I've had Leah on my mind these days. Leah, the weak-eyed, mandrake-collecting woman of those ancient patriarchal days who marries Jacob because her father tricks him into doing so. Leah's story in Genesis looks like the inconsequential appendage to the greater romance of Jacob and Rachel - the woman Jacob falls in love with from first sight at the well while she tends her flocks, the pastoral beauty set up to be the heroine of a Shakespearian romance or modern romantic comedy.
It looks like Jacob and Rachel's romance is going smoothly after a brief(!) interlude of seven years of work. But then, right when echoes of wedding bells and eternal bliss are beginning to chime above the heads of the beaming couple, conflict bursts onto the scene with the anticlimactic line "When the morning came, there was Leah!" Now it is a story of mistaken identities and conflict uniting to prevent those destined to be together to live out their happily ever after. The elder sister appears in Jacob's bed the next morning, and Jacob and Rachel are yet another pair of star-crossed lovers setting the precedent for the love stories of millenniums to follow.
But unlike Romeo and Juliet, their stars do align with a bit of hard work and Jacob earns the hand of his first true love, their happily ever after only skewed by the continued presence of Leah in their household - no minor inconvenience indeed. But we all know that Leah is an afterthought, a hitch along the way. It is Rachel who is the true heroine of this story. Rachel is Cinderella and Leah is just one of those bothersome stepsisters trying to force themselves upon Prince Charming.
Just when it looks like Leah is destined to fade in the background in the style of Mr Rochester's mad wife locked up in the attic (do excuse the Jane Eyre reference...it is a book of marvellously wide-reaching applicability), God reveals himself yet again to be the "One who sees me" (Gen 16:13) as Hagar - another woman unloved by the patriarchs and scorned by their wives - describes him. God sees Leah with all of her cumbersome brokenness, sees that she is unloved, and graces her with children. He speaks into her context, entering into it. But Leah responds to these children, these gifts of God, as a means to the end of her husband's love. Surely my husband will love me now is her mantra. Love is a competition and children no more than points in her favour.
And then the subtlest of turning points. At the birth of Judah, her fourth son, Leah rises for a moment to shine above her dismal circumstances. This time, she declares, I will praise the Lord. Something clicks and Leah seeks love from the heart of grace. But transformation can be a feeble thing and in just a few verses Leah is swept back into the competition for her husband's affection, offering him maidservants and trading in mandrakes to better her chances for gaining his love.
But this is not where the story ends, with Leah hopelessly unloved and conniving, striving to be the most beloved. Lately I have been reading Eugene Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Those ten thousand places, I am beginning to understand, are human places, places where brokenness has a tendency to outweigh perfection. As Peterson writes, "God deals with us where we are and not where we would like to be." God meets Leah where she is, working out his promises through her. It cannot be coincidence that she comes up again and again in the genealogies vicariously through her son Judah, the son who inspired songs of praise from her heart. Judah, the son through whom God's promises to Abraham and Jacob are fulfilled. Through the line of Judah a messiah arises, a saviour who thoroughly enters into the circumstances of humanity and, by doing so, brings a hope that enlivens those very circumstances, those oh-so-very human places.
I can imagine Leah as a heroine in a modern movie, probably an awkward and lonely high school student. I can imagine the conflict she is flung into, how she feels herself to be unloved. And I can image the ending to this story, where somebody - most likely a vampire or a werewolf - notices her for her inner beauty or whatever it is that vampires notice, chooses her over all the other girls with clearer vision and she enjoys her own happily ever after.
The kindly vampire never does appear. But the God who sees her and you and I does, and not only does he see her but he also acts goodness to her and through her. And through her broken-heartedness we catch a glimpse of full-heartedness yet to come.