Author A.J. Kandathil crafted the short story “Leah Wrestles with God” this week, inspired by Genesis 29:20-25, the story in which Jacob marries Leah:
So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.” So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
LEAH WRESTLES WITH GOD
by A.J. Kandathil
If I could, I’d wrestle with God over one truth in my life: my father had to lie to get me a husband. My father, Laban as he was known, thought if he got his nephew Jacob drunk enough, if it was late enough, and if my face was veiled enough, Laban could fool him into mistaking one daughter for the other. That’s who I was then—the other daughter. I was older, but Rachel had the kind of beauty that put her ahead of me in every way.
For seven years, I’d watched my sister steal secret moments with Jacob. You could feel the spark between them all the way on the other side of our fields. Jacob had always been kind to me, but it was a selfish kindness, a tool to get what he was after. And that was my sister. I was jealous—of course I was. Snaring men had always been so easy for Rachel. I never felt anything but invisible in her company, and I knew I wasn’t beautiful enough to catch Jacob’s eye. I’d also always known that my father was shrewd—just as shrewd as Jacob turned out to be.
There wasn’t any ceremony. There were no vows. This was what marriage was: an agreement between two men. When Laban came to me the night of the feast, even I was shocked at his cunning. His plan to exchange my sister for me under cover of darkness seemed like a curse. Had I waited so long to be married only to be yoked to a man who was fooled into my bed?
“Jacob didn’t work seven years for me,” I said as my father led me away from the crowd. “He worked for Rachel.”
Unaware, my sister threaded her way through the dense clot of guests. She was happy; she still thought this night was for her. Only from a distance could I see how this ignorance adulterated her impenetrable beauty. The party was loud and lit by fire, a blazing star in an empty expanse of farmland. That was our home—open space that stretched beyond our ability to see it, with enough secret spaces to hide so no one could hear you laugh or cry.
My father didn’t flinch at my words. Instead, he waved his arm in dismissal. “He won’t even know it’s you until morning, and by then it will be too late,” he said.
The farther we got from the feast, the more we hurried. It was already late, and Jacob was waiting in his tent. I’d need to be inside it before my father told Rachel what he’d done.Wait one week, he’d tell his daughter to quell her anger. Let your older sister have one week, then you can marry him, too.
Laban had me by the wrist, and I could feel my fingers swelling beneath his grasp. What was he going to do? Throw me at the feet of his nephew? I couldn’t stand the humiliation of it. I might not have been beautiful, but I still had my good sense. I stopped just short of the tent where Jacob had intended to spend the night with my sister. Laban’s arm petrified like a piece of stone. Even though I looked for his eyes in the dark, I couldn’t find them. I wouldn’t ask him if he knew what he was doing. Of course he did.
After a minute of silence, he loosened his grip. My father turned toward me and rested his hand on my back, just as he used to do when I was a girl and afraid of the deepest part of the water on the far end of our land. Even then, he’d pushed.
“Don’t you want to be married?” Laban asked me. Before he’d been urgent. Now he sounded weary.
He’d asked those words, but they didn’t form a true question. If I didn’t marry Jacob, then I’d either never wed, or I’d be wed to an outsider who might take me away. This was the only home I knew, and I didn’t want to leave it. In that brief moment, I saw my father’s deceit for what it might have been—a kindness to me, his eldest daughter, who had always been overlooked. Even he thought of me as the other sister. I’d never find a husband like Jacob on my own, and my father knew it. It was this kindness, even in its deceitful cradle, that undid the tangles of my integrity. This action, for better or worse, would hold our family together. I took a timid step toward Jacob’s tent, and I touched my father’s cloak.
“Don’t do this,” I almost said. Almost. The truth was–I did want to be married. But to take what belonged to my sister? That was cruel, even though I’d been forced to share everything with Rachel since the day she was born. She was tireless with her own desire. “If I don’t have that blanket, I’ll just die,” she’d say during the colder season, or “If I don’t get that apple, I’ll just die.” Rachel had ways of getting what she wanted. That was something she’d learned from our father.
“Hurry, now. Hurry.” Laban’s words covered me just like the veil he placed over my head.
So I stepped into Jacob’s tent and waited for him to turn toward me. I don’t need to tell you how my heart pounded. I was sure everyone at the feast could feel its vibrations. When Jacob reached for me, I smiled beneath my veil as I reached back. For one week, just one week, I wouldn’t have to share.
My wedding night was the best and worst night of my life. I felt beautiful. I felt worthy. Most of all, I felt like myself. A miracle occurred: I was not my sister, and for once, Jacob could not tell the difference.
For a moment, I was happy. But by dawn of the next day, the rest of my life began. Just before Jacob opened his eyes, he sighed and rubbed his head. I could tell he had a bad hangover. When he opened his eyes and the previous night’s haze dissipated, he looked confused. Was I Leah and not Rachel, his beloved for whom he’d slaved for seven years? How had he ended up in the wrong tent? I watched the realization of truth creep over him, like a sunrise over the mountains. Laban, his own flesh and blood, had played a dirty trick on him. I was the dirty trick. Jacob didn’t say a word, and he didn’t even try to hide his disappointment. The recognition was devastating for us both.
From that morning forward, I started to pay the price of being seen. Before, Jacob had just disregarded me, and now he looked at me with contempt. He couldn’t see who I was. He could only see who I wasn’t. And Rachel’s wrath was even worse. She was used to getting her way, as the pretty ones always are. Do you think I wanted this? I wanted to scream at her. For my husband to be in love with you? But she would never understand that I was the kind of girl who had to take what she could get.
After that night, our lives became a jumble of lies and second-bests. Seven days later, Laban came through on his word and gave his second daughter to be Jacob’s second wife. This time, there was no party. The damage had already been done, and no one wanted to celebrate what had occurred at the hands of two liars. Even though I’d had no choice, I’d become my father’s accomplice. I lost the nerve to look anyone in the eye. We all flirted with bitterness. Around our supper table there was never any talk of the twelve tribes or fathering any nations. How could any of that come from a family like ours? We were known by our strife. Our misunderstandings. Disappointments. Loneliness. Attempts at forgiveness.
Don’t do this, I almost whispered to my father on that night before the irreversible occurred. It would have changed the course of history, but I wasn’t worried about that. Instead I was haunted by the quiet devastations that constructed my life. I’d never been romantic, but I wanted to be loved, and not just by my husband. By my father, too.
For years after our wedding night, Jacob was outraged to be so deceived by my father, but he should have seen it coming. When Jacob lied to his own father to secure his older brother’s birthright so many years before, our crooked story began. Lies beget lies, and liars keep company with their own. Still, a cheater is always surprised when he gets cheated. And some of us just get caught up in the chaos, wondering whether the truth ever mattered. God might not lie, but His people do.
From the Artist:
When I chose “lies” as the theme I’d be working with, it took some time to settle on a certain passage, as the Bible is littered with liars. There’s the moment when Abraham denies that Sarah is his wife because he fears the consequences, then there’s the lying serpent, and of course there’s also Peter’s famed denial of Christ, just to name a few.
But I decided to focus on the story of Jacob, Laban, and Leah because Jacob was someone God undeniably favored, despite his tendency to use and deceive people (and, therefore, to be used and deceived). Although I chose to tell the story from the perspective of Jacob’s first wife, Leah, I can identify with Jacob as well—with his propensity for twisting God’s arm, with the ambition that defines him. In the Bible’s account, the story belongs to Jacob, and he is—by many measures—a hero. But what of the people who became little more than detritus on his journey to father the nations? What of the wife he didn’t love? Though the traditional American ideal of the biblical “hero” can lean toward the simplistic, I prefer the ancient Greek notion of the hero, one that’s much more troubled, and thankfully, much more human. The Greek hero has the capability to hurt those he’s meant to protect, and even those he loves.
In the often told story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, we know the outcome. Jacob wrestles with God for His blessing, and he gets it, though he walks away with a limp that will last the rest of his life. But what isn’t often talked about is the fact that Jacob got to wrestle with God. The very notion suggests an equality between partners, an occasion for an intimate fight, as one sometimes engages in with a beloved. Can you imagine it? Having that kind of access?
Much of the women’s inner lives in the Bible are excluded from scripture. Even if we don’t know much about Leah other than her role in the master narrative, God knows the smallest details of Leah’s life—her secrets, her disappointments, her triumphs. In some ways, Leah’s whole life may have been a wrestling match with God. Who’s to say? So this is my imagined account of it, told from Leah’s point of view.
A.J. Kandathil is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Burner Magazine, Newfound Journal, Hippocampus, and The Tottenville Review. She currently writes about the cross-sections between literature and television for Ploughshares, and she is at work on her first book. You can find her on Twitter at @ajkandathil.
This work was curated by Resident Artist Emily Ruth Hazel.
This work is copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.