July 11, 2004
Leah: On Feeling Unloved
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 ussome very close to homefeel unloved. So did Leah, the wife of Jacob.
At least the basics of Leahs 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 Labans permission to marry her. Through a series of events and bargaining schemes, their marriage did in fact take place, but not before Rachels 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 wellone of the hang-outs of antiquityand chatted with some of the local shepherds. Before long, Rachel arrived at the same well with her fathers flock. Single-handedly, Jacob pushed aside the large stone covering the wella job typically reserved for several menand watered Rachels 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 Rachels hand in marriage.
I dont 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.
Leahs 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 Leahs eyes remains unclearthe phrase is impossible to translate with certainty. One can conclude that Leahs eyes were in fact lovelygentle and pleasant to look at. An equally viable interpretation suggests that her eyes were weakdiminished and pale. In truth, however, it really does not matter all that much for our purposes how we read the phrase. If Leahs eyes were indeed lovely, they stand out here as her sole physical characteristic worthy of mention. Leahs 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 dont want to suggest that Rachel was arrogant and flaunted her extraordinarily good looks in the homely face of her older sister. The writer doesnt 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 beforeperhaps 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 Jacobs initial infatuation with her younger sister nor her own physical deficiencies captures the full extent of Leahs 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 fathers 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 arouseengaging 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 Leahs father put her in such a situation? Couldnt 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 fathers 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, Leahs 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 Jacobs 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. Its a most unpleasant place to be, isnt it? And yet, in reflecting on Leahs 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 didnt 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 isnt even given the privilege to speak until after the birth of her first-born son. Leah is the one marginalized here, and it wasnt her fault.
I wonder how many times I have seen people blaming themselves for other peoples problems, other peoples issues, other peoples 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 originher parents and siblings. She desperately longed for her mothers 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 mothers 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 Jacobs 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 painshe feels unlovedand 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 dont like looking weak, do we? But sharing a need is among the first steps in having that need met. Leah put out these verbal symbolsthe names of her sonsfor 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 deeplyit 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 Leahs 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. Dont shoulder the blame for other peoples issues. Dont 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.