Jacob builds his wealth
Genesis 30:25 – 31:55
Key Verse 31:13
“I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.”
In today’s passage we continue our study of Jacob’s life in Paddan Aram. To better understand this passage, it is helpful to start with a brief review. Jacob had come to Paddan Aram fourteen years earlier, while running away from his father’s household to escape from his older brother Esau, who wanted to murder Jacob for deceiving him. Jacob had been all alone out in the desert, not knowing what would happen to the future of his life. All he had for his pillow was a rock, hard and cold, just like his life had become. But at this lowest moment of his life, when all his hopes and ambitions were broken and shattered, when he didn’t know what to do, the almighty God had appeared to Jacob in a spectacular dream of angels of God ascending and descending upon a stairway that stretched from earth all the way towards heaven. At the top of the staircase stood the Lord, who extended to Jacob, despite all his lies and deception, the wonderful covenant He had given to Abraham. “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth….All nations on earth will be blessed through you.” God promised to be with Jacob and watch over him and bring him back to the land of Canaan. At that time, fourteen years earlier, Jacob had been so moved by this vision that he had made a vow that if God really did protect him as God promised, then he would claim this God has his personal God. He had vowed, “The Lord will be my God.”
However, once Jacob reached Paddan Aram, this glorious spiritual vision as well as his vow to God, seem to have vanished from Jacob’s mind like the morning mists as the sun rises in the sky. It is replaced by what seems like a very worldly story of Jacob vs. Laban, of the apprentice deceiver vs. the master deceiver, each struggling and maneuvering against each other to gain the upper hand in a dog-eat-dog world.
Yet a careful study reveals that the true story of this passage is not Jacob vs. Laban, but God Who had made a covenant with Jacob, God Who was protecting Jacob, God Who was patiently shepherding Jacob by His one-sided grace until God could lead Jacob out of Paddan Aram and back to Bethel, to resume his life of faith and be reinserted into God’s glorious salvation history. We too may have to suffer at the hand of the Laban’s of the world—actually, it’s inevitable, because that is the way of the world; but if you are a Christian, God promises that He will be your Good Shepherd, just as He was for Jacob. Have you been wandering in the world, struggling and trying to survive by your own human strength? If so, God calls you to remember your vow and return to Bethel, to give your heart and trust to Him once again.
Part 1. God grants Jacob success (30:25-43)
Look at v. 25, 26. “After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, ‘Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.’” Jacob was Laban’s nephew, but Laban hardly seemed to think of Jacob as more than a source of labor, a kind of business asset. Laban made his own nephew work for 7 years to obtain the daughter he loved as his wife, Rachel, but then he tricked Jacob by giving him the older daughter Leah instead, then he made Jacob work another 7 years to get Rachel, whom he had originally worked for. What kind of uncle would treat his own nephew like this? When I was in grad school and had no money, my aunt gave me, her nephew, $1000 so that I could buy a used car and she never asked for it back. She was proud of me and loved me. She was a true aunt. Laban was nothing more to Jacob than a boss, so after 14 years of hard work, he was ready to leave.
Look at v. 27-28. “But Laban said to him, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you. He added, ‘Name your wages, and I will pay them.’” By his deception, he had extorted 7 years of Jacob’s life. Actually, Laban had truly hurt Jacob and taken advantage of him. Can money actually replace 7 years of someone’s life? But to Laban it was strictly a business matter. Laban’s philosophy was that every person has his price, so he said, “Name your wages and I’ll pay them.”
Who could resist such an offer? Jacob was a businessman as well, and saw an opportunity to gain something for himself and his own household. (30) This conversation between Jacob and Laban was a conversation between two adversaries. They were like two opponents maneuvering in a high stakes game of chess. Jacob knew his value to Laban and sought a way to gain some guaranteed benefit for his services. He knew that he had to be really careful, or Laban would cheat him and he would get nothing for his work. On the other hand, Laban needed Jacob so he appears to offer him a blank check, but Laban was a master at finding tricky ways to always come out on top in the end. In v. 31a, Laban prompted Jacob, “What shall I give you?” “Hey, whatever you want, I’ll pay it.”
Finally, Jacob came up with a plan he thought would work. Let’s read v.31b-34. “Don't give me anything,’ Jacob replied. ‘But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them. Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark colored, will be considered stolen.’ ‘Agreed,’ said Laban. ‘Let it be as you have said.’” We don’t know for sure if Jacob thought he could get rich off this scheme. But of one thing Jacob was sure. There could be no possible confusion about which flocks belonged to him and which flocks belonged to Laban. So Jacob abandoned his plans to leave even though he knew how crafty Laban was. There is no mention here of seeking God’s will in the matter. Jacob doesn’t pray like Isaac. He doesn’t build an altar like Abraham. Jacob was depending not on God but on himself and his own smarts. He stayed for one, calculated reason: because he was sure that he had figured out a way to gain from Laban some material benefit for himself and his household. However, Jacob was wrong. He underestimated Laban’s guile. V. 35, 36 say that that same day Laban removed from the flock all the animals that were supposed to be Jacob’s wages and placed them in the care of his own sons a three days journey away, while Jacob was left to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.
We can only imagine what must have gone through Jacob’s mind when he went to survey Laban’s flock and saw that not even a single one of the animals would belong to him. Laban’s blank check was truly a blank check. It is like a student who, after going to the library every day, stays up all night working hard on his paper, doing his very best, hoping to get an A. But when he gets back his grade, all he sees is a C-. What discouragement! As far as Jacob’s eye could see there were only dark colored goats and white lambs and sheep. We can guess that his heart began to sink into despair and bitterness toward his uncle. But somehow Jacob didn’t give up. Look at v. 37-39. “Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white strips on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or spotted or speckled.” This was a very detailed, but rather unscientific-sounding plan. What did peeled branches in a watering trough have to do with the biology of mating goats and sheep? Not only this, but in addition Jacob employed some counter-deception of his own. According to v. 41 he used the stronger females to produce flocks for himself by putting them in front of the branches while mating, and the weaker ones to produce flocks for Laban by keeping them away from the branches. Strangely, Jacob’s unscientific plan and counter-deception seemed to work. However, Jacob’s later testimony reveals that his eventual success was won after a great struggle with Laban. In 31:7, 41 Jacob says that Laban changed his wages ten times. One year Laban said the streaked would be Jacob’s wages. But when the streaked were abundant, Laban would change his mind and say, “Wait, I’m sorry; actually, I meant that the speckled will be your wages,” but then the speckled would become abundant, so Laban would change yet again and say, “Oops, sorry, I forgot to do a spell check; I meant the spotted will be your wages”; and on and on, until Jacob began to get many grey hairs and felt he was going to have a nervous breakdown. Look ahead to 31:38-42a Jacob says that for the twenty years he worked for Laban, Laban demanded payment from him for every stolen animal, whether by night or by day. In 31:40 he said, “This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes.” Jacob could not even sleep at night from the stress and pressure of watching the flocks and making sure none were stolen or attacked or switched. If he fell asleep for a moment, all he had were nightmares of streaked and speckled and spotted goats and dark-colored lambs and sheep going around and around and around.
Actually, Jacob’s experiences are common to all who must live in this world. To study for their final exams or MCAT or nursing exams or med school board exams or complete their Ph.D., students have to suffer many anxious and sleepless nights. (Sleep fled from my eyes many late nights in the lab.) To provide for their families, many parents have to take very difficult jobs in which they are consumed by heat during the day and cold at night. If we live in this world, sooner or later we will suffer under the Laban-like bosses of this world who always keep their eye on the bottom line even if they have to mistreat their employees to do so. In the news recently, many United Airlines workers felt betrayed when their pension plans were canceled and now they will get nothing after 30 years of service. Many people blamed United Airlines, but don’t they have a responsibility to their stockholders to make their company profitable? Aren’t they just trying to survive in this world like everyone else? It’s not personal; it’s strictly business. It’s the way the world works. In Baltimore Sister Tatiana da Silva suffered so much under one Laban-like lab professor that she eventually chose to quit. Again, we may readily blame him, but probably he too thought he had to do what he did to survive. It is the way of the world.
What then was the final outcome of Jacob’s struggle with Laban? Let’s read 30:43. “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” What a surprise! However, this did not happen because of the cleverness of Jacob’s plan. This did not happen because of Jacob’s honesty, because he also counter-deceived Laban. This happened because God poured out on deceptive, worldly, cheating, undeserving Jacob His gracious blessing and protection and care. This happened because God remembered the covenant promise He had made to Jacob. In the vision from heaven more than fourteen years before, God had promised Jacob that He would be with him and would watch over him and would bring him back one day to the land of Canaan. Now God was doing so because God was faithful to His promise to Jacob. Laban thought he was fighting against a mere man, Jacob, a mere junior deceiver. But actually he was fighting against God, and against the covenant promise that God had given to Abraham and passed down first to Isaac and then to Jacob. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God is fighting for us, we can be successful no matter what the situation.
The covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob extends to us who are trusting in Jesus today as well. In Romans 8:28 Paul writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” The devil himself is the original Laban, the universal enemy of God’s people, who seeks to accuse us and enslave us by our sins and guilt and fear of death, and who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. But our Lord Jesus Christ Himself protected us from his devastating attack. Jesus crushed Satan’s head on the cross, triumphing over him on our behalf and giving us the sure and victorious hope in the kingdom of God. Apostle Paul concluded according to Rom 8:39 that now there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ Jesus.
Last week in our Baltimore SWS Joe Park, the son of missionaries Elijah and Grace Park, shared his beautiful graduation testimony of his decision to go as a short term missionary to China, offering to God his first year after graduating from college. When Joe started college, he had great plans; but college was not what he had expected and he had to change his major 5 times. To Joe, college became like Laban, causing him to change his major 5 times. But this Spring God delivered Joe and he graduated. “Thank God!” He was so thankful and encouraged by God’s care that he decided to offer the first year of his postgraduate life to God as a short term missionary to China. He became the 2nd short term missionary from Baltimore to be sent out within 3 years.
As long as we have to survive in this world, it is impossible to completely avoid Laban-like people and Laban-like situations. Many missionaries within our UBF ministry who pioneer a new land or college campus had to start off near the bottom of society and endure Laban-like bosses who mistreated them—working in dry cleaner stores and sewing machine factories. But after some time, by His grace, God began to lift them out of that situation. To be a college or graduate student for several years can be like being under the power of Laban, but God protected me and eventually freed me. God trains us through the Laban’s of this world so that we may recognize what a wonderful Lord and Master we have in our Good Shepherd Jesus and we may follow Him and not the world. May God help us to fix our eyes on Jesus, and remember God is faithful to His covenant promise to us in Jesus! May we see and thank God Who is leading us and protecting us by His grace and mercy!
Part 2. “I am the God of Bethel…where you made a vow” (31:1-55)
Let’s read 31:1-4. “Jacob heard that Laban's sons were saying, ‘Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.’ And Jacob noticed that Laban's attitude toward him was not what it had been. Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.’ So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were.”
Jacob noticed that the environment of Laban’s household was becoming hostile toward him. He was no longer wanted. Then came God’s command to return to Canaan; so Jacob called a family meeting with his wives Rachel and Leah to make a decision. In v. 5-13 Jacob explained the situation to his wives in detail. What was his main point? Look at 31:9. “So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.” Jacob wanted his wives to stand on his side, not take the side of their father. So he tried to make it clear that it was not his doings, but the hand of God that had taken their father’s riches and given them to him.
Jacob also shared with them a dream he had had that drove his point home. Let’s read v. 10-13. “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flocks are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”
This dream had most likely taken place sometime during the years when Jacob was fighting to gain some wages from Laban. It meant that it was God who was blessing Jacob according to the terms of the covenant and vow Jacob had made with God more than fourteen years earlier at Bethel. At that time, God had promised to take care of Jacob and God had fulfilled His side of the covenant. Now God was commanding Jacob to keep his side of the vow by leaving Paddan Aram at once to return to Bethel to resume his life of faith. Sure, God made Jacob rich because Jacob wanted it so badly. But God’s true desire and purpose and secret plan was to shepherd and lead Jacob back to Canaan and reinsert him into God’s glorious salvation history. Jacob wanted to remain in Paddan Aram using his human strength and pride to struggle futilely against the Laban’s of the world; but God wanted to lead Jacob by His mercy and grace out of Paddan Aram and back to the land of God’s true blessing. The more God called Jacob, the more he stiffened his neck and refused to leave, foolishly thinking that he, a mere junior deceiver, could outwit Laban, the master deceiver. But he would have lost everything without God’s protection. How foolish was Jacob, but how gracious and merciful a Good Shepherd God was to him! God’s ways are higher than man’s ways. Like Jacob, we sometimes just want to grab perishing and fading things from the world, but God wants to call us and lead us and transform us until we can become shining stars in His redemptive history. 1 John 1:15-17 warns us very clearly: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him….The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
In summary, the God of Paddan Aram is a God who is patiently waiting, who seems to give us whatever we want in the world, protecting us and making us happy, without demanding anything. But on the other hand, He is also the God of Bethel, Who has an intense and loving and persistent desire to restore His covenant relationship with us, to call us back to the place where we first met Him, to give us the best blessing that He can give, which is to make you and me a part of His glorious redemptive history just as He wanted for Jacob. Sometimes we forget God’s precious covenant promise to us through Jesus. Then nwe find ourselves wrestling desperately and futilely against the Laban’s of the world, thinking we can get some lasting benefit from them. If so, God’s command to us is, “I am the God of Bethel…Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.” Our native land is not this world; it is the kingdom of God. We should not give to this world all of our heart and strength, because ultimately we will get nothing in return. I had a Bible student who was very talented at swimming and won many NCAA III medals. But by his senior year this year, he felt that the countless hours of swimming practice had taken so much from him and he was not sure that he had gotten enough in return. Of course, we have to work hard to survive in this world. We must put food on the table for our children, Shepherdess Mary Jagun must pass her board exams, Sister Tatiana must strive to enter the PhD program and get her degree. But we must give the first place of our heart not to Laban, but to Jesus, who will give us the true reward. When He returns, Jesus will reward those who worked for Him, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness.” May God grant us a great longing and desire for that day!
What was the response of Leah and Rachel to Jacob’s testimony? Let’s read v. 14-16. “Then Rachel and Leah replied, 'Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father's estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you." Laban had treated his daughters like business assets and sold them to Jacob; so now they thought of him in the same way. As they say in the world and Msy Paul said in last week’s message, “What goes around, comes around.” V. 17-21 make it clear that Jacob left not by faith, but still depending on himself. He ran away secretly when Laban was out of town. Scripture clearly highlights the spiritually double-minded condition of Jacob's household in v. 19, 20 where it says that Rachel stole her father's household gods and that Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. However, the most important thing was that Jacob had left Paddan Aram. This was most important to God. The fact that we return to God is more important than how we return.
In the final verses of the passage, Laban pursued Jacob and tried to trap him once again. But God had freed Jacob from Laban’s control and protected Jacob to the end until he could completely escape. In conclusion, do you remember your vow to God? Do you hear God calling you to return to Bethel? Bethel is the place we first met God, it is the obedience we first offered to God. To return to Bethel may be to visit the campus again. It may be to pray for America once again. It may be to share the gospel of Jesus with our friends and neighbors and coworkers once again. God wants to give us His best blessing by making us a part of His glorious redemptive history. He calls to the Jacobs on the campuses of America and in this audience to return to Bethel and keep their vow to Him. May God help us to leave the world and give to Him our heart and trust once again! Let’s read the key verse 31:13.