Genesis 29:1-14 “Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well. Jacob asked the shepherds, ‘My brothers, where are you from?’ ‘We’re from Haran,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?’ ‘Yes, we know him,’ they answered. Then Jacob asked them, ‘Is he well?’ ‘Yes, he is,’ they said, ‘and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.’ ‘Look,’ he said, ‘the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture.’ ‘We can’t,’ they replied, ‘until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.’ While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father. As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, ‘You are my own flesh and blood.’”
Jacob at Bethel has seen a staircase going up to heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon it. There he’d met with Jehovah and heard his words of blessing and protection. Jacob had made a vow that henceforth the Lord would be his God. They were the first spiritual words he’d ever spoken. This following chapter begins with the words that “Jacob continued on his journey” (v.1). He did not stay at that sacred spot, rarely leaving the pillar he’d set up, living as John the Baptist later did, surviving in the desert on locusts and wild honey. There are precious places in our pilgrimage, but there will be precious places ahead of us too and we must move on. We have to keep going on. Let us run with patience the race that is set before us. We are all people on a pilgrimage. Jacob must find a wife in his mother’s family.
On and on Jacob walks purposefully and energetically to a place called Haran, a community on the other side of the great Euphrates river as it flows from the mountains of Turkey 1700 miles to join the Tigris and then empties into the Persian Gulf. Somewhere he had to cross that river. In those days there were no bridges, in fact the word ‘bridge’ is not found anywhere in the Bible. He would, I suppose, have taken a ferry across the river, but there’s not a reference to the Euphrates or to one single incident in Jacob’s journey – none whatsoever. The sights and sounds were for Jacob incidental to a higher calling, and so there was no blog. It was all routine and ordinary. The journey was necessary in order that he should get where God wanted him to be.
That is our life. If we are to do well in the Christian church we have to be dutiful in the unrecorded common things of congregational living. The journey for Jacob was long, uneventful, tiring and generally monotonous. It is essential that children quickly learn that much of their lives is going to consist of plodding on, doing their duties on the way, and that that is God’s plan for every Christian. The mundane tasks of each week are not a waste of time. They are not a waste of time at all. There will be occasional exciting moments, but they are exciting because of the fact that they are unusual. “If you fail in the mundane you will fail in the mighty. If you cannot do well in the common then you will not do well in the special” [John G. Butler].
The very next thing we are told in this opening verse is that Jacob arrived there, in “the land of the eastern peoples” (v.1). The 500 mile walkabout is all over. The book of Genesis is not a travelogue. Moses wants us to know how the covenant that God had made with Abraham and his line was going to be fulfilled in the next generation, through Isaac’s son Jacob who was still unmarried, who was on his way to find a prepared bride, that the line of promise, the seed of the woman, the Lord Christ, might come through them. Jacob is going to find his wife in the family of his uncle Laban, the two men never having met. The end of the journey is far more important than the journey itself. It is the very opposite philosophy to existentialism when all that matters is the flow. No. Life has a purpose; its goal has been designed for us all by the mighty Creator himself.
1. THREE THREADS WERE JOINED TOGETHER IN HARAN
There are three threads coming together in this passage.
i] There had been another meeting at a well. Abraham had sent his servant to find a wife for Jacob’s father, Isaac and the servant met her at a well. There were no cafes or public houses or shops in the fastness of those areas. People met at wells and that is where Abraham’s servant met Jacob’s mother Rebekah. She was strong, energetic and kind. She offered water to him and to his camels. Kindness and hospitality is a crucial grace especially during the patriarchal period. The proto-patriarch Abraham had also been hospitable in providing food and shelter for three travellers. Kindness was a mark of being an heir of the covenant. Abraham
’s servant, himself a man of prayer and faith, found a hospitable woman of faith, the chosen one who’d marry Abraham’s son. They would become the parents of the Promised Seed. That Promised Seed is the Lord Christ who would one day sit at a well in Samaria and he would speak to a women. She too would offered him water, but what does he have to offer her? Heavenly springs of water that can satisfy our souls for ever. He has everything that she needed. He was the Promised Seed. That is the big Scriptural context in which we’re to set Jacob’s arrival at the well in Haran, God’s control of people, bringing men and women together at places of refreshment like wells. We are not to admire loners and make them our heroes.
ii] There are great changes taking place in Jacob. The Hebrew of the opening words of this first verse actually say, “he lifted up his feet.” This is an interesting hint of the change that had taken place in this man. In other words, there is a new vitality about Jacob after Bethel. He now has an enthusiasm, a renewed strength and power. He’d got to Bethel, that lonely night, with a heavy burden and a rock for a pillow, but there, out of the blue, God had met with him, and Jacob left that place with a confident step, his burden was gone. There was no more dragging of his feet – remember how we are told that he was the brother who would hang around his home year after year. Now there is something of his twin in him as he walks along this lonely path before him, on the 500 mile journey to Haran. He has a vigour. See how he is able to move a great stone covering a well that a number of shepherds could not budge (v.10). He is going to marry and father twelve sons. He is fertile and healthy and energetic. He will even travel very far as an old man, going down to live in Egypt in north Africa. Once Jacob meets with the living God his whole future changes. If any man is in Christ Jesus he is a new creation; old things have passed away, all things have become new. He is now dealing with the Lord who would later come into the world in our Saviour Christ and tell his disciples that he had come that they might have life and have it more abundantly. One more strand:
iii] All that happens occurs by the providence of God. That is the overwhelming lesson that comes from the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s providence for Jacob guided him day be day for 500 lonely miles to the appointed place. Jacob meets some shepherds at a well, and he asks them, “‘Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?’ ‘Yes, we know him,’ they answered. Then Jacob asked them, ‘Is he well?’ ‘Yes, he is,’ they said, ‘and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep’” (vv.5&6). God led him into a tough school, to meet a pedagogue who turns out to be the perfect instrument for the maturing of Jacob, his uncle Laban. God also has provided in this place for him a wife whom he did not deserve, Rachel. God’s providence is both perfect and undeserved.
In our passage we see Jacob, the first day he arrives in Haran, walking towards a well to discover this is the very place to which his parents had sent him without a guide or a map. He has arrived in his uncle Laban’s territory, and this man has a daughter who is a shepherdess and – you can blow me down with a feather – the girl is here, actually walking up to him. What a confirmation of the providence of God in his life – even though he’s been a rotter. “Jehovah, the God of providence, is doing it again,” Jacob was thinking. He had heard hundreds of times from his mother how she’d met his father, how she had given water to the camels of Abraham’s servants at a well, and all that transpired from that day. “It is going to happen again,” thinks Jacob, “She must be the one God has chosen for me.” One could wish for Jacob to be a praying man as Abraham’s servant had been. He was a young Old Testament Christian. Perhaps he’d been converted in Bethel on this journey to Haran. He had been a true believer for just a couple of weeks, but God’s undeserved providence is already in operation in his life. Grace is keeping Jacob, and grace will take him home. The same God is at work in our lives. Loving, surprising patterns that we see and hear of in other Christians we begin to experience ourselves. There are times when a realization of this overwhelms us. “Can this be happening to me? This sort of thing happens to Christians I read about in books. Can this wonder be happening to me?” Jacob had been such a rogue and yet at a well he is watching a young woman, Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, walking towards him followed by a flock of sheep and he is thinking, “Am I dreaming? Is this for real?” So those three threads come together here, another meeting at a well, another young woman in his mother’s family and the gracious providence of God that had guided his grandfather and his father and now him. That is the large context in which this incident is to be set.
2. JACOB SHOWED NEW GRACES.
Jacob’s powers of observation are noted when he comes to this place. He takes everything in, a well in a field and some young shepherds. Three different flocks of sheep were lying down waiting to be watered but a large stone lay over the top of the well. “Ah, the shepherds will roll the stone away and water the sheep and then return the stone to its place.” This was to keep the dust storms from blowing sand in, and to prevent wild animals from fouling it or falling in. But perhaps also the stone asserted ownership by a big sheep rancher, that it took a number of hands to work together to remove the stone so that a man with a smallholding and a few sheep was stopped from getting to the water. “Get off my land,” the stone said. Jacob is all eyes as he surveys the scene. Before he opens his mouth he looks around. He can learn much from what he observes, but not everything. He doesn’t know why the men are waiting there at the well, or for whom these men are working.
We also can learn much from what we see. There is the great refrain through the book of Revelation with John saying about thirty times, “and I saw . . . and I saw . . .” That is where we begin. Look and listen at this service. Please notice. Do not suspend one of your God-created faculties when you are here. Take in as much as you can, and make wise observant judgments about the situation before you. Sometimes you will be wrong, maybe very wrong, but when you come to the Christian faith you are asked to think and look and see and hear and ask questions. There was a New Testament evangelist and deacon named Philip who went to a desert road and he saw a man of some substance with servants being driven in a chariot south towards Africa. He looked like a foreigner. Philip got nearer and saw that the man was holding a scroll in his hand and he was reading aloud. He got nearer still and he heard familiar Scriptures from Isaiah 53, then he came up to the man modestly and he asked his question, if the man was understanding what he was reading. That was the beginning of a life-changing relationship. It began with Philip looking and sussing out things. Again, on another occasion, Jesus was looking at a crowd of sick men and women sitting around a pool longing to be healed, and he questioned one invalid, “Do you want to get well?” The man gave a long reply explaining why he had never been healed at this place of healing and on and so on, but Jesus dealt with him and healed him in a moment. The change in the man started with a question being asked by Jesus; “Do you want to get well?” We don’t have to make statements to people. Jesus often asked questions, and he told stories. Make people think! Ask them questions. Interrogate! “What do you believe? What do you think is the purpose of life?” Whatever approach we take with people we do have to be kindly and interested in them especially when we’re aware that God in his providence has set this conversation up. We are Christ’s servants; we behave like our Lord.
Jacob takes everything in, and then he approaches the shepherds, “My brothers,” he says. This is the second time in the Bible you find such a greeting. There is nothing formal or correct about it. Here was a stranger approaching them. Why was he here? What did he want? “My brothers,” he says to them so affectionately. He doesn’t say, “Give me a drink” though he is as thirsty as a camel. Jacob had been a man with scores of servants, maybe hundreds of them, working under him. He told one to go and he went, another to come and he came. Here is the new Jacob, the post-Bethel Jacob, a humbler, meeker man saying to working men, “My brothers.” I watched the students of the Christian Union waiting on the platform of the railway station this week meeting two trains as they came in with new students and overseas students at the beginning of the academic year. They were smiling and holding posters up and wearing C.U. T-shirts welcoming people to Aberystwyth, offering help, transport and information. I heard Jonathan asking one traveler, “Are you a new student?” “I hope so,” he replied. “Do you need any help?” What a good witness, warm and friendly. Jacob sees some poor young shepherds and he says, “My brothers.” He has walked 500 miles and he is far from home but he doesn’t allow his weariness, hunger, thirst, home-sickness and loneliness make him feel self-pitying and so unable to be kindly and sweet to these men. He begins his visit to Haran with these working men. Jacob might like to have begun with the man at the top, with Laban, but he deals with the men God brings to him and he speaks graciously to them.
Jacob asks them a question. “Where are you from?” “Haran,” they say. He has traveled 500 miles alone on foot and finds himself at the very place he was looking for. “All the way Jehovah led me. Who can doubt his tender mercy who through life has been my guide?” Then Jacob had another question, “Do you know a man whose name is Laban?” He was asking about his mother’s brother, but he does not tell them that yet. “Oh, yes, we know him,” they say. Then another question, “Is he well?” Jacob didn’t know if he were still alive or still had power and influence in the land. “Oh yes, he’s fine . . . and here is his daughter Rachel coming with her sheep.” How extraordinary that he comes to the right place, and he meets the right people who know his family and from them he discovers he has a cousin called Rachel of marriageable age! It all happened that wonderful day at the climax of this long journey.
3. JACOB DISPLAYED HIS OWN GIFTS AND PERSONALITY.
This is still Jacob, you realise. This is the man whom we’ve been considering in the past weeks, the boss’s son, tenacious, single-minded, determined to get what he wants, a natural leader. All that is still there. At Bethel he has seen the staircase to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending, and the Lord has met him and spoken to him. He has certainly changed, but he has not changed into some nervous, religious milksop, all apologies and giggles! When you become a Christian you don’t lose your essential gifts and identity. You don’t become a person to whom nothing matters henceforth but religion. Paul did not lose his Jewishnes when he became a Christian. He still loved his people. You do not lose your Welshness when you are born again. Often we see our gifts and interests in a new light. We are no longer bound to them. They are no longer our lords, but now we want to use them morally, and to God’s glory. We’re no long slaves to our real ability to lead, or to make money, or to create, or to speak. We thank God for those gifts but we have given them to the Lord and the Lord has restored them to us as instruments of righteousness not as a rod driving us as slaves to them year after year.
So Jacob looks at the scene. There are some shepherds and they are doing nothing while for decades Jacob has been in charge of his many herds and shepherds. There is nothing he doesn’t know about sheep. Jacob was a good worker and he expected his men to work well too, and so he speaks to these men – whom he has met only ten minutes earlier – with authority. “‘Look,’ he said, ‘the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to the pasture’” (v.7). Here is the master shepherd speaking. He knows the tricks under-shepherds will play. They are all sitting around the well and chatting and the stone is covering the well. The sheep are neither eating grass nor drinking water here. What are they doing so early in the day bringing the sheep to water? They should be out on the pastures grazing. There is plenty of time for eating grass before they water them and gather them into a safe place for the night. If they are here then water them, but then take them back to pasture. Jacob is the efficient shepherd and he is pained to see bad shepherding, hours of daylight wasted like this. So he speaks with sudden authority. He has the gift and the wisdom and the leadership and it shows. That has not disappeared though conversion.
Christians today show their gifts and training don’t they? What they know they will speak about and act upon. They won’t become retiring nonentities. That is not what happens when God is at the centre of your lives. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was on a train on one occasion returning from a preaching engagement when in the compartment a man had a fit and lost consciousness. “He is having a heart-attack,” people said. “Pull the communication cord.” The passengers didn’t know what to do. “Don’t do anything,” Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, “The man is an epileptic and he is having an epileptic attack. He is sitting in a good position. In a few minutes he will be fine.” He spoke with authority and people settled down and soon the man regained consciousness and straightened out and apologized to them all for causing a disturbance. You have a gift; you have knowledge; you have some leadership and when you become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ those gifts will remain and they will be used by God for his church. You don’t know what parts of your past, your training, your special interest and qualifications are going to be used quite surprisingly in the future in the kingdom of God. You may think that a degree in medieval history does not have any usefulness in the church, but it is your responsibility to work at your studies with all of your might and then see how God will one day use that.
The men made their excuses; “‘We can’t,’ they replied, ‘until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep’” (v.8). They had a number of excuses for their idleness. They couldn’t roll away the stone by themselves – they seem to have been boy shepherds like young
David. They had an agreement that all the shepherds got together with their flocks and herds and then the stone was taken away and all the sheep were watered. This was a community agreement. So they just continued to sit and talk, and the sheep also sat and waited as the sun shone down on them. Then Rachel arrived with her flock, and the arrival of his cousin was more than enough for this strong man. Jacob had been there for less than an hour, but he was a man of leadership and was true to his character. He walked across to the well and he caught around the stone and he lifted it up and removed it from the well-top single-handed. Then he did not smirk and flex his muscles. He took the bucket and began to pour the water from the bucket into the troughs, and the sheep from Rachel’s herd gathered round as he filled bucket after bucket pouring it in until all the sheep were watered. Here was the coming together of the new Jacob and the old Jacob, the old Jacob with his physical strength and personal authority and leadership, the new Jacob, kindly to the men there and now taking a servant’s role and watering the flock of his uncle Laban.
When Abraham’s servant went seeking for a bride for Isaac his concern was that the girl he met would be a fit bride for Abraham’s son, and we know that Rebekah proved she was by her hospitality and humble hard work. Here the question is this, whether Jacob the cheat and the liar, is a fit husband for Rachel. Has God made the right choice? Or will God’s plans come to nothing because he’s chosen a greedy, no-good son of a gun? So the curtain is pulled aside and instead of describing the long walk of 500 miles, the mighty Euphrates and a hazardous ferry crossing and so on we are told that he arrived and watered the flock of Laban. We see a new kindliness and a servant’s heart in Jacob while still retaining the authority of the leader of the people of God. So God has transformed this man for the high calling that is to be his. So it is when you are called to Christian service. It is an insult to the grace of God to refuse because God will prepare you for that work. Moses can be a man complaining that he is unfit for the work when God calls him, and Jeremiah can say, “I don’t know how to speak; I am only a child” but God says, “Don’t say that because I am with you.” So it was with Jacob; the Lord had said to him too, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land” (Gen. 28:15). That is the reason for what happened here the first day he arrived in Haran. God has made Jacob a new creation and he is now loving his neighbour as himself, whether shepherds or a shepherdess. He gives water to Rachel just as her aunt had given water to his grandfather’s servant.
What is the explanation for this change in the new Jacob? Assurance that the living God of his father and grandfather was with him. Assurance that the inheritance was his, that Jehovah would not take from him what he had given to him. So now he could spend his life serving others. He did not need to be afraid that he would lose face or authority or influence because of doing the humblest tasks. When God commands an angel to do a dirty chore like clean the public toilets of a huge slum the angel doesn’t pause before he does it, and the angel does not become less of an angel because the work he does is so demeaning. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he did not become less of the God-man. So it was with Jacob, when he begins to devote himself to humble duties like watering the sheep we think, “What a wonderful change in this old cheat and liar. What a great man he is becoming!”
Isn’t that the greatest evidence of the reality that Jesus Christ’s heart and mind is in us? Not that we turn water into wine, or that the wind and waves obey us, but that our attitude is the same as Jehovah Jesus; “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phils 2:6-8). The mighty and powerful Jacob who can juggle boulders has become a picture of Christ. And the consequence is that this man – who only possesses the clothes he stands in and a little bag, a man with nothing material to offer – is brought into the household of the rich and mighty Laban. Rachel stands there agog as she looks at this giant figure of a man with his authority watering her sheep. The other shepherds – who were first in line but now have to wait until Rachel’s sheep are watered first – are looking on mutely at this dignified stranger humbly deals with the needs of the girl’s herd. Little did she know that the result of this unexpected meeting would be that they would marry, and she would become the mother of Joseph, the famous patriarch of the people of God and the prime minister of Egypt for many years. She’d been faithfully doing the most menial duty of looking after sheep every day of her life, but she did it as the daughter of her father, and one result is going to be that all over the world, 4000 years later, there are mothers who give their baby daughters the name ‘Rachel.’
4. JACOB INTRODUCED HIMSELF TO RACHEL.
i] Jacob meets Rachel. When Jacob saw Rachel he saw the daughter of the brother of his own mother. In most Bible versions that relationship, that she is the daughter of the brother of his own mother, is repeated three times in verse 10, but that is sadly not the case in the NIV. Why should the American translators have left that out here? Then, you do see when Jacob introduces himself to her he tells her again that he is “a son of Rebekah” (v.12). Jacob sees Rachel and immediately he thinks of the woman who has loved him throughout his life. Rachel reminded him of Rebekah. The emotions and the longings in his heart would not be surprising in this situation. He was a man of much feeling. Soon he will be in tears. He has travelled further and further from all that was dear to him and when he sees this girl, who probably had some physical likeness to her aunt, the memory of his dear mother is overwhelming. How precious our families are to us. How precious is home-sickness, though so painful. It says that we felt loved in that place.
Then we are told that having watered her sheep he went across to her and introduced himself (v.11). He kissed her – that would be on the cheek – it was not a smooch! He was also kissed by her father (v.13). Then Jacob sobbed. Was he even then falling in love with her? Could he see God’s hand in this first contact with her that was destined to lead to their marriage? Was it also simple relief at this long walk of meeting his family? Through his sobs he explained to her that he was her father’s nephew, the son of Rebekah, and she did what you would expect any child to do on such an occasion, she ran off and told Dad everything that had happened. This man would need hospitality; he would need to meet her father.
Again there was a sense of urgency in the home. Her father hurried to meet this strong stranger who had watered his herd of sheep, who claimed to be his nephew. Immediately he embraced him and he kissed him repeatedly (that is the force of the verb). “My dear sister’s son has come to visit us!”There was no suspicion. Laban brought him to his home immediately and when they were seated and refreshed &ldq
uo;Jacob told him all these things” (v.13). He made himself very vulnerable didn’t he? It wasn’t a pretty story. He had been a liar and deceiver, provoking his own father and his brother to anger. He was a cheat and now he was a renegade, and he kept nothing back. He didn’t deceive by saying, “Well, I thought it was time for me to meet my mother’s family.” No. “Jacob told him all these things” (v.13). He needed to do this because he was a total stranger. He needed to share information that would show he was not an imposter. He alone knew what his mother had told him of her life with her brother as a little girl. He also needed to tell him of his recent experience of God, of the staircase and the angels and the Lord who had come and made himself known to him, and the reality of his new faith. There were other things he wanted to tell his uncle which were all part of this new man Jacob, this post-Bethel man, who now hates deceit and falsehood, and so he shares with uncle Laban his conduct, his lying, and his repentance, and so he puts himself under the power of Laban. We don’t have to do that as Christians. There is no need for you to tell people the unpleasant details of your past. Take them to God. Confess them to him, and he will do a wonderful thing with them, cover them and forgive them. Love covers a multitude of sins, but Jacob is a baby Christian and he feels he has to tell Laban all about his past, and Laban sadly will take advantage of it because Jacob is there to stay. But Laban’s initial response is brotherly; “You are my own flesh and blood” (v.14). It’s an echo of Adam’s first words when God made Eve and brought her to him. Here in Laban’s home there was trust and acceptance; there was warmth and generous hospitality. “My brother! Come and welcome!” It is the acceptance that we also want, and what we must all give as believers.
26th September 2010 GEOFF THOMAS