The Turning Point
The Turning Point
Over the last weeks we’ve explored the stories of Jacob’s life in exile. Before he left the promised land God came to him in a dream and reminded him of his covenant. Everything that God had promised to Abraham and to Isaac he then promised again to Jacob. And he promised to be with Jacob and to bring him safely back home. Jacob had a mountaintop experience that night at Bethel, but from there he went straight to the dark valley of testing in his uncle’s home in Haran. And yet as we’ve seen, during the whole time that Jacob trudged through that dark valley, God was teaching him. The swindler learned what it was like to be swindled; the man who had spent his life playing others learned what it was like to be played; and the schemer learned what it’s like to be out-schemed. But through it all God was sanctifying Jacob. These events were reforming Jacob’s character. Through them God was making provision for the fulfilment of his promises. Think especially how God used Laban’s bride-swap and the subsequent rivalry between Jacob’s wives to bring the fathers of the twelve tribes into the world. And last week, in Chapter 30, we saw God blessing Jacob and making him rich. Perhaps most important, through all these providential circumstances, God has been giving Jacob real and tangible proof that he is a God who is to be trusted to make good on his promises. Through all these trials, God is calling Jacob to deeper faith. And yet God doesn’t call his people to a blind and irrational faith; he gives us reason to trust him. And so, as we come to Chapter 31 we reach a turning point in Jacob’s life. It’s a turning point in terms of circumstances: he’s finally ready to leave his uncle’s home and return to Bethel to make good on the promise he had made to God. But more significantly this is where Jacob begins to see God at work; this is where we see real faith growing in him. It’s not perfect faith by any means. Jacob is still focused on material things, he’s still scheming, he’s still not as honest as he should be—he’s still trusting in himself for a lot of things—but small faith is still real faith. And, brothers and sisters, this is where you and I ought to find some real encouragement. Our faith isn’t perfect either. As much as we find certain things in life easy to hand over to God, there are still many things in our lives that we still hold on to, trusting in our own ability to take care of them. Just like Jacob, we’re often not fully able to see God at work. And all too often what we know of God in our heads doesn’t quite make it into our hearts, our hands, or our feet. I’m reminded of an internet discussion I was part of years ago that went horribly wrong. Men who should have known better—clergymen at that—were involved in one of those ugly, knock-down, drag-out internet fights for which we all had to ask forgiveness when we came to our senses days later. The ironic shame was that the argument was over the nature of the love of God. What was in our heads didn’t make it into our hearts. But, friends, Jacob reminds us that there’s hope for us. God will continue to build our faith and to strengthen that connection between head and heart.
When we left Jacob last time he had grown rich in sheep and goats while tending Laban’s flocks, and he’d heard that Laban’s sons were angry and accusing him of having effectively stolen from their father. Jacob had slaved for Laban twenty long years and through that time God had blessed Jacob and his work. And, of course, that blessing benefitted Laban. But that was before God had increased Jacob’s flock at the expense of Laban’s. Whereas a few verses ago Laban was unwilling to let Jacob go because he was his source of prosperity, Laban’s now starting to see Jacob as a liability. This doesn’t look good for Jacob, but as we see in verses 2 and 3, it fits perfectly with God’s plan and God’s timing.
And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before. Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
Jacob may have thought that God had abandoned him during his twenty-year exile, but now he learns that God’s been with him the whole time. The first part of God’s promise had been that he would be with Jacob during his time away from home. Now God makes it clear that he’s been true to his word and is ready to start making good on the second part of his promise: It’s time for God to see Jacob safely home. This is a reminder to us that God is always with his people, walking alongside us, even in the darkest valley and even when we have no sense of his presence. He is always with us. It’s also a reminder that God never promises that our journey will be an easy one. His promise is that he will be with us; he will give us the grace to persevere and to follow, and through it all will grow our faith.
Now, having heard God’s call, Jacob does what any smart man does: he consults with his wives. He takes Rachel and Leah out to the privacy of the fields and he tells them about his recent encounter with God. It sounds as if he’s afraid they might not feel the same way he does about leaving, so he stresses to them how he’s been wronged over and over by their father and now, finally, how God has taken care of him and blessed him.
“I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’” (Genesis 31:5b-13)
Jacob’s faith has grown. God had called to him and he had responded as Abraham had, saying, “Here I am.” God speaks and Jacob’s ready to listen; God calls and Jacob’s ready to follow. And as it turns out, Rachel and Leah are ready to follow too. Not only are they as exasperated with their father as Jacob is, they can see God’s hand at work in their lives too.
Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.” (Genesis 31:14-16)
Jacob’s wives might have been hesitant to leave their father, seeing that he was supposed to be their source of security if something were to happen to Jacob, but Laban’s proved himself to have little or no interest in their welfare. The brideprice paid by a groom was supposed to be kept in trust for the bride in the event that something should happen to him. Laban should have been setting something aside from the profits he earned by Jacob’s hand during the fourteen years he worked for Leah and Rachel, but Laban hasn’t done that. Laban has treated Jacob like a slave, not like a son-in-law and he’s treated his daughters the same way. For Laban, everything—even family relations—is reduced to nothing more than its economic value. Rachel and Leah are as ready to go as Jacob is.
As if to underscore the fact that God is always looking out for his people, it’s no coincidence that this all takes place at sheep shearing time, as we read in verse 19. For shepherds this was the busiest time of the year. Not only were Laban and his sons three days away, but they were busy with the hard work of shearing and no doubt distracted with the festivities that went along with it when the work was finished each day. While Laban is occupied, Jacob loads his wives and children onto camels, packs up his belongings, and drives his flocks across the Euphrates, in the direction of Gilead to the southwest.
In verse 19 the storyteller also notes that before leaving home, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. These would have been small idols that the family worshiped as the protectors of home and hearth. It’s not clear why Rachel stole these “gods”. Some Old Testament scholars think that possessing them gave rights to the family inheritance. Others think that they may have had a connection to fertility, which was especially important to Rachel, who was still praying for another son. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, tells us that it was the custom of the people to take these idols with them when they travelled. Rachel may simply be acting in spite; Laban had stolen her from Jacob and cheated her out of the brideprice, so she steals his precious gods in return. Whatever her reasoning, the storyteller makes a mockery of them. Rachel becomes a “godnapper”, showing how powerless these pagan idols are—they can’t even save themselves from being stolen—and the storyteller doesn’t even give them the benefit of calling them “gods”. Laban refers to them as his “gods”, but the storyteller calls them “idols”. As we’ll see later, Rachel not only steals them, but defiles them too.
In verses 22-25 we read that word got back to Laban three days later and that he set off with his sons and chased after Jacob, finally catching up with him in Gilead. One night during the chase, however, we’re told that God appeared to Laban with a warning: “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (Genesis 31:24). This doesn’t stop Laban from making a scene when he catches up with Jacob. “Jacob, why have you deceived me? Why have you run away with my daughters like a raider and a bandit? Why have you run off in secret and kept me from throwing a farewell celebration for you?” Knowing Laban’s history, we know how silly his accusations are. If Laban had really cared for his daughters, he never would have used them as pawns in his schemes and he would have provided for their care. His angry bluster about having been deprived the opportunity to throw them a farewell party is laughable. In verse 29 he threatens Jacob with physical harm, but then magnanimously takes it back—but only because God has told him not to harm Jacob. The fact is, there’s nothing merciful about it. Laban’s scared.
Then, after all the bluster about Jacob having stolen his daughters, Laban shows us his real priorities. In verse 30 he angrily asks: “Why did you steal my gods?” After all his indignant protestations to the contrary, Laban’s willing to let Jacob get away with stealing his daughters, but he’s not going to let him get away with stealing his “gods”. Jacob has no idea that Rachel had stolen Laban’s “gods”. And, or course, Laban’s “gods” are of no significance to Jacob. “What would I want with your silly little idols, Laban?” And so Jacob tells Laban he can look for his idols and that if he finds them, the person who stole them will be executed.
And despite the fact that Rachel’s life is now in danger as Laban and his men start searching Jacob’s camp, the story turns humorous. Laban searches the entire camp, but hasn’t found his idols. The last place to search is Rachel’s tent. Look at verses 34 and 35:
Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods.
The language used to describe Laban groping around the tent looking for his gods is the same language that was used to describe Isaac blindly groping at the hairy goatskin that Jacob had used to disguise himself as Esau. It’s a pathetic scene of a man lost in paganism. Only the night before, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the one, true God—had revealed himself to Laban, but despite that revelation of true divinity, Laban is groping hopelessly for his stupid little idols that can’t even keep themselves from being stolen let alone reveal their location. And, in fact, as Laban searches for them, we’re told that Rachel hides them in her camel blanket and sits on them. And not only that, but Rachel explains that she’s menstruating and can’t get up—that she’s ritually unclean—which means that she’s not just hiding her father’s gods, but she’s making a mockery of them as she defiles them with her uncleanness. So consider Laban: Here’s a man who has been blessed by the one, true God; here’s a man who has been visited not once, but twice by the one, true God; here’s a man who knows first hand the reality and power of the one, true God; and yet Laban is so spiritually blind that he’d rather pray to his pathetic and worthless little carvings than follow the God who has blessed him and made himself known to him.
Jacob watches as Laban tears his camp apart looking for his “gods” and when Laban finds nothing, Jacob finally, angrily rips into his father-in-law:
“What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.” (Genesis 31:36b-42)
After Jacob’s rebuke, there’s no much more that Laban can say. Everything Jacob has said is true. On top of that, Jacob reminds him that his visit from the Lord was itself a rebuke. And after his turning Jacob’s camp inside-out and not finding his gods, Laban looks foolish. He makes one last sullen and half-hearted protest in verse 43: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day?” Laban settles for a stalemate and he suggests that he and Jacob make a covenant with each other. Jacob sets up a stone pillar and has his men pile stones into a heap to establish a boundary between Laban’s territory and Jacob’s. Neither man trusts the other and because of the distance between them, neither can keep an eye on the other, and so they make a covenant between them and call on their gods to keep watch for them. Look at verses 48-55:
Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he named it Galeed, and Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”
Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.
Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.
“The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight.” Ironically, today these words are inscribed on wedding bands or on necklace pendants that are broken into two pieces for parted lovers to wear. These aren’t sentimental words spoken by Jacob and Laban as they part company; they’re a curse: “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me. I call on my God to watch you and to strike you down should you cross this boundary or violate our agreement.” Jacob swears by the God of his fathers and Laban, the reprobate pagan, swears by the powerless gods of his fathers—the same ones now lost to him. But this contrast highlights the fact that as Jacob returns to the land of promise, he’s leaving behind the worthless paganism of his ancestors, just as Abraham had, and as he leaves that old paganism behind, he’s stepping out in faith to follow the one, true God. In that is a reminder to us that God works in each of our lives differently. Abraham’s faith enabled him to hear God’s voice and to step out into an unknown future. Jacob’s different. His character needs shaping and he needs the assurance of God’s blessing to strengthen his faith. And knowing perfectly what Jacob needs in order to have a strong faith, God patiently and graciously works with him, reforming his character and showing him his blessing in order to build that faith. We see the fruit of God’s patient graciousness here. God calls and Jacob’s finally read to follow. God will do the same for us—meeting us where we’re at and graciously custom-tailoring his plan for each of us to grow our faith that we might follow when he calls.
There’s also a lesson here about God’s guidance. The will of God isn’t something for us divine; it’s something for us to follow. God’s already revealed his will; we simply need to follow as he leads. Jacob had a desire to go home after his first fourteen years of slaving for Laban, but circumstances didn’t allow it. Six years later his circumstances changed and made it impossible for him to stay. We can see God’s hand at work behind the scenes, even in the jealousy, the strife, and the injustice. But still Jacob didn’t leave. The final piece was God’s divine message of command. The way forward only became clear when Jacob’s desire, his circumstances, and God’s divine Word all came together. Griffith Thomas writes: “This is ever the way the way of God’s guidance; the conviction of the spirit within, the Word agreeing with it in principle; and then outward circumstances making action possible. When these three agree, we may be sure of right guidance. When the first two alone are clear, the way may be right, but the time is not yet come. When the third only is clear and the two former are not, we may be certain that the way is not right.” Brothers and sisters, we need to be spiritually alert and that means that we need to be people of the Word and people of prayer. God speaks through his Word. If we would know his will and his ways, we need to steep ourselves in the Scriptures. And in response to his Word, we need to speak to him in prayer—asking for his grace to be patient and to open our eyes that we might see him at work in our lives and that we might be always growing into his will and into his character. It’s when we are accustomed to seeing God at work, when we’ve come to know him through his Word, and when we’ve become people of faithful and expectant prayer that God will call and, like Abraham and Jacob, we’ll be ready to follow in faith.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, as we consider the ways you worked to shape Jacob’s character and to build his faith we give you thanks, knowing that you are doing the same thing for each of us. Open our eyes to see your hand at work in our lives; open our hearts and reform our character, and graciously transform our wills that we might desire to follow you in faith. We ask these things through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
Jacob had a three-day head start and the text tells us that Laban pursued Jacob for seven days. Since there’s no way Jacob, with his wives, children, and large flocks could have travelled almost 500 kilometres in ten days, we should probably understand Laban’s “seven day” journey the same way we talk about a “cross-country” journey or a “weekend” trip. Everyone in Genesis takes three-, five-, or seven-day journeys, which suggests that it’s not so much about the actual number of days, but the relative distance of the trip. Referring to a three-day or a seven-day journey is probably idiomatic and similar to the relative difference implied when we talk about a weekend trip versus a cross-country journey.