Genesis 30-31: Of Goats and Gods
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 11, 2006
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you. We made it past the apocalyptic date of 6-6-6, and the only tragedies were the release of the new Omen movie and the latest installment of the Left Behind books. I played golf last week in a charity event with three ministers and my brother. We discussed the theological implications of golf and came up with some really bad sermon titles such as “The dimples on your life make you fly farther when God tees you up.” We played badly, ate too many hot dogs, got caught in a thunderstorm and had a great time. Most of the Moravian clergy in Forsyth County got together for a cook-out recently, and we got caught in the worst thunderstorm I’ve been in for some time. I’m not sure if it’s me or the company I keep, but it seems lightening is striking.
Gen. 30:25-31:55 as a Unit: Last week we discussed the intense competition between the two wives of Jacob and the births of 12 of his children. It was a story about Jacob as a husband, but our passage for this week is about Jacob’s animal husbandry. It is a long and rather odd story, so I will paraphrase rather than reading it all. It begins at 30:25 and runs through the end of chapter 31. The basic plot revolves around Jacob’s competition with his uncle Laban who has already cheated him once. Jacob worked for Laban, but like many men, he had a family to care for: 2 wives, 2 concubines, and 12 children at least. The drama of the story is whether Jacob can extricate himself from his uncle’s web without losing the fruits of his labor. He does so with a little bit of guile and the help of Rachel.
Jacob and Laban: The story begins after the birth of Joseph. Now that Rachel has had a son, Jacob decides that it is time to return to his home and claim his place as a clan leader. He has fulfilled his obligation to Laban and established himself as an adult. Jacob has grown up from the boy we saw earlier. He is mature, hard working, responsible, and intelligent. Through his efforts, Laban himself has become more prosperous. God himself has told Laban that Jacob is the key to his success. The text says that he used divination, which means he made inquiries of God. The priests of ancient Israel engaged in divination when they used the Urim and Thummin stones. We do not know how Laban inquired of God, but he knew how valuable Jacob was. So when Jacob asks for his wages, Laban tries to convince him to stay. Bosses will do some dirty tricks to keep you working for them, you know. I had one boss who called up a woman’s new employer to try to convince him to change his mind about hiring her. Laban was that kind of boss.
Laban and Jacob engaged in an extended negotiation. Jacob tells his boss that he is leaving. Laban flatters him by telling him that he has been a blessing. Name your salary, Laban says. Jacob reminds Laban how valuable he really is. Most likely he exaggerated when he said that Laban had almost nothing before Jacob came. We do that when we are asking for a raise, don’t we? I find it kind of comforting to know that the great patriarch, Jacob, had to negotiate his salary. Jacob was no fool. Rather than asking for a set wage, he makes a deal with Laban.
Jacob will go through the herds and take out the black sheep and the animals with spots or stripes. It could be that such animals were considered less valuable than the other sheep and goats or it might have just been a good way to separate the flocks visibly. It was a good plan, but it didn’t work because Laban was untrustworthy. Before Jacob could select his animals, Laban’s sons took the spotted and stripped animals, male and female, out of the flock. Laban’s sons then took them three days from where Jacob was, and left him to tend the rest of the flock. Laban’s plan was to keep Jacob so poor that he would have to work for him, just as industrialists around the world keep their workers in debt to the company so they can’t afford to leave. Laban was probably chairman of the Paddan aram chamber of commerce. He was shrewd, and once again the trickster had been outwitted by uncle.
Animal Husbandry: But Jacob had a trick up his sleeve just in case his uncle proved dishonest. Jacob put striped wooden rods in front of the sheep and goats while they were drinking and mating so that when they conceived they had striped sheep. This is one of those parts of the Bible that if you take literally, you will be disappointed because it is based on a faulty understanding of inherited traits. It is the genes that determine whether a sheep is black or white, not what the mother was staring out while she was mating. We don’t need to get too caught up into how this trick worked. It’s like watching a magician; don’t worry too much about figuring out the trick.
This ancient story was not told as a way to teach farmers to raise black sheep; it was told to show us how clever Jacob was even when he was being cheated by an older and craftier man. Over time, Jacob’s flock increased, and he grew very wealthy despite Laban’s attempts to cheat him and repress him. Laban and his sons were not happy that Jacob was growing prosperous, and Jacob knew that their resentment was growing. He also knew that resentment leads to violence. It was time to leave. Jacob tells his wives that it was God who had blessed Jacob’s flocks. As with the story of the mandrakes, we see the author of Genesis making sure we understand that God is the one acting behind the scenes, even when we are using every means at our disposal.
Convincing the Women: At this point in the story, God spoke to Jacob in a dream telling him to return to the “land of your ancestors.” Jacob was already in the land of his ancestors. His grandfather and his mother had come from Haran. Clearly the author of that verse was written with someone else in mind. Genesis was written to the Jews in exile in Babylon, giving them hope that they would return to the land of their ancestors. God would be with them in that journey, just as he was with Jacob on his journey home.
The commandment to return home came in a dream. There are times when you spend days trying to decide what to do, and then the answer comes to you in a dream. Of course, it is possible that Jacob was just using the dream story as a way to convince his wives to leave Haran. The important point, though, is that Jacob knew it was time to leaven Haran and that God would be with him. It is interesting that he consults with both of his wives before leaving. This is normal practice in American households today, but it would have been rare in ancient times for a husband to admit publicly that he had gotten approval from his wives before moving the family. The fact that Genesis includes this little story indicates the high view of women in this book. Their choice plays a role in the history of salvation.
Leah and Rachel say that the choice is easy because their father sold them like slaves and spent the bride-price on himself instead of on the girls. Like some parents today, he was consuming all of the children’s inheritance rather than preparing a future for them. The women know that there future lies with Jacob and his cunning. Even the unloved Leah agrees to leave home and journey to a far country. Leah and Rachel were not powerless; they take action throughout this story.
Leaving Laban Once the family decides that it is time to leave and are convinced that God is with them in this decision, they make plans for an immediate departure. This was the shrewd course of action. Jacob knew that Laban would try to stop him again, so he packed up the family while Laban was away shearing the sheep. This was no little feat when we think of the size of Jacob’s family, including the servants and hired hands. Plus Jacob had a lot of goats. Genesis bluntly says that he deceived Laban the Aramean. Here is some of the humor at Laban’s expense that I mentioned in the overview. Jacob had outwitted the crafty Laban who had twice tricked him. The Bible teaches us to be good, honest, loving, and all other virtues, but it does not teach us to be foolish. Jacob was right to be shrewd and cautious in dealing with Laban. Jesus likewise told us to be shrewd in dealing with the children of this world.
Laban’s Gods It took a week for Laban to catch up with Jacob. He could travel much faster since he didn’t have to bring along the sheep and goats. There is little that Laban could do at this point, so he relied on lies and threats. He gives the impression that he loves his daughters and could not bear to be parted from them, even though we know that his daughters felt abused by him. Go to court anywhere in America on any given day, and you will hear a parent who is on trial for abuse telling the court how much they love their children, just as Laban protested to Jacob. Leah and Rachel have already told the truth. Laban would not have sent them away with music and dancing, with kisses and tears of farewell. He would not have let Jacob go at all.
When the lies do not work, Laban uses a threat. He tells Jacob that it was only because God had told him not to harm his son-in-law that he does not do so. That may be true, but I think Laban was also a coward. Most abusers and liars are, you know. When the threat doesn’t work, Laban finally gets to the point. He asks, “Why did you steal my gods?” This is a question that should take us aback. Why would Jacob, who grew up worshiping the God of Abraham steal some pagan idols? What’s going on here?
In the ancient world, families had their own little set of idols for the purposes of household devotions. The Hebrew word for these household gods is “Teraphim.” Many homes in America have things similar to teraphim, some type of object that is symbolic of the family and is believed to give some protection. It might be a horseshoe or a statue of St. Christopher or a family heirloom or even a Moravian star. Even though the Ten Commandments forbid graven images and prophets condemned the use of them, we know that these little idols were used for centuries. Even King David had teraphim. The Nuzi, who were neighbors of the Israelites in ancient times also used teraphim. The teraphim identified who the head of the family was and who had the right of inheritance. By stealing her father’s teraphim, Rachel had guaranteed her claims to her father’s property. She knew her brothers would take what her husband had earned, so she took action. Her theft was designed to grant justice to herself, her sister Leah, and all of their children. Rachel was bold because she knew Laban would not do the right thing.
Rachel’s Cunning: We get some sense of the import of the theft when Jacob reacts angrily to Laban’s accusation. He proclaims that anyone caught with his father-in-law’s teraphim will be killed on the spot. Jacob makes this vow because he thinks no one would have been bold enough to steal Laban’s gods. But we know that it was Rachel, his beloved, who stole them. Jacob has just sealed the doom of Rachel, but she is cunning. Rachel is not one to let fate come to her. She puts the gods in her saddle and waits.
Here we have more humor at Laban’s expense. The blustering old man searches every tent without success. Finally he comes to his daughter, for whom he has no respect. She treats him with all the deference expected of a child, but she does not get off the camel. She tells the old man that it is her time of the month and she cannot rise. This was before modern sanitary products that we see advertised day and night on television. The ancient hearers of this tale no doubt laughed at the pompous Laban’s embarrassment at his daughter’s condition. I suspect that this tale was told and retold by women in the tents for generations before it was written down by one of the priests of Israel. Rachel stole the gods and she outwitted her crafty father. That is how the great patriarch of Israel was able to return to the land of his father and grandfather!
The Mizpah Benediction Laban was defeated by a woman, and Jacob could finally tell him off. Jacob listed the offenses he had endured at Laban’s hand, and he made it clear that he would endure no more. He had a right to the sheep and the goats and the girls. The time had come to make a clean break with Laban. We have to do that sometimes. We have to recognize when it is no longer healthy to work for a psychopath or to live in a house with an abusive parent or spouse or to put up with a neighbor’s bad behavior. It is right to take a stand against lies, abuse, and manipulation, just as Jacob did in standing up to Laban. No more.
Jacob insisted that they come to a mutual accord, a non-aggression treaty. I will leave you alone and you will leave me alone. They set up a sacred pillar and a pile of stones to mark the spot of the covenant and the limit beyond which neither would pass. And they called upon the God of their fathers, the God of Nahor and the God of Abraham, as a witness. It is interesting that Jacob swore by the “Fear of Isaac” rather than on the name of the LORD, Yahweh. This may indicate that the original story was very old.
Jacob named the pillar Mizpah, which means Watchpost, because he called on God as the watchman between himself and Laban. It was Laban who said: “The LORD watch between me and you when we are absent from one another.” This has become a traditionally blessing for Boy Scouts, Women’s Fellowship, and many other Christian groups as they close their meetings. It is a bit odd to use this statement given by Laban as a benediction, though. The clear intention of Laban’s words are that he does not trust Jacob, and Jacob does not trust him. It is a warning more than a blessing; a reminder that God is watching us even when we cannot keep an eye on each other. God will be the judge of our actions even when the law is not. This is what Mizpah means.
Then Laban warns Jacob not to mistreat Rachel or Leah, and he forbids him to take additional wives because then his grandchildren would have to share their inheritance with the children of the other wives. Could it be that Laban really was worried about his daughters, or is this just another attempt to appear to be a good father when he wasn’t? Perhaps, Laban just didn’t want his daughters or grandchildren coming back home looking for money. That is the fear of many a father and mother today. We hope that our children are happy in their marriages because we sure don’t want them moving back in with us, and so we pray for them as Laban did. Most likely, Laban was like most fathers. He genuinely worried about the welfare of his daughters, especially when they were married, but his love was often clouded by his own selfishness. Perhaps we should be a little more gracious to Laban, as Jacob was in the end. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and rejoice in the fact that Jacob gave a feast for Laban and parted on good terms. They sealed a covenant and called upon God’s watch and protection. Laban kissed Leah and Rachel good-bye and returned to Paddan-aram. Leah and Rachel chose to go with Jacob, and the rest of the Bible is about their descendents in the Promised Land.
Conclusion The pillar of Mizpah would stand as a boundary marker between the Arameans and the Israelites, but it was also a reminder that God is always watching. What have we learned from this tangled tale of goats and gods and the Mizpah benediction? Once again, we’ve seen that God works through human means to fulfill the covenant he made. Jacob and Rachel did not sit around waiting for miracles; they took action. They also knew whom not to trust. We should remember that the children of God should trust God and his promises, but we do not need to be foolish about the ways of the world. Nor should we trust cheaters and liars. This story in Genesis reminds me of my favorite Arabic proverb, which I often use as my email signature: Trust God, but tie your camel.
Next week, Jacob will wrestle with God.