Sermon preached on Genesis 29:31-30:24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/1/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Leah and Rachel: “And God Listened”
We continue today our sermon series on key women in the Bible. So far we’ve been able to trace God’s plan of redemption here in Genesis and to see how he involved several key women. Starting with Eve, we saw the big picture of the plan — of how God would raise up the seed of the woman to conquer the devil. Then with Sarah we saw how God began to direct that effort through one particular family set apart from the rest of the world. Through Sarah (and Abraham) a nation would come forth, and in that nation one would come forth who would bring blessings to all the families in the earth. That nation was the Israelite people, and that promised one was Jesus, the Messiah, the promised seed of the woman. So after studying about Sarah, we moved onto the next generation in that line of promise with Rebekah last week. This week we move on to the next generation after that — now with two women today, Leah and Rachel. God would use both of these women in continuing his redemptive program in order to bring forth this promised nation from Abraham and Sarah. As Ruth 4:11 would later describe, that God used Rachel and Leah to build the house of Israel. He would use these two women to bring forth twelve sons to Jacob. God would later change Jacob’s name to Israel of course, and thus these twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel. This was unlike in the previous generations were God was very specific that only one offspring would carry on the line of promise. First God chose Isaac over Ishmael and then Jacob over Esau. Now, God would use all twelve sons born to Jacob via Leah and Rachel to form the promised nation of Israel.
And so the Scripture that we read today brings out this very subject — the children of Leah and Rachel that would become this nation of Israel. In terms of God’s redemptive plans and his good promises, this production of children was a very good thing. God was fulfilling his former promises to bring forth this great numerous nation by the many children that come from Leah and Rachel. As we see here today, Rachel and Leah both are very interested in bringing forth such children. In that drive, they are in line with God’s plans. But as we’ll see today, Leah and Rachel’s motivations are not portrayed as self-consciously looking to fulfill such divine promises. Though they are acting in line with God’s promises to bring forth such children, their motivations seem to be based on other concerns and desires of their hearts. In other words, we’ll that they both had good goals here but in some sense for the wrong reasons. The result was that their efforts to bear children became such a race and a battle and a competition between them.
Stepping back, of course, let’s make sure we all are on the same page about the background of Rachel and Leah. Leah and Rachel were sisters. Leah was the older sister, but Rachel was the more physically beautiful one. Rachel had caught Jacob’s eye and he had wanted to marry her. He negotiated with their father to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel, but on the wedding night he was tricked and ended up being married to Leah. Their father said it was not their custom to marry off the younger daughter before the older one. Jacob got deceived similarly to how he himself had deceived his father in the past to get the blessing over Esau. So Jacob was married to Leah but still loved Rachel, so he negotiated with his father-in-law to commit to seven more years of work in order to also be able to marry Rachel. So that is what happened in the passage just prior to the one we read. After one week of marriage to Leah, their father gave Rachel to be his wife also, on the promise of these seven more years of labor. So, Jacob ended up with two wives, who were both sisters. Now to be clear, this is not the Bible approving of polygamy. And especially with regard to marrying two sisters, later civil law given to the nation of Israel would specifically forbid marrying two sisters while they are both alive, lest their be rivalry, Leviticus 18:18. Surely that law reflected back on the rivalry we see here between Rachel and Leah. And so this is another example of how God can do great things through humans doing things they should not do.
And so that is what we see here. Sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel in this rather bizarre love triangle of sorts. The rivalry is clearly stated here by both of them. For example, in 30:8, Rachel describes her wrestlings with her sister. And in 30:15, Leah accuses Rachel of taking away her husband. The whole passage that we read shows them racing to bear as many children as they can, competitive with each other. And yet even though we’ll see their less than noble motivations here in all of this, there is also at least some sense in which they are looking to God in all of this as well. Both of them invoke God’s name in a positive way when they do bear children, giving him credit. It is stated for both of them that God listened to them, 30:17 and 30:22, so they are having some kind of prayer to God in all of this. Despite their struggles and varying motivations God is present in their life too. And yet there is the rivalry and the struggles and the heartache that comes along with their drive tainted with human sinfulness. This rivalry even seems to be passed along in some sense to the next generation — with Rachel’s firstborn Joseph becoming hated by his brothers.
So then, what I’d like to do now is spend a few moments considering Leah and Rachel separately. I’d like to think about each of their own personal struggles that are shown in this passage. Let’s begin with Leah. Leah’s struggle is clearly seen by the fact that she is unloved by her husband. That seems to become her greatest desire. She desires to be loved by her husband. Chapter 29:30 tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Verse 31 says she was unloved, literally hated in the Hebrew, that in context it seems to be comparative. Compared to the love Jacob had for Rachel, Leah was not loved. Obviously, there is nothing wrong for a desire for your husband to love you. I hope every wife is loved by her husband. It is sad for her that she was not loved. But it also seems sad that this became such a defining quest for her, one that she never seems to really have met.
Just look at this passage. Leah’s hope is that if she bears children for Jacob, that then he will love her. Chapter 29:32, she gives birth to the first son in the family, and she says, “Now therefore, my husband will love me.” Again, with the second son, she says, “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And then with the third son, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” And at the last, the sixth son that she bears, she says in 30:20, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” She did not get the love and time and life with Jacob that she evidently craved so much. Even after all these sons, did she gain what she wanted? Well, not so much apparently. Because later when they finally all head back to the Promised Land, you might recall that the big concern is how Esau will receive them. Is Esau still out to kill him? In Genesis 33, we see Jacob makes precautions in case Esau still is out to get him. In approaching Esau, he divides up the units of his family. First in line Jacob puts the maidservants and their kids. Next in line he puts Leah and her kids. Last he puts Rachel and her only child Joseph. Jacob’s degree of love becomes obvious in how he ordered them. The most protected are Rachel and Joseph. Leah, with all her six sons she bears for Jacob, still hadn’t won over Jacob from Rachel.
And yet in all this, she was loved. God surely loved her. For we see in 29:31, that God saw how she was unloved and opened up her womb. This is what God tends to do among his people. He sees those in plight, and visits them. Just as God shows special care for the orphans and the widows, so God shows concern for despised and rejected and then unloved. That characteristic of God is seen her. It is even acknowledged by Leah. When Rueben is born, she notes that God has seen her affliction. And at the birth of Simon, she acknowledges that God has heard about her unloved status. It’s not that God forgot about Rachel, for we will see his concern for her too. But in addressing Leah’s unloved status, he does open up her womb before her sister’s. God knew Leah’s pain, and it says in verse 17 that he even listened to hear. He heard her prayers. He ministered to her in her heartache. Surely we see part of the answer even in events associated with Rachel later death. Rachel dies before Leah, while they were traveling, and so she gets buried on the road, on the way to Bethlehem. But in Genesis 49:31 we learn that Leah got buried in the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah. That’s where Abraham and Sarah were buried, that’s where Isaac and Rebekah were buried, and that where both Jacob and Leah end up buried. Surely Leah after Rachel’s death finally had some of the love and time together with Jacob that she always wanted. Surely her burial in the family tomb reminds us of that.
And so God ministered to Leah in her struggles. And yet even in God’s love shown to her, you still get the sense her of an unmet longing by her. She seems consumed throughout this for a husband’s love that she never quite gets in the way she wants. Again, this is an appropriate desire. But desires can be deceptive. And if we have an inordinate desire even for a good thing, that good desire can in a sense be bad. You get the sense here that there is a degree of happiness and contentment that Leah misses out on because of her desperate desire for a husband’s love that never quite comes.
Let’s turn now to Rachel’s struggles. Leah may have wanted the love that Rachel had, but Rachel wanted the children that Leah had. Look at 30:1. Rachel envied Leah. She sees her own barrenness and compares it with Leah’s fruitful womb and envies what he sister had. Verse 1 ends with her dramatic cry to Jacob, “Give me children or else I die!” Evidently this comes across as blaming Jacob, because in the next verse he defends himself by pointing out that it’s God who opens and closes wombs, not him. But her cry in verse 1 of children or death shows had badly she desires children. She refers to her barren estate as one of reproach, 30:23. Now, like with Leah, we can appreciate her desire her. It is certainly a good desire to want to have children. And yet also with like Leah, you can see a similar sort of inordinate desire. A good desire pressed too far that becomes essentially an idol of the heart.
Certainly her acclimation in verse 1 of give me children or I die already shows that. And then even when she finally does have a child, she seems to still not be satisfied. When she gives birth to Joseph, look what she says in verse 24. “The Lord shall add to me another son.” That’s roughly what the name Joseph means. So her son is barely born and she’s already wanting to have another. Well, she did finally have a second child. His name was Benjamin, but that’s not what she named him. She named him Ben-Oni, meaning son of my sorrow. That is because in sad irony she dies in childbirth, giving birth to Benjamin. This is Genesis 35. In her dying words after giving birth she gives him this name. Jacob wisely changes it to Benjamin of course. But the woman who said give me children or I die, dies in her pursuit of children. She thought more children would bring her joy, but with her name of Ben-Oni she says this child brought her sorrow instead.
But again, this is not to say that God didn’t show kindness to her. In fact he did. Chapter 30, verse 22, is one clear expression of this. Then God remembered Rachel, and listened to her and opened her womb. Again, it’s not that she pursued her desires for a child completely void of God. No, God was evidently in the picture. She obviously called out to God in order for it to say that God listened to her. And God was at work in her life. God was showing care and concern even for her. We can appreciate the sadness of being barren. We can appreciate the emotions of so wanting a child and not having it happen. But as we said we Leah, a good desire can be pursued in an inordinate way. Rachel too had this problem. Her desire for children became a sort of idol to her.
Leah and Rachel were in some senses very different. One beautiful, one not. One loved, one not. One a far more fruitful womb. But in another sense they were very similar. They both struggled with contentment. I’d like to turn now to think about their contentment in our third point, and also to relate this to the larger subject of God’s line of promise that he was building through these women. You see, as we look at these two women, it’s easy to see their problems. To on the one hand empathize with them, and on the other side to see where they went wrong. Having children is one of God’s good blessings. Having love from a husband is also one of God’s blessings. Of those two things, they each had one of them, but not both. They both seemed to disregard what they did possess in favor for what the other possessed. A sort of the grass is always greener on the other side, sort of thing. But at the end of the day, they both struggled with godly contentment. Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:6 that “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Again, to be clear, what they desired were good desires. They desired certain blessings from God. But we sin when we say that we can only be happy if all our desires in this life are met. We sin if we demand certain blessings from God in order to allow ourselves to truly find joy. This is especially sinful when we do so in such a way that fails to recognize the blessings that we do have. We ought to “count our blessings” as the saying goes. And more than that, we ought to begin to realize that what our heart’s desire ought to ultimately be fixed upon is desiring God more than desiring God’s blessings. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s wrong to desire God’s blessings. But never at the expense of having God himself as our greatest delight. Never in a way that puts other things, even good blessings from God, above our satisfaction in him. And so it’s good to seek love from a spouse, but first remember the love from God. And it’s fine to love other things, even say of having children, as long as you first love the Lord. Set your desires on God first and foremost. Realize what you do have. Trust God’s timing. Even in Rachel’s case, she didn’t remain barren. Even in Leah’s case, surely she did experience some love from Jacob and time with him. How much more joy both Leah and Rachel could have had in their life, if they didn’t pit their happiness so much
in the blessings they didn’t have. And to rejoice in the good things that God did bring to them.
And what joy they could have as they realize that God was at work through them. They may have sought so hard for kids for all the wrong reasons, but for them especially it was good that they had kids. Because as we’ve seen, God was fulfilling his former promises through them. Through them the line of promise would be realized. The promised great nation would come from them. And so you have to love how God continues his redemptive works. With Sarah and Rebekah we saw God opening previously barren wombs to show that it is God who would make the promise come to pass. And now even amidst all these questionable human motivations among Rachel and Leah, God shows that he can work through it all to build his church and fulfill his promises. God’s plan of redemption and line of promise is at work through all these contentment issues and sinful rivalries and jealousy between these two sisters.
And so from the unloved Leah, would come Levi. Through Levi we have Moses and Aaron, and the whole Levitical priesthood! And from the unloved Leah would come Judah, which means David and the kingship came through her. Which means Jesus Christ came through her. If she could say in verse 13 because of another child born to her, “The daughters will call me blessed;” then how wonderful that one of her greater daughters, Mary, would say “henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” in light of the virgin birth of Christ through her. God loved the unloved Leah as we see here and as we see through her offspring. That even the Messiah would ultimately come from her line. That Jesus himself, despised and rejected among men, not knowing the love he rightly deserved, would be the biggest way God shows his love for us.
And so too with Rachel. Despite her frustrations and the desires she made into sort of idols of her heart, God too remembered her; and he listened to her. If God hadn’t, all would have been lost. For it was through her son Joseph, that all the sons of Israel would be saved from death. I’m referring to the later incident when Joseph rises to power in Egypt and brings salvation from famine for all the twelve sons of Jacob. And in Rachel’s second son you have Benjamin. If it weren’t for the tribe of Benjamin, we wouldn’t have had the Apostle Paul; as we know he was a Benjamite. Through her seed too, blessings in Christ have come to the world.
And so I love what we see here in this passage. God is working his redemptive program, even with people like Leah and Rachel, even with all their emotional baggage. God can work in and through the lives of his people, even when they have unmet desires, heartaches, sorrows, struggles with sin, and the varying ups and downs of life. Even when we struggle with contentment and don’t deal with our emotional baggage as we ought. God works through his people that struggle with these things. This doesn’t excuse those things. We can and should work through them more and more by the grace of God. But this is why God sent Jesus. The reason we need a savior is because we as humans don’t have it all together. Our lives are messy. We can on the one hand acknowledge God, while on the other hand give an inordinate amount of our attention to certain desires. We are going to experience the messiness of life. The encouragement for God’s people here is that he knows this. He sees our struggles. He addresses them in his own way. And Romans 8:28 is still in effect through them. That he’s still working his plan of redemption in history despite our struggles. That God can and does still use us as part of that plan, even with our baggage. He used these two girls in his plan despite their baggage. And he will use us. Be encouraged. Trust more in God, even as you look to set God more and more as your great delight. Even as you strive for joy and contentment and peace from the Holy Spirit.
So then in closing, I do offer one final application. As God’s people, when we see ourselves struggling for contentment, what can we do? When we know that Scripture tells us that we already have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, but still find our hearts coveting something we don’t have? When we find envy and discontentment still warring against our souls? When we see the deception of desire fighting against us? What can we do? Well, one thing we see at the disposal of God’s people here is prayer. For just look at our sermon title. And God listened. To whom did God listen in this passage? Rachel? Leah? Yes. To both, the passage says. In both of their struggles, even in lives that were never fully cleaned up this side of heaven, God was hearing them. Trust that God will hear your prayers in Christ, even on these matters. That doesn’t mean God will always give you the desires that you want. But pray also that God will correct your desires. That he will implant in you the sorts of desires that you ought to be having. And trust that in this, God listens. When your heart breaks over unmet desires, bring them to him, for God listens. When you struggle for contentment, call to him, for God listens. When you struggle with inordinate desire, confess it to God, for God listens. Bring your emotions, and your heart, and your passions and your pleasures to God, for he listens. For the sake of Christ, and for his great love for you, God listens. And as his child, he will act in his wisdom, for your good and for his glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.