Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Rest of Leah” first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Touchstone.
The Rest of Leah
Bobby N. Winters on the End of the Wife Jacob Did Not Choose
Cain killed his younger brother Abel out of jealousy, but at least when Abel died, the matter was settled. The rivalry between Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban and the wives of Jacob, continued throughout the sisters’ lives, and this, surprisingly enough, tells us something important about the nature of marriage.
Two men created the enmity between the sisters. Recall how Jacob fell in love with Rachel and agreed to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for her, “but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”
At the end of the seven years, Jacob entered into the darkness of the marriage tent, and, after the wedding night, in the light of morning, looked to the other side of the pillow to see . . . Leah, whom Laban had placed there. Jacob then had to work another seven years for Rachel.
Even with today’s more liberal, not to say licentious, attitudes toward sex, this deceit and the resulting sexual union would present problems. In that day, it was much more serious, and, given the vision of marriage presented a few chapters earlier in the Book of Genesis, its seriousness cannot be overstated.
Eve was made from Adam’s rib. She was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. The symbolism is significant. God created exactly one woman for the man, and from that point onward, the man was to love that woman as if she were a part of his own body. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” One might contemplate how the world might be different if all men took this seriously.
It has been said that this metaphor, “cleave unto his wife,” refers in an earthy way to the consummation of the sexual act. For the author of Genesis, marriage begins at sexual union, and the sexual act is sacred because it is by this means that a man and woman can create a child. Eve comments on this herself when she says, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.”
Further reading in the Torah confirms that sexual intercourse creates a special bond, so much so that marriage is required even in the case of rape. As barbaric as this seems to us, it expressed an ancient recognition of God’s design. Though Jacob had not chosen her, Leah was to be to him what Eve had been to Adam, and that was set in stone the moment they were sexually united.
Thus, when Leah was switched with her sister, the desire of Jacob’s heart was put in conflict with God’s design. As Jacob would not relent in his desire for Rachel, he was married to both women, and this set the sisters at odds with each other almost immediately.
Leah, who was a bride by her father’s trickery, was fertile and bore Jacob children immediately. She initially gives birth to four sons, and the births are announced in four consecutive verses, echoing the rapidity of the events.
Rachel, who was the bride of Jacob’s heart, had difficulty conceiving. The frustration she felt is recorded in the text. “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’”
Rachel, who had Jacob’s love, was always desperate to have his children, while Leah, who had his children, was always desperate to have his love.
Each of these unfulfilled desires is referred to several times. One cannot read the story without noticing how miserable each of the sisters is. Each essentially wishes to be the other, which is impossible, and desiring the impossible breeds misery.
God does remember Rachel and allows her to conceive first Joseph and then Benjamin. However, she dies after giving birth to Benjamin and is buried “in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.” Though Rachel did eventually have Jacob’s children, her sister Leah died without receiving Jacob’s love.
This tragic story breaks our hearts across the intervening millennia. However, there is a surprise at the end.
When Jacob knew the end of his life was coming, he gave explicit instructions as to where he was to be buried. “In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah . . . which Abraham bought . . . for a possession of a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.”
Abraham is buried by Sarah, his only wife. Isaac is buried by Rebekah, his only wife. And Jacob is buried by Leah, who was not the wife of his choosing but the wife chosen for him by God when he made love to her.
It has been argued that Jacob chose this site for his burial because of its place in the claims his family had on the land of Canaan. I have no doubt of this, but Leah was there. She may have been second in the heart of Jacob, but God saw that they were united forever in death in a way they had not been in life.
In this matter as in all others, God has the final say. And as we know, through Leah’s line of descent, not Rachel’s, came Judah and David and Jesus. •
Bobby N. Winters is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.
“The Rest of Leah” first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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