July 11, 2004

Leah: On Feeling Unloved
Genesis 29:13-35

Several decades ago, various well-known people were asked what they considered to be the saddest word in the English language. T.S. Eliot responded, “The saddest word in the English language is, of course, ‘saddest.’” Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II answered, ‘But.’” Statesman Bernard M. Baruch chose “Hopeless,” and President Harry Truman, quoting John Greenleaf Whittier, selected “It might have been!’” When the same question was posed to Karl Menninger, a pioneer of psychiatry here in the U. S., his immediate reply was, “Unloved.”

Many people, including more than a handful here in our own congregation, know how painful it can be to feel unloved. Some have been ridiculed by parents, scorned by brothers or sisters, or rejected by peers. Some feel unappreciated and even unaccepted because of perceived physical deficiencies, personality differences, or simple likes and interests. For any number of reasons, people all around us—some very close to home—feel unloved. So did Leah, the wife of Jacob.

At least the basics of Leah’s story are familiar to many of us. Jacob, as Genesis 29:1 informs us, was on a journey that took him to the distant land of Haran, where he stumbled upon his uncle Laban and his family. At first sight, Jacob fell in love with his cousin, Rachel, and sought Laban’s permission to marry her. Through a series of events and bargaining schemes, their marriage did in fact take place, but not before Rachel’s older sister, Leah, got chewed up and spit out.

Various details in the story enable us to see why Leah understandably felt unloved. There is, first of all, the rather gushy account of Jacob first meeting Rachel. When Jacob came to Haran, he approached the community well—one of the hang-outs of antiquity—and chatted with some of the local shepherds. Before long, Rachel arrived at the same well with her father’s flock. Single-handedly, Jacob pushed aside the large stone covering the well—a job typically reserved for several men—and watered Rachel’s sheep. Then they kissed, the writer informs us, and they wept aloud. You can almost feel their hearts racing! It was only a matter of time, then, for Jacob to ask for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

I don’t want to make Leah sound like a prude here. From other details in the story, my guess is that Leah cared deeply for her younger sister, Rachel. It can be difficult, however, for people to remain single while their younger siblings marry. You wonder when your time will come, if ever. The fact that Laban later refers to a custom in their culture ensuring that the eldest daughter marries first only underscores the tension in the narrative. Leah felt unloved.

Leah’s emerging sense that she is being relegated to secondary status, however, goes back far before the arrival of Jacob in Haran. Leah, the narrator points out in verse 17, was physically inferior to her younger sister. Precisely what we are to make of Leah’s eyes remains unclear—the phrase is impossible to translate with certainty. One can conclude that Leah’s eyes were in fact lovely—gentle and pleasant to look at. An equally viable interpretation suggests that her eyes were “weak”—diminished and pale. In truth, however, it really does not matter all that much for our purposes how we read the phrase. If Leah’s eyes were indeed lovely, they stand out here as her sole physical characteristic worthy of mention. Leah’s eyes are like a wonderful tie paired with a soiled and wrinkled suit coat. If her eyes were diminished and pale, then even her sole physical characteristic of note was a liability. In either case, Rachel stands out as her superior. Rachel, we read, was graceful and beautiful.

Again, I don’t want to suggest that Rachel was arrogant and flaunted her extraordinarily good looks in the homely face of her older sister. The writer doesn’t say that. But the discrepancy must not have been hard to miss, and we can only conclude that the differences in their appearance had surfaced before—perhaps around the dinner table or on the playground or at school. It can be difficult for someone growing up with a younger sibling who is more beautiful, more talented, and more gifted than they themselves are. Over the years, Leah no doubt went to bed at night in the shadows of a crowd-stomping little sister. On more than one occasion, Leah must have felt unloved.

But neither Jacob’s initial infatuation with her younger sister nor her own physical deficiencies captures the full extent of Leah’s anguish as the story moves on. Having watched Jacob work for seven years in order to pay the bride price for Rachel, all-the-while hoping that a suitable husband might come and sweep her off of her feet; Leah now becomes a pawn in one of her father’s grandest bargaining schemes. In what surely ranks among the most embarrassing scenes in the entire Bible, not to mention the world of literature in general, Leah is somehow camouflaged and given to the unsuspecting Jacob in place of Rachel. Imagine the anxiety that such a situation would arouse—engaging in intimate relations with a man who thinks you are his wife for whom he has just worked for seven years! “What will he do when he discovers that I am an impostor?” you surely would wonder. The entire scene is outrageous. How could Leah’s father put her in such a situation? Couldn’t he simply have had the courage to talk with Jacob face to face? Laban, after all, never seemed to be short on words any other time. For all Leah knew, this entire affair was her father’s scheme, not so much to find her a husband, but to extract seven additional years of labor out of Jacob.

And when the scene pans out and Jacob discovers the atrocity, Leah’s already fractured self-confidence takes one final hit. Jacob, so deeply in love with Rachel, agrees to work seven more years for her hand in marriage. “So Jacob went in to Rachel also,” the writer informs us, “and he loved Rachel more than Leah (v. 30).” Leah was at best a consolation prize. But in reality, she was no prize at all. Even after the birth of her first-born son, we find her struggling for Jacob’s acceptance and approval. “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction,” she cries, “surely now my husband will love me.” Leah, it is easy to see, felt unloved.

Living in the shadow of her younger sister. Relegated to second fiddle by her husband. Placed in a degrading situation by her father. No wonder Leah felt unimportant. Unappreciated. Unloved. It’s a most unpleasant place to be, isn’t it? And yet, in reflecting on Leah’s situation, perhaps we can find something that will be of help to us when we struggle the most with feeling unloved.

It is important to recognize, first of all, that Leah was not herself to blame for the circumstances that led to her feeling unloved. It is of course true that we sometimes bring pain upon ourselves by the ways that we treat other people. We have perhaps contributed to the pain that exists between ourselves and our parents, colleagues, peers, and neighbors. And if we have contributed to that pain, then we ought to take responsibility and do our part in correcting those problems.

But more often than not, particularly when we grow up with accumulating feelings of being unaccepted and unloved, we are not to blame for what others have done to us. We didn’t cause their issues any more than Leah did. Leah certainly bore no responsibility for her physical deficiencies, nor did she do anything unkind so as to cause Jacob to prefer Rachel over her. Nothing about Leah forced her father to become the manipulative conniver that he obviously was. Why, Leah is purely a “reactor” in the story. She is never consulted about any of the proceedings, and she isn’t even given the privilege to speak until after the birth of her first-born son. Leah is the one marginalized here, and it wasn’t her fault.

I wonder how many times I have seen people blaming themselves for other people’s problems, other people’s issues, other people’s wounds. The examples are endless, but I remember this morning a particular couple that I was meeting with for pre-marital counseling quite some time ago. The woman was in tears within minutes during our first session, and all I had asked was for her to describe her family of origin—her parents and siblings. She desperately longed for her mother’s love and affirmation, both of which had been consistently denied, and she spared no energy in attempting somehow to earn them. “If only I had been a better girl when I was little,” she cried. And she went on and on, beating herself up for what were obviously her mother’s problems. When we feel rejected and unloved, an important first step in our healing involves our discerning between our own issues and those of others. We often simply cannot fix other people, and it is typically a painful waste of time and energy to keep trying to do so. Leah was not to blame for being unloved. Many times, we are not either.

Note further that Leah, though silenced in the story itself, uses the births of her children as a means of sharing her pain with others. In naming her first four sons, she rather amusingly describes her feelings of rejection and her lingering attempts to win Jacob’s favor (vv. 32-35). “Surely now my husband will love me,” she cries. “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated,” she announces. Leah is a woman in pain—she feels unloved—and she refuses to keep those feelings locked up inside of her.

Some years ago a colleague of mine at the college was actually undergoing therapy in order to deal with overwhelming feelings of rejection. She had a nagging propensity to put on only the best face in the company of others, never wanting to show even the slightest sign of vulnerability. During one session, her therapist casually said to her, “It sounds as though there are a lot of lonely and unloved people at the college where you work, and the Devil is trying to keep it that way.” I took it as a positive sign that this person even shared that episode with me. It might be hard, I know, to tell another person that you are lonely or that you feel unloved. We just don’t like looking weak, do we? But sharing a need is among the first steps in having that need met. Leah put out these verbal symbols—the names of her sons—for everyone to hear.

Note one final item in our story that offers all of the hope in the world to those of us who feel unloved. This verse struck me deeply—it is why I selected this passage in the first place a few months ago. Just after describing the embarrassing bedroom scene and making the announcement that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah, the writer adds this line: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb;.. (v. 31).” What a wonderful picture. In the middle of Leah’s obviously deep-rooted pain, God “saw” and he “acted.” God is aware of our hurts and pains, we are here assured, but he is more than that. A God who is aware of our needs but either unwilling or unable to do anything about them is of little consolation. But this same God who is aware also acts deep within us to bring about healing and transformation. Why? Because, even if others may not love us, he surely does.

In his short but inspiring book entitled Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen explores the issues related to our feeling unloved. Life throws us a lot of strikes, he suggests, and the accumulative effect is often this overwhelming sense of being worthless and unloved. The very heart of the Bible, then, is to assure us that we are in fact loved and accepted. “For God so loved the world,” John announces, “that he gave his only begotten son.” The biblical antidote to the pervasive and sinful notion that we are unloved, Nouwen concludes, is to allow the Spirit of God to continually and increasingly remind us that we are loved. No one here this morning is unloved. The same God who created the heavens and the earth loves and cares for each one of us.

Mother Theresa, as most of you know, spent the better part of her life serving among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. After years and years of such ministry, she wrote: “I have come to realize more and more that the greatest disease and the greatest suffering is to be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, to be shunned by everybody, to be just nobody.” We may not be the poor living in Calcutta, but we too often feel unappreciated, uncared for, and unloved. So did Leah. But remember. Don’t shoulder the blame for other people’s issues. Don’t put on masks, refusing to share your deepest needs with the appropriate people around you. And always remind yourself. God assures us that there is no such thing as an unloved person.