Genesis 31(17–55)


At the beginning of last week’s sermon, I suggested that the story of Jacob is a story about God’s electing grace. Before Jacob was born, while he was still in his mother’s womb, the Lord made clear that he had chosen Jacob and not his brother, Esau. God would work out his great plan of salvation through Jacob, the younger of the two twins. And sure enough, years later, when Jacob had left home and was travelling back to Haran to find a wife, the Lord appeared to him in a dream at Bethel and gave him the same promises he gave to Abaham and Isaac: the promise of a people; and the promise of a place; and the promise of a Saviour. From Isaac, there would come a great nation. And that great nation would live in the Promised Land. And from that great nation would come the Saviour of the world. God chose Jacob.

But why? Why did he choose Jacob? Was it because Jacob was more righteous than his brother? Was he better than Esau? Was there something in him, some quality, which the Lord saw and which made the Lord look on him with favour? Well no. We’ve seen what Jacob was like. He was a deceiver, a schemer, a grasper and a cheat. He took advantage of his brother’s hunger, and took the birthright which rightfully belonged to his Esau. And then, when he was older, he took advantage of his father’s blindness, and he took the blessing which his father wanted to give to Esau. He was a grasper, taking what did not belong to him. He was a deceiver and a schemer. He was a thoroughly unpleasant person. And so, no. There’s was nothing good in him to recommend him to God. He was not more righteous than his brother. Nevertheless the Lord chose him.

And that’s our story as well. Isn’t it? At least, it’s our story of every believer, because you know that you did not deserve anything from God but condemnation and eternal punishment. You know that you too are a sinner, just like Jacob. And though you may not be a deceiver and a schemer and a cheat and a grasper, nevertheless you know that you have sinned against the Lord in so many other ways. There was nothing good in you. But nevertheless, because he is gracious and kind and does not treat us as our sins deserve, the Lord chose you despite your sin and he had mercy on you and he enabled you to believe in the Saviour and to repent of your sins and to receive from Christ the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Just like Jacob, we did not deserve it. But God chose us. He set his love upon us. And he enabled us to turn to the Saviour for salvation.

The story of Jacob is a story about God’s electing grace. But it’s also a story about God’s transforming grace, because the Lord was at work in Jacob’s life to transform his character. Once he was a deceiver and a schemer. But last week we saw how he had become an honest man. We also saw how he became a man who wanted to glorify the Lord and worship him. And we saw how he became a man who listened to and obeyed God’s word even when it seemed strange. And he was a man who trusted God and his promises. Having chosen Jacob, the Lord then worked in his life to change him. And the Lord changes us as well. Through the reading and preaching of his word, and through all the circumstances of life, he works in us to transform us into the likeness of his Son so that we become more and more willing and able to do his will and to glorify him.

Jacob’s story is about God’s electing grace and his transforming grace. Jacob didn’t deserve it, but God chose him. And God worked in his life to transform him. And if you’re a believer, if you too trust in the Saviour, then you know that this is your story as well, because, even though you did nothing to deserve it, God chose you and called you and he enabled you to repent and to believe in the Saviour. And he is still working in your life to transform you into the likeness of his Son.


Last week’s passage ended with Jacob explaining to his wives that it was time to leave. It was time to leave Paddan Aram and his uncle Laban — who was also his father-in-law — and return to the Promised Land of Canaan. And Rachel and Laban were ready to leave as well. They’d had enough of their father and were willing to go with Jacob.

Well, in verses 17 to 24, we read how they fled from Laban; but Laban found out and pursued them. Then in verses 25 to 42, we read how Laban confronted Jacob and how Jacob berated Laban for how Laban had treated him. Then, in verses 43 to 55, we read how the two men made a pact with one another and separated.

Verses 17 to 24

So, we read in verses 17 and 18 that Jacob got his wives and children — eleven sons and one daughter — and put them on camels. And he got all his livestock together and all the goods he had accumulated; and he headed for home.

From what we read at the end of chapter 30, we know that his livestock and all his goods had increased greatly. Look back to the last verse of chapter 30: there we’re told that he grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants and camels and donkeys too. The Lord has blessed him in many ways. And now he’s taking everything, and he’s leaving.

And he chose an excellent time to leave. Look at verse 19. We’re told that Laban had gone to sheer his sheep. The commentators say that this would have involved large numbers of men, all working far away from their homes for an extended period of time. In other words, all the other men on the farm would have been away. And they would have been extremely busy, far too busy to notice that Jacob was not there. And sure enough, if you jump down to verse 22 for a moment, you’ll see that it wasn’t until the third day that Laban discovered that Jacob had gone. He had been so preoccupied with the sheep, that he hadn’t noticed. And he had been so preoccupied with work that he didn’t notice something else as well. Look at verse 19 again. While he was out with the sheep, Rachel stole his household gods. Now, these would have been small statues which represented the gods which Laban worshipped. And, of course, the fact that he owned these household gods tells us that Laban was not a believer. He worshipped false gods and not the one, true and living God.

Now, we don’t know why Rachel stole these household gods. Some commentators suggest that she too worshipped them. But that seems unlikely, because she didn’t treat them with much reverence: she carried them in her camel’s saddle which meant she was happy to sit on these gods. That’s not what you do with something you venerate. Other commentators suggest she took them because people regarded them in those days as the title deeds for a house. My dad used to work in the Ulster Bank in Carlisle Circus and he kept the deeds of his house in the safe there. Well, the Carlisle Circus branch has now closed and everything was transferred to the Crumlin Road branch which has also closed. So, he keeps saying he must find out where the deeds are, because they prove that he’s the rightful owner of his house. And, some of the commentators say that these household gods were like title deeds to prove who is the rightful owner of the family farm. That’s why she took them, we’re told. But that doesn’t make much sense here because Rachel is leaving the family farm for good. She doesn’t care who owns it, because she’s leaving to start a new life in Canaan. So, perhaps she took the gods out of spite. She was angry with her father because of the way he had treated her. And so she wanted to get her own back. And so, she took away his gods. So, there’s another possible reason to explain why she took these household gods. However, the fact is we don’t know why she took her father’s gods. But she did.

Now, in verse 20, we read that Jacob deceived Laban. He deceived him by not telling him that they were leaving. In other words, he sneaked away. It was one last deception: while Laban was busy with the sheep, Jacob gathered up all his stuff together and sneaked away. And that’s true. He didn’t tell Laban that he was leaving. Now, some of the commentators scold Jacob at this point. They say he should have stood up to Laban and acted like a man, instead of running away. Or they say he should have trusted God more to take care of him, rather than trusting in his own sneaky scheme. The Bible commentators are often quick to condemn people in the Bible. But I think we need to remember what Jacob said in verse 31. Take a look at verse 31 for a moment. Laban wanted to know why Jacob had gone away secretly. And Jacob explained that he was afraid. He was afraid that Laban might take his daughters away by force. That’s why he wanted to sneak away. He wanted to sneak away because he was afraid of what Laban might do. And since Laban has mistreated him continually for 20 years, he probably had good reason to be afraid.

And so, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to scold Jacob at this point in the story.

Well, in verses 22 to 24, we read that Laban eventually found out what had happened. He gathered together all of relatives and pursued Jacob. With the three day start, it took Laban seven days to catch Jacob up. However, before he confronted Jacob, the Lord appeared to Laban in a dream and warned him not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad. In other words, the Lord was saying to Laban:

Don’t do anything to harm Jacob. You might be annoyed with him. You might be angry with him. You’ve got all your relatives here for a fight. But don’t dare touch Jacob.

And, you see, the Lord was doing what he promised Jacob. Back in Bethel, in chapter 28, the Lord promised to be with Jacob and to watch over him. ‘I will not leave you’, he said to Jacob. He was going to be with Jacob and watch over him in order to protect him. And that’s exactly what the Lord is doing now. He’s warning Laban:

Don’t harm him.

He’s protecting Jacob.

And, of course, the reason he’s protecting Jacob is because he had promised to make Jacob and his descendants into a great nation; and to give this great nation the Promised Land to live in. And so, having given Jacob a large family — eleven sons and one daughter — it was time to bring Jacob and his family back to the land of Canaan, back to the Promised Land. God was keeping his promises and he was fulfilling his great plan to give Jacob a people and a place.

And, of course, it’s the same today. God is still working out his great plan of salvation for the world. He’s still making a people for himself, as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, because in every place, the Lord is calling men and women and boys and girls to believe in his Son. And he’s enabling them to repent and to believe so that they’re added to the church, this great kingdom of people which the Lord is building throughout the world.

And then one day, the Lord Jesus himself will return to earth in glory and power to glorify his people and to bring us into that place which he has prepared for all who believe in him.

The Lord is still working out his plan for our salvation and he’s still making a people and he’s preparing a place for us. And just as he protected Jacob from Laban, so the Lord will guard his church and he will not let anything or anyone destroy his church here on the earth. And so, we ought to trust in the Lord to guard his people throughout the world. Just as he protected Jacob, so we must trust in him to protect his people today. And even when he lets his people suffer troubles and trials, even when it seems that the Devil is triumphing, we need to remember and believe that the Lord still in control, and our times are still in his hands, and whatever troubles may befall his people, he’s still working out his plans for us, and he’s able to work together all things for our ultimate good.

Laban was coming against Jacob. No doubt he was angry. No doubt he wanted to hurt Jacob. But the Lord prevented him. And so, we ought to look to the Lord to help his people today.

Verses 25 to 42

In the verses which follow, Laban presents himself as the offended party. He’s the one who has been hard-done-by. He’s the one who has been mistreated and abused. Laban presents himself as the victim.

But, of course, we know all about Laban, don’t we? We know how he deceived Jacob into marrying two wives, not one. We know how he deceived Jacob into slaving for him for 14 years for Rachel and not for seven years. We know how he treated his nephew like a hired hand, or a servant even. We know Laban is not to be trusted. And we heard his daughters complain last week that their father treated them not as daughters, but as foreigners, strangers. So, we shouldn’t believe anything he says.

But listen to him anyhow, because we see how deluded he really is. He complained:

What have you done? You’ve deceived me.

Well, he’s done his fair share of deceiving too.

You’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war.

Well, that’s not right: Laban was the one who mistreated them and they were happy to go with Jacob and to get away from their father.

Why did you run off secretly and deceive me?

Well, presumably he ran off because Laban and his sons had turned against Jacob and he was afraid of what they might do to him.

Why didn’t you tell me, so that I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps?

Well, the last party we read about was the party Laban threw for Jacob’s wedding to Rachel, and we know how that turned out, don’t we? How he deceived Jacob at the end of it. And then Laban complained that Jacob didn’t give him a chance to kiss good-bye his grandchildren and his daughters. But we know that he mistreated his daughters and treated them like strangers. And then he tells his young nephew and his son-in-law that he’s acted very foolishly. You know, he’s saying:

You should have handled this better than you did.

And that’s what people say when they want to put you down:

You’ve been very foolish.

But no. Jacob has not been foolish, because the Lord told him to go back home. And the wise man, the wise woman, is the one who listens to the Lord and who does his will.

And then, right at the end of his speech, Laban asks something which no doubt caught Jacob completely by surprise, because Jacob has no idea that Rachel had stolen her father’s household gods. He had no idea about that. So Laban asked him:

Why did you steal my gods?

Well, look at Jacob’s answer in verse 31. First of all, he explained that he left secretly because he was worried about how Laban would react. And then second, he said he has no idea where Laban’s gods are. And he invited Laban to make a search for them. So, Laban went into Jacob’s tent. Presumably he went into Jacob’s tent because he thought Jacob was the most likely suspect. But no, no gods there. He went into Leah’s tent. No gods there. Then he went into the maidservant’s tents. No gods there. What about Rachel’s tent? He went inside, and there’s Rachel. And Laban doesn’t know it, but she’s sitting on his gods. And she apologies to her father for not standing up. She said she’s having her period. And he looks around and then goes out. No gods there, he thinks.

And, of course, no doubt he’s bewildered and embarrassed. Bewildered, because he doesn’t know where his gods are. Embarrassed, because it appears he accused Jacob falsely. And this seems to be the final straw for Jacob, because in verse 36 we see how angry Jacob has become and how he berates his father-in-law. It seems that all the things he’s wanted to say to Laban finally come out, because he makes clear to Laban how he’s worked so hard for him for so many years. And in all that time, he’s been honest and loyal and completely blameless in his conduct, whereas Laban has continued to cheat him and to mistreat him.

Well, this section of today’s passage reminds us of one of the effects of Adam’s fall and how we not only deceive other people, but we deceive ourselves. Laban is quite sure that he has done nothing wrong. He thinks he’s done nothing wrong and Jacob has wronged him. But he’s quite deluded.

And if he only thought about his household gods for a moment, if he only thought for a moment about them, he would have realised that once again he has deceived himself about them and their value to him. After all, what good is a god that can be stolen and carried away like this? A god, if it’s worth anything at all, is meant to protect us and help us. But if his god cannot even protect itself, then it’s not worth much, is it?

And so, Laban was deluded. He was deluded about his household gods and he was deluded about himself and how he has treated Jacob. And that’s one of the effects of the fall, because ever since Adam fell into sin and misery, every single person who has lived is deceived about themselves and what we’re really like. And ever since Adam fell into sin and misery, every single person who has lived is deceived about the true God.

And that’s why we need the Bible. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit as well, because the Holy Spirit enables us to believe the Bible and to come to a knowledge of the truth. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through what we read in the Bible to convince us that we’re sinners and there’s nothing good in us and nothing in us to commend us to God. And the Holy Spirit speaks to us through what we read in the Bible to convince us to believe in the true God who rules and reigns over all and who offers salvation to all who believe in his Son.

Laban was completely deluded about himself: he thought he had done nothing wrong. And Laban was completely deluded about his household gods. And we too would still be deluded like Laban if it were not for the Lord and his kindness to us, in revealing to us through his Word and by his Spirit what we’re really like and what he is really like.

And, of course, we still need the Bible even if we’ve been a believer all our lives. We still need the Bible, because we’re still sinners who are liable to believe all kinds of nonsense and who are liable to be misled and deceived again. And so, we need to turn to the Bible continually to be reminded of what it says about us. We need to turn to the Bible continually to be reminded of what it says about the Lord. There never comes a time when we graduate from the Bible. You know, the young people do their exams and afterwards they put away their books and think to themselves:

That’s it. I’m done with those books now.

But we can never say that about the Bible. And we must continually turn to it, because in the Bible we’re reminded that we’re sinners who need forgiveness. And we’re reminded that there’s only one true God, and he’s willing to pardon all our sins for the sake of Christ who died for us.

Patience in adversity

Let’s move on, and let’s think for a moment about verse 42. Having berated Laban, Jacob went on to say:

If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac [that is, the God Isaac worshipped who inspires fear], had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night be rebuked you.

Well, there’s an encouragement to any believer who is going through troubles and trials, because just as the Lord saw Jacob’s hardship and helped him, so the Lord sees our hardships and our troubles, and he’s able to help us as well.

You know, one of the things about going through trouble and trials is that we often see so alone. We think that no one knows or understands what we’re going through. It seems to us that everyone else is getting on with their lives, and they’re happy and no one sees what we’re going through. No one knows the troubles we have. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt hard-pressed by life and that no one else knows? And you feel so alone.

But here’s Jacob and he realises that the Lord has seen his troubles. When he was slaving away for Laban, and Laban was tricking him and cheating him, and mistreating him, the Lord knew all about it. The Lord knew all about it, and he was just waiting for the right time to come to Jacob’s help and to rescue him from Laban.

A few weeks ago, I read from the Heidelberg Catechism about God’s providence, and how the Lord upholds all things and rules in such a way that whatever comes our way — and the Catechism mentions rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else — whatever comes our way comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand. Well, the Catechism goes on to ask what advantage comes from knowing this to be true? And the answer begins:

We learn that we are to be patient in adversity.

You see, the Lord is in control of all things. And the Lord knows all about our hardships and troubles. He sees what others don’t see. And so, what should our attitude be? It should be: I will wait for him to come to help me when the time is right.

Jacob had to wait a long time. The first seven years working for Laban were easy. The next seven years were more difficult. It seems the last six were even more difficult. But the Lord eventually said to Jacob: It’s time to go. And so, we too ought to be patient in adversity, trusting that the Lord knows all about our hardships and believing that, when the time is right, he’ll step in and help us.

Verses 43 to 55

Very briefly, there’s verses 43 to 55. Laban proposes that they make a covenant, a pact. And really it’s an agreement that they’ll go their separate ways and won’t attack one another. And they set up this heap of stones as a boundary marker. Laban won’t cross over it from his side to attack Jacob. And Jacob won’t cross over it from the other side to attack Laban. Now, here’s the thing. Jacob didn’t need to make this pact with Laban. Jacob had become prosperous and strong and the Lord was on his side to help him. He didn’t need to make this agreement with Laban, because the Lord had already warned Laban not to harm Jacob. He didn’t need to make this agreement with Laban, but nevertheless he was willing to declare peace with Laban. Well, many years later, the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome and said to them:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.

As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Well, instead of taking revenge, Jacob was prepared to declare peace with Laban. And that’s the way the Lord’s people should be, because, of course, that the way the Lord was with us. Instead of condemning us for our sins, and holding our sins against us, he has established a lasting peace between us through Jesus Christ who died for us. To all who believe, he has declared peace. And he now commands us not to hold grudges, and not to take revenge, but to live at peace with everyone.