Saturday, December 12, 2009

Laban’s Terms for the Covenant With Jacob -- Genesis 31:48-53


Laban said, "This heap is a witness between you and me this day." Therefore it was named Galeed, and Mizpah, for he said, "May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me." Laban said to Jacob, "Behold this heap and behold the pillar which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us." So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac.

In the case of Jacob and Laban’s agreement, we can note several things. First, notice that Jacob allowed Laban to establish its terms and conditions. Laban was clearly driving this arrangement, perhaps in an attempt to save face and to cut his losses.

Second, while there were relatives around, the actual heap was to serve as a reminder to Laban and Jacob themselves. No matter who witnesses a promise (as guests do at a wedding), the promise must be kept by and between those that have actually made it. The responsibility of keeping a promise lies with the promise-makers. Other witnesses may encourage us to keep our promise, but it is us that have to keep it.

Third, Laban referred to the heap of stones as not only Galeed (the Hebrew name Jacob had given it) but also as ‘Mizpah’ which is translated a beacon, or a watchtower. Laban wanted Jacob’s Lord to watch over the two of them, especially when they were absent one from the other. More particularly, he wanted God to make sure that Jacob didn’t do anything to hurt Laban’s daughters as indicated by the next condition.

Fourth, Jacob had to be a good husband to his two wives, and not mistreat Laban’s daughters in any way. That is something every father should expect of his son-in-law. It’s interesting how sometimes the things we do ourselves, we expect others not to. (Laban had misused his daughters for his own gain, yet he demands that Jacob treat them well.) Given the culture of the time, Laban goes one step further.

Fifth, Laban insists that Jacob not marry other wives besides the two he has. And although Jacob may never have intended to do so, or to be a mean husband, he accepts these terms and conditions. For one who would have been a good husband on his own account, the requests of Laban are not so demanding. But they sure made Laban both feel and appear good in demanding them. Wise Jacob lets him have his moment of glory. There is a lesson here for us. When we get into these circumstances, we must always allow others to save face. There is no need for us to beat them into submission or to always win on every point.

And then Laban once again invokes Jacob’s God as a witness to their agreement on these terms. At this point in the text, the phrase “although no man is with us, see God is witness” appears and seems somewhat perplexing given that we believed all the kinsmen on both sides were present. (Unless of course, the kinsmen were sent away following their work in verse 46.) So, the phrase then must reflect the future tense, that is, “even though no man may be with us, God will be our witness”. And indeed, some commentators do take that position on this phrase. I am not convinced that the text reads exactly like that however if we take the New American Standard at face value. It is very possible that all the kinsmen and servants were indeed sent away at this point. And that God was indeed their only witness at this point in the making of the agreement. When all others are absent, God is always present both to witness and to protect.

Sixth, Laban insists that Jacob never be a bad neighbor to Laban. Neither of them are to act with hostility towards each other. More specifically, the heap of rocks would act as a border between them that either could not be crossed over period (as some maintain) or that could not be crossed over with the intent of harming the other person (what I believe to be more likely). As I studied this portion of scripture today, I also had to write an email to someone at our church. He and I had exchanged words some time ago and I had tried several times to get us together to clear the air. He kept promising he would do so, but never did. So, today I wrote to him again reaching out one last time. In so doing, I had to read and revise my email several times making sure that I was not in any way conveying a message of wanting to harm him. Instead, I sincerely wanted the matter between us cleared up. As Christians we may sometimes end up agreeing to disagree with one within the Body, but in no way are we at liberty to go on hurting one another.

Clearly God was their main witness. Laban wanted God to be aware of every thing that either he or Jacob did to violate the covenant they were making. God was to act as a judge between them for Laban saw Him as not only the God of Jacob’s ancestor Abraham, and the God of Laban’s ancestor Nahor, He was also the God of Abraham and Nahor’s father, Terah, from whom both Jacob and Laban descended through Abraham and Nahor, respectively. Scripture clearly shows a relation between God and Abraham. However, there is no text that specifically points to Abraham’s brother Nahor’s faith in the same God. Neither do we find any references to Abraham and Nahor’s father, Terah, being a worshipper of God. In fact, much later in the Old Testament we will find out that both Nahor and Terah served “other gods”. Clearly, Laban was being a little too liberal with his attributions to their ancestors.

Yet Jacob was moved enough to agree to the covenant. Not so much by Laban’s references to who Nahor and Terah worshipped, but by the fear of his father Isaac. The word ‘fear’ as used here is in reference more to a “reverence” of someone, be it God or be it as in this case, the fear, respect, and awe that Jacob had of his father Isaac. It was by that fear that Jacob swore with respect to this agreement between himself and his uncle Laban.

There have been many times as a child and as a youth I agreed to do things out fear of my dad. It wasn’t always a terrorizing kind of fear, although sometimes it was. Other times it was out of respect for him, and in reverence to him as a father. I know my own children have done just that for me. I can safely say I did that right up to the day my father died in his tenth decade of life. As I got to know God better in my teen years and right up to today, I often do things or agree to things or sometimes not do things that I would prefer to do out of my fear of the Lord. Really knowing His love for me, however, makes it more out of my reverence and awe of Him as my God.

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