as baby bearers and in particular male baby bearers. And then there’s the whole atmosphere of dirty tricks that surrounds the Jacob family in nearly every episode.
These may be remote from our experience. But judging by appearances—and comparing—is not. It’s here. It’s now.
Standards of beauty in our day are such that few women feel they can measure up. It is very, very rare to find a woman who feels totally okay about how she looks. That’s why we laughed recently about having our women’s pool party “under cover of darkness.”
But male or female, you at least want to look normal, or not attract attention for not looking exactly normal. Dating and marriage can be a very delicate issue for people with disabilities.
Lots of people know what it’s like to be the one not chosen, or the one always chosen last as when folks choose up sides for sports. “I’ll take so-and-so”—and unspoken, occasionally spoken, is, “and I don’t want so-and-so!” It’s tough to be a wallflower.
It’s tough to look around at others and feel like you don’t measure up. This even happens in the church. People look around at others, and they seem to have their act together. They don’t seem to struggle. They don’t seem wrestle with fear and doubt. They don’t seem to have the problems I do. Judging by appearances, that is.
I’m guessing that, for whatever reason, there were no other offers of marriage for Leah. She was a wallflower. But even if Laban was just using Leah to extract more labor out of Jacob, this plan of switching Leah for Rachel at the wedding would at least provide long-term economic security for her and give her the possibility of children.
Making the switch wasn’t that hard. The bride was always completely veiled and carried into the bridal chamber. Alcohol flowed freely at weddings. Much of it probably flowed down Jacob’s throat. With that in mind, and under cover of darkness, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine how the switch occurred.
The next morning was bad. The look on Jacob’s face, disappointment and even disgust. The sound of Jacob’s angry voice echoing all over the compound. We got the sanitized version of what he said to Laban. The thought of what other people were whispering to one another. Everybody knew Jacob didn’t want Leah. It’s even tempting for us to laugh: Jacob sure got his comeuppance! He had met his match in Laban. But it was at Leah’s expense, and it hurt.
The whole situation was a mess. This family was a mess: dueling tricksters trying to outdo each other in who can be the most deceitful and grab the most “goodies.” This is not a family that I would choose for a holy purpose! If I were God, I think I’d look elsewhere to build a family of faith.
And speaking of God, there hasn’t been any mention of God since back at Bethel in chapter 28, where we were last Sunday. But suddenly verse 31 makes us aware that God was still there, and that God wasn’t just sitting back watching. God was up to something. It says that when the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened Leah’s womb, while Rachel remained childless for a time. God was mysteriously involved in and around the advent of Leah’s children, and she received them as God’s gift. “The LORD has seen my affliction,” she declared. “He knows. He knows my husband doesn’t love me.” Turns out God was up to something good even in this mess.
Leah had four sons in quick succession: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Eventually Leah became the mother of six of Jacob’s twelve sons, plus his only daughter, Dinah.
From our vantage point generations and centuries later, we can see the big picture. We can detect the movement of God. Through the mysterious working of God, Leah, the unwanted and unloved, became the mother of the priests of Israel through Levi, and the mother of David and the kings of Israel, through Judah. The name she gave Judah later became the name of the southern kingdom. Still later the area was called Judea. The people of God eventually became known as Jews through this name. Leah, the wife Jacob didn’t want, is the matriarch of the priestly line, and of the royal line. And she is also the ancient grandmother of Jesus, the Messiah. Jacob did not choose Leah, but in a mysterious way, God certainly did. God gave her a place in the working out of his promises.
Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to work through some other family, one that functioned better, one that was at least making more of an effort to walk in the ways of God, one in which the people treated each other better? Perhaps there were better candidates from that point of view. Perhaps not. The point is God chose this family. God chose to work out his purposes and his plans through this very flawed man and this very flawed family, in these very messy circumstances.
We see this again and again in scripture. God works out his purposes through people who are the spiritual, behavioral kin of Jacob even if not the literal kin. People of questionable abilities. People of questionable morality. People of questionable faith. People whose lives were a mess. Through the mysteries of the way God works, even murderers can play key roles—as when Moses becomes a liberator. Adulterers like David can be great kings. In God’s mysterious wisdom, weird people like Ezekiel can be prophets. Yes, weird. Ezekiel did weird stuff to convey the word of the Lord, like lying on his side for days and days on end and consuming only bread and water.
Look at the way Jesus operated. Look who he hung out with. Not with the people who had their act all together—or thought they did. Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and prostitutes and losers of all kinds. He touched lepers and people with disabilities and others who were considered unclean and unwanted. He ate with them. He welcomed messy people into his fellowship. This didn’t set well with folks who were proud of how clean and tidy and God-pleasing their lives were.
Even Jesus’ closest circle of disciples didn’t have their act together. They were as self-centering, self-seeking, self-serving and self-protecting as they come. What did they do when the going got tough? They let Jesus down. They ran away when the authorities took Jesus away and crucified him. They locked themselves away for fear that they might be next.
After his resurrection, did Jesus go looking for some better candidates to serve his purpose? No! He started over again with precisely these. He didn’t want to choose somebody else.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, God just doesn’t think and act according to human wisdom. He writes, “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.” (See 1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
Surely we can count on God in his wisdom and power to be at work in us in a similar way. The truth is flawed, sinful, weak, messy people are all God’s got to work with. As a courageous father of a very sick boy once said to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.”
If God in his wisdom and power can make his promises unfold through people like Jacob and troubled families like his, surely God can do that here in us. Surely God is with us, and God’s promises can unfold through people like us and in circumstances like ours. God does not want to look elsewhere.
A year or so ago, our fellowship Sunday School class read a book called Messy Spirituality, a loving, grace-filled book for all who are all too aware of their imperfections. The author, Mike Yaconelli puts it this way: The spiritual life is a relationship. Life in the spirit is not about perfection; it is about connection. Life with God begins where we are now in the mess of our lives (p. 22). We are loved, shortcomings and all, by the God who meets us and transforms us in the midst of a messy and unpredictable life” (back cover). (Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 2007.)
In the mystery of divine wisdom, God draws us into his plans, such as we are, and works out his purposes. Knowing that sets us free to welcome others. Other sinners. Other broken people. Even the unwanted.
God drew Jacob and the whole troubled family and the whole troubled situation into his plans. And one of the ways God did that was by wanting and choosing Leah, the one Jacob didn’t want, the one Jacob didn’t choose, the one who didn’t measure up to somebody’s standard.
In a book entitled Letters to My Children a man named Daniel Taylor describes a memory from the sixth grade. (Told in Messy Spirituality, p. 111-112.) Periodically they had dance classes, and they were set up so that at the beginning of class, the teacher would line up the boys, and then the boys would choose their partners. This was not fun for the boys or the girls. You’ve probably been in a situation like this.
It was definitely not fun for one particular girl who was always chosen last. For her it was a time to look at the floor in shame. This child wasn’t attractive by conventional standards. An illness had caused one of her arms to draw up permanently, and it had weakened one of her legs. One day the assistant teacher, who happened to attend Dan’s church, pulled him aside and told him, “The next time we have dancing, I want you to choose her.” Dan couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone pick her when there was Linda, Shelley, or even Doreen. Dan’s assistant teacher told him that it was what Jesus would have done, and deep inside, Dan knew she was right. It was still hard, though.
The next time they had dancing, Dan ended up first in line, which meant he had to choose first. Then he heard himself call this girl’s name. And to this day, he remembers her surprise and joy. She lifted her head, and on her face was the most genuine look of delight he had ever seen, and a flush of pride. She came and took his arm and walked beside him like a princess, with her head held high.
Here we are. God sees all. God knows all. All the sin. All the pain and weakness. All the struggle. All the mess.
And God says, “I choose you.”
Image: Rachel and Leah, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti