Advent is my favorite season in the church year. A quick search of my blog will show that just about every year I write about it here. I’ve written about advent songs, advent children’s books, advent traditions and more. As I’ve thought about how to tackle advent this year, I’ve been especially drawn to the women of Christmas, the often overlooked Biblical women who contributed in some way to the advent story. Women in the lineage of Christ who, despite their gender, had their story told in the pages of the Old and New Testament. I love their stories, because I’m a bit of a feminist, but also because they lived advent. Advent is a waiting; a waiting with hope but without a plan, a waiting for something you know is true and good and believe is promised but that you have never seen. Women in Biblical times were completely dependent on the men in their lives. They were second class citizens, useful for reproduction and bringing up children. It’s clear from some of the strong women in the Bible that some of these women were waiting for a better future for their daughters, for future generations of women.
Today is the first Sunday of advent, and traditionally the “hope” candle is lit this week. My favorite woman of hope in the Bible becomes part of Christ’s lineage in an unconventional way. We first meet her in the story of my namesake, Rachel, and the man who loved her, Jacob, in Genesis 29.
It’s a strange story, of sister-wives and indentured servitude, but by verse 30, Jacob (heir to Abraham’s promise and therefore an ancestor of Christ) is unhappily married to both Leah and Rachel. As verse 30 says, “he loved Rachel more than Leah.” Rachel was beautiful, Leah was plain if not downright ugly. And Jacob never wanted Leah. In fact, it seems that no one ever wanted Leah, by virtue of the fact that her father had to trick someone into marrying her.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Leah? So unattractive that your own father even admits it’ll take a miracle or some cheating to get you married. And then being openly rejected by your husband because he loves your own sister better. With women being defined by the men in their lives, Leah was almost as low as she could have been, humiliated and unloved. Hope for Leah, it seems, could only come from her ability to bear sons. Maybe then, maybe with sons, someone would love her, would want her, would want to claim her in their family and build a heritage with her.
“When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb.” I love that God loves the underdog, that he sees the downtrodden and broken-hearted, that he is in the business of fulfilling hopes. Leah, to her credit, seems to have some spunk and starts naming her children really excellent things like “See, a son!” (Reuben), “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also,” (Simeon), and “Now my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons,” (Levi). Sweet girl, don’t you realize that for generations your sons will be the patriarchs of the tribes of your nation, and those poor tribes will carry these names for centuries?
It’s clear from the progression of names, that her hopes for these sons to rescue her, to fulfill her dreams, are being dashed. Presumably if having sons had changed Jacob’s feelings towards her, the sons would have been named things like “Hallelujah, Jacob loves me best now!” and “How’s it feel to be second best, Rachel?” God has opened her womb, but has not answered her prayers in the way that she wanted them. Her husband hates her, she is still ugly and unloved, and now she’s probably exhausted too with three little boys to raise.
And then Leah has a change of heart within the space of one verse. She conceives again, pregnant with a fourth child. But somehow she hasn’t pinned her hopes and dreams to this child. In the middle of her despair, she gives up her dream of being loved and wanted by Jacob. Instead, she names this child “This time I will praise the Lord,” (Judah).
The story goes on, and Rachel and Leah continue to have a really epic child naming war (my personal favorite is poor Naphtali, whose name evidently means: “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed”). Eventually God remembers Rachel and she finally, finally gives birth to a boy named Joseph, who goes on to do very important things and whose story we follow for quite a lot of Genesis.
It seems like Leah has been abandoned, hopeless and unloved. But in Matthew chapter 1, in the genealogy of Christ, we read in verses two and three “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez…”
Judah. Not Joseph. Not Reuben. Judah. The son whose name means surrender to hope in God and not in man. God took Leah’s small faith, small hope, and gave her what she had always wanted: someone would love her, would want her, would want to claim her in their family and build a heritage with her. God himself claimed Leah in his family and built His heritage with her.
A quick scan of the headlines, a few years of living in this broken world and you will find your hopes dashed and your dreams hard to find, just like Leah did. Advent is a reminder that from the brokeness, from the chopped down stump a new branch is springing forth. Advent reminds us that there is hope not in what we can see, but in the One who is making it new.
Hope looks like accepting what God has given with these words: “This time I will praise the Lord,” and then waiting with joyful expectation to see them redeemed. Like He was for Leah, God is in the business of fulfilling our dreams and renewing our hopes, though often not in the way we had expected. I pray that this week, you will look with hope out of whatever darkness and despair you may be facing and say with Leah and with hope, “This time I will praise the Lord.”