Jacob and Laban – God in everything Genesis 29-31

The Book of Genesis takes twelve chapters to tell the story of how God changed Jacob the cheating scumbag into the third of the Patriarchs and the Father of the twelve Tribes of Israel. We have seen how Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright as the older brother for the price of a bowl of lentil stew. And then how Jacob impersonated Esau and lied to his father Isaac to get that special blessing. But then we saw how God met with Jacob in a dream of a stairway to heaven and repeated to him the promises he had made to the first of the Patriarchs, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, who was called the friend of God, who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Promises of descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. Promises of a land of his own, a land of peace and security and blessing. Promises of God’s presence and protection. Promises that through Jacob’s descendants, all the peoples of the world will be blessed.
Last time we saw the trickster get tricked. Jacob loved Laban’s daughter Rachel so much that he worked for seven years to marry her. Only to find that at their marriage Laban tricked him into marrying her older sister Leah instead. The conman gets conned. The cheat gets cheated. But God had begun to change Jacob’s heart and we saw Jacob work another seven years for Rachel. Fourteen years labour for the love of his life. God was changing Jacob, just as the transforming power of God continues to change Christians to be more like Jesus.
So what happens next in Jacob’s story? Well to be honest – not a lot. From the end of Genesis chapter 29 until the middle of chapter 30 Jacob has children. Quite a lot of children actually. Then Jacob cuts a rather shady deal with his father Laban which means that Jacob’s flocks grow at the expense of the flocks owned by Laban and his sons. As a result Laban gets cross. Jacob runs away with Leah and Rachel and their children and all their flocks with Laban and his sons in hot pursuit. But it all ends well by the end of Genesis chapter 31 as Jacob and Laban take oaths to be friends. Nothing very exciting really for the life of a Patriarch. We’ll read the highlights, such as they are, as we go along.
I was struggling to know what to say about these chapters until I noticed something very significant. There are 103 verses from the final paragraph of chapter 29 to the end of chapter 31. And in those 103 verses God is mentioned 23 times. The LORD, Yahweh is named another 9 times. And another unusual name for God is used twice. 34 references to God or the LORD. In these very unexciting chapters, one in three verses mentions God. God is involved in every aspect of our lives. Even the everyday sometimes boring bits. God is there at work, protecting us, guiding us. God is always there.
Let’s start with Jacob’s children. All 13 of them. One thing I didn’t mention last time about Jacob when he arrived at Haran and saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, was how old Jacob was. The best guess is that Jacob was 77 years old when he first saw Rachel, and at that time she was 14 years old. So Jacob was 84 years old when he married first Leah and then Rachel who by then was 31. So Jacob was 91 years old when he finished his next seven years working for Rachel. Ninety-one! Adding everything up, having been unmarried until the fine age of 84, Jacob then fathered thirteen children in the next seven years.13 children – with four mothers.
First Jacob had four sons by his first wife Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Then because Rachel was not having any children, Jacob fathered two sons Dan and Naphtali by Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Because that’s how they did things in those days. Then he fathered two more sons Gad and Asher through Leah’s maidservant Zilpah. Then two more named Issachar and Zebulun by his first wife Leah. Leah also had a daughter called Dinah, who one day will have her own story but not her own tribe. Then finally by his second wife Rachel, who he loved more than Leah, Jacob had two more sons called Joseph and Benjamin. 13 children in 7 years, while Jacob was between the ages of 84 and 91.
The names of each of the sons have meanings, but we won’t think about those today. The Bible is very interested in Jacob’s twelve sons for the simple reason that these would be the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And in the 29 verses which tell the story of the birth of Jacob’s children, God is mentioned seven times and the LORD is named five times. That’s a curious symmetry of a dozen references to God or to the LORD for the twelve sons. But that makes one simple point. God was very much involved in the birth of those children.
Genesis 29 31 When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. 32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.’
33 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon.
Next Levi. After that
35 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the LORD.’ So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.
When Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah gave birth to a son,
30 6 Then Rachel said, ‘God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.’ Because of this she named him Dan.
And so on. In due course
20 Then Leah said, ‘God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honour, because I have borne him six sons.’ So she named him Zebulun. ….
22 Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, ‘God has taken away my disgrace.’ 24 She named him Joseph, and said, ‘May the LORD add to me another son.’
God was at work enabling Jacob from the age of 84 and his wives and maidservants to have those 13 children. A dozen mentions in 29 verses. And God is just as much at work in all of our lives. All the time. We may not recognise his hand, but God is there with us, protecting us, guarding us with his divine presence and guiding our steps. Just as he had promised to be with Jacob, God is with us, always. Every step of Jacob’s journey was touched by the Sovereign activity of Almighty God.
God was also with Jacob blessing his flocks as we read in the next bit of the story.
25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, ‘Send me on my way so that I can go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.’
27 But Laban said to him, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you.’ 28 He added, ‘Name your wages, and I will pay them.’
29 Jacob said to him, ‘You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30 The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my own household?’
31 ‘What shall I give you?’ he asked.
‘Don’t give me anything,’ Jacob replied. ‘But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32 let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-coloured lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33 And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-coloured, will be considered stolen.’
34 ‘Agreed,’ said Laban. ‘Let it be as you have said.’ 35 That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-coloured lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36 Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.
So Jacob struck this deal with Laban. But Laban cheated him again, this time by taking out all the sheep and goats which should have belonged to Jacob. Nevertheless God prospered Jacob and his flocks. Which did not go down well with Laban’s sons.
31:1 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.’ 2 And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude towards him was not what it had been.
3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.’
Things were not going well for Jacob, but God stepped in to guide him directly. And Jacob later told of another occasion where God had spoken to him in a dream
31 10 ‘In the 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. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, “Jacob.” I answered, “Here I am.” 12 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. 13 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.” ’
When we first heard of Jacob he had no time for Yahweh, the God of his father Isaac. In one of his lies to Isaac, Jacob had even broken the yet to be revealed third commandment and misused the name of Yahweh when he said, “the LORD YOUR God gave me success” in his hunting for food. But now we see God speaking to Jacob and Jacob listening and obeying. We need to be open to God speaking to us, listening for his voice guiding us. And when God does speak to us, just like Jacob did we need to obey him and do whatever he tells us.
Jacob obeyed and took his wives and children and flocks and headed back to his old home, even though he knew Esau would be there waiting for him and had vowed to kill him. Laban and his sons chased after them and caught up with them. But God was still watching over Jacob and taking care of him. God did not want Jacob and Laban to be enemies but to be reconciled. After all, Laban was his father in law and the grandfather of his children,
22 On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23 Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 24 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.’
God revealed himself in dreams not only to Jacob but also to Laban. God protected Jacob by speaking to Laban, Laban confronted Jacob, and Jacob’s reply revealed that he fully recognised that God had been protecting him all along.
41 I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. 42 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.’
God was protecting Jacob and his family. But in the midst of this, did you notice that Jacob used a new name for God, “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.” Jacob was acknowledging that his father’s God was his God as well. We read in verse 53, So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.
God cares about families. It was important to God that Jacob and Laban part on good terms. God softened Laban’s heart, so
43 Laban answered Jacob, …. 44 Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.’
45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 He said to his relatives, ‘Gather some stones.’ So they took stones and piled them in a heap …
48 Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ … 49 It was … called Mizpah, because he said, ‘May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50 If you ill-treat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.’
So Laban and Jacob took oaths in the name of the LORD, Yahweh, and in this curious name of the Fear of Isaac. But Laban also took his oath in another name.
51 Laban also said to Jacob, ‘Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.’
The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor. Who on earth was Nahor? Well, he was Abraham’s brother. More than that, Nahor was Laban’s grandfather! Laban was not just related to Jacob because he was the father of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives. And so Laban was grandfather to Jacob’s children. At the same time, Laban was also the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebekah, so Laban was also Jacob’s uncle. But more than that. Just as Jacob’s grandfather was Abraham, so Laban’s grandfather was Abraham’s brother Nahor. Jacob and Laban were blood relatives in a number of ways. God cares about families. God is sad when families argue and fall out and are at war because of trivial things.
But there was another even deeper connection between these two men.
53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.’
Abraham and his brother Nahor had set out together on the journey to the Promised Land. Although he didn’t finish the journey, Nahor had started out following the same LORD Yahweh. The Lord was the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father.
For at least three generations, Laban and Jacob’s families had been worshipping the same God. In a world full of pagan worship, with the surrounding tribes even offered child sacrifices, it was important that Jacob and Laban be reconciled. They weren’t just family. They were also both followers of Yahweh the One True God.
3154 (Jacob) offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there. 55 Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.
God cares about families and he also cares about the family of faith. In today’s world which is running faster and faster away from God, it is important that trivial issues do not cause splits in the Church of God, the Body of Christ, God’s forever family.
34 mentions of God or the LORD or the Fear of Isaac, in just 103 verses. The story of Jacob’s life is interweaved with the activity of the Sovereign Lord God. How much is God interweaved into your life? God was at work in Jacob and his families, giving him the children who would be the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. God kept on speaking to Jacob in dreams and visions, guiding him and blessing him and assuring him of His presence. And God was at work, bringing Jacob and Laban back together after they had fallen out. Because God cares about families and he cares about the unity of His chosen people. God is involved in every aspect of our lives. Even the everyday sometimes boring bits. God is there at work, protecting us, guiding us. God is always there.
Look back at last week. How much was God involved in your life? In the week to come, what part will God play in your life?

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