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The Covenant at Mizpah

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 14, 1999

Genesis 31:43-55

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The Covenant of Mizpah
Genesis 31:43-55

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 31 and we’ll begin in verse 43 as we continue our study of the life of Jacob. As we said last week, Jacob had finally had enough, and he uncorked, rather indelicately, at Laban in his encounter in verses 22 through 42. And now we see Laban's response and then the ensuing covenant that is made between Jacob and Laban. That's where we are as we hear God's holy word in Genesis, chapter 31 beginning in verse 43.

"Then Laban answered and said to Jacob. ‘The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have born? So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me." Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, ‘Gather stones.’ So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Now Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And 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.’ And 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. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place."

Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, as we come to this somewhat obscure passage, a passage which we don't read often, and as we hear of ancient ceremonies, strange customs, we pray that You would enlighten our hearts and minds and see how you speak to us of Your covenant and the certainties of it, and the hope which we have in Jesus Christ. Instruct us we pray, give us ears to hear and eyes to see. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

In this great passage Laban is left not quite speechless. Jacob has really gotten the best of him. There's nothing he can do. God has told Laban that he can't lay a finger on Jacob, and that he can't even say anything to him good or bad. In other words he can't curse him or threaten him or do anything to injure him, nor can he do anything to attempt to entice him to come back to the land. Laban's hands are tied. And you would think in this circumstance he would be speechless. But from the account you have just read, you recognize that Jacob does very little talking and Laban does a lot. So he's not left speechless, but his words have not much power.

So in this passage Laban, the fearful, for that is what he is, Laban, the fearful, suggests that he and Jacob make a covenant. The passage breaks into basically two parts. In verses 43 and 44 we see Laban make this suggestion that they enter into a covenant relationship or that they confirm their relationship as a covenant relationship. Then in verses 45 through 55 you see the contents of that covenant. And I want to suggest to you that even in what is clearly a secular covenant and a covenant which is made in the context of great distrust and fear, that we have much to learn about God's covenant with us, even by comparison and contrast to this human covenant. Let's look at the passage together.

I. Jacob and Laban enter into a covenant.
First in verses 43 and 44 Laban makes a suggestion here that he and Jacob enter into the covenant. But I want you to understand that Laban makes that suggestion because he fears Jacob. Laban is afraid that Jacob is one day going to gather his forces and come back and give him his due. And so Laban, very strategically suggests that they make an alliance. That they make a pact of friendship before the presence of their gods to witness to one another that they will do no harm. The reason that Laban makes that suggestion is not because of the possibility that Laban will do Jacob harm. You understand that. It is because of the possibility that Jacob will do Laban harm. Jacob is clearly the greater. Jacob is the one who has been blessed by God. Jacob is the one whose God has prospered even Laban, and Laban has recognized that. Now Jacob has been protected by his God as he has fled from Laban and Laban has nothing that he can do. And so Laban suggests this covenant because of his fearfulness of Jacob.

Isn't it interesting that even a pagan knows to run to the covenant for refuge. Even pagan Laban knows that what he needs to protect himself in this circumstance is a covenant. He makes in verse 43 a false claim. Notice his words: "The daughters are my daughters. The children are my children. The flocks are my flocks. All that you see is mine." But my hands are tied, what can I do? So, I'm going to be generous with you, Jacob. I'm going to let you have all these things that really belong to me. So let's make a covenant together. Since I'm letting you have all these things that really belong to me, the least you can do for me is enter into a covenant agreement. Jacob stays silent.

I want to suggest to you that this is part of the Lord's character discipline for Jacob. Remember Jacob once stole a birthright that belonged to his brother, Esau. Now he has to listen to a pagan, Laban, tell him that everything that he has really belongs to him. God is disciplining Jacob, and Jacob to his credit doesn't open his mouth, and he's happy to cooperate in the plan that Laban suggests. And so fearful Laban asks for a covenant.

Now I want you to note one specific thing about the covenant that Laban indicates. Look at verse 44. "So, now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me." In verse 44 Laban says that the covenant is to be the witness between Jacob and himself. But if you cast your eyes on verse 48, we read Laban saying, "This heap (speaking of the stone, the pillar that Jacob has set up and the stones that have piled up around it). This heap is a witness between you and me this day." Now which is it? Is the covenant the witness or is the heap of stones the witness? The answer is of course, yes. The covenant is the witness and the heap of stones is the witness. And you see this all throughout the Bible with covenants and covenant signs. The covenant is the witness, the covenant sign is the witness. Sometimes God speaks about the covenant sign as if it's the covenant. Sometimes he speaks about the covenant as it's the covenant sign. Let me give you two examples. Turn back in Genesis. Genesis, chapter 15. We've looked at this before, but it's an important point, and it may seem a little obscure, but it's significant, because it helps you out of a mess in a couple of places in the New Testament, and I’ll show you one of the places it will help you out of a mess. But in Genesis 15, you remember in verse 18 if you’ll look back there, we read: "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram." So there we see God confirming the covenant promises to Abram in that ceremony that was performed there in Genesis 15 and which is described from verse 12 down to verse 17. The Lord makes a covenant. Now turn forward two chapters to Genesis, chapter 17, verse 2. Here in verse 2 God says, "And I will establish my covenant between me and you." I will make firm, I will confirm the covenant that already exists between me and you and what is the stuff of that covenant? What is the content of that covenant? The Lord makes it very clear in verse 8. Look at Genesis 17, verse 8. "I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. And so the stuff of this covenant is an eternal relationship with God, for Abraham and for his descendants and for blessings which flow from that.

So the covenant in its essence is confirming a special relationship with God. But look down two more verses and God says in verse 10, "This is My covenant." Now cut out the clause in between. "This is My covenant . . . Every male among you shall be circumcised." Read the verse again all the way through. "This is My covenant, which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised." Now read it without the clause again. "This is My covenant . . . Every male among you shall be circumcised." So what's the covenant? Is the covenant this relationship wherein Abraham and his descendants who trust in the Lord have God as their God and they are His people? Is that the covenant? Or is the covenant circumcision? And in the language of this passage, the answer is yes. Why? Because God called the covenant sign the covenant. So closely related is that covenant sign as a witness to the covenant that should Abraham and his descendants reject the covenant sign? God says you've rejected the covenant, because the covenant and the covenant sign are that closely related. That's exactly what you see in Genesis, chapter 31, verses 44 and 48. The covenant is a witness. The heap of stones is a witness. The covenant sign is a witness. The covenant itself is a witness.

Now how does that help you out in the New Testament. Well, turn with me to I Peter, chapter 3. In I Peter, chapter 3, in a very hard passage, there are several difficult things in this passage. Peter, just in passing after mentioning the flood of Noah, says in chapter 3, verse 21, "Now corresponding to that, baptism now saves you." Oops. Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and corresponding to that baptism now saves you. Now it's true Peter does help you out here. Look what he goes on to say. Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, Peter is saying I'm not talking about water baptism. I'm talking about what water baptism symbolizes, which is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The cleansing of the heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The consequence of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. That's what I'm talking about. That's what saves you. The work of the Spirit in you, that's what saves you. But isn't it interesting that he can say ‘corresponding to that baptism now saves you.’ Why can he say that? Because baptism is a covenant sign. And sometimes in the Bible the covenant is called the covenant sign, and sometimes the covenant sign is called the covenant, simply to show the close relationship between the sign that witnesses to the covenant.

Now our own confession of faith and Catechism speak about this. I'd invite you to take your hymnals and turn all the way back to page 864. Page 864 you’ll find The Westminster Confession, chapter XXVII, section II which speaks about the sacraments. And lo and behold in XXVII, II there's this very interesting passage. It says, "There is in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." Now The Confession of Faith, written 350 something years ago is simply saying exactly what we've just said. It's saying that sometimes in the Bible you’ll see the names and effects of the covenant sign applied to things which in fact they signify, and sometimes you’ll see the reality called as if it's the covenant sign. And you see that over and over. We could go to other passages tonight, but we don't have time. The point being here even in this passage we see an example of how the covenant sign is so closely related to the reality which it is supposed to set forth, that the reality can be called the sign, and the sign can be called the reality. The reality is a witness, the covenant is a witness, the heap of stones, the covenant sign is a witness. Both are called a witness in this passage. So, covenants are for security, even Laban knows that. That's the first thing we learn in this passage. If Laban wants to be secure, if he wants to make sure that Jacob is never going to come across that boundary again and attack him, he needs to be in a covenant relationship. Years later the Gibeonites would know this. They would know that the only way they were going to be safe from the Israelites was to be in a covenant relationship.

II. The content of the covenant.
And so Laban seeks this covenant relationship, and the content of that covenant is spread forth before you in verses 45 through 55. Let's look at that passage. Here the content of the covenant is set forth, and every component of this covenant itself serves to confirm the security of the relationship. Every component of this covenant serves to confirm the security of the relationship. You’ll see at least five components here. First of all look at verses 45 through 49. The covenant sign is talked about in those verses. It is a pillar and a heap of stones. Jacob, notice he takes the initiative, takes a stone, sets it up as his pillar, and tells his kinsmen, and this includes his wives and probably refers especially to those who are his kinsmen by marriage. That is, his wives and his children. Anybody that Laban might want to claim belongs to him. He tells his kin, okay, you go pick up a stone and you add it to this particular pile. Gather stones. And so in verses 45 through 49 this heap is set up as a witness. A pillar of witness. A witness to the covenant relationship which has been established between Laban and Jacob.

And then in verses 50 through 52 Laban spells out what he wants out of this covenant. And you’ll see it in verse 50 and in verse 52. In verse 50 Laban says now look, I don't want you to take any other wives, other than my daughters, lest they be displaced in the inheritance, and I don't want you to mistreat them. Isn't that sweet of Laban. The father who had been so attentive to his daughters that they had said that they felt like strangers to him. Those who have no natural affection often pretend it when it is to their advantage. ‘Oh, I so deeply care about these, my daughters, Jacob. I really want you to take good care of them.’ Now Jacob had shown no indication whatsoever of mistreating these women. And yet Laban, who had clearly mistreated them, is going to give him a lesson in how to treat his daughters. That surely grated Jacob. And yet we have no recorded words. Jacob says nothing.

And then he goes on in verse 52 and he says and furthermore we're going to set up this pillar and please never come this way, never pass by this pillar in order to do me harm. Never bring it on me. And of course I’ll never do the same either. I would never come this way with an army to harm you, Jacob. But we really need to set up this pillar, and we really need to call on the name of the God of Abraham for me to be able to trust a man like you not to come against me in warfare.

And so what Laban wants out of this is the protection of his daughters’ position in inheritance and significance in the family. But more than that he wants security. Isn't it interesting that those who are most spiteful are also most fearful of spite in others. I mean, Laban is thinking to himself, ‘if I were in Jacob's position, I'd want revenge. I'd better protect myself from revenge.’ Calvin puts it this way. "Wicked men always judge others from their own disposition." In other words they think that everybody else thinks as wickedly as they do. I mean Laban has been sitting there plotting revenge against Jacob for weeks. And he think,’ well, surely Jacob is doing the same towards me.’ But it's very clear from this passage that all Jacob wants is to be rid of Laban. He just doesn't want to have to deal with him anymore. He wants to be out of his sight, out of his presence, out of his memory. He wants nothing from him, he wants to do nothing to him, he just wants to go home. But Laban can't believe that a man would think like that, because he has enmity and murder in his own heart, he thinks that Jacob have enmity and murder in his. And so he seeks refuge in this covenant.

And then in verse 54 you see a sacrificial offering is made. Jacob goes on to the mountain we are told, and he offers a sacrifice. This indicates that the covenant has been solemnized as an act of religious worship. Sacrifices are offered to God. Jacob offers this sacrifice — the gods to whom he offers that sacrifice is not the God of Laban. It's the one true God who is the fear of Isaac. And so God is being called to witness this relationship. That's the third component. The pillar of witness, the responsibilities of the covenant and then the sacrificial offering.

And then it goes on in verse 54 to tell us that they sat down and they had a ceremonial meal together. The meal itself indicates the cessation of enmity. You don't want to sit down and eat with somebody that you don't like. You sit down and you eat generally with those that you do like, with whom you want to have fellowship, a friendship relationship. And the ceremonial meal confirming this covenant is to set forth the friendship that has been established here. That's the fourth component.

And then you see this fifth component. The oath. In verse 49 Laban puts it this way. May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent from one another. Now don't think, don't think that that was a blessing. Sometimes that's called a blessing of Mizpah. That is the statement of a fearful and a wicked man who is basically saying Jacob, the Lord, your God, note: the Lord, may He your God, watch between you and me when we're absent from one another. In other words, Jacob, I'm an honorable man. I would never do anything to harm you when we are out of sight with one another. But you on the other hand can't be trusted, so I call upon your God to keep a close eye on you so that you never do anything to me while we are apart. That's the oath that Laban lifts up. And he goes on in verse 53. You’ll see the rest of it there. He says, "The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us." Isn't it interesting. Laban, to cover his bases, appeals to the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, sort of your God and my God and the God of their father before him. Jacob's oath is not in the same name. It's interesting that Jacob's oath is in the name of his father, Isaac, and the God of his father, Isaac. Jacob swore by the fear of his father, Isaac. That's circumlocution for the God of Isaac. Interesting, isn't it? That Isaac never worshiped idols. Abraham was once an idol worshiper. Isaac never worshiped idols. And as his only rejoinder in this whole, demeaning dialogue Jacob gets one last jab in. I'm not going to swear by idols or the gods of idol worshipers. I'm going to swear by the God of my father, Isaac, who never worshiped idols, but only the true God. The God who redeemed Abraham and brought him out of Ur of the Caldees. And so this oath is mutually binding and establishes a peaceful relationship between Jacob and Laban, and Laban then disappears from the biblical record.

But that covenant itself is designed to establish security in a very distrustful relationship between Jacob and Laban. And the divine covenant which God makes with us transforms that human form of a covenant and uses the various aspects of human covenants in order to convince us of God's good purposes towards us. Turn with me to Hebrews, chapter 6. Hebrews, chapter 6. The author of Hebrews talks about what God has done in the divine covenant. And you’re going to see two components here of that covenant. The covenant promise and the covenant oath. We’ll begin in verse 13 of Hebrews, chapter 6.

I'm going to read from Hinds Cusseurs translation of the New Testament. He is a gentlemen who was a Jewish professor of philosophy for many years at the University of Glasgow and was converted. And he was an expert in translating ancient Greek. And so he wanted to write a New Testament translation that accurately reflected the Hebrew background. This is how he writes his translation of this paragraph. Hebrews 6, beginning in verse 13: "When God made His promise to Abraham, He swore by Himself (you’ll find that in Genesis 22:16). He swore by Himself. Since there was no one greater to swear by saying of a certainty I shall exceedingly bless you and exceedingly shall I multiply your descendants." And so it came about that Abraham, having waited patiently, obtained what had been promised to him. Men do indeed swear by something greater than themselves. And in their case an oath putting an end to all disputing serves as a final confirmation. And it was taking this into consideration that God being determined to signify with greater clarity to the inheritors of the promise that in this matter his purpose was unchangeable provided a further guarantee by swearing an oath. So that in virtue of two things incapable of being changed and about which it is impossible that God should play us false, we should find ourselves powerfully encouraged, we who are seeking our safety by holding fast to the hope that is set before us.

And this hope is indeed ours like an anchor of the soul, firm and sure. When Laban wanted to protect himself from the hateful aggression of Jacob, which didn't exist, he sought a covenant, a promise and an oath. When God wanted to assure your doubting hearts, that He would fulfill everything that He had promised, He gave you a covenant, and He swore an oath by Himself because there was no one greater by whom He could swear so that you could be assured that He was absolutely unchanging in his purpose, not only to redeem you, but to give you every last single blessing that He has ever promised in His word. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, help our feeble hearts and our weak faith to trust strongly in the promises and the oath of God revealed in His covenant. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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