by Timothy Keller
 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman [relative], should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”  Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.  Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.  Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”  Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”  So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”  So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her.  (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.)  And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said 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 said, “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.”  Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.  (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.)  So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.  When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”  She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.  Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi.  And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. Gen. 29:15-35
There is no book, I believe, less sentimental about marriage and the family then the Bible. It is utterly realistic about how hard it is not to be married; and it is utterly realistic about how hard it is to be married. Out in the world, especially in the culture outside the church, there are a lot of people who are cynical about marriage. They don’t trust marriage, so they avoid it altogether or give themselves an easy escape by living together. Then there are people inside the church who are very much the opposite. They think, “Marriage, family, white picket fences—that is what family values are all about. That’s how you find fulfillment. That is what human life is all about.”
The Bible shows us marriage and the family, with all of its joys and all of its difficulties, and points us to Jesus and says, “This is who you need, this is what you need, to have a fulfilled life.” What the Bible says is so nuanced, so different, so off the spectrum. One of the places you see this is in this fascinating story—the account of Jacob’s search for his one true love. I would like you to notice three things in the story:
First, this overpowering human drive to find one true love [Key Theme – a hope];
Secondly, the devastation and disillusionment that ordinarily accompanies the search for true love;
[Third], and finally, what we can do about this longing – what will fulfill it.
1) THE HUMAN DRIVE TO FIND ONE TRUE LOVE
At the beginning of the passage, Laban says to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsmen [relative] of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be” (v. 15). Before continuing, let me give you the back-story.
Two generations earlier, God had come to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, and said, “Abraham, look at the misery, the death, and the brokenness. I am going to do something about it. I am going to redeem this world, and I am going to do it through your family, through one of your descendents. And therefore, in every generation of your descendents, one child will bear the Messianic line. That child will walk before me and be the head of the clan and pass the true faith on to the next generation. Then there will be another child that bears the Messianic line [seed] and another, until one day, one of your descendents will be the Messiah himself, the King of kings.”
Abraham fathered Isaac, the first in the line Messianic forebears, and when Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, became pregnant with twins, God spoke to Rebekah through and said, “The elder will serve the younger.” That was God’s way of saying that the second twin born would be the chosen one, to carry on the Messianic hope. Esau is born first and then Jacob, but in spite of the prophecy, Isaac set his heart on the oldest son. He set his heart on Esau and favored him all through his life. As a result, he distorted his entire family. Esau grew up proud, spoiled, willful, and impulsive; Jacob grew up rejected and resentful and turned into a schemer; Rebekah favored her younger son and became alienated from her husband Isaac.
Finally, the time came for the aged Isaac to give the blessing to the head of the clan, which was to be Esau; but Jacob dressed up as Esau, went in, and got the blessing. When Esau found out about it, he became determined to kill Jacob, and Jacob had to flee into the wilderness. Now everything was ruined. Jacob’s life was ruined. Not only did he no longer have a family to be the head of; he no longer had a family or an inheritance at all, and he had to flee for his life. Jacob did not know whether Esau messed up or he messed up or Isaac or maybe even God, but now his life was in ruins and he would never fulfill his destiny. Just to survive, he was forced to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent.
Jacob escaped to his mother’s family, and they took him in as a kind of charity case. Laban, his uncle, allowed him to be a shepherd. Laban realized that Jacob had tremendous ability as a shepherd and a manager. He figured out that he could make a lot of money if Jacob were in charge of his flocks. That is how we get to this question: “How much can I pay you to be in charge of my flocks?”
Jacob’s answer [vv. 16-18] is basically one word: Rachel. He wanted Rachel as his bride, and was willing to work seven years for her. What do we know about Rachel? The text comes right out and says that Rachel was lovely in form and beautiful. The Hebrew word translated “form” is quite literal it means exactly what you think. It is talking about her figure. Rachel had a great figure. She had a beautiful face and was absolutely gorgeous. I want to give credit where credit is due and say that Robert Alter, the great Hebrew literature scholar at Berkeley, has helped me understand this text a lot. Alter says there are all sorts of signals in the text about how over-the-top, intensely lovesick and overwhelmed Jacob is with Rachel. There is the poignant but telling statement where the text says, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her (v.20).”
More interesting is the next verse: “Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” Of course that means he wants to have sex with her. Alter says that this statement is so blunt, so graphic, so sexual, so over-the-top and inappropriate and non-customary that, over the centuries, Jewish commentators have had to do all kinds of backpedaling to explain it. But he says it is not that hard to explain the meaning. He says that the narrator is showing us a man driven by and overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman.
What is going on here? Jacob’s life was empty. He never had his father’s love. Now he didn’t even have his mother’s love, and he certainly had no sense of God’s love. He had lost everything—no family, no inheritance, no nothing. And then he saw Rachel, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most beautiful woman for miles around, and he said to himself, “If I had her, finally, something would be right in my lousy life. If I had her, life would have meaning. If I had her, it would fix things.” If he found his one true love, life would finally be okay.
All the longings of the human heart for significance, for security, and for meaning—he had no other object for them—they were all fixed on Rachel.
Jacob was somewhat unusual for his time. Cultural historians will tell you that in ancient times people didn’t generally marry for love (that is actually a relatively recent phenomenon). They married for status. Nevertheless, he is not rare today.
Ernest Becker was a secular man, an atheist, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1970’s for his book The Denial of Death. In the book, he talks about how secular people deal with the fact that they don’t believe in God. He says that one of the main ways secular culture has dealt with the God vacuum is through apocalyptic sex and romance. Our secular culture has loaded its desire for transcendence into romance and love. Talking about the modern secular person, he says:
He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things…He still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and gratitude…If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as [Otto] Rank saw, was the “romantic solution.” …The self-glorification that he needed in the innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life…
After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feelings of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. … That is exactly what Jacob did. And that is what people are doing all over the place. That is what our culture is begging us to do—to load all of the deepest needs of our hearts for significance, security, and transcendence into romance and love, into finding that one true love. That will fix my lousy life!
Let me tell you something you notice when you live in New York City. It is a tough town; everybody looks so cool and pulled together. But the amount of money people spend on their appearance shows they are desperate. They cannot imagine living without apocalyptic romance and love. The human longing for one true love has always been around, but in our culture now, it has been magnified to an astounding degree. But where does it lead?
2) The Disillusionment That Comes
Secondly, let’s look at the disillusionment and devastation that almost always accompanies a search for that one true love. We begin with Laban’s plot. Laban knew that Jacob offered to serve seven years for Rachel. He knew what that meant. At that time, when you wanted to marry someone, you paid the father a bride price, and it was somewhere around thirty to forty-five shekels. Robert Alter says that a month’s wages was equal to one and a half shekels, and therefore, you can see that Jacob, right out of the box is absolutely lovesick. He is a horrible bargainer; he is immediately offered three to four times the normal bride price. Laban knew he had him. He knew this man was vulnerable.
Commentators say there are indicators in the text that Laban immediately came up with a plan, realizing he could get even more out of this deal. Notice the conversation between Jacob and Laban. The text says, “Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” (v.18). Look at how Laban responds. He never says, “Yes”! He does not say, “Yes, seven years. It is a deal.” No! Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me” (v.19).
Jacob wants it to be a yes, so he hears a yes. But it is not a yes. Laban is just saying, “Yea, okay, if you want to marry Rachel, it is a good idea.”
Seven years pass; now Jacob says, “Give me my wife.” As customary, there is a great feast. In the middle of the feast, the bride is brought heavily veiled to the groom. She was given to him, and he took her into the tent. He was inebriated, as was also the custom; and in that dark tent, Jacob lay with her. The text tells us, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (v. 25). Jacob looked and discovered that he had married Leah, and had had sex with Leah, and he had consummated the marriage with Leah. Jacob, rightfully angry, goes to Laban and says, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me? (v. 25). Laban replies that it is customary for the older girl to be married before the younger girl.
I must say I have read this text for thirty years or more and I have never understood why Jacob basically says, “Oh, okay.” I have never figured it out. He is obviously angry and the situation is absolutely ridiculous. Why doesn’t Jacob kill him? Why doesn’t he throttle him? Again, Robert Alter is very helpful here. He suggests something that I think is rather profound.
First of all, what Laban literally says is: “It is not the custom here to put the younger before the older.”
Second, Alter points out that when Jacob said, “Why have you deceived me?” the word translated “deceived” is the same Hebrew word that was used in chapter 27 to describe what Jacob did to Isaac. [What goes around comes around; sowing…and reaping]
Alter says (this is surmise, but what surmise!) that it must have occurred to Jacob that Laban had only done to him what he had done to his father. In the dark, he thought he was touching Rachel, as his father in the dark of his blindness had thought he was touching Esau. Alter then quotes an ancient rabbinical commentator who imagines the conversation the next day between Jacob and Leah. Jacob says to Leah: “I called out ‘Rachel’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to me?” And Leah says to him, “Your father called out ‘Esau’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to him?” Fury dies on his lips. Cut to the quick. Suddenly the evil he has done has come to Jacob. And he sees what it is like to be manipulated and deceived, and meekly he picks up and works another seven years.
We leave Jacob in his devastation (I don’t have a better word for it), and then we see what it has done to Leah. Now, who is Leah? We are told that Leah is the older daughter, but the only detail we are given about her is that she has weak eyes. Nobody quite knows what “weak eyes” means; some commentators have assumed it means she has bad eyesight. But the text does not say that Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel could see a long way. Weakness probably means cross-eyed; it could mean something unsightly. But here is the point: Leah was particularly unattractive, and she had to live all of her life in the shadow of her sister who was absolutely stunning.
As a result, Laban knew no one was ever going to marry her or offer any money for her. He wondered how he was going to get rid of her, how was he going to unload her. And then he saw his chance, he saw an opening and he did it. And now the girl that Laban, her father, did not want has been given to a husband who doesn’t want her either. She is the girl nobody wants. Leah has a hollow in her heart every bit as the hollow in Jacob’s heart. Now she begins to do to Jacob what Jacob had done to Rachel and what Isaac had done to Esau. She set her heart on Jacob. You see the evil and the pathology in these families just ricocheting around again and again from generation to generation.
The last verses here are some of the most plaintive [sad] I have ever read in the Bible (most English translations tell you a little about what the words actually mean). [she uses Hebrew words that express her longing for Jacob] Leah gave birth to her first child, a boy and she named him Reuben. Reuben means, “to see” and she thought, “Now maybe my husband will see me; maybe I won’t be invisible anymore.” But she had a second son, and she named him Simeon, which has to do with hearing: “Now maybe my husband will finally listen to me.” But he didn’t. She had a third son and named him Levi, which means “to be attached,” and she said, “Maybe finally my husband’s heart will be attached to me.”
What was she doing? She was trying to get an identity through traditional family values. Having sons, especially in those days, was the best way to do that; but it was not working. She had set her heart, all of her hopes and dreams, on her husband. She thought, “If I have babies and if I have sons and my husband loves me, then finally something will be fixed in my lousy life.” Instead, she was just going down into hell. And the text says—it is sort of like the summary statement—Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. That meant she was condemned every single day. This is what I mean by hell—every single day she was condemned to see the man she most longed for in the arms of the one in whose shadow she had lived all her life. Every day was like another knife in the heart.
All we see here is devastation, right? No, that is actually not the way the text ends. But before we look at how the text ends, let me field two objections and draw two lessons.
The first objection has to do with all these ancient practices. Some people who read the text or listen to a sermon on it are thinking, Why are you telling me this story—men buying and selling women, primogeniture [pry-mo-gen-i-turr], sexual slavery—what is this about? I am offended by this kind of old primitive culture. I know they existed, but thank goodness we don’t live in a culture like that anymore. Why do we have to know about it?
First, it is important to see (and this comes from what Robert Alter says), if you read the book of Genesis, and you think it is condoning primogeniture [the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child], polygamy, and bride purchase—if you think it is condoning these things, you have not yet learned how to read. Because in absolutely every single place where you see polygamy or primogeniture, it always wreaks devastation. It never works out. All you ever see is the misery these patriarchal institutions cause in families. Alter says if you think the book of Genesis is promoting those things, you have no idea what is being said. He says these stories are subversive [seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution] to all those ancient patriarchal institutions. Just read!
You might also be thinking, Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture in which a woman’s value is based on her looks. Thank goodness we don’t live in a culture where a woman looks in a mirror and says, “Look at me I am a size 4, I can get a rich husband.” Hundreds of years ago, people used to do that but nobody does that anymore. Really?
I am sorry, I shouldn’t be sarcastic, but what in the world makes you think that we are in a less brutal culture? We are and we aren’t. Besides that, what the Bible says about the human heart is always true, it is always abiding. If anything, what we are saying is truer today than it was before.
The second objection people have has to do with the moral of the story. They ask, “Where are all the spiritual heroes in this text? Who am I supposed to be emulating? Who is the good guy? What is the moral of the story? I don’t see any! What is going on here?
The answer is: That is absolutely correct. You are starting to get it. You are starting to get the point of the Bible. What do I mean? The Bible doesn’t give us a god at the top of a moral ladder saying, “Look at the people who have found God through their great performance and their moral record. Be like them!” Of course not! Instead, over and over again, the Bible gives us absolutely weak people who don’t seek the grace they need and who don’t deserve the grace they get.
They don’t appreciate it after they get it, and continue to screw up and abuse it even after they have it. And yet, the grace keeps coming! The Bible is not about a god who gives us accounts or moral heroes. It is about grace, and that is what this story is about. So what do we learn from this story? Is there any moral? I wouldn’t put it that way, but here are two things I would want you to see?
First, we learn that through all of life there runs a ground note of cosmic disappointment. You are never going to lead a wise life, no matter who you are, unless you understand that. Here is Jacob, and he says, “If I can just get Rachel, everything will be okay.” And he goes to bed with someone whom he thinks is Rachel, and then, literally, the Hebrew says, “But in the morning, behold, it was Leah.” What does this show us? Listen, I love Leah; I really do. I have been thinking about this text for a long time, and I love her and I want to protect her, so I hope you don’t think I am being mean to her in what I am trying to say. But I want you to know that— when you get married, no matter how great you think that marriage is going to be; when you get a career, no matter how great you think your career is going to be; when you go off to seminary, no matter how much you think it is going to make you into a man or a woman of God—in the morning, it is always Leah!You think you are going to bed with Rachel, and it in the morning, it is always Leah. Nobody has ever said this better than C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The souse may be a good spouse, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
You have got to understand that it is always Leah! Why? Because if you get married, if you have families, if you go into the ministry, and say that “finally this is going to fix my life” (you don’t really think you are doing it until you do it)—those things will never do what you think they will do. In the morning, it is always Leah.
If you get married, and in any way do as Jacob does and put that kind of weight on the person you are marrying, you are going to crush him or her. You are going to kill each other. You are going to think you have gone to bed with Rachel, but you get up and it is Leah. As time goes on, eventually you are going to know that this is the case; that everything disappoints, that there is a note of cosmic disappointment and disillusionment in everything, in all things into which we most put our hopes. When you finally find that out, there are four things you can do.
One, you can blame the things and drop them and go try new ones, better ones. That is the fool’s way.
The second thing you can do is blame yourself and beat yourself up and say, “I have been a failure. I see everybody else happy. I don’t know why I’m not happy. There is something wrong with me.” So you blame yourself and you become a self-hater.
Third, you can blame the world and get cynical and hard. You say, “Curses on the entire opposite sex” or whatever, in which case you dehumanize yourself.
Lastly, you can, as C. S. Lewis says at the end of his great chapter on hope, change the entire focus of your life. He concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world [something supernatural and eternal].
We see that both the liberal mindset and the conservative mindset are wrong when it comes to romance, sex, and love.
Neither serves us well. In fact, you can almost see it in Jacob and Leah. Jacob, with a liberal mindset, is after an apocalyptic hookup. He says, “Give me my wife! I want sex!” he actually says that. On the other hand, here is Leah, and what is she doing? She is the conservative. She is having babies. She is not out having a career. She is trying to find her identity in being a wife—“Now my husband will love me.”
Guess what? They are both wrong. They are not going anywhere. Their lives are a mess. That is the reason why Ernest Becker says so beautifully, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood… However much we idolize him [the love partner], he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is you “All’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you.” – Becker, Denial of Death, 166. As Becker said, what we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God is to be rid of our faults, to be justified to know our existence has not been in vain. We are after redemption. He then adds, “Needless to say, human partners can’t do this.” You might think that is pretty obvious; but we done believe it. We thought the Bible was a source of family values. Well, it is, in a sense, but how realistic it is! So what are we going to do? We are all creatures of our culture. We have this drive in us for one true love. What are we going to do with it? Here is the answer.
3) What We Can Do about This Longing
I want you to see what God does in Leah and for Leah. Leah is the first person to get it; she does begin to see what you are supposed to do.
Look first at what God does in her. As we have said, every time she has a child, she puts all of her hopes in her husband now loving her. And yet, one of the things scholars notice that is very curious is that even though she is clearly making a functional idol out of her husband and her family, she is calling on the Lord. She doesn’t talk about God in some general way or invoke the name of Elohim. She uses the name Yahweh. In verse 32, it says, “And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD [Yahweh] has looked upon my affliction.” How does she know about Yahweh?
Elohim was the generic word for God back then. All creatures at that time had some general idea of God or gods; they were gods at the top of a ladder, and you had to get up to the top through rituals or through transformations of consciousness or moral performance. Everyone understood God in that sense, but Yahweh was different. Yahweh was the God who came down the ladder, the one who entered into a personal covenantal relationship and intervened to save. Certainly they didn’t know all he was going to do, but Abraham and Isaac knew something about it, and Jacob would have known about it as well. It is interesting that Leah must have learned about Yahweh from Jacob. Even though she is still in the grip of her functional idolatry, somehow she is trying, she is calling out, she is reaching out to a God of grace. She has grasped the concept.
You might say that she has got a theology of sorts, as advanced as it was at the time, but she is having trouble connecting it. She is calling him the Lord, and yet she is treating him like a “god.” Do you follow me?
She is saying, “God can help me save myself through childbearing. God can help me save myself by getting my husband’s love. So she is using God, and yet she not call him God [Elohim]; she calls him Lord [Yahweh]. She is beginning to get it, and what is intriguing is that, at the very end, something happens. The first time she gives birth she says, ‘Now maybe my husband will see me. Now maybe my husband will love me.” And when she gives birth to her third son, she says, “Now maybe my husband will be attached to me.”
Finally, it says that she conceived for the fourth time, and when she gave birth to Judah, she said, “This time!” Isn’t that defiant? It is totally different; no mention of husband, no mention of child. There is some kind of breakthrough. She says, “This time I will praise the LORD.”
At that point, she has finally taken her heart’s deepest hopes off of the old way, off of her husband and her children, and she has put them in the Lord.
Here is what I believe is going on. Jacob and Laban had stolen Leah’s life, but when she stopped giving her heart to a good thing that she had turned into an ultimate thing and gave it to the Lord, she got her life back.
May I respectfully ask you: What good thing in your life are you treating as an ultimate thing?
What do you need to stop giving your heart to if you are going to get your life back?
There are a lot of things I am certain about, but I am absolutely certain that everybody in this room has got something.
Do you know what it is?
If you have no idea, you need to think about it. Something happened to Leah; God did something in her. There was a breakthrough. She began to understand what you are supposed to do with your desire for one true love. She turned her heart toward the only real beauty, the only real lover who can satisfy those cosmic needs.
But we shouldn’t just look at what God did in her. We have to also look for what God has done for her—because God has done something for her. I believe that she had some consciousness, although it might have been semi-consciousness or just intuition, that there was something special about this last child. It would probably be reading too much into the text to say she understood, but I believe she sensed that God had done something for her. And he had.
The writer of Genesis knows what God has done. This child is Judah, and who is Judah? The writer of Genesis tells us in chapter 49 that it is through Judah that Shiloh will come, and it is through Shiloh that the King will come. This is the line! This is the Messianic line! God has come to the girl that nobody wanted, the unloved, and made her the mother of Jesus—not beautiful Rachel, but the homely one, the unwanted one, the unloved one.
Why did God do that? Does he just like the underdog? He did it because of his person and because of his work.
First, because of his person. It says that when the Lord saw Leah was not loved, he loved her. God is saying, “I am the real bridegroom. I am the husband of the husbandless. I am the father of the fatherless.” What does that mean?
He is attracted to the people that the world is not attracted to. He loves the unwanted. He loves the unattractive. He loves the weak, the ones the world doesn’t want to be like. God says, “If nobody else is going to be the spouse of Leah, I will be her spouse.”
Guess what? It is not just those of you without spouses who need to see God as your ultimate spouse, but those of us with spouses have got to see God as our ultimate spouse as well. You have to demote the person you are married to out of first place in your heart to second place behind God or you will end up killing each other. You will put all of your freight, all the weight of all your hopes, on that person. And of course, they are human beings, they are sinners, just like you are. God says you must see him as what he is: the great bridegroom, the spouse for the spouseless. He is not just a king and we are the subjects; he is not just a shepherd and we are the sheep. He is a husband and we are his lovers. He loves us! He is ravished with us—even those of us whom no one else is ravished with; especially those of us whom no one else is ravished with. That is his person. But that is not all.
The second reason why he goes after Leah and not Rachel, why he makes the girl who nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus, the bearer of the Messianic line, the bearer of salvation to the world, is not just that he likes the underdog, but because that it the gospel.
When God came to earth in Jesus Christ, he was the son of Leah. Oh yes, he was! He became the man nobody wanted. He was born in a manger. He had no beauty that we should desire him. He came to his own and his own received him not. And at the end, nobody wanted him. Everybody abandoned him. Even his Father in heaven didn’t want him. Jesus cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why did he become Leah’s son? Why did he become the man nobody wanted? For you and for me! Here is the gospel: God did not save us in spite of the weakness that he experienced as a human being but through it. And you don’t actually get that salvation into your life through strength; it is only for those who admit they are weak. And if you cannot admit that you are a hopeless moral failure and a sinner and that you are absolutely lost and have no hope apart from the sheer grace of God, then you are not weak enough for Leah and her son and the great salvation that God has brought into the world.
God chose Leah because he is saying, “This is how salvation works. This is the upside-down way that my people will live, at least in relationship to the world, when they receive my salvation.”
Now the way up is down. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to become rich is to give your money away. The way to power is to serve God, when he came to earth, as the son of Leah. God made Leah, the girl nobody wanted into the mother of Jesus. Why?
Because he chooses the foolish things to shame the wise; he chooses the weak things to shame the strong; he chooses even the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one will boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
In conclusion, let me give you a few practical applications.
First, if there is anyone with a Laban in their life right now, don’t be bitter and don’t beat them up. Don’t let them take advantage of you either if you can; but remember, God can use that person in your life to make you a better person in your life if you don’t become bitter.
Second, are you somebody who has been rejected, betrayed, maybe recently divorced, and you didn’t want to be? Are you a Leah? Remember, God knows what it is like to be rejected. He didn’t just love Leah, but he actually became Leah. He became the son of Leah. He came to his own and his own received him not.
He understands rejection, and if anything, he is, from what we can tell in the Scripture, attracted to people in your condition. It is his nature, so don’t worry. He knows and he cares.
Third, please don’t let marriage throw you. I have been saying this all along: in the morning, it will always be Leah. And if you understand that, it will make some of you less desperate in your marriage-seeking, and it will make some of you less angry at your spouse for his imperfections.
Last, you may believe you have messed up your life; that your life is on plan B. You should have done this or that, and now it is too late. Think about it:
Should Jacob have deceived Isaac and Esau? No.
Should Isaac have shown the favoritism that turned Jacob into a liar? No.
Everybody sinned. There are no excuses. They shouldn’t have done what they did. They blew up their lives. But if those things hadn’t happened, would Jacob have met the love of his life, Rachel?
Jesus Christ, who is a result of Jacob’s having to flee to the other side of the Fertile Crescent, isn’t plan B! You can’t mess up your life. You can’t mess up God’s plan for you. You will find that no matter how much you do to mess it up, all you are doing is fulfilling his destiny for you.
That does not mean what they did was okay. The devastation and the unhappiness and the misery that happens in your life because of your sins are your fault. You are responsible, you shouldn’t do them; and yet, God is going to work through you. Those two things are together. It is an antinomy, a paradox.
Remember, it is never too late for God to work in your life! Never! You can’t put yourself on plan B. Go to him. Start over now. Say it: “This time, no matter what else I have done, I will praise the Lord!”
*[Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart – Psalm 37:4]
The sermon manuscript by Dr. Timothy Keller above is excerpted in parts from the original sermon and from the printed manuscript that can be found in the excellent book of sermons edited by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson entitled: Heralds of the King: Christ-Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.