Genesis 29 relates the story of Jacob’s love for Rachel. And yet, on his wedding night, the deceiver was himself deceived. Though he had worked for Laban seven years in order to marry his youngest daughter, Jacob woke up the next morning lying next to Leah, Rachael’s older sister. And so in verse 25 of Genesis 29, Jacob says to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban then responds, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”
What we have here in this scene is a kind of echo of earlier events. Just as Isaac had been deceived by Jacob at the advice of his mother, Jacob has now been deceived by Leah and her father Laban. After he had deceived his father, Jacob was blessed in the place of his brother and became the inheritor of the fertile land of Canaan, whereas Esau, Isaac’s firstborn and favored son, ended up inheriting the infertile desert region of Edom. Similarly, in place of her sister, Leah is wed to Jacob and begins to bear children, whereas Rachel, Jacob’s true love, ends up in a state of barrenness. In the first case, she is forced to wait seven years before she is able to marry Jacob, and after they are finally wed, she discovers that she is unable to conceive.
In this part of Genesis we begin to witness the birth of the sons who will eventually become the twelve tribes of Israel. But this is not your typical origin story in which the future leaders of the nation are presented as valiant heroes with omens and portents that hint of their coming greatness. Rather, what we find is more than a little embarrassing. Leah the unloved wife, is bearing children to Jacob, and because her husband’s lack of love is such an ever-present reality, she gives her children names that reflect this sad state of affairs.
Her first son is given the name Reuben, because she says, the Lord has seen my affliction. “Now,” she says, “my husband will love me.” But this was an ill-founded hope, for as we see in Genesis 29:33 she conceives again and gives birth to another son, calling him Simeon, saying, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called her third son Levi, saying, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” In verse 35, it appears that Leah has come to terms with the fact that she will remain unloved by Jacob, for when her fourth son is born, she names him Judah saying, “This time I will praise the Lord.”
Now, at the opening of Genesis 30, we read the following:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” 2 Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” 3 Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” 4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. 5 And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. 7 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.”
In this part of the story, we see that Leah is not the only one wrestling with unfulfilled desire. As Gordon Wenham notes in his Genesis commentary, “Both crave what the other has; Leah longs for Jacob’s love, and Rachel is desperate for children.” It’s interesting that Rachel characterizes her relationship with Leah as a kind of wrestling or struggling in verse 8. For you’ll recall that this is the very thing that characterized the relationship between Jacob and Esau. In fact, the two twins had “struggled together” all the way back in the womb, and had tangled with each other ever since. And in his struggle with his older brother Esau, Jacob had also prevailed, given that he was able to eventually receive his father’s blessing. Of course, this was done by means of deception and trickery; yet for some reason, his father did not revoke that blessing. And what this meant was that Jacob would now be the one destined to inherit the promised land, while Esau, though he was loved by his father, was destined to live in the unfruitful region of Edom.
As we read in Genesis 32:8, Rachel names the second child born to her servant Bilhah, “Naphtali,” which essentially means “wrestling” or “struggling.” Now when she says, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister,” what’s translated there as mighty, is actually the Hebrew word elohim, which is why according to another translation Rachel says, “In my wrestlings with God, I have wrestled with my sister and won.” Commenting on this, Gordon Wenham observes that, “In some sense, Rachel saw her struggle with Leah as a contest in which God was involved, for he had opened Leah’s womb, but shut hers.” And so, after wrestling both with God and her sister, Rachel says that she has now “prevailed.” But how is it that she has prevailed in her wrestling with God and her older sister? She has prevailed by having children of her own, yet not through God’s help, but by means of her own ingenuity and striving. Rather than patiently waiting for God to act in his own good time, Rachel has taken matters into her own hands, just as Sarah had done so many years earlier. And yet, what was the result of that earlier surrogate pregnancy? The result was that Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael who was later cut off from the promise and sent away when Isaac the child of promise was born.
So if these parallels are real, shouldn’t the children of Bilhah be cut off from the promise and disinherited just as Ishmael, the son of Hagar had been in the earlier chapters of Genesis? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t the children of Leah also be sent away, since Jacob only became married to her by means of Laban’s deception? In the history of the world, has there ever been an origin story like this? The heads of the twelve tribes are not being honored as heroes of old, but as those who deserve to be cut off and excluded from the promised inheritance.
When Leah is no longer able to conceive, we’re told in Genesis 30:9-13 that she too gave Jacob her maidservant as a wife who then gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then in verses 14-18 we’re told that, “In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went 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?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.”
If you are a little confused by this part of the narrative, I don’t blame you. For years I was greatly confused with this passage until I discovered that in the Ancient Near East, mandrakes were thought to be a cure for infertility — which is why Rachel desires them. Even though her servant Bilhah conceived and gave her two sons, she still is not satisfied. She desires to have children of her own. Walter Bruggemann insightfully comments here that this “narrative begins with barrenness. After Sarah and Rebekah we are not surprised. There is no easy, natural way toward the future. The future of Israel will not be worked by human mechanizations, not even by mandrake.”
Leah agrees to give her sister the mandrakes only after Rachel agrees to let Jacob sleep with her for the night. Here we get another glimpse of Leah’s sad reality. She is so unloved by her husband that she must resort to paying a kind of wage in order to be with him for a single night. And yet, on that night, Leah conceived again, and gave birth to Issachar, whose name probably means something like, “there is a recompense.” It’s fascinating that though Rachel has obtained the mandrakes, she’s the one who continues to be barren, while Leah who gave them away ends up bearing three additional children. God, the narrator seems to be saying, is the source of all life. He moves when and where he pleases for the sake of his own purposes.
Reflecting on this entire narrative, Gordon Wenham notes that, “It is into this most bitterly divided family that the forefathers of the twelve tribes were born. Fathered by a lying trickster and mothered by sharp-tongued shrews, the patriarchs grew up to be less than perfect themselves. Yet through them the promises to Abraham took a great step toward their fulfillment, showing that it is divine grace not human merit that gives mankind hope of salvation.”
An unexpected plot development occurs in Gen. 30:22 when we’re told that “God remembered Rachel.” This is what we’ve been waiting for all along. Just as Sarah’s lifelong barrenness was ultimately resolved by God in his own timing, rather than by Abraham or Sarah’s striving, so too God graciously intervened and rescued Rachel from her long battle with barrenness. According to Walter Bruggemann,
The stress of the entire narrative…is the movement from barrenness to conception and birth. That movement is accomplished by no human action. It comes by the faithful, inexplicable remembering and hearing of Yahweh. For bereft Israel, God’s remembering is the only source of hope. It is the ground later on for the hope of exiles. Other than the faithful memory of God, there is no reason to expect an heir or a future. But he remembers. It is the same remembering that turned the flood for Noah…That remembering is the heart of the Gospel. It will not be explained. It can only be affirmed, celebrated, and relied upon. That is how it is with Rachel…New life is God’s gift.
Bruggemann’s point that God’s remembering was at the heart of the Noah story is an important observation. In Gen. 6:5, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Nevertheless, in verse 8 we’re told that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Too often I think we read that verse in a way which makes it sound like God is the one who finds Noah to be favorable. But that’s not what the text actually says. It says that Noah found “chen,” which is a word that is often translated, “grace.”
Many scholars have often commented on the literary structure of the Noah story, in that it follows the pattern of what is known as a chiasm, in which the structure of the passage is presented in the form of A, B, C, B, A. In such a pattern, point C ends up being the very centerpiece of the passage. And in the Noah story, the very center of a long chiasm happens to be Genesis 8:1 which says, “But God Remembered Noah…” That’s the center of the story in which all the chaos ceases.
So it turns out that there is a similar chiastic structure here in this later section of the Genesis narrative, and that verse 22 of chapter 30 is the very centerpiece of this lengthy chiasm. This is the verse in which we’re told that “God Remembered Rachel.” Think about the implications of this for a moment. If this is in some ways parallel with the flood narrative, then all that we have seen thus far in the story is simply the chaos out of which redemption comes, solely by God’s grace. And if redemption is at the heart of this narrative, then we need to look closely at the identity of the child who is about to emerge from Rachel’s formerly barren womb.
In Genesis 30:23-24 we read that Rachel “conceived and bore a son and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach.’ And she called his name Joseph, saying, ‘May the LORD add to me another son!’” Joseph is the child who was born when God remembered Rachel. Thus far, all of Jacob’s other children had been born out of deceptive scheming and human striving, but, as with the birth of Isaac in the earlier chapters of Genesis, Joseph is being presented as a child of promise.
We’re all familiar with Joseph’s story. After dreaming that all the members of his family would bowing down before him, and jealous of their father’s special love and favor, the brothers began to plot to kill Joseph. And so they threw him in a pit and later decided to sell him as a slave. Yet through God’s providence, Joseph would eventually be elevated to the right hand of power in all of Egypt. In fact, he was displayed in royal robes and everywhere he went, people bowed down before him. This same Joseph was responsible for a great redemption, since he spared the lives of so many people throughout the land during a time of a great famine, including his own family members.
Now in a certain sense, we could see the story of Joseph as a kind of first level fulfillment of the promise that was initially given to Abraham, who was told, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” But, you and I know that all of this was just the tip of the iceberg of all that God was planning to accomplish. This was just a hint of greater things come — things that would be done in the fullness of time when the Word made flesh would redeem his people from their sins, and would fulfill his mission to be the “lamb of God who takes away the sins world.”
In Gen. 50:20, Joseph comforted his brothers saying, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” It’s amazing how similar this is to what we find Peter proclaiming in Acts chapter 2 when he says, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, who was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” All the wicked things the rulers of Israel did to Jesus with evil intent, somehow God mysteriously intended this for our good, and for the redemption of the world.
Here’s something else to think about. From which of the twelve tribes did Jesus descend? According to Rev. 5:5 he is the lion of the tribe of Judah. So what part of the story did Judah play in the sections we read here this morning? All we’re told is that he was the fourth child born to Jacob and Leah. Think about the implications of this for a moment. You may have expected Jesus to have descended from Joseph’s line, given all the thematic parallels relating to redemption. No; Jesus actually descended from the tribe of Judah. In other words, that which Laban did with sinful intent as he tricked Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter first, God actually meant for our good. For if Jacob had never married Leah, Judah would never have been born, nor his distant grandson Jesus.
I like to think that, in a way, the unloved Leah represents us all. Due to the distorting effects of sin, by nature none of us are lovely or attractive to God. Nevertheless, in Christ, those who were not God’s people have become his very own possession, and those who were both unlovely and unloved, God now calls his beloved bride (Rom. 9:25).
One could also see the entire narrative about the birth of Jacob’s children as being emblematic of the entire history of Israel. As a whole, this nation would not end up being barren for merely a decade or two. No, Israel actually remained spiritually barren for a period would end up spanning almost two millennia. And you can read about the long history of her barrenness throughout all the historical books of the Old Testament. There you’ll encounter countless varieties of sibling rivalries and deceitful schemes. You may even encounter a king who at first glance appears to be the ultimate child of promise, until you turn the page and find him sitting on top of his roof engrossed in porn, and doing things that makes even Hittites blush.
This is not just Israel’s story. This is our story as well. All of us are spiritually barren. We’ve all tasted of the forbidden fruit, we’re all naturally curved in on ourselves, which results in sibling rivalries, discord, hatred, division, fear, doubt, insecurity, covetousness, lust and murder. By nature we’re estranged from God and we are unable to make our way back to Paradise. But though all of this is true, there’s another message that’s also being announced in these pages. In the fullness of time, God remembered Israel and her barrenness, and in the womb of a young maiden by the name of Mary, he implanted a seed that would in time, undo the curse of the fall. This is the promised root that Isaiah spoke of which would spring out of parched ground. This is the seed of the woman who crushed the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), and the one greater than Joseph to whom every knee will one day bow, whether in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth (Phil 2:10).