Genesis 31:1-21 “Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, ‘Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.’ And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude towards him was not what it had been.
Then the LORD said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.’” [and so on to v.21]
Six more years have passed since Jacob renewed his contract with Laban. Six years of abundance for Jacob. The last verse of chapter 30 describes this time; “the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 30:43). Now 20 years have past since he arrived in Haran, and during this time Jacob, the only follower of Jehovah in the place, had made little progress spiritually. He had been mesmerized by local superstitious folklore and in his own schemes and skills when he bred his sheep. There was an unpleasant one-upmanship in his relationship with his father-in-law Laban. All that was true, and yet, in spite of all that folly, God continued to bless and keep this man Jacob simply because he’d promised that he would. That is the grace of God. Aren’t you glad that God is merciful and loves us, though we can behave so inconsistently?
1. JACOB WAS GUIDED BY GROWING OPPOSITION TO LEAVE HARAN
Then Jacob was made to realise it was time to leave that pace. First there were his brothers-in-law grumbling about him, angry that he had prospered so greatly in the last six years. The spin they put on it was that he had taken everything that their father had gained. “All Jacob’s wealth has come to him from Dad,” they said to one another. That meant that their inheritance was shrinking and they were becoming bitter men. They spoke quite openly about him so that he heard them and his servants heard them. They said it deliberately to intimidate him. They wanted him to know of their growing hostility towards him. That is not necessarily a reason to leave a place. John Calvin is typical of preachers who know fearful opposition with many false stories told about them. It is a weak ministry that meets no opposition. Certainly it is not a Christ-like ministry. Our Lord’s entire life continued in the teeth of accusation and rumour, but he continued to preach in Galilee and exhort and warn. Jacob was now an affluent man and well settled into this area, maybe a bit too comfortably. He needed to be exposed to hostility to loosen him from that place.
Then his father-in-law also turned against him. We are told that “Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been” (v.2). He was once so favourable because Jacob had made him a rich man, but that is not the case any longer, and this is what Laban is about. He’s a man of the world; he cares only for what happens in this life. He’s what Jacob would have been if the Lord had not intervened in his life and directed his desires towards the kingdom of God. Now Laban is not smiling at him any more; the hypocritical grins have been replaced by a grim face. That’s always the first step to words of hostility and acts of hostility. So here is Jacob, who has tried to live comfortably in this world, meeting hard-faced Laban who has been either enslaving him or deceiving him. The father-in-law is now getting the worse end of the deal and so he increasingly hates Jacob. There was a time when Jacob was Laban’s adopted son and heir. Presumably that is no longer the case, and old Laban his employer and land-owner has openly become his enemy. Jacob can no longer live in peace in Haran and that is our calling to live at peace with all men, but when it becomes impossible it’s time to move. Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the hostility of Herod. Jacob is learning that to be a friend of the world of Haran where Laban was king was to be at enmity with God. To be blessed by God was to be cursed by this world. So Jacob is being guided to move on. This is God giving Jacob a divine poke in the ribs as all his wives’ family turns on him. Sometimes God needs to give us a wake-up call; and that is what is happening here. When you are comfortable, and yet not where God wants you to be, then you can expect the Lord to start to push you, and loosen you up, and set you off on a journey. Laban’s hard face had lost him the best friend he would ever have.
Finally the Lord himself comes and speaks to Jacob and tells him exactly what he is to do: “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you” (v.3). What does the Lord say? “Your fathers and to your relatives.” In other words, “Jacob this is not your family.” Leave them, but you’ll not be on your own: “I will be with you.” It is the repetition of the covenant promise God made to him twenty years earlier at Bethel. It is telling him that Laban cannot harm him. So it is when we move away from a place of prosperity into the unknown, then do not fear! “I will be with you,” he says to us. When we serve him in Africa, or when we are asked to go and visit and help in tricky circumstances we must not be afraid, for he will be with us. Jacob was being told that Laban will not be able to hurt him. If God is for him then who can be against him?
We are Christians who live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. What he says we must do. Where he sends we must go. We are sustained by God’s promises. We cannot live comfortably anywhere but in the place to which God has brought us. We cannot make friendship with the world that hates our Lord. Jacob had stayed too long in Haran, and now God has to come to him and push him out of Haran so that Jacob finds his inheritance in a better place.
2. JACOB REASONS WITH HIS WIVES ABOUT LEAVING HARAN.
Jacob has decided to move, but he has wives who have only known t
his place. The pastures and wells, the climate and pattern of the seasons, the people and the language are all familiar to them because they were born here and nurtured here. They have parents and brothers here and Jacob has to love them deeply. He is under obligation to lay down his life for them. He is living in impossible relationships with two wives and two concubines and a dozen children, and yet he must be patient and tender with these women. He may not suddenly announce one day, “Pack everything up! We are going!” without telling them where, or telling them it was to Beersheba, 500 miles away without giving them a chance to ask why or giving them a chance to tell him what they thought of such a move. Love does not act in that way. Jacob was at least under the holiest obligation to love his neighbour as himself.
So in this next section, in verses five through to thirteen, we see Jacob thoughtfully convincing his wives about the wisdom and necessity of leaving the land of their fathers and emigrating to another land. You see how he chooses a private place and asks his wives to come to the fields where the flocks were. This story is all about his mother overhearing her husband talking to Esau, or Jacob overhearing his brothers complaining about him, and so Jacob makes sure nobody can hear this conversation. No servants are there; the speckled and streaked sheep are disinterested, and as the family stand by themselves in the field listening to one another then these sisters know that something important was about to happen. Jacob has thought of six arguments to set before them concerning the importance of setting out and taking this long journey.
i] Your father has turned against me (v.4). Jacob always had a problem with his father-in-law. There had never been an apology for the switch of daughters on his honeymoon night yet they had lived together for 20 years but with Laban’s simmering resentment boiling away under the surface during the last six years. To change the metaphor, a fuse was burning and there was going to be an explosion. “We have to leave because of your father,” he told them. “But the God of my fathers has been with me” (v.5). “We are not alone.” He is teaching his wives what he should have taught them and should have firmly believed for years, the omnipresence of God and the special covenant presence of the Lord with his favoured ones. Jacob was starting to teach them the doctrine of the providence of God.
ii] Your father has been well rewarded by my hard work for him (v.6). “We are not leaving because I’ve let down your father. He isn’t angry with me because I’ve been a sluggard taking everything from him and giving him little in return. ‘You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength’ (v.6). We are not running away from unpaid debts.” Jacob’s conscience was clear as far as working for his father for twenty years of his life. He had paid back in full all that Laban had invested in him.
iii] Your father has been unfair to me (v.7). He has changed my wages ten times. “If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young” (v.8). Laban rang the changes. Jacob did not know where he was with the man. What a boss! Laban was resentful and angry. It had become impossible for there to be a working relationship between the two men.
iv] Your father was prevented from harming me by God (v.7). “We never went hungry. We never even knew what it was for our flocks to shrink. God blessed us with growing herds of sheep, goats, donkeys and even camels.” God is not a debtor to any man. He is developing this theme of the providence of God. “In spite of all the machinations of Laban we have done well, and the reason for this has been the power and blessing of God.” Jacob doesn’t talk about peeling bark off poplar branches and putting mating white sheep in front of the piebald sheep. He has finally transcended that silliness. The pattern of the growth of his flocks can be attributed only to one thing – the goodness of God to him. Jacob has come to see it at last and he is reinforcing his own mind with this reality as he says to Leah and Rachel, “God did it all; he ‘has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me’ (v.9). Laban sought to work evil against me but God worked good for me.”
v] Your father’s actions were all noted by God (v.12). “I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you” (v.12). All the lies, the abuse, the cheating, the angry looks, the attempts to defraud Jacob – God has seen them all. God knows what we experience. The abused wife and the abused child, grieving because no one else was there, the wronged teacher or preacher or policeman, accused falsely of attacking someone, and suspended under suspicion for a year or two, then let them be encouraged that all the facts are known to God. The Judge of all the earth has seen everything. Jacob is developing the doctrine of the providence of God. But more, now he is telling them of the revelation of God to man. He tells them of the dream he had during the time of the mating season when all he had was white rams and white billy goats but he was enabled to see as they mated that they weren’t white at all, they were streaked, speckled and spotted. That was the reason the lambs and kids born to them were just like their fathers, and not white at all. God had hidden the nature of the rams and billy-goats from him and from Laban. God had done it. It had nothing to do with the sheep gazing at speckled branches or speckled animals – not any of that superstition. God was in it all. Jacob is growing spiritually. He is giving credit to God for any prosperity he has known.
vi] Your father did not see God, neither did he make a vow to him at Bethel (v.13). Laban might talk about the God of Jacob but he had his household gods on a shelf in his home. Jacob’s God had appeared to him in Bethel twenty years earlier. Jacob had seen and heard him. Jacob had consequently anointed a pillar and made a vow to serve this God alone. Now, he tells his wives, a messenger of this God has appeared to him again (v.11) and spoken to him reminding him of the God of Bethel and telling him these words, “Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land” (v.13). Do Laban’s household gods speak to him and direct him like that? What else can Jacob do but obey the Lord?
Jacob arrays these six arguments one by one, out there in the windy field, to the two sisters he was forced to marry, seeking to persuade them of the importance of leaving their father and their brothers and their friends and this locality all so familiar to them and go with him to a land far away which they had never visited. You understand that Jacob does not present himself to his wives as their protection. He is not saying now, “I outwitted Laban so you can trust in me.” He tells them that the living God who met with him twenty years earlier had come and spoken to him again. This God had been blessing them and that they can put their trust in God. Jacob finally gets right an argument he got wrong in the previous chapter. There he was negotiating for wages with Laban by suggesting that the Lord was with him and so what was having the Lord there worth to Laban? He had a
greed not to take off for the Promised Land but to keep the Lord around to bless Laban’s flocks if the deal were sweet enough. He was using the Lord to his own pecuniary advantage. That is no longer his argument. Jacob has grown in understanding. “The Lord is with me, so let’s go where the Lord directs.” What will be their response?
3. JACOB’S WIVES RESPOND TO HIM ABOUT LEAVING HARAN.
Wives are exhorted to obey their husbands in all things, and that of course means, in all the crucial god-fearing things that characterize a Christian marriage, in doing the will of God. It does not mean that there is no discussion of anything because both husband and wife enjoy the equal privileges of redemption and adoption, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, access to a loving heavenly Father, and the wisdom that comes from the Bible. Both husband and wife are heirs together of the grace of life. When Naomi told her daughter-in-law that she was going back home and that she wanted her to stay in Midia then Ruth refused to listen to what her mother-in-law said. She was going with her mother-in-law every step of the way, and she is approved by God for saying, “No,” to Naomi and for being determined to accompany her to Bethlehem. In the Bible you do not have the sort of total domination of women by their husbands that you see today in many parts of the world and many other religions. One hears of the plight of women in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent and one could weep for them. That is not the Christian pattern. Here Jacob presents his arguments for returning to his home and then waits their response as anyone must who is involved in family or church decision making. However to his gratification they thoroughly endorse his decision. In fact they present four arguments for leaving Haran and heading off on the long journey. These sisters had had their tensions, but on this issue they were united.
i] They had been excluded from the inheritance of their father’s estate (v.14). Laban’s hostility to Jacob was such that not only Jacob had been cut out of his will but he had cut out Rachel and Leah too. Their father’s plans for the future of his possessions had no place for them and for his grandsons. They had a sense of alienation from him.
ii] They felt they were being treated as strangers by their Dad, as if they were foreigners, objects of suspicion (v.15). The special relation that a daughter has to her father so that he spoils her and tells her how much he loves her and she tells him she loves him too – that was gone. Their father spoke to them in the same tone of correct coldness as a member of the British National Party addressing an Indian immigrant.
iii] They considered they had been sold and used by their father for his own benefit (vv.15&16). Their own father has decided that they were both to marry Jacob. Then he, their husband, had used all his strength and skill for fourteen years to give to their father a vast dowry in marrying them. Laban had barely said, “Thank you,” before using it all on himself. He benefited himself but had shown no concern for their welfare. He had no view of his possessions blessing them and their children after his days. They felt they were being used, as if they were chattels.
iv] They believed the God of their husband Jacob, that he was the author of the material blessings that had come into their lives and that he had in fact spoken to Jacob and promised him, “I will be with you.” So these were the closing words that Rachel and Leah said to him; “Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you” (v.16). These warring sisters were in total harmony about the time having come to depart from their father’s household and land. Jacob’s plan was wise, and it was safe. When Jacob had been most disciplined by God for the deception of his early years – in his home in his marriages – now in that place where you might expect the sisters to fall out and disagree there was unity even though it was a wrenching decision taking them all from all that was familiar to them and venturing out into what was largely unknown. But they trusted their husband and their husband’s God.
It is a wonderful moment in the history of the patriarchs especially in the life of this complicated man. His wives speak with one voice and they identify themselves not only with him but with his God. We saw it years earlier in the same land when God came here to Haran and spoke to Abram and gave him his first commission telling him to “Get up out of your country. Leave your family. Leave your father’s house and go to a land that I will show you, and I will bless you.” Now the call comes to his grand-daughters-in-law through his grandson and they heed it and obey. Jacob’s God will be their God and Jacob’s people will be their people.
4. JACOB’S NEED TO DRAW HIS WIVES TO HIM AND HIS GOD BEFORE LEAVING HARAN.
Jacob needed to talk to his wives in this way. There were two reasons for this;
i] They were ill taught women. How can I say that? Because what we are told of what happened next. They wasted no time, Jacob gathering together his livestock and goods, putting his wives and children on camels and immediately setting off for Isaac his father’s house in Canaan. But, then, what strange event happened before Rachel left? She “stole her father’s household gods” (v.19). I find Bill Baldwin so helpful here. He asks what Rachel could have been thinking. What can the idols do for her that the Lord could not do? The idols were used to bring about prosperity for the household. If you had those idols, they blessed you and made you rich. Let’s just think a moment and ask how successful had those idols been for Laban? Had not the Lord proved mightier still? Why did Rachel feel she needed them? Was it spite towards a father whose behaviour had killed her love? The idols were also used for divination. In other words, you used these idols to determine what the future held so you could plan accordingly. But had not the Lord appeared to Jacob and told him what lay ahead? Had not the Lord said that he would be with them and so they were to go back to the Promised Land? What more did Rachel need? They were usually female deities and they were often seen as necessary for producing fertility, but when she had prayed to the Lord he had heard and given her Joseph. She had cried to those gods often enough and never conceived. Maybe those household gods were signs of a person’s right to receive an inheritance. So Rachel may have felt that her father had stifled her right to receive an inheritance and had stolen the gods as a way of claiming them. Certainly these figures represented to her the home in which she had grown up. There was a sentimental attachment to them and that made Rachel purloin them. Lot’s wife had been warned about looking back at her former home of Sodom.
Throughout this story Rachel has been the symbol of attachment to this world. Jacob saw her and loved her . . . for what? For her hospitality and virile faith? No, there is no mention of that. It was for her looks. When he received plain looking Leah instead of beautiful Rachel, did he accept this as a strange providence of God? No. Still he set his eyes on that which w
as outwardly beautiful. So through his love of this world, he brought her, the lover of this world into their midst. So she represents the one who cannot fully embrace the promise of God, but must always love and rely on other things.
So Jacob and the nation descended from him become a mixed bag. With part of their hearts they desired the Lord and with part of their hearts they clung to and trusted in the world. And this tension would not be resolved until a purer nation is produced, a nation that will love the Lord only and mortify all the glittering prizes of this world. This tension cannot be resolved until the Lord Christ comes and purifies for himself a nation that is not linked by flesh and blood to Abraham but whose citizenship is heavenly and eternal. Then there was another reason why Jacob needed to talk to his wives.
ii] He was becoming a spiritually awakened believer. I find it fascinating that Jacob begins to be more explicitly aware of God’s providence when he has to teach it to his wives. Isn’t that often the way? The experience of the Lord in Bethel, the vision and the sight of God had not done this for him. It was when he had to speak of his faith and its implications for the future that Jacob applied his mind to the truths of God’s providence. I am saying that when the Lord calls on us to teach his truth, we have to grasp those truths ourselves more clearly and certainly. When we come from sitting on the bench into action and have to defend the faith then, in conveying to others what God is like then we learn it ourselves in a deeper, a broader and a more expansive way, and that’s what happens to Jacob. God has spoken to him again. The world has firmly rejected him more defiantly than ever before, and Jacob has been drawn near to the Lord as he speaks to him. Now Jacob has the responsibility of convincing his wives of the wisdom and rightness of this course of action going off to Canaan, and in the process he has to teach them God’s providence, and as he does this, he himself grows in his realization of God’s providence, faithfulness and presence. So I have been praying that many of us will meet people through the winter ahead and they will be open to ask us about our faith and church attendance. Why is trusting in God so important to us?
But more than that, let me turn it this way, doesn’t Jacob have a divine responsibility of training his wives in the knowledge of truth. In Ephesians, chapter 5 Paul picks up on this. In verses 25, 26 and 27 Paul says husbands are to love their wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her, and in that passage he indicates the purpose of Christ giving himself up for the church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. That he might present to himself the church in all her glory having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (v.26). Now in that passage Paul is telling us that Christ loved the church like this, that he might sanctify her, that at the end the church might be presented to him holy and blameless. However, please remember the context in which Paul is using that truth, in exhorting husbands to love their wives in the way that Christ loved the church.
If that is the case, men and husbands especially, and I preach to myself first of all, as this is the case then every Christian husband should prick up his ears and listen. Know that your job is to love your wife in this particular way that we ourselves are responsible to Christ for fostering her growth in Christ-likeness that she might be presented spotless to her Saviour, her bridegroom, at the last day. It is an absolutely awesome and daunting concept. We have the responsibility of helping our wives grow in grace, growing in their knowledge of God’s providence and his plan so that they may be holy and blameless and presented to the Lord Jesus at the end without a spot. I think that’s something for us to pray about and to encourage one another to being accountable for. Are we doing that? Are we taking that type of spiritual responsibility in the home? As the men meet for breakfast are they using this opportunity to say to one another, “Are things going on better in praying with your wife and the kids? Are your prayers being hindered?” So often we leave spiritual leadership of our children to our wives. Are we taking our priestly responsibilities in the home and ministering to the family? See how Jacob did so in this instance. Jacob was not consistently good in this area, but in this instance Jacob took the responsibility of encouraging his wives in the doctrine of the Lord’s providence and guidance and presence, and looking at the behaviour of Rachel, his wives needed such teaching. Jacob was the only believer there. He was God’s evangelist to Haran. He was a preacher and prophet and pastor. There was no one else there at all – just as in your street, or hall of residence, or in your school.
5. THE NEED FOR CHRIST TO PURIFY THIS STORY ABOUT LEAVING HARAN.
I have learned from Bill Baldwin that it is the Lord Christ who purifies this story. Christ is the true Jacob, the real Israel. Christ put the world behind him and never sought it; he never put his trust in men or in riches; he never faltered in his trust in the Father, even when he was persecuted, mocked, and crucified. Like Jacob, he was in conflict with those around him; they were jealous of him, but, unlike Jacob, he never sought to make his home in this world but resolutely set out to find his heavenly home, though he should pass through death before he found it.
Jacob sought Bethel again because there he had seen God, standing at the bottom of a stairway into heaven, and there God had sworn to be with him. Jesus, too, sought that place, and found it and has ascended to sit at God’s right hand. This journey that Jacob here begins has been finished by Christ. He has come to the goal. He has entered heaven on our behalf.
So he is coming to you today, a better Jacob, bearing testimony to the faithfulness of God. Jacob’s movement was horizontal, across the surface of the earth, but Christ sought the vertical. Jacob sought the one place on earth where he set a stone upright, pointing into heaven, testifying that his eternal home was there, in the presence of God. But now, in the age in which Christ has appeared, your movement is vertical. No longer do you seek the place on earth that points to heaven because to those who belong to Christ, all places on earth point to heaven. He is our Bethel, he is our destination, he is the place where we have the presence of God and where his Spirit is. He is present here with us who have arrived at Bethel, the place where we look up into heaven and see our inheritance in God himself. More than that, we have been brought up into heaven and are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We have arrived.
Then put the world behind you and always be seeking the heavenly home where Christ is. Are you expecting earthly riches? Wealth in the here and now? After all, Jacob received these things as a sign of God’s blessing. Then you have not understood how this story comes to you, the heirs of the kingdom of heaven. God has given you more blessings in Christ Jesus than Jacob even knew how to contemplate. Jacob had to look at a herd of speckled goats and a flock of brown sheep and some camels and servants. With that, he had to be content, for this was the sign of God’s blessing. But you? You have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. You have had your redemption accomplished
by Jesus Christ who has died and risen again and ascended into heaven. These are not abstract things. These are gifts to you upon whom the ends of the ages have come. To have such assurance that your salvation is complete in Christ! To have such riches as only the risen Christ can dispense. And this redemption is applied to you already by the Holy Spirit of Christ who is a deposit, a down-payment on the inheritance that is yours in heaven. God has given you everything he could give you in his Son. Can you doubt that he will also freely with him give us all things, supplying all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus? Though we should be poor and naked and shivering and persecuted and despised, yet we have all things in Christ Jesus and shall be revealed as blessed above all at the last day.
Come then! Your journey is to heaven where your inheritance awaits. Let us make this journey as those who are confident in the surpassing value of the prize. Was Rachel foolish to bring her father’s idols on her journey? Of course! She had the testimony of Jacob that God would care for them, and don’t we have the testimony of God in Christ that he has cared for us completely and won’t fail to care for us until the end? Lay aside your idols; they are useless on this journey. What good is wealth? What use are the things that money can buy? What benefit is your own cleverness? You who trust in intellect are like Jacob waving speckled sticks before the goats. You suppose that you have been clever and thus got for yourself what you desire, but all that you have comes from God, and all you need has been given to you in Jesus Christ. Therefore put your trust in him alone and do not rely on your own abilities or on any earthly thing.
Let us cling to Christ and him only. He is our Bethel. He is our stairway to heaven. He is our wealth and our inheritance. He is our protector and the shield at our right hand He is all we need or can want or hope for, yes and he surpasses all that we can ask or think. Let us seek him and we shall be abundantly satisfied all the days of our life and so forevermore.
31ST October 2010 GEOFF THOMAS