Women in the Bible: Leah the unlovely
‘… but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.’ (Gen 29:17, ESV)
Imagine if you were the first half of this sentence, the bit that comes before the ‘but’. You’d be the one contrasted with the beauty. Whatever is said about you, it’s not flattering. Leah is the subject of this first half of the sentence, and it’s some kind of reference to her eyes. Commentators have all kinds of theories: was she slightly cross-eyed? Is it just a euphemism for ‘ugly’? We don’t know. But we do know that it’s not flattering.
We also know that their husband, Jacob, loved Rachel not Leah. He worked 7 years to take Rachel and his wife and was not happy when he woke up next to Leah. He’d been tricked! Probably the pain smarted all the worse for Jacob because he himself is a trickster. But imagine that you are Leah. You’re the one he doesn’t want. You’re the unlovely one. You get a week with him, and then he’s going to marry your sister anyway, and by the time he leaves, he’ll have worked 14 years for her. She could definitely be the model for a Loreal commercial – she’s worth it! – while he’s probably thinking Nike for you – just do it.
How many of us feel like a Leah? We are too fat, or no curves; hair too limp, or too unruly; too dark, or too pasty; too flat-chested, or too big-bummed; too tall or too short. Maybe your eyes are too close together, or your skin too blotchy, or your chin the wrong size. There are a thousand reasons to feel ugly. We can and should interrogate those reasons and how they’re related to advertising for example, and what role appearance should play in our self-worth. However, the question I want to ask in this post is, ‘how does God treat Leah?’
Leah is not just overlooked or scorned by Jacob. She is hated! (Gen 29:31) She is unlovely and unloved. Yet in the ancient world, there was another way for women to be considered valuable: by bearing sons. And Leah has four of them. This isn’t just luck of the draw; we’re told that it’s God who opens her womb, and that he does it because he sees how she’s treated. One of those sons is Judah, from whose line Jesus comes, so Leah occupies a special place as one of the grandmothers of the Saviour.
Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits on high, yet stoops down to look at the heavens and the earth? (Psalm 113:5-6) Who is this God who cares for the unlovely woman, who takes one who is unlovely and gives her great worth? The point here is not that if you’re ugly you get compensated with something else. It’s far more profound than that. Leah’s story tells us that there is nothing insignificant about feelings of ugliness. God does not brush that away, nor does he think the hurt that comes from it is invalid. God sees the Leah and he loves her.
How many single girls have been told that if they changed this or that about their appearance a guy would want them? (Never mind about their less attractive, already married friends!) How many partnered women are haunted by insensitive words about keeping fit so her man stays interested? None of these are God’s messages to you. He is not like others with their well-meaning words of advice. He is unlike all others.
No one wanted Leah, but there was One who would not despise her. His regard is for the unlovely, and he acknowledges their grief. He loves them and because he loves them, they are lovely.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and son. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She writes on her blog Meet Jesus at Uni here