Genesis 29:31-35 (and on to 30:24) “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.’ She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon. Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.’ So he was named Levi. She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the LORD.’ So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children” [and on to chapter 30 and verse 24]
This chapter describes for us the origin of the mighty nation of Israel, who, before Christ and the beginning of the church of the new covenant, were once ‘God’s chosen people.’ Even now no Jew is rejected by God, in that every single one of that amazing race, with its scientists and musicians and military men, however long and deep might be the hostility of one of them to our Saviour, if he comes to the Lord Jesus and confesses him as the Christ, the Son of the living God, then in no way will he be cast out. God had not abandoned them. He is not saying, “I won’t save any Jews because their ancestors crucified my Son.” No way!
So this is where the twelve tribes of Israel began (though the youngest of the sons of Israel, Benjamin, had not yet been born). We have in this chapter the account of the births of eleven sons and a daughter. You are familiar with the names, and you ought to know them. They are going to occur all through the Bible, even in the penultimate chapter of the Bible, Revelation chapter 21, these same names of the twelve sons of Jacob are mentioned. Remember, this is Moses writing 600 years later, and he is explaining to the people whom he is leading into the land promised them, their origins – where their fathers came from. That fact is another affirmation of the accuracy of the chapter, because you would never make up such a story to describe how your proud nation originated. Jacob, the father of these twelve sons, is again being shrunk in our eyes to becoming a stud. Begetting children is his only role in these verses. He is on the bench, sidelined, and speaks just once, angrily, protesting about his limited function of fathering children during these seven or so years (v.2). You’d never invent such a vocation for a founder of a nation. If you wanted to fire the hearts of the nation of England to make it feel proud and confident of itself you would write the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, heroic men, feared by the bad and loved by the good. “This is where we come from, England! This is the rock from which we were hewn.” Again the city of Rome and the Roman empire claims to come from Romulus and Remus, twins who were raised by a she-wolf; so relates another myth of origins. You couldn’t invent a myth about your leader marrying two sisters (which Moses firmly forbad in his Levitical code) which wives got into interminable strife with one another and with their servant girls, which women they’d proceeded – both of them – to give to their husband Jacob, like birthday presents, to be his concubines, and all this man is described as doing during these years, gamely and often lovelessly, is to produce child after child, sometimes two or three a year. This man is your founder, Israel. You are named after him! Jacob is Israel. It is not a story to make the ancient chosen people feel heroic.
You will remember that God has promised that this line of Abraham is going to multiply and become as numerous as the sands of the seashore. But Abraham had just a single son in that line, Isaac, and Isaac also had just one son in that line, Jacob, but now there is a sudden twelve-fold growth, within seven years eleven sons are born to this patriarch, and within about 600 years there are going to be over two million children of Abraham. Here in our text we have the reasons for the rapidity of the growth. They are twofold, firstly there is man’s sin, Jacob and Laban’s deceit, sisters Leah and Rachel thinking that as it was socially acceptable to give your servant to your husband so that he could have more children through them, then it was all right for them to do the same. Human sinfulness was then one reason for the population explosion in the line of promise. The other reason for the growth was the hand of God in all of this. As Thomas Watson said, “God always has a hand in the action where sin is, but he never has a hand in the sin of the action.” None of this polygamous wrangling and the emergence of the concubines happened apart from God. Everything lives and moves and has its being in God. Each of these children that was born, the fruit of the womb, was God’s reward. God had a hand in their conception and the natural processes of embryonic development and the emergence from the birth canal and the first breath of all twelve – every detail was in God and the boys themselves were each a gift from God. However, God was never guilty of any of the folly, the jealousy, the sulking, the rage and the self-pity in the hearts of these women that caused the guilt of the action. God had a plan to make the seed of the woman and the line of Abraham a great nation in spite of the sins of its founders. The folly of these peoples served God’s predestinated end.
Here we see Jacob, pinned down by providence, in covenant to his father-in-law for another seven years, unable to escape from this family, his marital responsibilities and his numerous children. He would always be the father of these boys. He cannot extricate himself from this providence by duplicity. No goatskin disguises and darkness can deliver him from his duties. He is in a situation from which he cannot escape by deceit or manipulation. He has nowhere to run to because his brother i
s still on the war path to kill him back home, and Jacob still has his endless love for his wife Rachel to keep him there. He is exactly where God wants him as God is working to character craft him. This chapter is most of all about God himself moving in mysterious and incredible ways.
1. GOD WAS COMPASSIONATE TO LEAH.
Here are women who have lived under the authority of their father and now are under the authority of their husband. It was Laban who decided that both his daughters should become the wives of Jacob. They were not consulted; it was as primitive as that. Thank God it is not like that today, nor should it be. You can say that we have swung to an opposite extreme, but that women should have no rights concerning something as essential as to whom they are to be married is not right at all. But we are told that Laban had exercised his fatherly domination and had done this without compassion on the future of his two daughters. He had married them to one man, his duties as a father were over, and now that the dowry price had been paid they were Jacob’s wives until their death. But our God, seeing and hearing all this, was filled with compassion. Though Leah had helped create this situation herself by not casting aside the veil and telling Jacob on the way to the marriage bed that she was not Rachel, yet God was moved by this dysfunctional family and the plight of these women. He saw the misery of Leah and the two servant girls being locked into a loveless relationship. We are told, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.’ She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon. Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.’ So he was named Levi. She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the LORD.’ So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children” (29:31-35).
God did all this for Leah; she seemed to be pregnant all the time; he first gave her four sons before there was a brief pause; God had really opened her womb; he had felt for her in her misery, and as a result of his mercy she gave him praise for everything. There was doxology in her home and so it became a warm and welcoming and happy home through God’s good gifts, even though she knew the stigma of being second best in her husband’s eyes. God came to her side as her tremendously sensitive Lord. You could write a mini-study in the attributes of God just by considering some of the names she gave to her children and the sayings she passed on to her servants when she announced to them the names that she had given her baby boys. You will notice that for three of the four sons we are specifically told that the choice of name was hers, “She named him Reuben . . . Simeon . . . Judah.” I would presume that she alone also named her third son Levi, though that is not specifically told us.
Consider the names which we are told Leah chose. The name ‘Reuben’ is a play on words that hints at the phrase that Leah speaks in verse 32. “The Lord has seen.” She is saying, “Jehovah is not a God who has too much to do to pay attention to a girl who is sad because her husband doesn’t love her. He’s a God who is aware of our need and he provides for us.” Leah has begun to realize something of the immensity and the personal nature of the love of God; many, sadly, don’t see that. Then again, there is the boy called Simeon. That name is a play on words that is similar to the Hebrew word for ‘Shimar’ that is ‘one who hears.’ The Lord has just been hearing us tonight when I led us in prayer. That mattered to God that we asked for his help and blessed him for his goodness to us. He’s a God who hears the prayers of his people. Then there is ‘Judah’ and you can see its meaning in verse 35, “This time I will praise the Lord.” ‘Judah’ means, “The Lord be praised.” Our God, the God of Israel, is the one who is worthy of his people’s praises. Then just leap ahead and look at the next chapter, 30, and verse 20, and we are told “she named him Zebulun.” Why that name? She tells her servants, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honour because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun, that means ‘honour.’ Instead of not loving her she hoped Jacob would honour her. So we can see that weak-eyed Leah is no longer weak in faith. She is showing signs of spiritual depth. She is recognizing that the Lord is giving her wonderful vindication. She is partly responsible for the confusion of the family, as they all have a part in this, but the Lord treats her in grace not in judgment, and rewards her abundantly, not with one child but half a dozen sons and one of them is an ancestor of the Messiah himself. So God counsels and pastors and encourages her in a very kindly and loving way. Let us take courage from this. He too is our God; the same God; we have all known disappointments in life; we have been foolish and the consequences have been bitter fruit, more bitter because of our own guilt, but God is compassionate to sinners. He doesn’t deal with us as we deserve. He sees our misery and he rewards us in grace.
2. GOD WAS COMPASSIONATE TO RACHEL IN A DIFFERENT WAY.
Rachel was the love of Jacob’s life, but she’s childless. She’s barren, but we know that the big problem is not so much her infertility. Many wonderful Christian women have not been able to bear children and have lived rich, fulfilled lives. Rachel’s problem is that she is spiritually shallow, and she has absolutised her infertility as the one single problem in her life. This problem has to be dealt with. Pregnancy and motherhood would transform everything, and that unwise attitude makes her infertility much harder to bear; she is perhaps spoiled, and probably proud, and definitely envious of her older sister Leah. In fact throughout this passage the main motive that is expressed in Rachel’s desire to have children is not so that she can become a wonderful mother and perhaps bear the promised Seed of the woman. It is not even so that the reproach of childlessness can be rolled away from her. She wants a baby because she is racked with envy at her older sister’s fertility. That’s why she enters into the baby wars in the middle of chapter 30. She is literally in competition with Leah. I mean, you can imagine the tensions of this horrible marriage; the scenario is not difficult to grasp. She’s much better looking than her sister, and her husband is passionately in love with her, not her sister. Her husband made all the running to have her. He worked seven years to get her as his wife and then another seven. They waited seven years to start a family, and now nothing is happening. It was all too easy for her to drown in envy and anger towards her sister (30:1). Leah was having babies every time she turned around. The washing line was full of nappies. The sounds of crying babies disturbed the peace of the compound, presumably she lived on one side of it and her sister on the other side and these children were crawling and then running around; she couldn’t look at them or say a good word about them because she herself was unable to conceive a child. She was consumed with jealousy; James tells us “where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work”(James 3:16). She grieved at the good that was coming to Leah. How wretched! How sinful! Giving her sister guilt for the blessings God had given to her! Let Rachel be the best kind of sister she possibly could be to Leah, helping her and rejoicing with her. Let Rachel be the best kind of aunt these nephews of hers ever knew.
But Rachel rather criticized the wisdom of God in discriminating between her and her sister. She forgot about her blessings and complained about her lack. Then the Lord had to put Rachel through a test of patience for the good of her soul. It was as if he was saying to her and to us, “Is patience a good thing Rachel? Has a lot of trouble come into your life because of impatience Rachel? Do you need more patience? Have you asked God to make you a more patient person Rachel? Then this is the way – making you wait for my time in giving you children – I am answering your prayers for patience Rachel.” So what is a woman to do today who longs for children and cannot conceive? Certainly she and her husband are to see a doctor, and get help that is consistent with a Christian view that a child is a child from the moment of conception. She is to pray and trust in the compassionate Lord who does not afflict willingly. She is to ask God to make her patient and useful in every relationship he has put her in.
What could Jacob do to help? He also had a great need, and it was to learn submission to God. Did he pray, “Make me a submissive man Lord, ready to do your good and perfect will, prepared to drink the cup you give me”? So Jacob’s great need was to be put into a sanctifying situation that this former schemer couldn’t even begin to wriggle out of. This polygamous marriage was such a situation. Although he had no problem with the medical condition of personal infertility he couldn’t change Rachel’s condition. He loved his wife Rachel, he longed for her to be able to have children, but Jacob was not God, and he knew it. So here is a new situation for old scheming Jacob. For the first time in this story, Jacob is confronted with nothing that he was able to do. For the first time in his history you hear him expressing his helplessness. These are the only words recorded of Jacob during seven whole years; “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” (v.2) “I can’t do anything more than I am already doing.” Does that sound like the old Jacob who was full of schemes, and could grasp the birthright and steal the blessing from his brother and father? God has Jacob right where he wants him, dependent entirely on God. He needs to learn that there are important things in life that you can’t manipulate yourself out of. Jacob needed to flee to the Lord, and bear up his wife in the Lord’s presence, and cry to God to act. And that is the same lesson that God is teaching Rachel in this passage. Rachel and Jacob both needed to learn to resort to the Lord first, rather than their own scheming. So what does Rachel do?
i] Rachel looked to man. One day an exasperated Rachel went to Jacob and said to him, “Now you fix this. You give me a child; you enable me to have a child.” While Leah needed encouragement Rachel needed to look to the Lord, and Jacob needed to feel his helplessness and be hemmed in to the sovereign will of God. And those three needs are exactly being met at this time by God for this husband and his two wives. God can do all these things simultaneously without any effort at all.
However, Rachel at this stage is hysterical. “Give me children, or I’ll die” (v.1). How wilful and extreme is her language. She is demanding from Jacob what he cannot give to her, what no man can give to her. He wants her to bear a child. She loads her anguish onto him, and that just adds to his frustration. Rachel certainly will not die if she is not to have children. Life is much more than having children. Stephen had no children. Paul had no children. Our Lord had no children. Gladys Aylward had no children. Florence Nightingale had no children. John Stott had no children, and yet the lives of all those men and women were enormously rich and fulfilling lives and there are millions like them. The petulant demand, “Give me children, or I’ll die” is like a temper tantrum. Yet what solemn words they were. How cautious we ought to be about speaking aloud like that. Let me remind you how Rachel died, it was in childbirth, giving birth to Benjamin her second son. That is why this youngest son of Jacob was so precious to his father. How unwise to display impatient murmurings at the wise and gracious providence of God. Let’s keep our counsel and tell our heavenly Father alone of our frustration.
What was the fruit of her foolish words to Jacob? An outraged husband. “Jacob became angry with her and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?’” (v.2). What folly to blame him who had begotten four sons by Leah. Jealousy makes us blurt out foolishness and we speak cruelly and then that compounds the problem. Rachel is looking to men, and this was a situation which, even today, the very best medical people cannot guarantee to fulfil in our longing to become parents. So for Rachel her looking to man as the answer was a great mistake. It is just like the church when it seeks to give birth to spiritual children and it uses the devices of the flesh, of the advertising industry, or psychological brain-washing techniques, or it waters down the gospel to a few simple beliefs, or it employs entertainment as an alternative to reflecting on the terms of discipleship, or it omits repentance and sorrow for sin – all such looking to the devices of men within the church in order to make it easier for people to make a decision that they are going to be Christians grieves the Holy Spirit. Looking to men is a tragic mistake.
ii] Rachel looked at what other people were doing. Her acquaintances were giving their servant girls to their husbands, that children could be born through them for the wives who were their servants’ mistresses. The children would then legally bear Jacob’s name and be considered their mistresses’ own children. So Rachel gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob. What was he to do, put under such personal pressure by Rachel? He had endured the sharpness of her tongue and felt her utter desperation to have children, and so Jacob, despite the lessons which he should have learned from grandfather Abraham and Hagar his wife’s servant, entered into an agreement with both his wives, Rachel and Leah, and took both their personal maids to bed. Yes, let us say it as carnally as that. Jacob began with polygamy and went on to concubinage, taking Bilhah and Zilpah as though these servants of his wives were in fact his wives too. How selfish sin is, and how degrading to these women, surely content to be servants of the mistress of the house to the glory of God, but now without any voice in the matter having to bear children for their boss at the decision of their mistresses. Rachel would complain of the way she was being treated, but she was acting in a similar high handed manner to her own servants. The whole thing is primitive; i
t overlooks the desirable freedom of women. Lots of Muslim women say that this sort of conduct is not so bad, but it is a great advance to move back to Eden and the principle of one man and one woman and one marriage.
Yes, everyone was doing it – that is what people claimed, as though that were sufficient justification for rejecting how our Creator God made us, one man, one woman, one marriage. Even though this arrangement might have been acceptable by those current, social, local conventions, still it was unacceptable in the sight of God’s creation ordinances, and one result would be more family strife as we see in Genesis chapter 35. And how does it help Rachel when her maid, Bilhah, conceives two children, and Leah’s maid conceives two children, two sons. Everyone on the compound seemed to be having children except her. The cultural conventions of the time did not help Rachel and her peace of heart at the providence of God. You can legalize killing unborn children, but that does not change the nature of the deed. Sin is sin whether the majority approve of it or not.
iii] Rachel looked to magic. Barren women do so today all over Africa and Asia but in the western world too; they look to quack doctors, and they pay witch doctors for good spells to be put on them. They might be told, for example, to dress up in their wedding finery and go to a hut and eat special food and so on and then join their husbands. Rachel too had a third resort; she turned to magic and superstition. First she had gone to Jacob and said, “Man, you solve it.” Then she did what other women did and gave Jacob her maid. Now she turns to folklore. She sees her young nephew, Reuben, one of Leah’s little boys, running in from the field at the wheat harvest and he has discovered a rare plant for the Haran district called a mandrake. Now this vegetable, the mandrake, is a small herb with a pretty flower and little yellow fruit like small plums. They are still called ‘love apples’ today and the fruit had caught the little boy’s eye and he plucked some for his mother. However in that culture the mandrake was considered to improve fertility. So Rachel ate humble pie and actually went to her sister Leah and begged her, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes” (v.14). Rachel was so desperate to conceive – anything, any humiliation, she would undergo. She would go cap in hand even to her sister to ask for those herbs.
Now in the reply we can detect how bitter Leah had become. Does her reply suggest that Rachel had put pressure on Jacob not to go to Leah any more? See what she said, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” (v.15). Leah is clearly enraged; “Is there no end to your wickedness? You’ve stolen my husband from me, and now you’d steal my boy’s fruit.” There is no way Rachel is going to get anything from her sister unless conjugal relations between Leah and Jacob are restored. Those are the terms for the mandrakes. So the sisters made a deal and Leah handed over the mandrakes and then spent the night with Jacob. You blush with shame at such indelicate wranglings between two Christian sisters. When men ignore God’s standards and precepts then modesty is mocked and jokes are made about the most obscene subjects. Children will talk knowledgably about unspeakable things.
Then God once again has to show Rachel that he cannot and will not be manipulated. When will she learn that she has no other recourse than to come to him, and cast herself in her impotence on his great omnipotence? Rachel has now degenerated to looking to magic potions cooked and eaten in a special way, supposed to give fertility. Yet what happens? Nothing at all, except that Leah again is the one who ends up conceiving three more times, with boys, Issachar and Zebulun, and now a girl named Dinah. Rachel was left empty-armed again. The crib was still without a baby. God was reminding both her and us that he will not be manipulated. He makes the mandrake-less Leah fruitful again, and he leaves Rachel, mandraked to her eyeballs, still frustrated. While Rachel looks to man, or when she does what everyone else does who wants more children, or when she tries superstitious herbal remedies then God ignores her. It is as if he forgets all about her.
iv]Rachel looked to God. “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, ‘God has taken away my disgrace.’ She named him Joseph, and said, ‘May the LORD add to me another son.’” (vv.22-24). God remembers Rachel. Why? Because she was finally looking to him and was speaking to him about her problem, humbly and believingly. She had tried all the other remedies and they had come to nothing but now she speaks to the Lord. How do we know this? Because we are told, “he listened to her” (v.22). Of course he’d watched her every act, and heard her every word, and there was nothing in her heart that she could hide from him, but now she came to him and she prayed to him about her great need and cast herself on his great love.
You know how the Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question, ‘What is prayer?’ ‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things desirable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.’ Do you see that there were three areas of that definition where Rachel had failed to pray to God aright? Firstly, she had spread out her desires to her husband instead of to God. Then blindness or pride had made Rachel fail to confess her sins to God. Finally Rachel had failed to be thankful for all the mercies she had received from God. Her focus was on man not God; she was blind to her own guilt and she was ungrateful. When those fundamental areas are put right then God listens to us. I am not saying that we have to get every petition absolutely sinlessly correct before God will hear us, but I am saying that acceptable prayer has to be God-centred, sin-conscious and pervaded with thanksgiving for all God’s mercies. The time of trial and of teaching Rachel patience was over and God opened her womb. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Joseph. So the promise God makes to his people in Psalm 145 and verse 19 became her own, “He fulfils the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.”
Let us stand with the children of Israel, fresh out of Egypt, hearing Moses telling them this story of their origin, the rock from which they were hewn. Rachel waited and she waited and she waited, learning the lesson of patience each day, and then God gave her Joseph. One day she went to Jacob and she said to him, “Do you know what? I am expecting.” How great their joy together. What lessons they had learned from God’s character crafting during those seven years. Then she said these words to him, “God has taken away my disgrace.” Jacob must have had many insights into what a burden his wife’s infertility had been, but never as much as at that moment had it penetrated his heart. Her sister had this large family – the sister who should have told Jacob before their first night together who she really was. Rachel’s maidservant and even Leah’s maidservant had had children by her beloved Jacob, but she had none. She felt her barrenness as such a reproach, but now God had ended it. At long last it was over; there were the stirrings of new life in her womb. It came after years of little faith, and bitterness and looking to men and the superstitions of the world. How long it took to wean her from all that, so that she cast herself on God alone.
And for the first time out of Rachel’s lips we hear the word ‘Jehovah’; “May the Lord add to me another son” (v.24). Leah, her sister, had used that name, the covenant name of God over and over. If you go back to Genesis 29, three times Leah will use the covenant name of God, but you will not find the covenant name of God coming out of Rachel’s mouth until this moment. Suddenly, the glorious nature of the grace of the covenant God is dawning on Rachel’s shadowy heart. God knows exactly what his people need. Rachel needed to be put in the situation that she couldn’t fix so that she learned that there’s only one place to go for help, and that’s to God. Jacob needed to be in a place where he couldn’t wheel and deal so that he learned to run to and trust in the covenant God first. And Leah, though a frustrated wife and an unloved woman, needed to know that the Lord sees and provides and hears and remembers and is worthy to be praised. And God teaches all of those things during these seven years to each of those three people, because our God is sovereign and easily able to do that. We seventy can all be taught here tonight the lessons each of us need to learn by the same Lord. That’s why we ran here today. He’s the only place we come to. We cannot manipulate him, but we ought to praise him and he will pursue us as he loves us until we get the message.
When you have seen how great the Lord is then how do you show it? You ask that he will give you more, more grace, more fruit, more blessing, above all that you ask or even think, you ask him for more. So Rachel at long last had a son, Joseph, one of the greatest figures in the Bible, and yet what does she ask God to give her? “Another son. I have this boy. Now I want more. May the Lord add to me another son.” How busy her life had been in watching the world and seeing how this woman and that woman had dealt with infertility, and arguing with her husband and her sister. Now there is new responsibility. There is a travail. There is a work. There is entreaty. There is importunity in her life. There is high energy and great achievements. She can attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.
10 October 2010 GEOFF THOMAS