Despite Israel’s dysfunctional beginnings, the LORD continues to work through his people’s messiness, foolishness and sin—humbling them to prompt their trust in him, and thus providing for their deepest needs: divine favor for the unloved and removal of reproach for the ashamed.
Introduction & Background – One of the most common questions Christians ask is “How can I know God’s will for my life?” I find that most people who ask this question share an underlying assumption: If I make a mistake, take a wrong turn, get on the wrong path, and make a big mess of my life, then I’ve blown it! Most Christians believe deep down in their hearts that life can get so messed up due to their own foolishness and sin that all hope may be lost for happiness—at least in this life. Before we choose our life’s path we fear missing God’s blessing. After we choose our path we fear we are on the wrong path and missing God’s blessing. And when our lives become messy and dysfunctional, we despair because somehow we know we chose the wrong path and therefore will certainly miss God’s blessing. At this point we feel trapped, destined to feel unloved and ashamed, abandoned by God and people.
Will my window for gaining love and honor ever open again, or am I destined to live out my days despised and ashamed? Will my husband ever love and cherish me the way I desire? Have I lost my wife’s love and respect forever? Will I ever have a best friend who truly understands me and loves me for who I am? Will I ever be able to rise above the sins of my past? Am I destined to continue falling back into sinful habits, mired in the swamp I jumped into? Have I missed the rescue boat? Perhaps scheming to get the love and honor I crave is the answer? When you’ve made a mess of your life and find yourself feeling unloved or ashamed in your circle of family and friends, is there any hope for you?
The story of Jacob’s life is found in Genesis 28-36. This story is about how the sons of Jacob (Israel) were born. We would expect it to be glorious narrative of the beginning of God’s chosen nation. Instead it is such a realistic and embarrassing account of Jacob’s family dysfunction that we often ignore it. But it is God’s Word, an honest picture of God’s people, and therefore it has much to teach us about the Church as a whole and about our lives in particular.
I. Scheming to Get What You Want Can Make Life a Mess
A. Scheming for love can get you “hated” (vv. 31-35, 15a)
Jacob loves Rachel, his uncle Laban’s younger daughter. When the wedding day finally arrives, Laban tricks him into marrying his older daughter Leah, who cooperates in the ruse. She accepted Laban’s plan probably because she loved Jacob and wanted desperately to be married and finally gain a loving husband. Her wholesome desire for love was spoiled by this one act of deception. Now she finds herself in a marriage likely headed for heartache very soon. Once Leah weds Jacob and he consummates his marriage to her, Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel, but only if Jacob will work for him an additional seven years as the bride-price. So within a span of perhaps a few days he gains two sisters as wives. He loves Rachel, but Leah is unloved (“hated” in comparison; cf. Gen 29:30) by Jacob.
B. Scheming for honor can get you shame (vv. 1-3, 14-17)
O that Rachel would have prayed for God to grant her patience to wait on his timing and trust him to remove the social shame of being barren! Instead Rachel schemes to fulfill her deepest desire to have a baby by resorting to surrogate motherhood. She gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob as another wife to bear children in Rachel’s stead. We know that this is a bad idea because we’ve seen the results in Jacob’s grandmother Sarah’s life (cf. Gen 16-18, 21). Rachel should know this too because it is part of her family history. Sarah had given her servant Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate wife to bear children in Sarah’s stead. But family strife ensued, culminating in Hagar and her son Ishmael (the son of the flesh) sent away from the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (the son of the promise).
One of my favorite examples of how scheming can get you “hated” and shame is Alexandre Dumas’ story “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The plot is too complex to summarize here, but its backbone is two best friends (Edmund and Fernand) who love the same woman (Mercedes). Mercedes chooses to marry Edmund. Fernand, consumed by jealousy and shame, is unable to rejoice in his friend’s happiness, and so betrays him by sending Edmund away to a torturous exile. Fernand then schemes his way into marrying Mercedes, thinking he’ll find love and honor—which he does…for a while. Meanwhile, Edmund escapes from exile with one of the most satisfying schemes of revenge you’ll ever encounter. In the end Fernand’s scheming for love and honor only gain him being hated and shamed. Admittedly the story walks the line of glorifying revenge, but it has a redemptive ending. The point is that both Edmund and Fernand are scheming characters who both want love and honor. And this scheming destroys Fernand who almost takes Edmund down with him.
II. What the Mess You Made of Life Can Do to You
A. It can make you desperate (vv. 1, 3, 9, 14-16)
Both sister wives covet what the other has, unable to be content with love and children as blessings in themselves. Rachel reveals her desperation: “Give me children or I die!” She convinces Jacob that surrogate children by her handmaid Bilhah are the best path to motherhood. Rachel committed the sin of coveting (10th commandment). Westminster Shorter Catechism 81 says, “The tenth commandment forbids all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to any thing that is his.”
Leah responded to Rachel’s scheme in kind, by giving her own servant Zilpah to Jacob as another surrogate wife. Although the text does not reveal Leah’s motives, likely she became jealous of Rachel who now possessed surrogate children. Leah hasn’t had a baby in awhile, and now Rachel is nursing a baby. Uh-oh! As the saying goes, “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you!” The mandrake episode highlights Rachel’s and Leah’s desperation.
B. It can make you vindictive (vv. 1, 5-8, 15)
1. Rachel felt entitled to children. She was beautiful, favored, and probably a little spoiled. She probably had “beautiful woman syndrome!” When Rachel’s life became a mess, she threw a tantrum, blaming her husband for her barren womb. “Give me children or I die!” Of course it wasn’t Jacob’s fault. Rachel was taking her frustrations out on him. Then she schemes to have children by Bilhah. This was a socially acceptable custom, but contrary to God’s ways. Rachel certainly knew this. But she claims Bilhah’s children for her own and then presumes God understands and approves.
Before you judge Rachel too quickly, remember there are ways that we flirt with or participate in socially acceptable customs that are contrary to God’s word. For example: (1) Sleeping with (or moving in with) your lover before getting married as a means to secure your relationship. (2) Pretending to be something you are not as a means to attract your love interest. (3) New phenomenon of having a “work spouse”—a co-worker of the opposite sex with whom one shares an intimate platonic relationship—as a means to filling a relational need that your spouse is not willing or able to fill.
Notice the vindictive names she chose for Bilhah’s children: Dan (meaning Judged or Vindicated) and Naphtali (meaning My Struggle). Rachel is doing everything she can to rub Leah’s face in it: “Jacob loves me, now I have children too, so there!”
2. During their tussle over the mandrakes, Leah’s frustration with her unloved status in the home erupts when she accuses Rachel of stealing her husband. Leah’s words are ludicrous and vindictive! Who stole whose husband? If anybody is guilty of this charge it is Leah, not Rachel. Not only does Leah feel hated by her husband, but also hated by her sister Rachel. So Leah justifies her anger by shading the truth so she can play the victim and excuse her vindictiveness.
Love triangles are always rife with revenge. Think of a time when you were in a romantic relationship or close friendship with someone, and you ended up being a “third wheel” (on the outside looking in). Perhaps someone on the outside wanted to replace you, or perhaps your friend or spouse wanted to replace you with someone on the outside. Didn’t you entertain thoughts of revenge against the person who replaced you or the person who rejected you? And if there was no “other person,” weren’t you tempted to blame God for being unloved, for being ashamed?
C. It can make you lose hope in God (vv. 1-3, 9-13, 15)
1. Jacob answers Rachel’s complaint in anger. He disowns any responsibility for Rachel’s infertility. Jacob rightly says that he is not God, and that it is God who has withheld children from Rachel. However, while Jacob had responded with theological truth (“I’m not God; he closed your womb!”), he essentially blamed God. Contrast Jacob’s response with that of Isaac his father when confronted with the same complaint from his wife Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah prayed (Gen 25:21-22), but there is no evidence that Jacob prayed for God to remove Rachel’s shame. Correct theology cannot replace faithful piety.
2. Leah was dragged down into competing with Rachel. Leah is not calling on the covenant name of the LORD as before, is now naming some of her children without thinking of God, and has regressed in again pursuing Jacob’s love by having babies. But at least she still prays (v. 17).
3. Rachel’s eagerness to barter her husband’s affection to gain the mandrakes shows she is not free of her pagan background (cf. Gen 31:19). In ancient times mandrakes were considered both an aphrodisiac and a fertility enhancer (cf. Song 7:13). Interestingly, the Greek goddess Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and sex, was called “Lady of the Mandrake.” The mandrake fruit, as it grows in Palestine and the Mediterranean region, has a peculiar-shaped root that resembles the human torso and legs. The plant has a small orange-colored berry-like fruit that is edible. It has been called the “love-apple.” So they agree to trade: Rachel gains a fruit that she believes will help her get pregnant; Leah gains a night with her husband and his affection. Perhaps Leah will finally win his love? Perhaps Rachel possesses the magic fruit that will finally give her children? Rachel is still trying to control her mess, still scheming to remove her shame in a desperate effort to get pregnant—this time with a little help from the love-apple. She is ignoring the only one able to open her womb. But Rachel pays the price for her bizarre and pathetic bargain with Leah. The plan backfires—God listens to Leah’s plea for love and she conceives again and again and again, and without the aid of mandrakes!
III. How to Begin Cleaning Up Your Mess
A. Humble yourself by giving up control (vv. 14-21)
Rachel gave up control of her lone asset (Jacob’s love and affection) to Leah who began bearing children again. Rachel, in a sense, now bore the social shame of barrenness and the sense of losing her husband’s love. She probably noticed that Leah refused to stoop to her level of vindictiveness. Leah gave her children names that reminded her of the divine blessing they were, not names that taunted her sister. Perhaps learning from Leah’s example, for the first time Rachel gave her messy life to the LORD and prayed for help.
B. Trust the LORD for your deepest desires (vv. 35, 22-24)
1. God hears, listens, and takes action for the unloved and ashamed—those whose lives are a mess. At the beginning of this story, Jacob’s unhappy marriage with two sisters—one he loves (Rachel) and the other he hates (Leah) begins to unfold in its misery. Leah was unloved by Jacob, but God loved her. God demonstrates he is especially concerned to lift up the neglected who are members of the covenant. When Leah named her fourth son Judah, literally, “Praise,” she did not wish for Jacob’s love. It is as if Leah had chosen to trust the LORD with her desire to be loved. She had learned to be content with God’s blessing upon her. The LORD ultimately gave Leah half of Jacob’s sons, including the priestly line of Levi and the messianic line of Judah. With the birth of her daughter Dinah, she had seven children—the perfect number in the Bible! This gives her more children than the other three wives of Jacob combined. Leah is no more unloved!
2. Rachel finally turned to God in prayer. Then he “remembered” this daughter of the covenant. He transformed her barrenness to fertility. Rachel’s scheme to use mandrakes did not gain her fertility. Only God is able to open the womb, and he did so only after Rachel “gave” her husband to Leah. She finally ceased scheming and decided to trust the LORD instead. She made herself vulnerable—she still did not truly have children and social reproach continued to cling to her. Thus the tables had turned. Rachel had become the unfavorable and shameful wife. God humbled her, she learned to trust him, and so God blessed her with a child. No more shame!
C. Believe that a changed heart is a cleaned-up mess (vv. 31-35, 22-24)
1. Did Leah’s marriage get better? Perhaps a little, but she was never Jacob’s beloved. However, Leah did find love and favor in the LORD, who was a husband to her. He blessed her with many children. She became the ancestral mother of priests, kings, and the King of kings when God “remembered” her. And we still remember Leah (when we’re not overlooking her) as a woman with a changed heart and a divinely favored life.
2. Did Rachel ever surpass her sister in the blessing of motherhood? Not really. She gave birth to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son and the father of the great Israelite tribes Ephraim and Manassah. But she died giving birth to her second son Benjamin. She didn’t have the blessing of many years to enjoy her children and grandchildren. However, Rachel did find honor and favor in the LORD, who answered her when she finally became a woman of prayer and trust. God “remembered” her by opening her womb. He blessed her with a son, covered her shame, and awakened her hope for more divine blessing and honor.
3. Rachel and Leah discovered that a heart yielded to God didn’t change their circumstances, but it effectively cleaned up the mess they had made of their lives. When God changes your heart, the divine love and honor that naturally follow bring an abiding joy that will cause you to flourish, despite how messy life still seems to be. They learned the lesson of James 4:1-10.
Conclusion – Rachel and Leah lived much of their lives short of fulfillment. Neither lived a “full life,” but rather a “half-life” starved for love or honor. For years their lives were blocked from achieving fullness by sorrow, hostility, and competition. They only found love and honor when God remembered their plight. And so it is for us. The Bible does not offer the misery of a resigned shame, the phoniness of trite platitudes, or the fateful blaming of circumstances. Instead the Bible offers hope in the one who remembers and has come to bring new life out of half-life (Jn 10:10). Apart from Christ the savior of God’s family, we are ultimately unloved and without hope, because God’s special favor only rests on his people. Apart from Christ, we are ultimately ashamed and without hope, because God’s special mercy only extends to his people. But in Christ the savior of Israel, those who give up control of their mess and trust the LORD for his special love and honor will find their mess is truly cleaned up in having a changed heart. The Bible recognizes the agony of living life without your deepest desires met, and it offers real hope to you in the midst of your agony. Believers in every age may have confidence in God’s mercy. Reflect on this dysfunctional story of how God worked to bring about his people Israel. Take heart! If God brought earthly blessing and eternal salvation to a family this messed up, he can surely bless you!