Genesis 31:1-21 – On the Move

Jacob and Laban by Jean Restout
Jacob and Laban by French artist Jean Restout (1692-1768)

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 toward 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.”

So, Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 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. So, God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

“In breeding season, I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”

Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So, he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead. (NIV)

Moving and changing are inevitable. Change and movement are built into all creation, from the seasons of the year to our physical bodies. Some changes and moves we deem as good, and others, not so much. Yet, whether good or bad, any switch or shift in life can be difficult to cope with.

Whatever the circumstance, God stands behind everything, working out his purposes. There are times and seasons in our lives in which we can get lost in our own stories. Ultimately, however, our transitions from one place to another are much more about our individual stories fitting into the larger story of God. Whenever we are unable to see how our own story and the story of God fit together, it is an opportunity to exercise our faith and trust God. Listening to God and responding to his call to move and change will at times be difficult due to the uncertainty of our future.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob has served his father-in-law Laban for twenty years. Now, he hears the call of God to move. The principal actor and center of the story is not Jacob, but God.  The primary point of the narrative is a revelation of who God is, with Jacob as the supporting actor in the story. God was watching over and protecting Jacob. The Lord was following through on his promise given to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to go to the land he would show him – to make Abraham into a great nation so that all people-groups on earth would be blessed through him.  So, this story of Jacob is one piece in the unfolding drama of God’s redemption which would ultimately find its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

Jacob had in-law issues. His relationship with his father-in-law was morphing into trouble. Laban’s attitude had changed toward his son-in-law, probably due to Jacob’s increasing wealth, and Laban’s decreasing assets. So, God showed up and told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Along with the call to make a change came a promise of God’s continued presence with Jacob. The grace given to Abraham when calling him out of Ur was renewed with more grace when calling Jacob back to the land of his father and grandfather.  It is in God’s nature to be gracious and to heap grace upon grace.

Jacob Fleeing Laban by Filippo Lauri
Jacob Fleeing Laban by Italian painter Filippo Lauri (1623-1694)

Jacob heeded call of the Lord and began laying plans to move back to Canaan. But how to tell his family about this? What are his wives going to say? After all, he is talking about moving away with kids and teenagers still in the tent. So, with some anxiety, Jacob called his wives, Rachel and Leah, out to the fields to talk.  Jacob laid out the story of himself and Laban, which he framed more as a contrasting story between God and Laban:

Laban’s attitude changed – God’s attitude does not change. God is not fickle.

Laban was unreliable, reneging on promises – God is reliable and trustworthy, keeping his promises.

Laban kept changing his mind – God stays the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Laban saw only self-interest – God sees everyone and shows solidarity with the oppressed.

This same God is concerned for us and will not renege on his promises. God is providentially working out his agenda and concern for this earth, and we can bank on it.

The response from Jacob and Rachel to Laban was some tricky thievery. Jacob stealthily took his family and ran away from the situation. Rachel straight up stole Laban’s household gods. (Note: Old Testament narratives do not usually tell us whether something is bad or good but instead lets the story unfold and speak for itself so that we can see the ethics working itself out).  Jacob and Rachel had a less than stellar response to God’s grace. We do not know exactly what the household gods are, or why Rachel stole them. What we do know is that there was a bit of pagan practice mixed in with worship of the one, true God.

God wants to be our everything – the faithful, gracious, and present God – because God is good all the time. Our circumstances will forever be changing, and God may ask us to move and go do something somewhere else. Yet, no matter the situation and how different our surroundings may become, God does not change, and he is here with us; and, at the same time, is continually moving to accomplish his purposes.

Loving God, you have made the whole of human life in your image; each one of us shaped in love. Your goodness is ever-present within us all. Yet, there is so much evil and pain in our world; it comes at us from every direction. Teach us how to rediscover your love within us and to use that love as a force for good. Help us to turn our hearts toward the world in hope, praying for each other and regarding each other as a treasure. Join us all together in prayer so that we might be the light which darkness can never overcome, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God in the Present-Tense

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”  –Isaiah 43:19
            It is easy for people to get stuck in the past.  One of the problems the Israelites had was that they did not know how to grieve well.  They kept looking back to a golden age when they came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land.  And when things began to break down in Israel and in Judah, they kept looking back instead of dealing with God in the present.  Rather than lamenting their losses, they just wished things were different.  When any church or any believer refuses to do the biblical work of grieving a significant loss or change, then the ghosts of the past roam everywhere.
No one can effectively move on into the future unless they confront the stark reality that things have changed and can never be the same again.
            They can, in fact, be even better, but that will not happen apart from doing the hard work of identifying our denial of the way things presently are, dealing with our anger, stopping the bargaining with God, defeating the depression, and coming out the other end accepting the new reality.  The Israelites were in exile.  It was not their new normal.  It was their present station of history.  God was ready to take them back to Jerusalem, but they were stuck in depression.  Jerusalem would never be the same city again, and they had to resolve to accept it.  But acceptance is not cheap; it takes a difficult journey to get to that point.
The healthy way to view the past is to see ancient miracles like the exodus be re-enacted in fresh ways for the present. 
When churches and Christians no longer experience God in creative, new, and fresh ways in the present, they are limited by their memories of what God once did back there in the past.  If we keep talking about the same things in the same ways, telling the same stories, we portray a God to others who is not present to us in the here and now.  It is time we talk about the God we know today.  If we only live off past experiences with God, we will be unable to connect with God today.  We need to tell present-tense stories of God.  When God is sealed in the past he becomes just an interesting person to be theologically studied and learned about, like any character from history.  But today God is alive!  Now, in the present, God wants to do a new thing!
            God is most definitely changeless is his character and attributes.  But that does not mean God is not into change and doing new things.  In fact, God’s work is to effect transformation in the lives of people who need redemption and new life. 
What kind of picture about God are we painting for people? 
That God is boring, lifeless, careless, or uninteresting?  The proof that something is alive is that it grows, develops, changes, and matures.  The new plants in our gardens and fields are undergoing astonishing growth and development.  What they are like now is quite different than what they will look like in August and even different than October.
            To simply state the matter:  new, different, creative, exciting things need to happen in the church today in the present.  As long as those things do not happen in the church, people will believe that God is dead or just does not care, that is, if he exists at all.  Because God is alive and works in the present, Christ’s church is to be alive with spiritual momentum, biblical drive, and Christian proactive love.
If we are continually underwhelmed by church, we will not be overwhelmed by God. 
When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of God.  We see a Savior who walks on water, raises the dead, and amazes the crowds.  Christ’s unpredictability led many to have a new and more accurate picture of God.  Jesus came to reveal who God is, to give us a good picture of him (John 14:8-14).
            Through his life on earth, Jesus revealed to us a God who is compelling, powerful, relevant, passionate, unpredictable, exciting, personal and present to his people right now this very day by means of the Holy Spirit.  The church everywhere has been given the assignment to reveal God to the world.  So, whenever the church seems boring, irrelevant, powerless, lifeless, and stuck in the past, people conclude that God is all those things.  When the church becomes like a stagnant pond it portrays the wrong image of God to the world.  What the world needs, and we believers must have, are churches that allow the awesome God who is gracious and powerful to stand out and be present to us all. 
To be present to God is to be alive to the possibilities that God’s Spirit wants to effect in the present. 


May it be so, to the glory of Jesus our present and eternal King.