Have you ever been in a Bible class when the teacher asked you to name a Bible character you admire? Maybe you wanted to be strong like Samson or a skilled warrior like Joshua. Maybe you wanted faith like Abraham or Mary or passion like Peter, even in his missteps. I’ll bet that you never thought, “I want to be like Leah.” A few years ago, someone sympathetically told me that’s who I reminded him of. Leah. Yep, the ugly one.
That wasn’t the point this person was trying to make, of course. To understand Leah’s story, we have to frame it from the beginning. Though most of us think of painful childbirth as the consequence of Eve’s garden sin, there is another:
“To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband,and he will rule over you’” (Genesis 3:16).
Love, loneliness, and childbirth intersect in the story of Leah. She, the elder and less attractive sister, is snuck into a marriage that had been promised to beautiful Rachel. Jacob and Rachel had the dreamy romance: “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20). But Leah–she was unloved. Her husband did not love her.
“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben [meaning ‘see, a son’], for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.’ She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon [meaning ‘heard’]. Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.’ So he was named Levi [meaning ‘attached’]. She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah [meaning [‘praise’]. Then she stopped having children” (Gen. 29:31-35).
Leah is desperate for her husband’s love, hoping that each son’s birth will earn it. After her husband still withholds the attachment she longs for when her third son is born, she shifts her focus with her fourth son, Judah, and looks to praising God. God sees Leah. He sees her longing, and he blesses her even after she thinks she’ll have no more children. He “listen[s] to Leah,” and she has two more sons and a daughter (Genesis 30:14-21).
This unloved wife, this unattractive sister is the mother of half of the twelve tribes of Israel. Through Leah come Moses, David, and most importantly, Jesus.
(By the way, God “remember[s] Rachel, and God listen[s] to her,” too (Genesis 30:22). He also loves Rachel, and he blesses her in the way he has planned, eventually giving her two children.)
The Lord’s blessings do not always come in the way we expect them. Not every person will have a loving spouse. Not every woman will bear a child. But that does not mean God does not see us. Isaiah encourages,
“‘Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,’ says your God. ‘For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:2-8).
God has never thought loneliness is good. Where there is a void, He steps in. When we are “deserted and distressed,” He loves us. When we are “rejected,” He chooses us. He is a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows . . . God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6).
For years I struggled, like Leah, to be loved. I thought the promise to “set the lonely in families” meant a traditional family unit. As Leah did, I have sometimes forgotten the comfort of the Lord’s faithful love and promises. Yet “[t]he Lord is not slack concerning his promise” (II Peter 3:9)–God’s definitions are higher than mine. Sometimes the “family” is the church family. Sometimes it is simply my children and I. Sometimes, when my children are gone and the loneliness threatens hardest, my family is simply my Father God and I. Those moments are not simply settling–being with my God is not mournful resignation. These are moments to praise Him. Remember, Leah’s praise leads from Judah to Jesus.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4:9).
In Genesis 33, when Jacob faces a threat, he arranges his family according to his feelings for them–Rachel and her children, his most beloved, are placed in the safest position. God, in contrast, sends his beloved son to the Cross–for you, for me, for Leah.
Our God faithfully, unabashedly, recklessly, unquestionably, unequivocally, irrevocably, passionately, constantly, intensely, unceasingly, devotedly, fiercely loves us.