[Note: The following is the prepared text for a split-sermon given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, March 19, 2022.]
I hope you are all having a happy and blessed Sabbath day today. Do you think that I just repeated myself? When we say that we or someone else is happy, do we mean the same thing that we mean when we say that they are blessed? I think most of us would agree that they are related concepts, but we would probably want to distinguish between the two by saying that happiness was a subjective emotional state while blessedness was an objective state of being blessed by God that someone could determine as being true whether we felt happy or not. What does the Bible have to say about such a distinction, though?
As it happens, the Bible uses words connected to happy some 237 or so occasions in the Bible. This is far more material than we can cover in a single split sermon, or even a series of longer messages. What we can do, and will do today, though, is to examine in some detail the first time that happiness and blessedness are mentioned in the Bible. In looking at this particular example, we will seek to examine what the Bible says about the happiness of Leah, and what it means for us today.
Let us begin our search for the happiness of Leah by looking at Genesis 30:12-13. Genesis 30:12-13 tells us about the birth of Asher. As it happens, asher and words related to it are the Hebrew words for happiness and blessedness, and these verses read: “And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.” So she called his name Asher.” Here we see Leah playing with this connection or distinction between happiness and blessedness. So let us ask today, was Leah happy, and was Leah blessed?
While it is particularly tricky for us to determine the emotional state of people in the Bible, fortunately for us, the Bible has a lot of information about Jacob’s family that allows us unusual insight into how the various people felt at some points during their lives. Late in Jacob’s life, when he was speaking with the pharaoh of Jospeh he stated that the days of his life had been few and evil in number when compared with those of his father and grandfather, and we have no reason to disagree with him. Concerning the happiness of Leah in particular, our discussion must include the fact that she agreed to marry Jacob by fraud and was placed in a position where she was the obviously unloved wife because Jacob was completely in love with Rachel and not with her. This does not bode well for her happiness in such a household, and the information we do have about the family life of Jacob indicates that Leah was not particularly happy in her position as the unloved but fertile wife of Jacob, a pattern that we find repeated in other unhappy polygamous households in the Bible, such as that of Samuel’s family at the beginning of 1 Samuel, whose bitter rivalries have a similar sort of flavor to them.
Let us begin by looking a bit at how it was that Leah married Jacob in the first place. We find this story in Genesis 29:21-35. This passage gives us plenty of information for the context of Leah’s marriage with Jacob. Genesis 29:21-35 reads: “Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.” And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast. Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?” And Laban said, “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.” Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years. When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. So Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.” Then she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she stopped bearing.”
There is something very sad in this. The Bible itself here repeats multiple times that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and says that Leah was unloved, and it is for this reason that God opened her womb. In the Bible, we find stories of beloved but infertile wives and unloved but fertile wives, and God appears to be giving each of the wives some sort of compensation in a very difficult and painful and unpleasant situation. Leah keep on bearing children and keeps on hoping, in vain, that bearing these children will make him love her. But he will not. His heart belongs to another, her sister, and Jacob never wanted to marry Leah in the first place and would not love her simply because she bore him a lot of children. Nothing Leah could do could change the very simple and straightforward facts of the matter.
For our purposes today, let us focus on the context of the immediate verses we began with. Leah said she was happy at the birth of Asher and wished for the other women (including perhaps Rachel?) to call her blessed. What kind of home life do we see when we look at Leah at the time when she said this. Let us read Genesis 30 starting from verse one. Genesis 30:1-24 reads as follows: “Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali. When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took Zilpah her maid and gave her to Jacob as wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “A troop comes!” So she called his name Gad. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.” So she called his name Asher. Now Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” And Rachel said, “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came out of the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar. Then Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. And Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. Afterward she bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah. Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” So she called his name Joseph, and said, “The Lord shall add to me another son.””
This does not look like a happy family to me. No one in this family appears to be very happy because of the situation within the household. Rachel’s infertility makes her envious of Leah’s large and increasing brood of children. Both Rachel and Leah press their maidservants on Jacob to bear more surrogate children in their rivalry against each other. Jacob is exasperated with Rachel’s anger, knowing that the womb is under God’s control and not his own. Leah feels herself abandoned when she has to give up mandrakes in order to have her husband sleep with her, a somewhat steep price but one she appeared willing to pay, and vainly thinks that her having a lot of children will make her husband want to be with her when it is pretty obvious that he does not want to be. Even the names of the children are highly competitive, with each of the mothers giving strategic names that seek to one-up their rival sister-wife. It is in this light that we must judge Leah naming the second son of her handmaid Asher, because she is counting Asher as her sixth son–she would later have two more of her own. But while Leah says that she is happy when Asher is born, no one looks happy in this chapter.
Similarly, when we look at the family life of Jacob in general happiness is in short supply. The rivalry between Jacob’s wives was mirrored in the rivalry between Jacob’s children, and the treatment that Joseph’s brothers delivered out to him–thinking about killing him and then mercifully deciding to sell him for slavery while pretending he is dead to the heartbreak of his distraught father–is not the sign of a happy and well-functioning family. Indeed, the family and their behavior, which we do not have time today to discuss in great detail, is the sort of material that would be rich for an ancient afternoon talk show rather than the annals of happy and well-functioning families. These chapters of Genesis do not provide a great deal of evidence that anyone involved in the family was very happy with the dynamic of Jacob and his bickering wives and their unhappy children.
Let us content ourselves with looking at two brief examples of the unhappy consequences of the domestic melodrama of Jacob’s household. In Genesis 34 we have the tragic story of Dinah, the only named daughter of Leah. While the entirety of Genesis 34 tells a heartbreaking tale of violence, let us limit our present discussion to the first four verses of the chapter. Genesis 34:1-4 reads: “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her and lay with her, and violated her. His soul was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman and spoke kindly to the young woman. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this young woman as a wife.””
Here we see another source of unhappiness for Leah. For whatever reason, Dinah did not appreciate the company of her eleven Israelite brothers and desired to get to know the women of the land. It was through her friendship with these unconverted women that Dinah became vulnerable and was raped by Shechem, whose father was the petty kings of the city-state of the same name. It does not require any great degree of insight to recognize that Dinah’s preference of the company of those outside of her family was likely a source of unhappiness for her family, and the assault that Dinah suffered outside of the protection of her family was also likely the source of further unhappiness. Unfortunately, we do not know that Dinah ever married and had any children after the horrific consequences of her abuse by Shechem and the resulting vengeance that was inflicted by Dinah’s brothers on the offending local population.
Similarly, let us turn to Genesis 35:19-22 to look at one further brief incident that further reflects upon the unhappiness of Jacob’s household. Genesis 35:19-22 tells us both of the response of Jacob to the death of his beloved wife Rachel as well as the response of Leah’s son to the situation, which likely further increased Leah’s own unhappiness. Genesis 35:19-22 reads: “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. And it happened, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard about it.” Here we can see, very briefly, that not only did Jacob show his favor for Rachel by putting a pillar on her grave to leave a monument of his love for his dead wife, but that Reuben’s response by sleeping with his father’s concubine, which led to the removal of the birthright and blessing from him for his sin, likely brought further shame and unhappiness on Leah that resulted from the rivalry within Jacob’s household.
We have another indirect means of recognizing the unhappiness of Leah. In order to illustrate this, I would like to tell you a story about a notable football player. Hines Ward had a Hall Of Fame career as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is most famous in football history for two things. First, he won Super Bowl MVP for his role in the Steeler’s victory against the Seattle Seahawks, something some Seahawks fans like Mr. Loucks are still bitter over to this day. Second, and more relevant to our present purposes, Hines Ward had a particularly aggressive style of blocking as a wide receiver that helped his teammates out but that angered and upset opponents to such an extent that his style of downfield blocks were banned, and the rule that prevented them is still referred to as the Hines Ward rule. When the people who make rules are so unhappy about your conduct that they make up a new rule to prevent anyone else from doing what you did, you know that they are very unhappy with you.
And it is precisely this situation that we find ourselves in when we look at the context of Jacob’s household with Leah and Rachel. God was so unhappy with what happened in this household that He gave Israel a law that forbade anyone else from doing what Jacob did in marrying Rachel and Leah and bringing such unhappy domestic melodrama into his household. We find this law written in Leviticus 18:18. Leviticus 18 is among the most relevant chapters of the Bible to the contemporary world and it tells us a lot of things about God’s thinking process that our present evil age is not willing to hear and to take to heart. When God creates a law against something, as is the case throughout Leviticus 18, He is not trying to stop humankind from having fun or being happy, but is trying to prevent certain forms of misery and suffering from being inflicted on others because of our longings and desires. While there is much that we could say about this chapter as a whole and its relevance to us, let us content ourselves today to discuss Leviticus 18:18, which reads: “Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.”
It is hard to read this verse as being anything less than God’s own commentary on the unhappiness of Leah in her marriage with Jacob. Jacob’s marrying two sisters made those two sisters into rivals for his love and affection, and instead of being able to love each other and respect each other as sisters, that love was poisoned into competitive bitterness and hatred that made the entire household unhappy, as we have previously explored. God was made so unhappy by Jacob’s household that He put it in His law that no one was going to be allowed to create that kind of unhappiness ever again with His permission. We ought to take God’s understanding seriously. When God seeks to prevent us from suffering a predictable form of misery through something He has forbidden in His laws, God knows what He is talking about, and if we persist in doing what God has warned us will bring misery and unhappiness to us, we cannot expect happiness to be a result of deliberate and presumptuous sin.
We have spoken thus far about the happiness of Leah and have discovered that the Bible leaves us plenty of evidence that Leah did not find a great deal of happiness as a result of her marriage with Jacob. For all of her fertility in having many children–six sons and a daughter who are named in scripture–we do not see that Jacob ever loved her in the way that the Bible is full of details about his love for Rachel, some of which we have not discussed because of lack of time that demonstrate over and over again Jacob’s partiality for Rachel and his sons with her, to the frustration and embarrassment of Leah and her sons. But if Leah was not particularly happy, was she blessed?
This is happily a much simpler question to answer. We are approaching the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread, and it is worthwhile at this time to reflect upon the experiences that ancient Israel had in Egypt. Let us therefore return to Genesis 35, starting in the second half of verse 22 and going to verse 26. Genesis 35:22b-26 reads: “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: the sons of Leah were Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; the sons of Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin; the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, were Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant, were Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Padan Aram.” If we count Joseph as a double tribe because of Ephraim and Manasseh, we can see that Leah herself was the mother of six of the thirteen tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and that two further tribes were named by her and descend from her maidservant Zilpah.
If we take a further look at these tribes, we can see that included among the children of Leah were Levi and Judah. Levi is the father of the priestly line of Aaron as well as the Levites who served in the tabernacle and temple system of worship in teaching, in musical service, and in other responsibilities detailed in the Bible in books like Leviticus and 1 Chronicles. Similarly, to the tribe of Judah was given the promises of the kingly line, and David and Jesus Christ both descend from this royal tribe to whom many blessings have been promised in the Bible. Whether one looks at the fact that nearly half of all Israel comes from her or the promises of both kingly and priestly lineage from her children, Leah was certainly blessed. Whatever the sorrows or unhappiness of her life and the unpleasant domestic melodrama of her household with Jacob and Rachel, no one can take her blessings away from her.
What does all of this mean for us today? For one, we still live with the results of Leah’s life, with the promises of priesthood and royalty for Leah’s servants that are a part of the blessings given to the descendants of Abraham that we have recently discussed in a series of messages from our pastor. Not only that, but the unhappiness of Leah’s family prompted God to forbid anyone from marrying two sisters and thus provoking a rivalry between sisters in the way that Jacob did–quite against his will it must be admitted. There are some cautionary aspects of Leah’s life–for all of the children she had, she could not win the heart of her husband by having them, even if those children were part of a blessing of God’s involvement in the family lives of the patriarchs that continues to this day. When the children of Isarel marched out of Egypt after that memorable first Passover, almost half of them could count Leah as an ancestor. And when we think about the chain of family history that led up to the lives of Moses and Aaron as well as King David and Jesus Christ, the story of Leah plays an important part, and one that we would do well to remember. Sometimes our worst moments have consequences that spiral out far beyond what we would ever expect, as was the case with Leah, and sometime God brings wonderful blessings out of the sorrows of life, as was also the case with Leah. Such things are often the case for us as well. There may be times in our lives where we struggle to feel happy but nonetheless can be confident that we are blessed. If that is so, we can surely all relate to Leah.