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The Flight to Canaan

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 31, 1999

Genesis 31:1-21

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Genesis 31:1-21
The Flight to Canaan

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 31. Last week's study provides the backdrop for the events which will occur here in the first half of Genesis 31. Indeed the whole of Genesis 31. And so as you turn to Genesis 31, you may want to sneak a peek at Genesis 30 and remember some of the things we learned last week.

In verses 25 and 26 of Genesis, chapter 30, we learned that Jacob was prepared to leave empty-handed to return to his homeland. He was fed up with his relationship with Laban, and he was ready to go home with nothing rather than to stay around with Laban's double dealing. And Laban talked him into staying. We learned that that desire on Laban's part for Jacob to stay was not something that was noble and altruistic, it was self-interest. He recognized that God had prospered him through Jacob, and so he was quite anxious for Jacob to stay around so that he might enjoy prosperity. And so we saw Jacob make an agreement with Laban. He didn't want to accept wages from him, but he was willing to work out sort of a partnership, whereby he could earn his own blessing and income. And so Laban accepts Jacob's proposal, clearing thinking he got the better end of the arrangement. Indeed, he set up an administrative arrangement that he thought would certainly protect him against Jacob getting more out of the deal than he got. He put his sons in charge of the flocks, he put distance between his flocks and Jacob's flocks, and he put into place some restrictions which seem to favor him as opposed to Jacob.

But, as we saw in verses 37 through 43, despite Laban's plan and despite Jacob's trust in superstition, God in his providence, prospered Jacob. And so in sum we said last week that God was preparing Jacob to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone by showing him clearly His providential care of him. And in the passage we're going to look at tonight, we're going to see that that message was beginning to get through to Jacob. God's divine tutelage was bearing some fruit. His instruction, his teaching was impacting the way that Jacob looked at everything. And you’ll see it even in the way Jacob describes his prosperity in Genesis 31. It's a very different picture than we see even in Genesis, chapter 30. So let's turn to Genesis 31 and we’ll look at verses 1 through 21, and see the fruits of the Lord's divine instruction of Jacob. This is God's word:

Our Lord and our God, this is Your word and even as we read this story of old, we know that You mean it for our instruction for these things happened and were written, and they have come upon us who are living at the end of the ages, for our instruction that we might walk in the way of truth and trust in the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength. So makes these words profitable for us, we pray, in Jesus' name, Amen.

In Genesis, chapter 30, we saw a Jacob who is tempted to trust in his own skill and his own schemes still to bring about his own prosperity. By Genesis 31 when he is relating the source of his prosperity to his wives, Leah and Rachel, he does not mention one thing about his own skills, but he entirely credits the Lord with what has happened to him. I think you see that in the very responsibility of teaching his wives about the Lord's providence that Jacob is realizing himself that it is God who has prospered him. And that realization of God's kind providence is dramatic in its impact upon Jacob and his Christian and his spiritual growth. So let's look at this passage together. I think it breaks into three parts.

If you look at the first three verses, you see the background to Jacob's departure. The first three verses tell you a little bit both on the divine and the human side about what motivates Jacob to leave Laban. Then if you look at verses 4 through 16 you’ll see Jacob's words of explanation to his wives, as he attempts to persuade them that it's a wise, a reasonable, a right thing for them to do — to leave their homeland and to go back to his homeland. And then in verses 17 to 21 we see a description of Jacob's flight back to his homeland. Let's look at this passage together tonight.

I. Jacob prepares to depart.

First, in verses 1 through 3. Here we see the divine and human background to Jacob's departure from Laban. Jacob's desires and his circumstances converged now with God's calling to lead him back home to Canaan. Six years before Jacob had wanted to leave to go back to his homeland. But he had entered into an agreement which had subsequently enriched him, and he had stayed with Laban another six years. And here in this passage, we are told that Jacob was stirred to reconsider his return to Canaan by a convergence of several factors.

First of all, if you look at verse 1, Jacob tells us that his brothers, his step-brothers and his father-in-law, and very likely now Laban had become Jacob's adoptive father, so that Jacob was actually an adoptive son of Laban and ostensibly his heir, the heir to his fortune. Jacob tells us that his stepbrothers and his father-in-law were now clearly antagonistic towards him and that he had fallen out of Laban's favor. Laben had always wanted him around because of the prosperity which Jacob brought. But now apparently that there are other sons on the scene, it is entirely likely that Laban has changed his legal relationship to Jacob and has made another of his sons his legal prime heir. This, among other things, has led Jacob to speak in this understatement that he had fallen out of favor. He's not just telling us that he's a little less popular with Laban now, he's saying that Laban is actually antagonistic towards him.

Furthermore, we are told in verse 3 that God has come to Jacob and promised him safe passage back to Canaan and has in fact called him to return to the promised land. And later, forward in Genesis, chapter 32, verse 3, Jacob tells us that his conscience had been convicted, that he needed to reconcile himself with Esau. So all these things are going on in Jacob's heart and mind in the situation. And they come together in order to lead him back to the land of Canaan.

But it is interesting to note, isn't it, that the outward factors, the antagonism of his brothers, the accusations of his brothers, the antagonism of his father-in-law, his own desires which had been expressed some years ago to go back to the land of Canaan. Those outward factors were not definitive in leading Jacob to go. It was only when God's call, when God's word, when God's revelation came to him that he decided to go. And I think that shows us a couple of things.

First of all it shows us the importance of God's revelation and guidance. Jacob does not merely depend on outward providences to determine the right course of action. He depends upon the word of God. And should that not be our way today? Should the Bible, as God's divinely inspired and only authoritative and infallible revelation, not be the prime point of departure from which we make our decisions? Not merely our reading of providence, but our response to God's holy word. And let me also suggest that the fact that God had to call Jacob out of the homeland of Leah and Rachel and back to his own homeland perhaps tells us something about the level of comfort that Jacob had experienced. Yes, Jacob was justifiably complaining about the treatment that he had experienced from Laban.

But, that having been said, Jacob was enormously prosperous. Is it possible that there's a little comfort here on Jacob's part which has made him a little less anxious to get back home than he appeared to be six years before when he was empty-handed? Could it be that God is giving him a divine shove. Suddenly his brothers-in-law are against him. Suddenly his father-in-law turns antagonistic towards him. Could this be God's own divine push to move Jacob back to the land of Canaan, the land of promise? You know, sometimes the Lord gives us a gracious shove. And I think that's exactly what's happening here. When you get comfortable and you’re not where God ultimately wants you to be, you can expect Him to make you uncomfortable so that you will restart the journey towards where He wants you ultimately to be. And I think that's exactly what's happening with Jacob here. With all his problems, he's prosperous, and the Lord needs to remind him again of his need to return home to the promised land. That's what we see in the background of verses 1 through 3.

II. Jacob begins to learn the lesson of God's kind providence.

And then in verses 4 through 16, you see Jacob beginning to learn the lesson of God's kind providence. And it's striking to me that Jacob seems to begin to learn this lesson as he has the responsibility of teaching it. In this passage Jacob has to go to his wives and make the case for leaving their father, their family, their homeland, their network of friends and going to his home where they know no one. Now every husband whose ever had to convince his wife to do something like that knows exactly what Jacob is going through here. He's pacing around in the field trying to figure out how in the world am I going to convince these women to do this. And so he calls them out into the field. He takes them away from the tent where they can't be overheard, where none of the servants can here them discussing, where none of his relatives can hear them discussing, and he brings them out into the field where they could talk in complete privacy.

And you can tell that Jacob has been thinking about this because if you look at verses 5 through 13 he makes six distinct arguments to them about why it's a good thing for them to pack up everything and leave and go to his home. Look at the arguments.

First, in verse 5, he says Laban has turned unfavorable to me. Whereas, in the past I have been favored in his eyes, whereas, in the past he has at least sent something of the blessing of my presence, now I'm detecting antagonism. And then he quickly says, but God is with me. So, he's saying to his wife, look, you’re father has turned against me, but it's very important for you to recognize that God is still with me. So your father is against me, God is with me. What is Jacob already doing? He is teaching his wives the providence of God. Your father is against me, but God is for me. That's his first argument.

Then if you look at verse 6, he goes on to say and let me tell you something else. I haven't shortchanged your dad. I have worked hard for him, I have worked long for him. I worked for fourteen years for unfair wages, and in the last six years he's going to say to Laban a little bit later on, in the last six years he's changed my wages more times than I care to remember. The arrangement that we made — he continually was changing the arrangements. If the speckled animals were prospering he said, well why don't you take the striped. And if the striped were prospering, then he said well, why don't you take something else. And on and on the changes continued to occur. And so Jacob says secondly, that he has worked hard and faithfully for Laban. He stresses the faithfulness of his work for Laban. In verse 7 he goes on to say thirdly, that Laban has been unfair to him. He's changed those wages over and over. But then he stresses again — but God hasn't allowed him to hurt me.

So notice again, for the second time he explicitly emphasizes what is God's providence. You see, on the one hand he wants to show that he's been dealt with unfairly. And on the other hand he wants to show his wives that he is no longer in favor with Laban, but at the same time he doesn't want them to think oh my, we are in trouble now. If dad isn't in favor of us, who will be? And so he stresses look, your dad isn't the ultimate judge in the universe, God is. And He's been with me, and He's been for me, and He's protected me all along. So he makes these three arguments in verses 5, 6 and 7.

III. God has prospered him with wives.

But he's not finished there. In verses 8 and 9 he goes on to say and remember wives God has prospered me. Despite all the things that your dad has done, I have really done well. And I've done well not because I was clever, but because God was with me, and He has prospered me. And I want you to notice here that Jacob places all the credit on the Lord's providence. Last chapter he was using superstitions to try and produce sheep of his own kind. Now, he credits God Himself as the one who is due all the glory for his prosperity.

IV. God's providential prospering was given in a divine revelation.
Then, in verse 10 he goes on to make a fifth argument. He says that God's providential prospering of himself was confirmed to him in a divine revelation. God came to him in a dream during mating season, and reminded him explicitly that all his prosperity came from Him. What's he doing? He's teaching his wives the doctrine of God's providence over and over. As Jacob has become aware of God's providence, he is making that clear to his wives. And as he is forced to teach his wives, he, himself, is having reinforced in his own mind and heart the reality of God's providence. And then he goes on.

V. God reminds Jacob of his vow.
Look at verses 11 through 13. Furthermore, sixth argument, Jacob was reminded in a dream of a vow that he had made at Bethel. He had asked the Lord to provide for him some food, and some clothing and some shelter. And God came to him in this revelation, and said Jacob I'm the God of Bethel. Remember that vow you made a long, long time ago? Twenty years ago? You said that you would follow Me. You made a vow to me. If I was faithful to you, then you would follow Me. And He reminded him of that again. Look especially at verse 13. "I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land and return to the land of your birth." So, basically Jacob says to his wives, look God has reminded me of a vow that I made to Him. This same God that has been prospering me all this time has reminded me of a vow that I made to Him. He's calling in His chips. What can I do, wives? He makes this argument and then you can see him holding his breath waiting to see what the response is going to be. Is this a persuasive argument with these women?

VI. The response of Jacob's wives.
And low and behold, what he gets is a venting session; not against him, but against his father-in-law. They've been offended all along by the actions of their father. Their father's sinfulness and the way that he has made trade out of them, the way he has used them has come home to roost, and now they are alienated from their father and they cleave to their husband and they’re willing to follow in the way. Look how they respond in verses 14 through 16. They respond favorably. In fact, they are enthusiastic about his argument, and they vent against their own father. They say four things.

First of all in verse 14 they say they feel as if they no longer have an inheritance in their father's house. They feel like they have been totally excluded from their father's plans for future blessing and inheritance. You see the sense of alienation there, but they don't stop. It goes on. Two things they say in verse 15. They say first, that they feel as if they are strangers to their father. They feel like their father treats them like foreigners. They no longer feel a family relation to him. And they go on to say at the end of verse 15 that they feel as if they have been sold or used by their father for his own benefit, but that he's not concerned for their welfare. In other words, they've fetched their father a handsome dowry, but he's used it all up on himself, and has no view to blessing them in the future after his own death. And so they feel as if they have been used, as if they’re chattel.

And finally they go on to say that they see God's hand of providence, and they agree to it. They agree to depart from their father's household and land. They see that Jacob's plan is not only wise, it is just.

Now this seems to me to be another indication of God's blessing upon Jacob. This would have no doubt been a wrenching decision for these women to uproot from every network that they had and leave to another land. You see, by the way, how deep the alienation was. But I also think you have to see in that God's hand of blessing. Because where had God been disciplining Jacob most severely? Right at home. Right in the family. And here where you might expect a tremendous conflict to arise, you see these women immediately agree, yes, your plan is good. Now think again, you have to see this as God's hand of providence.

But I want you to notice two things especially that are important for us to recognize here. First of all, isn't it interesting that Jacob seems to begin to be more explicitly aware of God's providence when he has to teach it to his wives? Isn't that always the way? When the Lord calls on us to teach His truth, we realize it ourselves more clearly. And even as we seek to be a blessing to others in conveying to them the truth, we learn it ourselves in a deeper, in a broader, in a more expansive way. And that's what happens to Jacob. He has the responsibility of convincing his wives of the wisdom, of the rightness of this course of action. And in the process he has to teach them God's providence. And as he does so, he grows himself in his realization of God's providence.

I also want you to note that Jacob has the responsibility of training his wives in the knowledge of truth. You see the spiritual responsibility of Jacob here. Turn with me to Ephesians, chapter 5. I think Paul picks up on this. In Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 25, 26 and 27, a passage that we read all the time at weddings but which we don't pause enough to reflect upon and pray through, Paul says husbands love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. And in the passage he indicates the purpose of Christ giving Himself up for the church. You’ll see it in the very first phrase of verse 26. "That he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. That he might present to himself the church in all her glory having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless." Now in that passage Paul is telling us that Christ loved the church in this way. That he might sanctify her. That at the end the church might be presented to him. But remember Paul is using that truth, and he's saying now husbands you need to love your wives in the way that Christ loved the church.

If that is the case, my friends, and I preach to myself first tonight, if that is the case, all my friends who are Christian husbands in the congregation our job is to love our wives in such a way that we ourselves are responsible to Christ for fostering her sanctification that she might be presented to her Savior, her bridegroom, at the last day.

I don't know about you but that is an absolutely awesome and daunting concept. We have the responsibility of helping our wives grow in grace, growing in their knowledge of God's providence and his plan so that they may be holy and blameless and presented to the Lord Jesus at the end without a spot. I think that's something for us to pray through to commit ourselves to being accountable to one another. Are we doing that? Are we taking that type of spiritual responsibility in the home? So often times we leave that spiritual leadership to our wives in the home. Are we, however, taking our priestly responsibilities in the home and ministering to them. Jacob did in this instance. Jacob isn't consistently good in this area, but in this instance Jacob takes the responsibility to train his wives in the doctrine of the Lord's providence.

VI. Jacob departs to his homeland.
And then we see in verses 17 through 21 Jacob begin his flight back to his homeland. It's stressed in verse 18 that Jacob took only what he had earned in accordance with the agreement with Laban. There's nothing that Jacob takes with him that he didn't deserve, that wasn't his by right. That's stressed, and then it's immediately contrasted in verse 19 with Rachel's actions. We are told that as soon as her father was away, Rachel stole the household items, the teraphim, unbeknownst to Jacob, unbeknownst to her father, she steals the household idols. And this is a portent of future trouble.

Now there's a lot of discussion about why Rachel did this. Household idols were used for a number of things in this culture. They were used to divine, they were used as oracles to determine the future. They were used for worship in the home. They were usually female deities and they were often seen as necessary for the producing of fertility. So Rachel's reasons for stealing the household idols may have been she may have feared that unless the household idols were stolen, her father would be able to track them down. She may have desired to have the household idols in order to cultivate her own fertility. She may have wanted the household items as part of her worship. And we also know that those household idols were often times a sign of a person's right to receive an inheritance. So she may, feeling that her father had stiffed her of her rightful inheritance, have stolen those idols as a way of claiming her right to receive an inheritance. Whatever the case is we do know this. Her taking of those household idols is an indication of a fault in her own piety and it was a portent for trouble ahead. We’ll see this in the time of Dinah. And of course Moses knows that the children of Israel themselves are going to struggle with what? Going after other gods after they come out of the land of Egypt. And so as he's writing to these people who themselves have just come out of the land of Egypt, and who are tempted to go back to the gods of their culture around them, and he's saying look, this caused trouble back in the days of the patriarchs. This is a word of warning.

My friends, none of us have household idols, or do we? All of us are tempted to give in to the idols of our culture, to the way that our culture thinks, to give priority to the things that are culture thinks are priorities, and to worship the things that our unbelieving neighbors worship in this life. And whenever we do that we ourselves have just carried along our own personal household idols on our journey to follow the Lord back to the land of Canaan. And Moses is warning us here of the trouble that that brings.

Now Jacob deceives Laban in his flight. He hides his flight from him. And can you blame him? He tried to get away six years before and Laban had stopped him, and I think he anticipated the kind of trouble that he was going to receive from Laban. And yet, ultimately, even if we disagree with Jacob's methods in his leaving, he is ultimately responding to the call of God, the call of God to go back to the land of Canaan. And that's something for all of us to remember in our own responsibility to the Lord tonight. Let's pray.

Our Heavenly Father, we pray that You would remove from our heart our dearest idols, that we might seek and follow and find You alone and above all. We ask, oh Lord, that You would help us to obey our responsibilities and to keep our covenant vows to You and to our family, for we ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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