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Laban's Pursuit

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 7, 1999

Genesis 31:22-42

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Genesis 31:22-42
Laban's Pursuit

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 31. We’ll pick up with the second section of the chapter, beginning at the 22nd verse. Let me just remind you that there are three great scenes in this chapter. If it were put in the form of a play, no doubt the playwright would have these three distinct scenes divided, set apart.

The first scene is Jacob overhearing Laban's sons complaining about his prosperity. And then Jacob being met with this call of God to leave the land in which he is dwelling in Paddan-aram and to make his way from Mesopotamia back to Canaan, into the land of his father, and forefathers. That's the first scene. After Jacob hears Laban's sons’ complaints and hears God's instruction for him to leave, we see a second scene follow. That scene is Jacob's conversation with his wives. After hearing God's instruction, after deciding that this is the thing to do, now Jacob has to persuade Leah and Rachel that it's the right thing to do, — to uproot, to leave the land of their father, the land of their relatives, the land of their network of friends and go to a place where they have no friends, no connections, no experience, they've never been there before. And so he has this long conversation, and you need to remember the content of that conversation, especially verses 14 through 16. And we're going to look at those again in just a few moments.

But just bear those verses in mind as we prepare to hear what God has to say in the second section of this chapter. But at any rate, this is the second scene, this amazing discussion that goes on between Jacob and Leah and Rachel.

And then the third scene is the scene we're going to see tonight, where Laban, the father-in-law catches up with Jacob in the mountain country of Gilead and confronts him for his departure. And it's perhaps the climatic, the most dramatic of those three scenes in this chapter.

Remember in Genesis, chapter 30, Jacob had prepared to leave his country empty-handed. He was ready to go back to his homeland six years ago. But Laban realized that losing Jacob would be a personal loss, and for his own self-interest, not because of his love for Jacob and apparently not even because of his love for Rachel and for Leah and for their children. He arranges for Jacob to stay on for another period of time and work with him, though not strictly speaking as an employee. They enter into sort of an unequal partnership. And Jacob negotiates a plan with him that he thinks will work, and God despite Jacob's superstition and despite his scheming God blesses Jacob. It becomes very clear in Genesis 31 that Jacob realized that God had blessed him. That God was the reason why he had prospered. And so we have that scene. Then if you look at Genesis 31 and the first 21 verses you see the fruits of God's divine instruction of Jacob. We said when we looked at Genesis 30 that God was preparing Jacob to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone. You begin to see the fruits of that in Genesis 31.

Last week when we looked at that section and the first three verses, we saw Jacob's desires to leave and go back to his homeland; and God's call converge and lead him to prepare to depart from Laban. Then we saw Jacob actually learning God's providence as he had to sort of teach it to his wives, as he had to make an argument, a case for leaving the land. He actually spells out how God's hand of providence had been upon him. And then I want you to look especially at verses 14 through 16 because his wives respond in what you may think is a surprising way. I mean, you’re waiting for his wives to say, wait a minute, all our friends are here, all our family are here, we've done very well here, we're comfortable here. What do you mean taking us away from our friends, from our family, from our network of relationships, from our inheritance, from our land, what are you talking about? But that's not what they do.

In verses 14 through 16 they say four things. First of all the wives say that they feel as if they no longer have an inheritance in their father's house. Secondly, they say that if they feel as if they’re strangers to their own father. Like their father doesn't even know them, he treats them like a stranger. Thirdly, they say they feel as if they have been sold or used by their father for his own benefit, but that when he received this rich reward for them, he hasn't really set it aside with a view to their future. And then fourthly, they say that they see God's hand of providence, and they agree that it's right for Jacob and for them to depart from their father's household and land.

So Jacob, we're told, in verses 17 through 21 leaves with a clean conscience. He hasn't taken anything that God hasn't given him, and he's stolen nothing from Laban. In fact, he's enriched him. So he leaves with a clean conscience. And furthermore, we are told two interesting things.

First, he leaves secretly. Now we can understand why he leaves secretly, but that's going to lead to an excuse on the part of Laban. Laban is going to use that as a way of saying Jacob, you've offended me. Secondly, we're told in verses 17 through 21, that before they left Rachel stole her father's household gods. And that is going to be a second bone of contention that Laban will levy against Jacob. With all that in mind, let's look at Genesis 31, verses 22 to 42 to see this amazing encounter between the enraged Laban and the indignant Jacob. This is God's word:

Genesis 31:22-42

Our Lord and our God, we pray that as we see Your word this night, we ourselves would learn that important lesson of faith to trust in Your providence. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

This encounter is a great story in and of itself, but I want you to focus on a couple of things that are set forth very clearly here. First of all, an incident occurs which undoubtedly was one of the most unpleasant of his life. Not only would it have been a threatening situation to have Laban, his father-in-law, perhaps his adoptive father, march in with kinsmen and armed men into his tents in the morning at Gilead. No doubt that would have been a frightening and threatening situation. And we can imagine how uncomfortable an exchange this was between Jacob. Jacob clearly feared Laban, and I'm sure the last thing he wanted to see was Laban catching up with Him before he had gotten back to the reinforcements of his father's land. But that's exactly what happened. And all of us here have experienced times when we think Lord why did you let that happen? Why did you let that happen?

Well, one of the things you are going to see tonight is that God in His wise providence allows some things to happen so precisely so that we can see His hand of providence protecting us. And bear that lesson in mind.

And the second thing is one of the things in this passage — Jacob himself has a clean conscience, but Jacob doesn't know that there's a traitor in his tent. Jacob doesn't know that there's something that's actually put that person in danger and has put Jacob's word in danger. And so though Jacob trusts in God's providence with a clean conscience, he doesn't know just how much he owes to God's providence. So we see God providentially protecting us when we are too ignorant to protect ourselves, when we have no way of protecting ourselves against the thing that we need to be protected against. And I'd like you to focus on those two things as we look through basically five sections in the passage.

If you look at verses 22 through 25, Laban pursues Jacob there. In verses 26 through 30 Laban gives a speech when he finally encounters Jacob. He gives this contradictory and somewhat pitiful speech to Jacob. One minute he's making arguments like he's a doting granddad who wants to kiss his children goodbye. The next minute he's threatening him, and he sort of vacillates between these two poles. Then in verses 31 and 32 you see Jacob's reply to Laban. And then Laban goes on his search in verses 33 through 35 and then finally in verses 36 through 42 Jacob gives his scorching reply to Laban. Let's look at this passage together.

I. Laban's pursuit.

First, in verses 22 through 25. Laban's pursuit of Jacob. When Laban hears of Jacob's departure, he is furious. Three days after Jacob and his people had departed, Laban finally hears of it. They were that far apart. You remember Laban on purpose had separated their flocks, because he feared that Jacob would cheat him. And so he was a long way away. And so it's a long time before he even hears word that Jacob has left. And apparently, Laban waits even longer. We’re told that the journey that Jacob had to make was about 360 miles. And with his flocks being driven before him, it would have taken him maybe close to forty days. And so Laban, knowing that he's going to take awhile for him to make very much ground and to get back to the land, Laban apparently puts his own issues in order, gathers his kinsmen and then prepares for the ride. It takes him seven days to catch up, but apparently he delayed for a certain period of days. So Laban rides hard to catch up with Jacob, and he encounters him at Gilead, and he camps nearby.

And that night, however, God appears to Laban in a dream, and he warns him not to deter or harm Jacob. He says you say nothing to him either good or bad. God is standing in between Laban and Jacob, and he's protecting Jacob. And notice the language. He says ,you don't even say to him anything good or bad. Don't you lay a finger on him, and don't you even say anything to him good or bad. In other words, don't try and keep him from going by offering him a sweet deal, saying something to him good; and don't you try and keep him from going by threatening him that you’ll kill him if he doesn't come back. Don't you do either of those things, because I intend for him to go back to his own land. So God is standing in between for Jacob here.

Now just one word on the side. Have you noticed that each of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had to be spared in a misadventure by God directly speaking to their enemies in a dream. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is showing his faithfulness to each of the patriarchs in this way. Each of them are extracted from a predicament by God appearing to their enemies. And God makes it clear to Laban that he will not interfere with Jacob's departure in any way, but God allows Laban to make contact with Jacob.

Now again, you may be asking why in the world would God do that? And sometimes we ask the question, why is God letting us go through this thing. Well, there are different answers to that on different occasions, and we don't always know the answers to that in this life. But in this case, remember this. Jacob would never have known how God protected him from Laban had Laban not caught up to him and told him of the dream that God had given to him. God, by allowing this unpleasant exchange to go along, was also allowing Jacob to see how He had intervened for him yet once more.

Now my guess is that we could testify if not to revelations, we could testify to experiences in which we have seen God's hand of providence for us. And if we hadn't gone through the unpleasant experience, we wouldn't have been able to say, okay, I see the lesson that God is teaching, and I see God's hand for me. And that's exactly what happens here. It's a very unpleasant exchange. If you have ever had a family exchange that even remotely comes close to the exchange that goes on in this section, you know how unpleasant this is. And yet God means it for good. No matter what Laban means it for.

II. Laban's speech.

Then in verses 26 through 30, Laban gives this sort of mixed up, contradictory, pitiful speech to Jacob. When Laban finally confronts Jacob, his options are limited. He can't threaten him, he can't coax him, he can't harm him. And so he's sort of a lame duck. Notice the four things that he does. First, in verses 26 and 27 he accuses Jacob of deception. You've carried away my family like captives, you've deceived me. You haven't told me that you were leaving. So he calls him a deceiver. Laban calls him a deceiver. Secondly, he accuses him of foolishness. In verses 27 and 28, he claims that he would have feasted Jacob. He would have given him a big party if he had just told him that he was going to leave. In fact, he kind of goes into the doting grandfather mode, and he says I just wanted to kiss my grandchildren goodbye. Look at that in verse 28. You know to sort of tug the heartstrings there. But remember, this is the same man in verses 14 through 16 whose daughters had said I feel like my father used me like a stranger. Suddenly, a transformation. Suddenly, this is the Focus on the Family 'father of the year' who just wants to kiss his grandchildren goodbye. But a few days, a few weeks before, his own daughters are saying I feel like my father has disowned me and used me like chattel. There's a contradiction in this picture here and you had a sneaking suspicion where the lie is.

Then with the heartstring tugging approach not working, he goes on to threaten Jacob. And by threatening Jacob he actually confirms the wisdom of Jacob's secret departure. You remember Jacob had feared Laban. And therefore he departed secretly. And so Laban goes on to say I have it in my power to harm you. Freudian slip there, but your God told me that I couldn't. Well, why would you say that? All you wanted to do was kiss your grandchildren goodbye.

And then finally he accuses Jacob of stealing his household gods. And notice the delicious irony here. Laban worships gods that can be stolen. Thank God we don't. Our God is not a God who can be stolen. Remember the reading from Joshua today? Joshua reminds the people of God that their forefathers had worshiped idols in the land of Mesopotamia. And he warned them not to. Here we see the idol worshiper from Mesopotamia searching around like a blind man looking for a button, seeking his gods who had been stolen from him. When Laban finally confronts Jacob, he's already beaten. His options are limited.

III. Jacob's reply.

And then in verses 31 and 32, Jacob gives his reply. Jacob explains his reasons, he protests his innocence, and then he actually offers the death penalty because Laban had been unfaithful in a little, Jacob expected him to be unfaithful in much. You remember Luke 16, verse 10. Laban had cheated Jacob over and over in business dealings. Therefore, Jacob feared that Laban would actually do worse when time came for him to pack up and leave. And then in response to the charge that he had stolen the household gods, he claims his innocence. And in fact he says, anybody who stole your gods will die. And you go ahead and you search all my tents, and anything that you find in those tents that belongs to you is yours. You take it back. But the tension of the story is increased by the fact that Jacob doesn't know that his most precious possession in all of life is the one who has stolen the idols. And so the search begins.

IV. Laban deceived.
In verses 33 through 35 Laban begins to go through Jacob's tent, and Leah's tent, the maid's tent, and he finally comes to Rachel. And Rachel protects the idols. Notice Rachel protects the idols by a deception, the NIV puts it a little less delicately than our New American Standard Version. She protects the idols by a deception, but she is willing to protect these idols at the potential cost of her life. It's mind boggling. And Calvin takes a little side bar on this, and he goes on to say this is how deeply ingrained into Rachel was idolatry. She was willing to risk her life to hold on to these idols. And Laban still comes up empty handed.

It's an irony, isn't it? The master deceiver is finally deceived by his daughter who had learned well from her father. And so the deceiver is deceived.

V. Jacob's reply to Laban.
And finally in verses 36 through 42, we see Jacob's scorching reply to Laban. Jacob uncorks twenty years of frustration. But very importantly in verse 42 he professes his trust in God's providence. Jacob's conscience is clear, and look what he walks through in terms of his argument.

In verses 36 and 37 he says, I'm no thief. Now bear the irony in mind for just a few moments. It's true. Jacob was no thief. He had not taken anything from Laban. Nothing that Jacob had could be attributed really to Laban. It was all as Jacob himself was going to say in verse 42. It's all attributed to what God gave him. But, he didn't know what Rachel had taken. So he says with a clear conscience, but ignorantly, none of my household has taken anything from you. So, I'm no thief.

Secondly, in verses 38 through 40 he says look, I've been a good shepherd. By the way we have shepherd's contracts from Mesopotamia dating from this time. Read those contracts and you don't have this sort of romantic 19th century idyllic view of the life of the shepherd. That's tough stuff. And what Jacob says in this passage apparently goes above and beyond the normal contracts that would have been made between a shepherd and one who held sheep or goats or some other animal. At any rate, he protested he's been a good shepherd.

And then in verse 41 he protests that Laban has been extremely unfair. He's taken advantage of him, he's exploited him, he's changed his wages ten times.

But in verse 42 Jacob makes it clear that he is keenly aware that only God's providence has prospered him and protected him. It's not Laban, and it's not even his own hard work. It's God, the God of his fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, his God who has prospered him. But you know in this moment in Jacob's life where he's more aware than ever that he is totally dependent on God.

Isn't it ironic that he has no idea how dependent on God he is, because he doesn't know yet that Rachel really did steal those idols. And so even in this moment where Jacob filled with his holy fury, professes more clearly before than he has ever done in his entire life, that he believes in God's providence. He doesn't know how great a debtor he is to that providence.

Isn't it the same way with us. We don't know why God does certain things in our lives, but God in his providence as a wise and loving parent has his reasons. And even when we have a little bit of a glimpse of just how well taken care of we are, we never really have a clue just how far God goes to protect us. May God enable us to trust in His wise and fatherly providence more, because we can never out trust his provision of providence. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God teach us to trust in Your providence, and especially your saving providence as revealed in Jesus Christ. We ask it in his name, Amen.

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