Leah was the older sister, but she was overshadowed by her little sister. Leah was rak ayin; she was timid and soft. To some she was weak. Her very name meant 'weary'. But Rachel was yapheh to'ar yapheh mar'eh; she was beautiful like a vision. Her name meant 'ewe' - the definition of prosperity. Delight followed Rachel like a spring of water. People came to drink from her presence and she was never hungry for love. Rachel was favoured. Leah was forgotten.
It had always been like this. Leah dreamt of the day that she was married and living a life away from Rachel. It wasn't that she didn't love her; it was just that there was no world left for Leah when Rachel was in the room. Leah had learned to hug the corners when Rachel appeared - there was no use in trying to hold anyone's attention. Everything about Rachel was consuming. Leah was a shadow.
And then he came. He came stumbling through the desert, covered in dust and sweat. Rachel was the first thing he saw and, certainly, he thought he was seeing a vision. There she stood, drawing water from the well. Her beauty pouring out like blinding light on a man who had been stumbling through darkness. He was stunned by her. But Leah was stunned by him. By Jacob.
It didn't take long for Jacob to ask for Rachel. Leah wasn't surprised. Of course he wanted her, and maybe that was good enough. He would take Rachel away and Leah would come to life. But custom doesn't happen that way. The younger daughter doesn't marry until the older does. Leah carried that weight - knowing that Rachel must resent Leah's shadow life almost as much as she did. Leah stood in Rachel's way. Rachel stood in Leah's way.
But their father agreed and life moved forward. Leah stayed small and unnoticed while Rachel's beauty grew. Leah found herself watching everything Rachel did. The way she moved, her effortless laugh, the way her clothes fit just right. Rachel was everything Leah wasn't.
Years passed, just like this. Jacob barely glanced at Leah and Leah accepted that she was a passing breeze, nothing more. Rachel's beauty grew and everyone noticed. She was strong; a woman like no other. Leah seemed to diminish. That's what loneliness does to a person - they wither.
Their father was not an honest man and when the day of Rachel's wedding came, Laban did what he always did - he sought his own gain. In a whirlwind of feasting and drinking, he had Leah dressed in wedding clothes, a thick veil over her face. It was Leah he gave to Jacob. For the very first time it was Leah who stood in Rachel's place.
Leah felt a million things with a thousand heartbeats a minute. Terrified. Jacob would only throw her out once he saw her face. Hopeful. Maybe instead he would notice her and she would cease to be invisible.
And in the morning, when Jacob woke up sober, seeing Leah in his bed - not Rachel - her world crashed. Disappointment and anger filled every sunburned crevice on his face. Jacob noticed her, but he was wildly, desperately, honestly undone. She was not Rachel. Rachel who drew the attention of every man and woman. Rachel who could stun a stranger with just a glance. Rachel. She was not Rachel.
Laban struck a deal and promised Jacob both women as his wives. Just like that Leah's hope of escaping her shadow life disintegrated. Only now it was worse. Now she would love a man who only loved Rachel. Now she would share a man who would never love her.
But God saw Leah. Somehow, to him, she wasn't rak ayin. He noticed her, but she didn't know why. Leah had a son and she named him Reuben. She whispered over his tiny fingers and toes, "God has seen my sorrow. Certainly my husband will love me now." She felt the strength of her own body for the very first time and her heart soared. She had carried and birthed a healthy boy. Jacob would notice her. He would love her now.
But Jacob still loved Rachel.
Still Rachel did not get pregnant, and Leah had another son. This time she named him Simeon, which means heard. God had heard her. God was listening to Leah when her heart cracked and groaned at the weight of living under Jacob's love for Rachel. God had not forgotten.
And then she had Levi. She had just kept hoping, reaching and needing Jacob to love her. Surely Levi, his third son, would finally join him to her. But when Jacob's eyes still sought out Rachel, Leah's heart grew heavier. Her body sank, tired from having produced three sons; having nourished and comforted them. Leah was reaching a desperate place. Leah was beginning to break.
But then came Judah. One more son. One more life that came wailing into the world through Leah's body. This time Leah whispered over her newborn son, "Pa'am yada Yehovah." This time I will praise the Lord.
Yada: to throw, shoot, cast. She threw her battered, neglected, compared and lacking heart before Yehovah. The God who had heard Leah; who saw her suffering and rose to comfort her, that God. Yehovah. Leah cast herself straight at him, like an arrow. Determined. Certain. Done. In a wild act of surrender she named her son "praise".
Without a doubt I believe that something shifted deep in Leah's heart that day. She stopped needing Jacob to tell her she was enough. She stopped obsessing over Rachel's shadow. And here's the thing, friends: Leah lived most of her life in the presence of a greatly loved beauty. She was never the one sitting on a pretty pedestal. Leah was a woman who knew comparison. Leah was a woman who knew grief and heartbreak. She knew what it felt like to always be the second choice. She was a pawn in other people's selfish acts. She was used and neglected. But Leah was the mother of nations. Leah's sons became the pillars of a people. Leah herself was loved by those boys, who became men. And Leah stands as something deeply profound for us today.
Haven't you lived with a Rachel in your life? In your marriage? In your family? In your own heart? Isn't there something that has stood between you and the joy of being the great beauty in the room? Don't you know what it feels like to be overlooked, or thrown around like a sack of flour?
Leah is not the first, or the last, woman to feel the weight of scarcity. Nor will she be the last woman to cry out to God in her despair.
Our hope is in this: God is listening. He is paying attention. He knows what that Rachel looks like for you. He knows that you are cracking under the weight of living life in her shadow. He knows that you are watching her and struggling to survive her. And she could be anything.
For me, Rachel was my husbands addictions. I was never first. He resented me, despised me and chose those things over me daily. I cried, I pleaded, I did everything I could to get that man to look my way.
I named my son Judah, who was born in the very worst of it, from the same choice Leah made. I resolved to stop needing my husband to notice me; to turn my heart towards the God who has heard every second of my heartbreak and who had sustained me in the thick of it. I bore my self hatred, carrying it to the foot of the cross over and over again. I obsessed over his pornography addiction and compared myself to every single female body I ever saw. I raged against myself by starving myself. And then I came crawling to Yehovah; to the one who noticed me.
What is your Rachel, sister? What stands in the way of living your full life? What shadow do you cling to? Maybe today is a day of proclaiming Pa'am yada Yehovah.
Maybe today we just choose to praise the Lord, Rachel or no.
*If you're journaling your way through this series, take some time to consider what comprises the Rachel in your life. Write it down and then cast it before the Lord. Shoot it straight towards him. He's ready to free you, sister.