Genesis 31:22-42 – On the Run

Jacob and Laban by Nicola Grassi
Jacob and Laban by Italian painter Nicola Grassi (1682-1748)

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrel and harp? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But 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, that person 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 female servants, 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. “How have I wronged you 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.” (NIV)

Jacob’s in-law issues did not magically disappear when he sneaked out of town with his entire family. I am glad God is faithful and acts on our behalf even when we are fearful with little faith. Far too often we do the right thing in the wrong way. It is far too easy to run away from people we don’t like. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Sometimes we plain need divine intervention to deal with people in our lives.

To Jacob’s credit, he obeyed God and headed back to the land of Canaan. However, he did it in a deceitful way which avoided confrontation. Out of fear of facing his father-in-law Laban and the worry of what might happen, Jacob got out of Dodge. It seems Jacob’s wife Rachel also acted out of fear by taking her father’s idols. Fear can cause us to have some skewed ideas and do some stupid things which get us in trouble.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” –Jerry Seinfeld

Laban found out what was going on with Jacob and was anything but a happy camper. He went after the upstart Jacob with gusto and finally caught up to him. Despite having the power and ability to deal severely with Jacob, Laban backs off because Jacob finally found his voice and took his father-in-law to task. Embedded in Jacob’s rehearsal of their relationship is the God who intervened and took care of Jacob when Laban didn’t.

Jacob Confront Laban by Jan Steen, 1669
Jacob Confronts Laban by Dutch painter Jan Steen, 1669

The lengthy dialogue between Jacob and Laban was a power struggle: Laban wanted to keep the status quo authority as family head over Jacob’s family; but Jacob asserted himself as having his own distinct household.  In the end, they ended-up on equal footing because of God’s intervention.  Whereas Laban had his own intentions for Jacob and his family, God had other plans.  It was God who enriched Jacob with a wealth of flocks and herds, even as he was being oppressed and intimidated by Laban.

The same God, who was with Jacob, is with you and me:

  • God is with us through difficulty, oppression, and injustice.

Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20, CEB)

  • God does not give up on his people. We Christians are often living contradictions, like Jacob, who acknowledge God and give him glory but at the same time act out of fear and insecurity. Out of the compost of human sin, the sovereign God accomplishes his will.

Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us… while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:6, 8, ERV)

  • God cares both about what we do, and about why and how we do it. Ethics is the difference between morality and legality; and, between what I ought to do, and what is required of me. Jacob did what was demanded of him by God; yet, he did it out of fear along with unwise methods.

Anything that is not done in faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b, GW)

  • God’s intervention is needed. Without divine help, we are hopelessly lost. Furthermore, we continue to need God so we can deal with the unpredictable attempts of others to control us and push us into a mold outside of trusting in God.

Give all your worries to God because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NCV)

  • God instills confidence in us. After twenty hard years of service, Jacob returned to the land of Canaan prosperous and more confident in God than ever. Jacob’s trials with Laban gave him a growing sense of dependence on God. Jacob struggled, suffered, and endured – and came out the stronger for it.

You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4, NRSV)

God loves us enough to not always give us an easy out because he is concerned for our walk of faith and our education in grace. So, may you discover the intervening God and exercise trust through those times when others give you a hard time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.  –The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951

Genesis 32:22-31 – A Crippling Grace

Welcome, friends! Simply click on the video below and let us gather around God’s Word.

You can also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

For today’s Old Testament story set to song, click Wrestle with God from the Church in Ireland; and, Jacob’s Song sung by Gabrielle Ariana.

May the Lord bless you
    and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
    and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
    and give you his peace.  Amen.

A Crippling Grace

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Karen Laub-Novak
Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Karen Laub-Novak (1937-2009)

Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first solo pastorate.  In the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off. I had not even been there for two months!  Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling.  In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God.  He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control.  Since that time, I walk with a limp that is not visible – an invisible limp which reminds me I am a different person – one who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.

If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will have difficulty discovering what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives.  Five hundred years ago Thomas à Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice:

“We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement.  It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing.  While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wishes to die so that he could be undone to live with Christ.  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

The Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, was worried and stressed.  He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing.  Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his large family.  So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau were to attack, the other group could escape. The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God. (Genesis 32:22-31)

God will put us in life-compromising positions to create divine encounters so that we will walk away changed.  Those events usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of an incredibly stressful situation.  The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace. A new confidence arises, convinced that through disability and weakness we are strong and able.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Lippy Lipshitz
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Israel Isaac Lipshitz (1903-1980)

There is a good deal of symbolism happening in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God.  First, take note that this Scripture story raises more questions than it answers, such as: Who was the man Jacob wrestled? Was he God, an angel, or someone else? Why have a wrestling match? What in the world is going on here?  The unanswered questions are symbolic of the reality that we do not and probably will not get the clarity we are looking for in our struggles with God.  Sometimes we might not even know it is God whom we are wrestling with.  It is quite possible where we see God estranged from us, he really has us in the grip of grace and will not let go.

Second, Jacob got up during the night, representing his dark night of the soul and struggle with the circumstance he must face.  Jacob was left alone with no one to deceive (his typical modus operandi) which is symbolic of his great need – he had no “tricks up his sleeve” and had nowhere to turn but to God.  Jacob was asked by his wrestling opponent what his name is. Jacob’s answer is a humble one, confessing who he really is (Jacob means “schemer” or “deceiver”).  Jacob asked for a blessing, which in itself is an act of humility because it is an honest profession that he lacks something necessary for life that he cannot provide on his own through any kind of ingenuity on his part.

Third, Jacob asked for God’s name – and got no answer to his question, no clarity, and no satisfaction.  This is deeply symbolic of the fact that God is mysterious, and we will not always get the answers to our questions we want.  God will not kowtow to our puny attempts at controlling him.  Jacob would not let the wrestling match end and held on, just like he grasped the heel of his brother Esau at their birth.  This is a symbolic reference to Jacob’s stubbornness which was redeemed and transformed into tenacity, rather than a manipulation of people to get what he wanted.

Fourth, God renamed Jacob, “Israel.”  Jacob is now distinguished from the old deceiver with a new identity.  Israel literally means “God fights” which is a reference of hope for Jacob’s descendants.  That Jacob struggled with God and was able to walk away from it is not really a statement of physical victory so much as a reference to Jacob’s having overcome his constant fear and need for control which prompted his continual trickery.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel by Christina Mattison Ebert
Jacob Wrestles the Angel by Christina Mattison Ebert

Fifth, Jacob’s limp is a permanent sign of God’s grace to Jacob. God is with him and his descendants.  Jacob is a different person having encountered God, and the limp is a continual reminder God changed his life forever – Jacob will never be the same after this.  Ironically, the limp made Jacob stronger, not weaker.  From this point forward in Jacob’s life, he is mindful of his limitations and that God is the One who will arise to fight, protect, and carry on the covenant promises.  There is no longer any need or even desire to scheme to accomplish anything.

It will be difficult to find grace apart from wrestling with God in the painful situations of life.  It is in such times we must be crippled by grace.  We need to be willing to fight with God. It is necessary to get in the match and struggle with God rather than worry within ourselves or just pretend everything is okay so that we will avoid the hard contest in front of us.

Has God left a permanent mark on you?  Do you carry a limp from him?  What is your name?  How does God identify you?  Our great need is not in being clever, smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need.  As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match.  Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated.  It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.

Whenever Christians approach the Lord’s Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life.  The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf.  The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation.  And they are further reminders that just as we eat this bread and drink this cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age.  It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.

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.