Weddings are typically beautiful events with the music, candles, glamorous bride and handsome groom. Receptions, especially those with jumbo cold boiled shrimp, are festive and seeing the happy couple off to Maui just completes the picture. That does not describe this wedding. In fact, had there been the ritual invitation for someone to stand up and object, this would have been the time.
Certainly, it was love at first sight for Jacob and Rachel. “When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.” Yes, we call that kissing cousins. It was not only romantic but also a sign of belonging to the same family. Jacob had found a home. Today, 24 states do not allow the marriage of first cousins. Arizona allows it if both are over 65. But, it was important then to preserve the family line, wealth, traditions, and values. It is common around the world today and our prohibition of it would seem unnatural to others. How else do you keep the family business intact and not bring strangers into it? How else to keep the in-laws from taking over or causing problems?
But, even with that, it would have been obvious that this marriage would present unusual problems from the very beginning.
First, Jacob totally ignored the traditions of his new home. No one married their youngest daughter before the eldest was married. Many of us have discovered other ways to break traditions and unarticulated rules when we have been new to a community. We say and do things that seem perfectly normal to us and it’s only later when someone takes us aside and explains our bad behavior that we begin to understand we are living in a new place, working in a new company or belong to a new family. Unfortunately, I have many personal examples.
Second, the combination of the two dysfunctional families could not have been more obvious. Leo Tolstoy wrote that “Every happy family is alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By that he meant happiness comes from observing a few basic principles that are common to everyone. However, there are far more ways for a family to be unhappy. The possibilities are almost limitless. Nothing could have been more true for the combination of these two families.
You could start with Jacob’s uncle, Laban. He was a character study in duplicity, greed and double-dealing. I’ve heard pastors say that the friendly deacon who meets you at the airport and carries your bag is too often the one who turns on you first. At my first school as a new teacher I remember meeting the chairman of the Board. His first words were, “I was here when you got here and I’ll be here when you leave.” I might have felt the same about Laban’s first words, “You are my own flesh and blood.”
While Laban was part of Abraham’s family, he was one of what Scripture calls “the eastern people” and not Hebrew. In fact, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, labels him the first anti-Semite based on his relationship with Jacob.
“Laban is, in effect, the first anti-Semite. In age after age, Jews sought refuge from those, like Esau, who sought to kill them. The nations who gave them refuge seemed at first to be benefactors. But they demanded a price. They saw in Jews people who would make them rich. Wherever Jews went, they brought prosperity to their hosts. Yet they refused to be mere chattels. They refused to be owned. They had their own identity and way of life; they insisted on the basic human right to be free. The host society then eventually turned against them. They claimed that Jews were exploiting them, rather than what was in fact the case, that they were exploiting the Jews. And when Jews succeeded, they accused them of theft: “The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!” They forgot that Jews had contributed massively to national prosperity. The fact that Jews had salvaged some self-respect, some independence, that they too had prospered, made them not just envious but angry. That was when it became dangerous to be a Jew.
In her fascinating book World on Fire, Amy Chua argues that ethnic hatred will always be directed by the host society against any conspicuously successful minority. All three conditions must be present:  The hated group must be a minority, or people will fear to attack it.  It must be successful, or people will not envy it, merely feel contempt for it.  It must be conspicuous, or people will not notice it. Jews tended to fit all three. That is why they were hated.
And it began with Jacob during his stay with Laban. He was a minority, outnumbered by Laban’s family. He was successful, and it was conspicuous: you could see it by looking at his flocks.”
Rachel’s family was full of manipulation, deceit, and what we might call the art of the deal today. In fact, both girls were named for and worked in the family business. Rachel means sheep and Leah means cow. Laban was serious about his work. In Texas that would be like a man in the petroleum business naming his daughters Oil and Gas.
Jacob’s family is much the same. Favoritism, deceit, envy, jealousy, uncontrollable anger, rivalry and theft.
I’ve been reading this week about the disaster of Sumner Redstone’s family. His successor, Les Moonves, has been in the news lately for sexual harassment. While Sumner built great business ventures in CBS and Viacom, his personal life and that of his entire family is a tale filled with betrayal of trust, conflicts of interest, lawsuits against each other, theft, shady ethics, deceit and greed that consumed them. There is something almost biblical about it.
And then marriage brings the cousins together.
Even then, the sisters are switched on the honeymoon and the first words we hear from Jacob after the wedding are not “You are my beloved” but “What have you done to me?”
Not a great start. Not what the new bride wants to hear. She knows she is the pawn in the game and unloved. She’s the placeholder until Jacob can have the one he wants and Laban can get the upper hand.
But Jacob agrees to work seven more years to have Rachel. Laban knows Jacob is on a short fuse and so he is married to Leah for only one week until Laban gives Rachel to Jacob to be his second wife. I have tried to imagine what the tone in the household (or tenthold) must have been like in the first month of that new family. It makes me remember all the worst moments when I have had to manage conflicts at the office. As you well know, men and women handle conflict differently so you have some idea of what the dynamic must have been like in Jacob’s tent after such a start.
It is worse than any reality show with the sisters using children, Jacob, and the handmaidens as weapons in their contest with each other over Jacob and their place in the pecking order. Rachel, the beautiful cheerleader and doubtless voted most likely to succeed is reduced to screaming at Jacob while Leah just keeps having one child after another.
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So, she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”
Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
That had to feel like a knife in the heart to Rachel. God has kept you from having children.
Leah found something she can do better than Rachel. She can have children one after the other. But look at the sadness of her life reflected in the names of her children. Not only the names but the messages built into the names.
Reuben – Surely my husband will love me now
Simeon – The Lord heard I am not loved
Levi – My husband will become attached to me.
So, it goes for every son born to her. Every child was a reminder to her and the entire family that she was unloved, unwanted, and undesired by her husband.
When they cannot have children, they each give their handmaids to Jacob to give him sons. Two women and their maids driven to be loved more than the other. Year after year it goes – and every time Leah or her handmaiden gives birth the friction with Rachel increases.
Jacob is openly playing favorites but is disconnected. He is occupied with building a business and making his fortune. It’s the only way to get out of the house! There are a number of verses in Proverbs about the pain of a nagging wife but nothing could have prepared Jacob for this relentless drama. Had there been taverns in the Old Testament no doubt we would have found him there every night after work.
But, something happens along the way in the middle of the child wars. Leah names her fourth son Judah. “This time I will praise the Lord.” It can also be translated as “God will lead”. It was not about her relationship with Jacob or the pain in her life. It was an expression of trust and the birth of trust in her life.
There is still the rivalry with Rachel but something has changed in Leah’s life when she comes to realize that God will lead. The whole message of her life has changed – not all at once but we’ll see how her circumstances have not changed but her attitude towards them has. She is no longer the victim.
Our prayer so often is that God would change our circumstances first and when he does not we give up or become bitter. The psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Long before Victor Frankl wrote that Leah experienced it.
And then, we hear almost nothing more about Leah. Rachel finally has a child, Joseph, and then dies having her second, Benjamin. Jacob buries her on the way to Bethlehem and puts up a stone pillar by her tomb. Then he moves on.
It’s almost one hundred years until Leah’s name is mentioned again – at Jacob’s death in Egypt – and it is nearly a footnote unless you read it carefully. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite, along with the field. There Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were buried and there I buried Leah.” In other words, bury me with Leah.
What a remarkable change from their first encounter and their first years together.
“You’ve tricked me with this weak-eyed cow” has turned to “I want to be next to her forever.”
What must have happened between the two of them?
What is the end result of the silent years in Jacob’s life with Leah?
All the brothers and their families are together – all 70 them – brought there to Egypt by Rachel’s son, Joseph. They are at peace. There is no more manipulation, jealousy, or anger. They have become a family in spite of all their differences.
This is the remarkable story of a woman who outgrew her circumstances, her handicap, the unfairness of her life and silently affected one of the most difficult men in Scripture and generations coming afterward.
But there is one more thing because, ultimately, it is from her line – Judah – that Jesus is born. It is from the son named “God Will Lead.” And, Isaiah describes him like this.
”He wasn’t some handsome king. Nothing about the way he looked made him attractive to us. He was hated and rejected. His life was filled with sorrow.” (Isaiah 53:2)
But what a difference the descendant of the one who was not wanted has made. He is the long-expected Messiah – the joy of man’s desiring. Immanuel.