Then Laban Departed

Sermon preached on Genesis 31:17-55 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/18/2024 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

As we continue our sermon series today, we continue studying the life of Jacob, though the subsection on Laban comes to a close. We’ve seen Jacob and Laban wrestling throughout their relationship, and that wrestling will finally come to an end in today’s passage. Jacob will leave Paddan-aram, the home of Laban, in order to return back to his home in Canaan, in the Promised Land. Yet, how Jacob leaves for home, will spark this final confrontation with Laban, that by the grace of God will end with a covenant of peace made between them. That will then clear the way for Jacob and family to finish their journey back to Canaan.

Let’s consider in our first point verses 17-35, as we see Jacob flee Paddan-aram. Recall that last week we saw Jacob received revelation from God that it was time for him to return home. Jacob also discussed this with his wives who fully agreed with him and supported the decision. So then we see him proceed to pack up and leave in verses 17-18. We should note that the text describes everything he took with him as his own possessions that he acquired during his time there. He then sets out with them to return to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

But then we see verses 19-21 the manner in which Jacob left. It describes him as fleeing from Laban. This language of fleeing is just as it sounds, that he is described as running away from Laban. Jacob leaves town when Laban is away shearing his sheep, without saying goodbye or anything of that sort. The text tells us how to understand this there in verse 20, that Jacob tricked Laban. There’s actually an idiom used here, that Jacob stole Laban’s heart, but it means that Jacob tricked or deceived Laban by not telling him that he was leaving. This is another less-than-commendable action of Jacob. It may be a very understandable thing given the state of the relationship between Jacob and Laban. It also seems very much in character with Jacob that he would do another sort of deception as he leaves town. It was right for him to go, but he doesn’t do it above reproach.

So then, we have this interesting side note about Rachel stealing her father’s idols in verse 19. We are not told why she stole them. Let us be careful not to impute motives when the text doesn’t tell us. Maybe she stole them because a part of her heart still trusted in the false gods of her father. Maybe she stole them because they could be sold for money. Maybe she stole them because she wanted to deprive her father from them, because she was upset with him. Maybe she falsely though she improved their chances of getting away if he didn’t have his gods to help him. Again, we don’t know why she took them, and the text doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that the text parallels this closely with Jacob’s action. Rachel stole Laban’s gods, and Jacob stole Laban’s heart, i.e. deceived him by fleeing without telling him. She has no allegiance left for her father. So, their actions show a sort of solidarity of these parting shots against Laban as they leave. Jacob and also his wife continue their wrestling with Laban even as they leave.

So the text tells us that they end up with a three day head start on Laban. Then, in verses 23, Laban goes on the pursuit. It takes him seven days, but he eventually catches up to Jacob and family. He overtakes them in the hill country of Gilead. This was quite a long way. Jacob had already made it most of the way home. He was getting close to the Jordan River, and so not that much farther to go. This was like if you were traveling from here to Los Angeles, that he got to the Grapevine. But he wasn’t there yet, and Laban overtakes him. When Laban gets there, we notice that Laban rebukes Jacob starting in verse 26. “Why did you flee secretly and trick me and did not tell me?” He also accuses him of basically stealing his daughters, which of course wasn’t true. But maybe you can remember here back to somewhat previous instances with the patriarchs. Where Abraham and Isaac both do something they shouldn’t do, and an outsider admonishes them for it. I have in mind, for example, Genesis 20 where Abraham lies to Abimelech that his wife was just his sister, and Genesis 26 where Isaac does the same sort of thing. I pointed out in both cases that being so admonished by a pagan should really sting. Here, Jacob gets admonished by Laban in a somewhat similar way for his duplicitous actions.

Yet, in another display of God’s grace even to sinners like Jacob, God again came to the aid of Jacob. For, verse 24 shows that just before Laban meets up with Jacob, that God appeared to Laban in a dream with a grave warning. God tells him not to say anything to Jacob good or bad. Context helps us understand that this was apparently an idiom for don’t try to get Jacob to change his mind. In other words, it’s not that Laban can’t speak to Jacob at all, but he is not allowed to try to get him to come back. You can imagine Laban could have tried one of two tactics to try to get Jacob to return. He could threaten Jacob with evil or he could entice Jacob with some good offer. But God forbids Laban from this.

So then, Laban is smart enough to recognize not to disobey God on this. And Laban instead explains to Jacob that he will not do him harm because of it, verse 29. This confession by Laban might impress us, that he is so keen to listen to God, until we see him then also turn to express his concern about his stolen idols. This episode where Laban searches but can’t find his idols reminds us that he is no follower of the one true God. He recognizes the LORD as the God of Abraham and Isaac. But he has his own gods himself. Yet, this passage would also cause God’s people to laugh that Laban’s so called gods could be so hidden in such a frankly comical ruse by Rachel. Yet, Rachel has apparently learned how to deceive well from both father and husband.

Let us now turn to our second point and consider verses 36-44. This is where we see now Jacob raise his complaint boldly against Laban. Laban had his opportunity to complain to Jacob. But now Jacob responds. Let us begin by seeing the context of Jacob’s response. Laban has basically called Jacob a thief in multiple ways. He has accused him of stealing his idols, which no proof could be found – though in reality his wife had stolen them, but in God’s mercy, this was hidden from Laban. But also, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his daughters, and even in verse 43, Laban explicitly claims that everything Jacob has really belongs to him. So, Laban has essentially called Jacob a thief and Jacob’s fleeing has just been how you’d expect a thief to leave. On a related note, the word for stealing appears some seven times in this passage, with various uses. That shows this is a theme brought into view here. And let me also remind you back in Genesis 14, that Abraham refused any compensation from the King of Sodom, lest he claim that he made Abraham rich. Here, Abraham’s seed is being accused of stealing, so that Laban says Jacob is only rich from taking everything that belonged to Laban.

So, Jacob goes on the offense with his response. First, Jacob berates him for not finding his idols, or any other of his household goods, for that matter, verse 37. He invites Laban to offer any proof before these many witnesses if there is anything of Laban’s found among Jacob’s household. Of course, while in fact there are stolen idols, that is more of a commentary on the worthless power of Laban’s gods over the true might of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jacob then recounts his twenty years of service to Laban. First, he mentions the quality of his work, that Laban’s livestock faired well under his care, and that he never pilfered any of animals for himself. Jacob even says that he bore the loss of any animals out of his own expense, which surely is going above and beyond the duty for a hired shepherd. He further goes on to explain how difficult the work had been. Heat and cold affected him miserably.

Then Jacob turns to address the wages. He points out how they had agreed on wages. The first fourteen years were for his daughters. The last six years were their profit sharing arrangement that resulted in Jacob owning this large flock. But Jacob points out that Laban kept trying to change the terms of the deal. Of course, we saw Laban do that with the daughters, that he gave Jacob Leah when he had worked for Rachel, for example, And apparently he did something similar with the flocks and their profit sharing agreement.

But then you have to love what Jacob does here. So far, Jacob’s rebuttal to Laban emphasized his own work. But then Jacob turns it back to talk about God. Look at verse 42. He credits the God of his fathers being on his side. Jacob describes Laban’s treatment of him as affliction, but Jacob says that the God of his fathers had been protecting him. So, this is a huge recognition and a big sign of Jacob’s growth. I would note that still Jacob doesn’t use the language of “my God” yet, but nonetheless we see great growth here with Jacob. Jacob rightly credits God in giving him the victory over Laban. Laban and Jacob wrestled much, but it was ultimately God that made Jacob to prevail. Jacob further hints at that here even when he speaks of the God of Isaac as the Fear of Isaac, which is the first time we see that title and it is used twice here in this passage. But this likely implies a reminder to Laban of the dream he had. Laban should fear the Fear of Isaac and not try to afflict Jacob any further. Indeed, Jacob now has a godly confidence that the LORD will deliver him from this house of bondage that he has been under.

Laban’s reply to Jacob’s complaint is not very commendable. In verse 43, he maintains that everything Jacob has is really his. But, in light of the circumstances, he doesn’t know what he can do. So, that is when he offers them to enter into a covenant. That aspect is commendable, in itself, and also wise. But the point we should understand here, is that while he offers to enter into a treaty of peace between them, it is not that Laban is repentant. He just doesn’t know what else he can do. In someone who is always trying to maneuver things to his advantage, he doesn’t see any other move that he can make.

That leads us then to our third point, to look at verses 44-55, and consider this covenant that they enter into. Here they have all the typical features of a covenant. There are stones setup as a pillar to serve as a witness to the covenant. There’s a covenant meal to express the peace under the covenant. There are also stipulations of the covenant. Those are two-fold here. Laban demands that Jacob not taking any other wives and also that he treat his daughters well. Finally, we see some proper concern by Laban for his daughters. And then they also have these boundaries setup. That location is to serve as a boundary marker between the two families. Neither side should cross over for the purposes of battle to harm the other. Laban clearly fears that Jacob would continue to grow in strength and might want to come back later to perturb Laban, so he is seeking an oath that such will not happen.

And so that is the last component of the covenant. Covenants involve swearing an oath, typically in the name of deity. So then, Laban invokes the names of both family’s deities. He invokes the gods of his father Nahor, and the God of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather. Jacob returns the oath in verse 53, but commendably he only swore in the name of the one true God, again employing name of the Fear of Isaac. To address a question, it is often asked if in verse 53 if the language is of one God that is both the God of Abraham and Nahor, or if Laban is referring to two separate Gods. As I’ve suggested, I think the grammar would suggest us to understand this as referring to two separate gods. And clearly from the passage, Laban has his idols that are not the same as the one true God.

So then, with this covenant, the wrestling between Jacob and Laban comes to an end. It started when Laban tricked Jacob by giving him Leah in marriage instead of Rachel. It continued through their business wranglings with each other as we saw last chapter. It comes to a culmination here, where despite how they both contributed in different ways to the wrestling, God blesses Jacob over Laban. But God not only blesses Jacob over Laban, but he works so that they have peace, and Jacob is able to finally return home after so many years.

To clarify, this is why the wrestling ends. It is God who ends it. Think of what might have happened in this chapter if God hadn’t given Laban that warning in a dream. Of course, step back, and think of how things would have gone differently if God had not been protecting Jacob all along. God allowed Jacob to go through this period of wrestling, but God brings this wrestling between Jacob and Laban here to an end. And when the dust clears, Jacob is not only greatly prospered through it all, but Jacob has learned more about relying on the Lord. Just see how Jacob is talking about the LORD now versus years prior. Jacob still has spiritual growing to do, but God has been working on his heart through this season.

You know, as we think about this boundary line that Jacob and Laban set, to distinguish their sides from each other, I’m reminded of a line from the book of Revelation. Rev. 22:14-15 speaks of the age come, that only God’s people will be allowed to enter the heavenly city of New Jerusalem. It’s painted like a boundary line, that God’s people are inside the city, but there will be the evil people outside the city. It colorfully describes those outside the city with a list of their vices, including that they are idolaters and people who practice falsehood. So think of our story and this boundary line that divides Jacob and family from Laban and family. Laban was an idolator and someone who practiced falsehood. We can understand why he ended up on the wrong side of the boundary line. Yet, pause for a moment and remember the falsehoods that Jacob had given. And remember that even now Rachel is carrying those idols into the Promised Land side of that boundary line after she just lied about them? Why should Jacob and Rachel be received by God?

Only by the grace of God. Grace that ultimately comes from his line when Jesus is born to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. Even Jacob’s sacrifice that he does today in verse 54 looks ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice to atone for his sins and for Rachel’s sins. God wasn’t through yet with Jacob and Rachel. But they could end up on the right side of the boundary line only by the grace of God – grace that ultimately comes in Jesus.

As for Laban – he may have made a peace treaty with Jacob, but to separate from Jacob and distance himself from him wasn’t actually what was best. Laban needed to not maintain his claims that he was in the right, but rather Laban should have a repentant heart. He should have sought Jacob’s forgiveness and looked to truly love and bless Jacob. Maybe he should have even asked if he could move back to the Promised Land to be with Jacob and family. To be with the blessed line of Jacob would have been the best for Laban and family. If you are an outsider today to God’s people, if you have been on the wrong side of the boundary line of God’s people, he invites you today to turn and believe in Jesus and become a part of his chosen and redeemed people.

In conclusion, we can look back on the lives of the people here and learn both from their successes and their mistakes. Let us look to live commendably with integrity, even when the world doesn’t treat us that way, because we trust in God. As much as it depends upon us, let us look to live in peace with all men. Let us know that God is guiding us unto an eternal Promised Land, but we are not there yet. God will ultimately vindicate us on that final day, but until then, let us grow in relying on him and trusting him for life in this fallen world.


Copyright © 2024 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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