My sister and I have very different stories when it comes to the dynamic between us growing up. I always thought of Sierra as the pretty one. Sierra was popular, smart. In my eyes, she had it all. I always compared myself to my her. However, if you ask Sierra what it was like growing up with me, she will tell you that she felt an immense amount of pressure to do well in school, because I did well in school.
She hated being popular, because her friends were shallow and petty. She was jealous of my friend group. I had a very tight friend group consisting of “good, smart kids”. Sierra spent her growing up years looking up to me, trying meet the high standards
that I had unknowingly set.
Jealousy and envy are probably the most glaring of my “shadow side”—meaning the downsides to my strengths. The comparisons don’t stop with my sister. They are a constant companion.
So why am I up here spilling my guts about the parts of me that I am not proud of?
Well in some ways I found myself in the story that we heard today.Not the being married to my sister part, thankfully, but in what comes after the passage we heard
We got just a glimpse of the ongoing drama that was Jacob, Leah, and Rachel’s relationship. Some have called this the “original love triangle”. And the drama by no means started with them.
The history of the biblical “patriarchs” or the original families that shaped the people of Israel, is a bit complicated. We start with Abraham and Sarah who have a baby in their old age. Isaac was considered a miracle from their God. A God who promised them land and descendants that would number the stars. Isaac married Rachel and they had twins, Esau and Jacob.
You might remember the story where Jacob, the younger son, dresses up as his twin Esau, goes to see his dying and blind father. He tricks his dad, stealing the birthright (which was his inheritance, the majority of the land and animals in his father’s possession) and the blessing that was supposed to go to Esau—the eldest.
Esau is, understandably furious that Jacob stole his birthright and blessing and vows to kill him. Hearing this, Rebekah begs Jacob to flee for his life. He is instructed to go and find Laban’s family. Laban, who is his Rachel’s brother, his uncle.
So yes, that means that Leah and Rachel are Jacob’s cousins. It was a common practice during that time and culture to marry a relative to ensure that their land, flocks, and possessions would stay within the family.
Anyway, Jacob, a known trickster, goes to live with Laban and his family. When he meets this family at a well, Jacob sees Rachel and is overcome with her beauty. He kisses her and starts weeping.
Laban warmly welcomes Jacob into the family, and he begins working for his uncle. Soon Laban says to Jacob, “You have been working here so far for no pay, and even though you are family, surely you want to be paid something.” And Jacob responds like, “Well since you asked, your daughter Rachel is super attractive. I will work to take her has my wife.”
Laban responds, “Well I would rather her marry someone within the family than some stranger, so I guess you can stay.” Notice how Laban never explicitly says that Jacob could marry Rachel.
Jacob works for seven years, which fly by because of how infatuated he was with Rachel. When the seven years were up Jacob approaches Laban and very bluntly says, “Give me my wife, time is up, and I want to lie with her.”
Apparently not fazed by Jacob’s crassness, Laban threw a party. Later that night, instead of Rachel, Laban brought Leah to sleep with Jacob. Jacob, the trickster, has met his match.
In the morning, when Jacob realized that he had slept with Leah, not Rachel, he immediately went and confronted Laban with his deception. Laban matter-of-factly told Jacob that it was tribal tradition for the older sister to get married before the younger sister.
So, if Jacob wanted Rachel that badly he could finish his honeymoon week with Leah and then take Rachel as a wife as well…if he stays and works seven more years for Laban.
Jacob agreed and thus married both Leah and Rachel. The story could end here as a polygamous happily ever after…
But it couldn’t be that simple could it…
Jacob just had to play favorites, and Rachel remained the favorite wife. Not only was Leah considered the lesser of the two wives, but she was the despised wife.
In order to even the scales, I guess, God saw Leah was not loved and made Leah the more fertile wife. The part of the story we read today was only the beginning of the sibling rivalry brewing between Leah and Rachel.
Leah’s story is, in some ways, terribly sad. She is first identified in comparison with her sister. While Rachel is described as the shapely, beautiful sister, Leah’s sole description is that she has weak eyes. Then Leah is forced into a marriage where she is unwanted. She begins to have babies, hoping that birthing male children will earn Jacob’s love. Leah named each male child with a clear description of her emotional state and relationship to Jacob.
In order, this is what each of her children’s names mean:
1. “Now my husband will love me.”
2. “YHWH has heard that I am hated.” Clearly her first child didn’t win the love that she desired.
3. Now, by this time, my husband is joined to me.” Even if Jacob doesn’t love Leah,
at least he is joined to her because they have three sons together.
4. “This time I will praise YHWH.”
It seems that Leah is done bemoaning the lack of love that she experiences with her husband and has moved on to thanking God for her children.
Then the story shifts to Rachel, who remained barren while Leah has been busy having children. While Rachel was the favorite wife, she was still jealous of Leah who was able to provide their husband with offspring.
Rachel runs to Jacob, and cries, “Give me children, or I’ll die.” If she doesn’t provide children, she might be rendered as useless in the marriage and kicked out of the marriage, or even the community.
Jacob basically holds up his hands and said, “Who am I God?? It’s not my fault, take your anger to God, not me.”
Rachel, desperate to provide something in this relationship, offers her servant Bilhah to Jacob so Bilhah can bear children for Rachel, and thus build a family together that way. This might remind you of what Sarah did with her servant Hagar.
Through Bilhah, Rachel claimed two children, the first named Dan, because Rachel says, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Her next son through Bilhah is named Naphtali, which is a play on the word wrestle. Rachel says, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.”
Notice that Bilhah was not allowed to name the children she bore. Additionally, the relationship between sisters has escalated from jealousy now to a competition.
In response, Leah noticed that she had stopped bearing children, so she takes her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Through Zilpah she had a child named Gad, meaning “what a good fortune”. The second son Leah has through Zilpah is named Asher, meaning,
“How happy I am! The women will call me happy.”
Leah’s tune here is increasingly positive, less focused on her desire to be loved by Jacob as Jacob loves Rachel. Additionally, she makes no mention of a competition with Rachel.
BUT right after Leah has Asher, Reuben Leah’s oldest child, finds some mandrakes out in the field.
Mandrakes also known as “love plants” are in the night shade family and were considered an aphrodisiac in the eastern Mediterranean world.Rachel notices that Reuben has found mandrakes and asks Leah if she could have some. Leah responds angrily, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
Clearly Leah still has a tender spot when it comes to her status in their relationship.
Rachel decides to make a deal, if she can have some of the mandrakes then Leah can sleep with Jacob that night. So, Leah goes up to Jacob and says, “You must sleep with me, I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And Jacob did as he was told.
God listened to Leah, and because of this night with Jacob, she had a fifth son, named Issachar, meaning, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.”
Don’t worry, she wasn’t done there, Leah had a sixth son Zebulun.
She says, “This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.”
Gone are the days where Leah hopes for love from Jacob, now she doesn’t ask for affection,
she demands honor. Finally, Leah gives birth to her last child, Dinah, the only girl in the family.
If you were feeling bad for Rachel at this point, don’t worry, God remembered Rachel and she had Joseph, meaning, “God has taken away my disgrace and may the Lord add to me another son.” Rachel gets her wish, later we learn that Rachel had one more son, Benjamin, but sadly, she died while giving birth to him.
In total, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah provide Jacob with 13 children. The 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel.
So, what do we take from this long, detailed, complicated story? This is no Hallmark movie depicting the picture of the ideal family. This story is full of jealousy, anger, deceit, and
….well…babies. So many babies.
It would be tempting to wrap up this story in a neat bow, declaring that its point is to show that God will work in all types of people and situations in order to fulfill God’s promises.
That is one direction you could take. But there is so much mess and gritty disfunction. I think it would do a disservice to this incredibly complicated story to arrive at one neat take-away. This story is so many things.
I know that I am drawn to Leah because I can identify with the grief that accompanies comparison and jealousy. Feeling not good enough is not fun. Feeling inadequate can color the way you see the world. It is a constant companion that whispers doubt and insecurity in your ear. Even if you experience something positive, the ugly face of envy might still come along, painting your experience with shades of “you still could have done better” and “still not good enough” or “look how much better she did it”.
My dad has a saying that self-worth does not come from external sources. It can’t come from work, relationships, or accomplishments. Self-worth must be internal. It must reside within your very being—not dependent on your circumstances or what others might think of you.
This is a nice idea, but how do you live this out? What do you do when insecurity shows up at the door…always at the most inconvenient moment?
Maybe, like a lot of things in life, feelings of self-worth are not something you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’. Maybe they aren’t feelings at all. Maybe combating envy and jealousy isn’t just a natural state of being but a hard-earned skill. Maybe it is a habit that you must work at.
I see Leah struggle to habitualize a sense of self-worth. We see her vacillate between desiring her husband’s approval and love, wanting to ‘beat’ her sister at their love triangle, and the reality that her self-worth resides within, guarded by the knowledge that she is God’s beloved, and that’s all that matters.
Leah is not a ‘flat character,’ she is considered a ‘round character,’ meaning we see different layers to her personality; we see her doubts and fears as well as her growth. This is incredible to witness in the Bible, which is dominated by male characters. So for this story to focus on not just one but two women AND to give these women names, dimension, and a voice—is simply extraordinary. Not to mention that the slave women are named and play a significant role in contributing to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Further, in some ways, Jacob is not portrayed favorably. He is deceptive, manipulative, and does everything everyone else tells him to do, including both his wives. This story, these characters, are strange. People blatantly demand sex, mandrakes are suddenly important, and God goes around opening and closing wombs.
Yet there is something eternal about these people and what they experience.
We can identify with the trials that come within family dynamics.
We know the struggle of trying to earn honor, love, and respect. We have felt the temptation to deceive and manipulate others to get what we want. We know the pull inside us to take short cuts, to look for the quick fix—even if that doesn’t take the shape of bargaining for ancient Mediterranean mandrakes.
I encourage you to spend time with this story on your own. Can you wade through the complicated relationships and details and find the eternal golden strand running through it? Which character or which emotion do you identify with?
And when you get the gnawing feeling, when you hear that whisper of self-doubt, simply name it. Recognize it. No need to beat yourself up for yearning for validation. Shaming your feelings will only bury you deeper into a spiral of insecurity. Remind yourself that you are safe, loved, and that your worth comes from within.
Your worth comes from something inside you and at the same time something that is much bigger than you, bigger than the universe itself. Actually, your worth doesn’t come from something at all, rather someone. Your worth comes from your maker. The one who shaped you, can number the hairs on your head, the one who calls all creation—including you—good.
The very same Creator God who hears the voices of insecurity eating you, the one who knows your shadow side, the one who sees any ugliness or darkness within…yet still wants to be near you, surrounding you with comfort, reassurance, and all-encompassing, everlasting,never changing, unconditional love. The kind of love that shatters the darkness, silences the voices of doubt and reminds you that you are whole.
Listening and accepting the God of creation as the one who gives you worth does not come easily. It takes practice. It is a journey.
Find comfort in the knowledge that if God can remain true to promises made thousands of years ago to a lowly, old shepherd, if God can work through the weirdest and most difficult of people and situations, then without a doubt God will remain true to God’s promise to love and cherish and remain within you.
Anderson, John Edward. “Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster?: The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theoogy of the Jacob Cycle.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 36, no. 1 (2009): 3–23.
Bailey, Wilma Ann. “Intimate Moments: A Study of Genesis 29:31-30:21.” Proceedings (Grand Rapids, Mich.) 29 (2009): 1–14.
“Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 by Esther M. Menn.” Accessed August 28, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2150.
“Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 by Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.” Accessed August 28, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=113.
“Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28 by Wil Gafney.” Accessed August 28, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=987.
Dekker, John. “‘May the Lord Make the Woman like Rachel’: Comparing Michal and Rachel.” Tyndale Bulletin 64, no. 1 (2013): 17–32.
TheTorah.com. “How Is It Possible That Jacob Mistakes Leah for Rachel?” Accessed August 31, 2019. https://thetorah.com/how-is-it-possible-that-jacob-mistakes-leah-for-rachel/.
“Mandrakes Definition and Meaning - Bible Dictionary.” Accessed August 31, 2019. https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/mandrakes/.
Olson, Dennis T. “Revenge, Forgiveness, and Sibling Rivalry: A Theological Dialogue between Scripture and Science.” Ex Auditu 28 (2012): 94–119.
Roop, Eugene F. Genesis. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1987.
Culture & History. “The Bible’s Original Love Triangle: Jacob, Leah, and Rachel,” February 15, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people-in-the-bible/jacob-leah-rachel-love-triangle/.
Wilkin, Jen. “How to Overcome Sibling Rivalry: Deep Friendship in the Body of Christ Starts at Home.” Christianity Today 61, no. 4 (May 2017): 32–32.
Wolowelsky, Joel B. “Rachel, a Mother of Israel.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 43, no. 1 (January 2015): 7–16.
 Genesis 29:31
 Sometimes “weak” is translated as “lovely”. The true definition is unclear.
 Interestingly she blames Jacob for her barrenness, while bareness is usually blamed on the woman, not the man.
 This gives some dreadful irony to her earlier cry to Jacob that if she doesn’t have children, then she will die.
 Israel is both the name that God gives Jacob after he wrestles with the divine being
and the name of God’s nation that was promised to Abraham.