Readings Genesis 29:15-35 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-16
Image, GHISLAINE HOWARD, Pregnant Self Portrait, 1984, Oil on board
Note, I owe many insights in this sermon to Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah vol. 1 (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). Specific page numbers quoted below.
The chapters of Genesis where Jacob stays with Laban are as complex and messy as any Greek tragedy, Shakespearean farce, or daytime soap. Jacob is sent to the house of Laban (his mother’s brother) to escape the wrath of Esau and procure a wife. Early on he meets and falls in love with Rachel (Laban’s younger daughter) and agrees to work for Laban for seven years if he gets to marry Rachel at the end of them. However, in an ironic reversal of Jacob’s earlier efforts to trick his father by pretending to be an older sibling, Jacob himself is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sibling, Leah. Following the unwitting consummation of their marriage, Jacob confronts Laban in a rage, after which Laban says he can marry Rachel so long as he remains married to Leah and works another seven years for Laban.
Today’s reading follows on from here, detailing Leah’s grief and disregard on the part of Jacob, the blessing and notice she receives from God, and the various children she bears to (a still uninterested) Jacob. And yet, this is not where the drama of Jacob in the house of Laban ends. Following this we have some 20 or so further verses detailing the way in which Rachel – devastated by her own lack of children – gives her maid Bilhan to Jacob so that she might gain children through her (she gets two children through this arrangement). Following this, Leah gives her own maid to Jacob in order to bring forth two more sons. After this (and some trading of mandrakes) Leah then bears two more sons and a daughter to Jacob, after which, we read that “God remembered Rachel” and she bears a final son to Jacob, naming him Joseph (of technicolour dream coat fame).
And yet, all these sons through all these arrangements are not the end of the drama. Laban and Jacob continue to go back and forth in grievance and trickery (mostly over Jacob’s wages) before Jacob finally fleas with his wives and children (and a bunch of Laban’s household goods that Rachel steals, a theft which drives Laban to chase Jacob for a week across the desert, after which, being unable to find the contraband, they agree to make a covenant together and stay out of each other’s way)… and thus goes the story of Jacob in the household of Laban, and with that, the sermon might begin…
The scene is a mess and many suffer directly or as collateral because of deceit, trickery, jealousy, hard-heatedness, and a decided lack of communication. We remember that the whole thing comes about because of Jacob’s trickery, and while there is some poetic justice in Laban later tricking him, this is achieved with no regard for what it might mean for Leah and Rachel (or their maids). The most generous reading of Laban’s decision is that it was motivated by concern for his eldest daughter. Jacob was instantly attracted to her younger sibling, and there is no sense that Leah had other prospects or suitors, and in a deeply patriarchal and economically insecure society she could hardly remain unwed. And so Laban acts to ensure that Leah would be secure after his death. And yet, even this generous read offers little to compensate Leah’s pain, for at no point in the narrative will Jacob express any affection for Leah.
Indeed, Leah’s childbearing comes because, as we heard, “the Lord saw that Leah was unloved.” And Leah’s naming of her children only further demonstrates her pitiful state. The first is named Reuben because since the Lord had looked on her affliction “surely now my husband will love me.” The second is named Simeon because (contrary to the hopes she placed on her first child) the Lord has seen how she is still hated… and the third is named Levi in the hope that having borne three sons “my husband will be joined to me” (joined, we note, is a long way from the initial hope of love).
Leah faces significant disappointment and disregard on the part of her husband. Her wish for love, kindness, even simple attachment is unmet year on year, child on child. And then, something happens… Leah births a fourth son and says, “This time I will praise the Lord” and names him Judah. All the previous names express her yearning and disappointment in relation to her husband, but now she frees herself from such hopes and turns her focus to expressing gratitude for God, who has seen her suffering and tended her woes with blessing. Leah, it is said, is the first person in scripture to express gratitude in the midst of suffering and disappointment. Many have given thanks when things are going well, Leah gives thanks after realising that her life will not be as she wished. From Leah we learn the holy work of finding gratitude “amid profound sorrow and enduring disappointment” (Held, p.63).
In a reflection on this passage, Rabbi Shai Held notes that Judah (the name meaning I will praise or I will express gratitude) becomes the name of the Jewish people as a whole, and thus the Jew is “one who discovers the possibility of gratitude even amid heartbreak… [who] can find a way to gratitude without having everything she wants or even needs.” (p.63)
Paul, himself a Jew, raised on the story of Leah, expresses a similar thought to the church in Corinth. He reminds them to Let light shine out of darkness, because though we are afflicted in every way we are not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. Such words can be said of Leah, and her ability to find a way to praise and gratitude despite indignity and disappointment. And such words set the tone for the life of the Christian, who knows that amid heartbreak and longing, gratitude witnesses to the truth that we are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies… So do not lose heart [extols Paul] even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
Our lives and relationships might not be quite so intensely dramatic as the lives and relationships circling Jacob and Laban, but we know too well what it is to live in a complex and messy world, we know too well that life has its share of disappointments and dashed dreams, heartbreaks and unrealised hopes. And such a world takes a toll on our outer nature, there is nothing gained in denying such a thing. However, what we learn from Leah and Paul, is that if we remain open to the presence and power of God, take time to notice God’s attention and care, and teach ourselves to discover gratitude for what grace we have received, then our inner nature will be renewed day by day. Renewed by God who in Christ makes us a new creation, raised from dust into glory, affliction into praise.
This does not mean that the pain disappears, that the disappointments wont sting, or that the longing for a life that might have been loses all allure. Rather, like Leah, this renewal allows us to find freedom amidst unchanged circumstances, to find gratitude amidst unmet desire, to find praise for God’s faithfulness amidst human failure. For God saw Leah in her affliction, and God saw the church in Corinth in their affliction, and God sees each and every one of us in our affliction, and says though you may be afflicted you shall not be crushed! For God is always at work to lead us into life, to lead us into freedom, and to lead us into glory. And what we are asked to do, is to walk on together, protecting this promise, and helping each other find a way to gratitude, for where there’s gratitude there is renewal.
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