Genesis 31:30-42 “‘Why did you steal my gods?’ Jacob answered Laban, ‘I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.’ Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two maidservants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing. Rachel said to her father, ‘Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.’ So he searched but could not find the household gods. Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. ‘What is my crime?’ he asked Laban. ‘What sin have I committed that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us. I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.’”

Jacob has fled without warning from the home of his father-in-law Laban. The old man was away sheep-shearing, and Jacob took this opportunity in agreement with his family to pull up the stakes and tent poles, pack up the tents, and leave for his old home in Canaan with his wives, concubines, servants, flocks and herds. His wife Rachel has stolen Laban’s household gods though Jacob knows nothing of this. He was returning to his own family after twenty years of absence, going back to face the music for shabbily treating his brother Esau as he’d done. But when Laban heard the news he gathered a posse of his family together and they rode off in hot pursuit after him, catching up with Jacob in the hill country of Gilead, hundreds of miles away. But during the night before Laban was to encounter Jacob the Lord appeared to Laban and told him to take care. God firmly told him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (v.24). But though Laban was too proud a man to slink off home empty-handed, or even not give Jacob a piece of his mind, he would not harm Jacob or his family. In fact he told Jacob exactly what the God of Jacob and his fathers had told him, “Be careful.” God was with Jacob in the hill country of Gilead as he had promised. God has access to the one man in the world whom Jacob feared and he’d told him, “Take care when you deal with my servant Jacob.” Jacob should now have been on a high, able to look Laban right in the eye, utterly unintimidated. He hears Laban’s outburst as he protests at Jacob’s flight, demanding answers from him: “What have you done? . . . Why did you run off? . . . Why didn’t you tell me? . . . Why did you steal my gods?” (vv.26, 27, 30). In the text above Laban says nothing more. He searches for the stolen household gods, and Jacob defends himself.



What have you done . . . why . . .why . . . why?” And Jacob answers with three words, “I was afraid” (v.31). He was afraid that he would lose Rachel and Leah; both daughters who were his wives are referred to, and so there is some evidence of a growing affection for Leah. Jacob feared Laban would take his daughters back from him by force, and Jacob had grounds to believe in that possibility. Laban was a man with few principles, a liar and a cruel man. But when we deal with such men we are exhorted not to be afraid. Proverbs chapter 21 and its opening verse says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” The name ‘Aberystwyth’ means the mouth of the Ystwyth river, and where does that river enter the sea? It enters on the south side of the harbour. It did not always enter the sea there. It entered about half a mile further south in the middle of Tanybwlch beach, but then half way through the 19th century a watercourse was dug which took the river Ystwyth north for its last half a mile to flow into the harbour, in fact meeting with the river Rheidol so that the two rivers would together keep the harbour entrance from silting up. A gang of navvies, merely equipped with spades, horses and carts, was able to turn the watercourse of a river like the Ystwyth. The writer of the Proverbs tells us that God is able to turn the heart of king, to direct it, just like a watercourse can be turned, wherever the Lord pleases. He can harden Pharaoh’s heart and he can break Pharaoh’s heart so that he lets God’s people go. He can direct Cyrus’ heart so that that mighty emperor of Babylon decides that the children of Israel can return to Jerusalem. He can direct Hitler’s heart so that he decides not to send the armies of the Third Reich to destroy the retreating British army at Dunkirk. They lived to fight another day and to help defeat fascism.

As Christians we may be nervous in the c
ompany of powerful people, and we have to remind ourselves of the One who has the hearts of these men and women in his hand. When Brownlow North was converted at 45 from a life of hunting and fishing as one of the aristocracy he felt an increasing burden to tell the gospel to others. He never found this easy, especially to the gentry, those whom once he had shot grouse with or raced on horseback against. There was once a gentleman traveling on a train with him and Brownlow North took half an hour before he had enough courage to offer him some literature. Again, he was crossing to Tayport on a steamer and he saw a group of gentlemen talking animatedly together and he knew he should go across and give them some literature, but he was afraid. His biographer says, “This went on for some time, but at last the feeling that it might be a matter of eternal life or death gained the victory, and approaching them he offered each of them a tract, which was accepted quite politely, and he found that some of the company had recognized him, and would rather have been surprised if he had remained quiet” (K. Moody-Stuart, Brownlow North, Banner of Truth, 1961, p.34). Their hearts were in the hand of the Lord, and he prepared them to receive and read the literature that Brownlow North offered them.

Laban’s heart was in the hands of the God of Jacob, the Lord who was on Jacob’s side to protect him. It is Laban who should have said to Jacob, “I am afraid,” because this mighty God had spoken to him that night, “Take care . . .” while he’d spoken to Jacob and promised him, “Go back to the land of your fathers . . . and I will be with you” (v.3). Then why should Jacob fear? The Lord of hosts was with him. The God of Jacob was his refuge. Why should we fear? Let Jacob entrust himself fully to the promises of God! His fears were sinful fears. God had promised to protect him all the way home. Let not your hearts be troubled. Why should Jacob be surprised when his monstrous father-in-law told him that Jacob’s God had appeared to him and told him, “Take care!”?

God had appeared wonderfully and convincingly at Bethel to Jacob revealing a staircase joining heaven to earth, and there the Lord had made great promises to Jacob. Of course God could have appeared much more gloriously to Jacob than that. He could have orchestrated the creation and all the angelic hosts to have displayed – along with a view of God himself – his shekinah splendour. Wave after wave of glory could have come crashing down on Bethel while Jacob trembled. What glorious views of himself the Lord gave to Moses and to Isaiah and to Ezekiel and to Daniel, but God cannot appear more wonderfully and convincingly to you than he already has! You have seen the incarnate God! You have seen him walking on water. You have seen him casting out demons, and healing every sickness and raising the dead. You have seen him speak to the winds and waves and they obeyed him. You have seen 5,000 men fed with five loaves and two fishes. You have heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount. You have heard his discourse in the Upper Room. You have seen Jehovah Jesus hanging on a cross as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. You have heard him cry, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do . . . It is finished!” You have seen him risen from the dead. You have seen the empty tomb and the grave-clothes lying there. You have watched him walking with pierced feet on the dusty road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his friend. You have seen him talking with the eleven in the Upper Room and feeding the disciples at the side of the lake with fish that he had cooked. He ate with them, matching them mouthful by mouthful, swallow by swallow. You have heard him recommissioning fallen Peter. You have seen him ascend to heaven. You have seen the pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost the cloven tongues as of fire resting on them, the sound of the rushing mighty wind and their speaking in foreign languages – you have seen and heard all that glory.

What sight have you lacked of God incarnate? Your hands have handled him, the Word of life that was with the Father and has appeared to us. What more do you want? Another Sermon on the Mount? Another rising of the dead? Another discourse in the Upper Room? Another Jesus? I say God cannot appear more convincingly and gloriously and wonderfully than he has appeared to us in the Lord Christ, the only begotten Son of God. They took note of them that they had been with Jesus. Then what can mere man do to you? No one can harm someone who seeks to follow Christ. And even if you follow him through suffering to death itself will he not raise you up to everlasting life, just as Christ ascended to glory? Follow him without fear, though the earth be removed and the mountains fall into the midst of the seas, though all the inhabitants of the pit should arm themselves and attack you, this Jesus Christ is mightier than them all.

“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.” [Martin Luther]

Do not fear. Christ has conquered Satan. Also the hearts of the mightiest men in the world – all the atheistic hegemony – are all in the Lord’s mighty hand for him to turn as he will. Jacob, I say, had no cause to fear Laban and all his posse.



[Now I am going to use some fascinating exegesis of Bill Baldwin. This is a crib! And I am thankful to God for Bill’s work. I have tinkered with it but these are his insights and I am grateful.]

See how Jacob responds to Laban’s final accusation that he had stolen his household gods. Jacob protests his innocence, even adding, “But anyone who has your gods, he shall not live” (v.32). And so, utterly unwittingly, Jacob pronounces a death sentence against . . . Rachel – Rachel! His beloved bride. Rachel. She is the one who has brought sin into the camp. Rachel, who clings to the old world even as she is being brought into the new. Rachel, who trusts in the old gods even when God himself is with her through her husband. Without knowing it, Jacob also speaks prophetically; Rachel will soon die in the promised land, bearing him Benjamin, his twelth son.

So Jacob readily agrees to submit to Laban’s investigation. He sets his own righteousness before his uncle, saying in effect, “I can withstand your closest scrutiny.” It is as though he has told the devil, ‘Come and accuse me if you dare! I’m clean.’ Jacob is proclaiming his own merit. “Come! O accuser, and point out my guilt. Come and show me where any unrighteousness lies!” Oh the irony of this situation! “Oh Jacob, you fool!” He actually thinks himself righteous! He actually thinks he can survive investigation. How confident he is in his ignorance: “there’s no sin in this household.” Which of us would be foolhardy enough to say that? “My wife blameless, my husband without sin, my children al
l holy”? None of us would dare to claim such perfection. We know our own hearts; we know our households need mercy. Moses rubs it in: “Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods” (v.32). There are husbands here tonight and they don’t know the sins of their wives, and there are wives here who don’t know the sins of their husbands, and I hope it will ever be so. If God has veiled it from them then who are you or who am I to tear such a veil down? We simply acknowledge that every marriage here needs grace to survive and flourish.

So Jacob has the vast confidence that ignorance gives. He speaks as one for whom Rachel can say or do nothing wrong. Are you not the same, men and women? A little grace from God, a little prospering of your way, and you know what happens, and boasting starts to rise. You forget your former sins and you declare how righteous you are. You forget that the one you love the most also needs mercy from God. You do not consider how there may be hidden sin within your own household, within yourself even, which cannot withstand investigation. Don’t be foolish. The LORD, he is your righteousness! The Lord alone! Put your trust in nothing else. Jacob thinks his household is completely righteous so he even welcomes a trial. He agrees to submit to Laban’s judgment because he thinks he can withstand it. There is no unrighteousness in his house! And we who are in the know wince and bite our nails.

So Laban investigated. He went into Jacob’s tent and lifted the carpet, and checked under the bed and opened the saddle bags. He did the same in Leah’s tent, and then in the tents of the two maids, but he did not find the household gods at all. The tension mounts. We know where those idols are hidden. We know whose tent is the place of sin in the camp. So Laban left Leah’s tent and went into the tent of her younger sister Rachel. Had she been in a panic? Where could she hide the stolen idols? She had put them in a saddle bag but that was an obvious place for Laban to look. So what does she do? She sits on them; she covers the bag with her body and her clothing. Laban searches everywhere in the tent and he doesn’t find the gods. They are in Rachel’s saddle bag and she’s sitting on top of them. He is there zeroing in on the culprit, scrutinizing her for the evidence of her sin. We bite our nails some more, and then it comes . . . the moment of truth (v.35); Laban is finally confronted by Rachel herself, having eliminated every other suspect, as she sits in the middle of the tent, in the middle of the camp, sitting on her sin which is also Jacob’s sin, though he is ignorant of it. Middle-eastern etiquette required her at this point to rise before her father out of respect. Rachel declined. She refused to get up, but she apologized, saying, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence;” and so far so good, but she has to hide the stolen gods from him. If he finds them he will demand her life; he is that sort of man. Sentiment has no place in his life. Then this is what she chooses to say, and it is agonizing to read because it is feminine and personal and private and we prefer for public reading the Authorized Version, “the way of women is upon me.” But we may not for Rachel does not drop a delicate hint at her condition; she uses the same language that is found a dozen times in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere in the Scriptures, saying bluntly to her father, “I’m having my period,” (v.35). It is a conversation stopper. She hits her father between the eyes with that, and that was the last word. There is a silence, a final peremptory look around, and out he goes. She pleads that it’s that time of the month, and thus excuses herself from standing and revealing the bag with the household idols.

We don’t know whether she is being truthful or not – though that is incidental. Her refusing to stand was not because of the time of the month but because she was a thief. Laban does not dare investigate his daughter’s words and leaves. If she were telling the truth, she was using her period to hide her theft of gods. But more; what she’s sitting on is a bundle of menstrual rags. Do you get the picture here? She is sitting on the idols, bleeding (or claiming to bleed). The Israelites who originally heard this story would surely remember the book of Leviticus and God teaching them in this their early dispensation of childhood in following the Lord that they needed to be his holy people. One of the ways he did that was by making distinctions between what is clean and what is unclean. Animals were clean or unclean; foods were clean or unclean; a living body was clean; a corpse was unclean. Some kind of blood was clean and other types of blood were unclean and anyone who touched that became unclean. Elementary distinctions between things holy and unholy to emphasize that in everything they did the Lord’s people were to be holy in everything.

What was God doing? He was instructing Israel on their identity in Jacob. Through the writings of Moses he was saying to these people, “Here you are, oh Israel, declaring your own righteousness, when I know that in your midst you tolerate idols, golden calves and baals covered with unclean blood! Seek a better identity, Israel! Seek a cleaner blood a more wonderful cleansing blood that can wash away all unrighteousness.” These gods that she’d picked up, stolen and hidden were supposed to protect her. That is why she’d taken them, but God allowed her to steal them in order to humiliate them! What pathetic gods they were. They couldn’t save themselves. They couldn’t bring judgment on their own thieves. They couldn’t cry out to those who trusted in them, “We are here! Deliver us!” Far from them protecting her she had to protect them; she was sitting on them during her period, on top of those gods! These supposedly sacred objects are putrid, unclean, and revolting idols.

This is what God thinks of those gods. You can walk off with those gods; you can sit on them at this time of the month and they are unclean, repulsive objects. They are less than nothing in God’s sight. They are unclean and to be utterly rejected. Nothing can make them clean again. They are covered in uncleanness. Destroy them. Heat the fire under the cooking pot with them. They are the objects of God’s wrath and revulsion. This is what God thinks of multi-faith. This is what God thinks of loving this world and the things of the world. Remember what the idols stand for? Do you? Rachel is being invited into the promised land, into the presence of God, Jehovah, the God of her husband and his father Isaac, and his father Abraham. For this she ought willingly to give up her family and her possessions. She ought to forsake all that she has if only she might gain this pearl of great price. And yet even as she embarks on the journey, she clings to the world she is leaving behind. Her treasure is not fully laid up in the world that is ahead. Now God tells us what he thinks of all that – it is pure filth, an unclean stench in his sight. “Forsake the world and all its idols!” this passage cries out to you across the centuries. Lay up your treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Forget what is behind and press on toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand. How many different ways must God say this to us before our sluggish faith is aroused and we fling from us all that we have loved in this world and seek only the world that is to come? You will always remember this picture of this woman at this time of the month, sittin
g on top of the gods of Haran; the household deities of Laban are under her bottom! This picture is what God thinks of trusting in something other than him.

Why did Rachel bring them? Insurance! Because she thought they could protect her. Instead, as we have observed, she has to protect them, and at the same time she renders them unclean, objects of revulsion. This is what God thinks of you trusting in yourself. The idols are a symbol for boasting, vain boasting that you can provide for yourself, that you can obtain some carved figures that you might have made, or had made, or bought at a price, and that they will enable you to get by without the provision of Jehovah God. This is why Laban wants them back. He trusts them more than the God of Jacob. The God of Jacob has prospered Jacob and Laban has seen that. The God of Jacob has appeared to him as Jacob’s protector. He can’t deny that. So does he throw in his lot with the God of Jacob? No! He wants his unclean filthy idols back. Oh men and women, don’t we often trust in that which is not God? This is what God thinks of behaving like that. You trust in your wealth or your cleverness or your reputation. You are trusting in your righteousness in comparison with others’ unrighteousness instead of in comparison with God’s holiness. Rachel sitting on these gods is what the one true and living God thinks of trusting in the things of this world. What a picture of what God thinks of trusting in your own righteousness. All your righteousnesses are like menstrual rags, Isaiah tells us. Let all such trust and all such righteousness be revealed here for what it is, filthy and stinking. Throw it away! Cast it from you. It does not deserve to be examined; it must be discarded at once. Trust in God alone! He alone is holy. Cling to Christ alone! He alone is pure!



Laban’s search for his stolen gods was as fruitless as the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So, thinking he’d been vindicated as righteous, Jacob really lays into Laban. “So what is my offense? What is my sin? Show it to me. Spread it out in front
of all”
(vv. 36&37). Jacob is thoughtlessly ignorant of the answers to these questions, and so is Laban. But we’re not. We know about Jacob and we know about Rachel, and so we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Jacob has actually survived Laban’s inspection, through Rachel’s immodest cunning. It wasn’t very difficult was it? It’s not very difficult to sin, to shop-lift, or fiddle your income tax forms, or pick something up when no one is looking, or tell lies and get away with it. Sin has made us experts in doing those things. It is not difficult to deceive me or you, but what about the last day when God will judge the secrets of men’s hearts? In that day what is spoken in the dark will be proclaimed in the light and what is whispered in the ear will be shouted from the housetops. Jacob had better have a better plea than this defence when that day comes. His plea had better not be, “What is my crime? What sin have I committed . . . what have you found? . . . put it here” (vv. 36&37). No Jacob, don’t talk like that! If Laban can’t tell him, God certainly can and will. All things are naked and opened before the eyes of him with whom we have to deal.

Here is the question: please hear me; he that hath ears to hear let him hear; what was Christ’s offense? What was Christ’s sin? Why did he suffer on the tree? Do you know that? Knowing that and pleading that is salvation. It is all our hope. The sinless one died bearing our sins. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. This is our only plea. Ignorant of the sinfulness of his sins, Jacob self-righteously attacks Laban. “Look at how good I’ve been and how bad you are,” he cries. “Your goats and sheep haven’t miscarried for twenty years” (as though that was Jacob’s righteousness rather than the grace of God). “I haven’t eaten your rams. That which was torn by wild beasts or stolen, I bore the loss myself; I slaved away for you -14 years for your daughters, 6 for the flocks around us today, while you have cheated and deceived me again and again.” He can tell Laban this because God is preventing any physical retaliation from Laban. Is Jacob forgetting that he himself has been a cheater and a deceiver? He cheated Esau out of the blessing. He deceived his father into giving it to him rather than Esau. Yet this son of a gun now self-righteously accuses another and claims that he himself is blameless.

It is a mixed moment. I mean, we are glad Jacob is protected from the tyrant Laban, but uneasy about his argument. He is an unrighteous accuser and he doesn’t even know it.

Why doesn’t he acknowledge that he himself is sinful and his righteousness is with God?

Why don’t we confess our sin before God? There were two men in the temple praying, and one was boasting how good he was and the other was hanging his head and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Which one reminds you of Jacob here? It is the Pharisee, and yet Jesus said that the man walking out of the Temple feeling his sin and humbly seeking mercy from God was justified.

This is how sinners judge themselves and one another, so self-righteously, putting themselves always in the best light but keen to spot the speck of dust in the eye of another. But they have a plank of wood in their own eye. They judge one another according to their own standard or measure, and who is their favorite standard? Themselves! “I would never do such a thing as she does,” someone proclaims. “I’d never allow that to happen in my family . . . If I were in that situation, I would respond like this . . .” Fools! Like Jacob we are fools! Why doesn’t Jacob say, “Laban we are sinners you and I. But God has been gracious to me. Come with me to seek him that he may be gracious to you as well.” Let us recognize Jacob’s folly and learn from it and walk away. Having our righteousness fully in Christ, let’s never judge one another except according to the grace of God which has been shown to us in him. How often we boast to the world of what we’ve got and what we’ve done when it’s only by the grace of God that we’re not in hell this moment. Only by the grace of God is anything we’ve done in any way been blessed. ‘Boasting’s excluded, and pride I abase; I’m only a sinner saved by grace.’

Finally Jacob rejects any alliance with Laban. In a sense, his trust is now in God. He says, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed.” (v.42). Yes, he is seeing more clearly his debt to God and we thank God for that, but it is still not clearly enough. He is missing part of the point, a crucial part, because he goes on again to speak of his works: “But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you” (v.42). He doesn’t say, my righteousness is with God; therefore God has rebuked you, he says, “because of my righteous deeds God has rebuked you.” What had happened that previous night? Laban had accused Jacob of being a thief and was proved to be wrong. So, Jacob is claiming, God was rebuking Laban for accusing Jacob of sin. What did that mean for Jacob? “God has been vindicating me because I am righteous,” Jacob claims. “My
righteousness has answered for me because you grudgingly discovered that there was no sin in my camp. Your stolen gods are not here.” Jacob still doesn’t know what his wife is sitting on, and so he misses the point. Jacob conveniently ignores his own past sins, so he misses the point. Feeling that his own righteousness has been vindicated, he points his finger at Laban. “Therefore you are inexcusable, oh man, whoever you are, who judge. For you practice the same things.” So Jacob testifies of his righteousness against Laban and this only reveals his own inexcusableness. God has not vindicated Jacob because of his hardship and the toil of his hands. God has justified him in spite of his sin.

Don’t miss the point. God never protected Jacob and Rachel because of their righteousnesses but in spite of their lies and deceit. And so it is with all of us as well.

We too were filthy before God and like Jacob we also were too ignorant to realize it. We thought we were righteous or at least righteous enough in comparison with the Labans of the world. Little did we know that lurking within us was a depravity so total that we opposed and despised God with every fiber of our beings. There, in the middle of the camp of our heart, was an object of horror and disgust. We were as sickening in God’s sight as menstrual rags.

Who can make such a thing clean? Only Jesus Christ and him crucified. He became an object of horror, covered in blood that you might become an object of beauty, clothed in his righteousness. And now there is a different kind of blood at work in your hearts, a cleansing, purifying, powerful blood. In this blood all your sins are washed away. In this red blood, your garments do not become stained but are made as white as snow. Here is no unclean blood, but the cleanest of the clean. His blood can make the foulest clean. His blood avails for you. Here is grace, pure grace from heaven. Here is no justification because we are righteous (because none of us is). Here is justification because Christ is righteous (Look! He has been raised again and has even ascended into the Most Holy Place, into heaven itself where he sits at God’s right hand. There is your righteousness). Throw away your idols, all your love for this world, all your trust in what you can do for yourself and come to God by faith in Christ alone. He is pure. He is righteous. He is beautiful and perfect and complete, and in him, so are you.

21st November 2010 GEOFF THOMAS