Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the LORD has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’”
Because the narrative in Genesis 29 focuses primarily on Jacob and his interaction with Laban, we can forget to pay attention to two of the most important characters in the story, Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah. For most of Genesis 29, they are silent. We don’t learn how Rachel felt when, for example, on the night of her wedding, her father sent her sister in to sleep with her husband. We don’t hear how Leah responded to her father’s command that she take the place of her sister in the bed of her brother-in-law. We can sense, however, the powerlessness and voicelessness of these two women whose lives were governed by their father, Laban, who had complete authority over them.
Well, not quite complete authority, as it turns out. Because of Laban’s trickery, Leah ended up being the first wife of Jacob, who took Rachel as his second wife. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah” (29:30). Yet, at this point, God intervened on Leah’s behalf. He “opened her womb” and allowed her to bear a son, while Rachel was “barren” (29:31). Finally, we hear Leah’s voice as she named her son “Reuben.” Why Reuben, which, in Hebrew, means “See, a son!”? Leah explained, “Because the LORD has looked on my affliction, surely now my husband will love me” (29:32). Later, after the birth of her second son, Leah said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (29:33).
As a woman living in a patriarchal society, Leah was without authority and often without a voice. When she did speak, we can hear and feel her pain, the pain of being unloved by her husband, and, I would expect, her sister as well. Yet, God acted on Leah’s behalf, blessing her with children. God’s authority trumps that of the men in Leah’s life. But that does not mean Leah was liberated or that her problems disappeared. (In fact, in Genesis 30, Leah actually had to purchase from her sister Rachel the right to sleep with Jacob, her own husband.)
As I reflect on this sad chapter in the biblical narrative, I’m reminded of how easy it is for me to fail to hear silenced voices, not just in Scripture but also in today’s world. I am trained to pay attention to people of power and influence. I listen to those who affirm me or who agree with me. I’m not naturally or culturally inclined to listen, really listen, to those without power or privilege, to those who say things that make me uncomfortable. Genesis 29 challenges me concerning my own need to listen with greater sensitivity, even, and especially, to those whose voices are often silenced around me, or even by me. Moreover, the story of Leah reminds me that God has compassion for those without a voice, for those who are victims of injustice. I pray that my ears and my heart might become more like those of the Lord.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
As you read Genesis 29 from the perspective of Leah and Rachel, how does this change your understanding of the story? How do you feel? What is God stirring in you?
Are there people in your world whose voices you tend not to hear? Why are they silent in your experience? How might you learn to hear their voices?
Gracious God, today I’m struck by the experience of Rachel and Leah, by their powerlessness and voicelessness. I’m also struck by how easy it is for me not to listen to the voices of other people. I can silence those who have no power, those who don’t think as I do, those who might say things I would find to be unpleasant. Help me, Lord, to listen with open ears and with a heart like yours. May I hear, not just words, but the voices of other people I encounter in my life. May I grow in understanding, empathy, and love for all of your people.