The Complications of Happiness
The Battle of Birth and Lessons on Happiness
I recently submitted revisions to my publisher for my forthcoming book Longing for Joy: An Invitation into the Goodness and Beauty of Life. Huzzah! I can’t wait to tell you more about it in the months to come. To set up an ebenezer for this milestone, I want to share a reflection that didn’t make it into book.
The Battle for Happiness
The Hebrew word Asher can be translated as blessed and even happy. It’s a commendation, an ancient way of saying, “It is well with you.” A person is blessed when they are living life in the right kind of way—walking in the light of the Lord. In the Hebraic Scriptures, the first time this word is used is in the book of Genesis. And it’s a rather peculiar scene: the birthing battle between Rachel and Leah. Intuitively, this isn’t where we go to learn about happiness. But this ancient story has much to offer.
If you’re not familiar, the trickster-patriarch Jacob was duped by his father in-law Laban. Laban had two daughters. According to Genesis, “Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” Jacob set his affections upon Rachel and intended to marry her after serving Laban for seven years—“but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.” In a deceptive twist, on the wedding day, Leah took Rachel’s place. It turns out ancient veils were great disguises and Laban took full advantage of it. Jacob worked another seven years for Laban in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He ended up with two wives (which turns out not to be a great formula for happiness).
The tragedy of this story is how Jacob’s “love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah.” If there was any sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel growing up, it was about to escalate. We’re told “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.” As an aside: Genesis has no qualms portraying God as an agitator—his ways are not our ways. In a way, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah parallel that of Cain and Abel. It illustrates how the fall disrupts sibling relationships and families as well as the confused ways we try to obtain the happiness of God’s blessing.
In the ancient world, barrenness was perceived as a divine inditement. We see this when Rachel pressured Jacob to impregnate her. He retorts, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” After Leah gave birth to four children, Rachel was dismayed. She took matters into her own hands by conscripting her handmaiden to bear children for Jacob (the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Not to be outdone, Leah does the same.
Thus begins the surrogacy phase of the battle.
When Asher (which means happy) is born (of Zilpah), Leah declares, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” There it is—happiness. In this tense and painful setting is when the first explicit proclamation of happiness occurs in the Bible. But your handmaiden being conscripted into surrogacy is a strange occasion for happiness, don’t you think?
A Shifting Perspective
What does this strange story in Genesis teach us about happiness? Let’s focus on Leah, since she is the one who is happy. What does her happiness teach us?
Happiness is complicated.
Throughout the battle with Rachel, Leah expresses her desire for Jacob. On some level, this is her fundamental motivation. She wants Jacob to be attached to her, to love her, or at the very least, to honour her.
After the birth of her first child, Reuben, Leah said, “The Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” Then, Simeon is born, and she declares, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” Again, after her third son, Levi, is born, she says, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” But the birth of children did not change Jacob’s heart toward Leah. It seems, ever so slowly, there’s a shift in Leah. Because after the birth of her fourth son, Judah, she says, “This time I will praise the Lord.”
In the most optimistic interpretation, we could say that Leah found happiness once she made the choice to look beyond the rivalry with Rachel and start praising God instead. Once she stopped focusing on her unfulfilled desire for her husband’s love she found happiness. When the battle with Rachel shifts into the surrogacy births, it seems to confirm this shift in Leah too. Because Leah names her sons born of Zilpah: good fortune (Gad) and happy (Asher). This is when she finally declares:
“How happy I am!”
Leah appears to have her eyes wide open to recognize the gifts of God’s hands and to respond with praise. After the surrogacy phase, she gives birth to a few more children. When Zebulun is born, Leah says, “God has presented me with a precious gift.” It looks like the matter is settled. Leah has discovered that true and lasting happiness is found through living in praise.
But that’s not the full truth.
Because Leah actually says, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honour.” She may praise God and find happiness in doing so but the longing for her husband remains and continues to influence her pursuit of happiness.
The Shadow Side of Happiness
It looked like Leah traversed a path of personal development, from longing for her husband’s affection to settling her soul (who could blame her) and finding happiness in praising God. But there is a shadow side to Leah’s happiness.
Provoked by Leah’s fertility and her own infertility, Rachel initiated the surrogacy battle. The sons born of Bilhah vindicated Rachel and gave her a sense of victory over Leah. After Naphtali is born, Rachel declared, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” Not to be outdone, Leah gladly entered into the surrogacy battle. It is in this phase of the battle—this context—that good fortune (Gad) and happiness (Asher) arrive. Can we deny that, to some extent, Leah is happy because she feels a sense of superiority over her sister? She is jealous for the affections of Jacob. She wants to know the love Rachel receives from him. If she cannot have Jacob’s heart, she can at least produce more children.
And so, Leah is happy, she even gloats, because she believes she has defeated her sister in the birthing battle. She might be unloved, but she is the “blessed” one. German has a word for the shadow side of happiness. It is schadenfreude: pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. There is undoubtedly a tinge (if not more) of schadenfreude in Leah’s happiness: she has defeated her barren sister and her sister’s handmaid.
The Grace of Happiness
Is this story prescriptive for happiness? Probably not. (If you want a bonafide path to happiness, I’ll point you to John 15 instead). But it does invite us to think about the complications of happiness.
To co-opt some language from the Hebraic wisdom tradition, our pursuit of happiness can be straight or crooked. On the straight path, we learn to delight in God, we accept the boundaries around our lives, and we receive his gifts with praise. On the crooked path, we selfishly seek to fulfill our own desires, and we are prone to schadenfreude, which Genesis wants us to see as another form of “sin that crouches” at the door.
Happiness is still possible in all the messy complications of life—even when the selfish dispositions of our hearts taint our happiness.
It’s tempting to over-spiritualize and over-simplify happiness. Choose the straight path! Stay off the crooked path! Of course. Our greatest happiness is sharing in the happiness of God. But here’s the challenge: even when we discover this happiness, it doesn’t fully resolve how our hearts long for happiness in our circumstances and relationships, or how we can delight in the wrong things. These longings infiltrate our spiritual pursuit. In other words, we can praise God and delight in his gifts while carrying ulterior motives. We can genuinely say, “How happy I am in God!” while simultaneously (even sneakily) being happy for nefarious reasons too, i.e. How happy I am that God has blessed me and that he has put my sister in her place. Well, which is it? Probably both.
What I find comforting in the story from Genesis is that happiness is still possible in all the messy complications of life—even when the selfish dispositions of our hearts taint our happiness. If being “blessed” means living in the right kind of way, this story comforts us immensely. Because I don’t think Jacob, Rachel, or Leah exemplify blessedness. The way they live is decisively not well. Even so, God works in their midst. Happiness meets us as we struggle toward the “blessed” or “happy” life. Even when we praise God imperfectly, with ulterior motives, and carry painful unmet desires, God opens our hearts and mouths to say, “How happy I am!”
We can name the sin crouching at the door, we can choose the straight path. But we walk down it with crooked hearts. The good news is that happiness does not wait for us to get our act together. By all accounts, Leah had no reason to be happy. She was unwanted, at odds with her sister, bearing children out of envy and rivalry. She was unloved by Jacob. But Leah was “heard” and “seen” by God. This became a wellspring of praise. Yes, she still struggled with the shadow-side of happiness. While it’s not commendable, we can’t really stand above her can we? Her heart ached, hurt, and praised simultaneously. Even in all the mess of being human, Leah genuinely saw the goodness of God, recognized his gifts, and experienced happiness by praising him. She was never loved the way she wanted, never as beautiful as her sister, but she knew the happiness of God’s blessing still.
May we find happiness where we are and not where we wish we were.