Genesis 31-33: “God and the gods” · October 21, 2009
Jacob now faces a major new direction in his life. God commands him to return to his homeland with, again, the promise that God will be with him (Genesis 31:3). Jacob leaves with his family without Laban’s blessing. Rachel steals the “household gods.” This leads to a major conflict with Laban which is then only the precursor to a much greater conflict in which Jacob learns that Esau, the brother he betrayed, is coming to meet him. The biggest challenge however is a night in which Jacob wrestles with an unknown divine being. He later learns that this figure is God. His name is changed to Israel. Indeed his whole life is changed.
Escape and the Missing Gods – Genesis 31:1-35
- Jacob has now served Laban for twenty years. He has two wives, two concubines (“servant girls”), eleven sons and one daughter. Laban’s sons have become jealous of Jacob. God speaks to Jacob and tell him to return to his own country and reiterates his promise, “I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3; cf. Genesis 28:15).
- Jacob tells his wives of his plans to leave. He points out that Laban has tried to deceive him not once but several times (Genesis 31:7). Jacob shares a dream in which God provides the spotted goats at mating time for the flock which Laban agreed to give Jacob (Genesis 30:31-34). In the first mention of the breeding (Genesis 30:37-43) God is not mentioned. The key emphasis here is that God is telling Jacob to leave Laban (Genesis 31:13).
- However, Rachel and Leah have the very human response of worrying that by leaving they will forfeit their inheritance (Genesis 31:14). Jacob decides to deceive Laban by taking all of his family and possessions and going back to his father Isaac without telling Laban (Genesis 31:20-21). Jacob no doubt feels justified in doing this since Laban deceived him, or attempted to deceive him, on several occasions.
- However, before they leave, Rachel steals her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19). We need to remember that these people are living in an idolatrous world. They have no list of commandments, no written word of God, so it is not surprising that they follow the customs of their society which include polygamy, surrogate mothers and idols. Our world has no such excuse. The household gods may have had more than a religious significance. They probably had some monetary value. More importantly, possession of them may have given the holder certain legal rights to the family property.
- When Laban learns what has happened (which of course he must. Did Jacob really think he could just disappear?) he overtakes Jacob. Jacob at this point is traveling with an extended caravan. Laban is clearly angry. He demands to know why he could not have given them a farewell party (Genesis 31:26-28). The answer is unstated but quite simple. Jacob doesn’t trust his father-in-law.
- In a statement that reflects contrasting worldviews, Laban first acknowledges that God has spoken to him, warning him against interfering with Jacob (Genesis 31:29).The next minute, he’s demanding to know who stole his household gods (Genesis 31:30). Jacob points out that he was afraid that Laban would try to take his daughters back (Genesis 31:31). Jacob knows nothing of the stolen gods. He makes the strong statement that anyone who took the gods will be put to death (Genesis 31:32). He is completely unaware of the fact that in this statement he is pronouncing a death sentence upon his favorite wife.
- Rachel hides the gods under her saddle (they were obviously small). She says she cannot get up because she is menstruating (Genesis 31:35). Rachel here is deceiving everyone.
Reconciliation and the Night Wrestler – Genesis 31:36-55, 32:1-32
- Jacob becomes angry with Laban (Genesis 31:36) and the two get into an argument.
- They resolve their differences by setting up a pillar of stones to act as a literal boundary between them. Laban does not want his daughters to be ill treated by Jacob (Genesis 31:50).
- The boundary line is to be a witness between them. Laban will not come over to Jacob’s side and Jacob will not trespass on Laban’s side (Genesis 31:51-52). Laban’s statement, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other” (Genesis 31:49) has been used as a benediction. In its original context, Laban is really saying, “The Lord keep an eye on you because I don’t trust you.”
- They swear by two Gods. Jacob refers to the God of Abraham, the true God. Laban swears by the God of Nahor. Nahor was a brother of Abraham who remained in Ur of the Chaldeans presumably worshipping the false gods there. These household gods may have been images or even idols of those false gods (cf. Genesis 11:27-31; Isaiah 44:9-20).
- Jacob goes on his way and is met by some angels of the Lord. No dialogue is recorded between them (Genesis 32:1-2).
- Returning to his homeland means returning to his brother Esau. Jacob sends messengers to Esau and then is informed that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men (Genesis 32:3-6).
- Not surprisingly, Jacob is “greatly afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:7). This leads to a change of heart on Jacob’s part. He cries out to God and confesses his unworthiness. He prays for God’s deliverance according to God’s promise to do good to him (Genesis 32:9-12, 28:15).
- Jacob however is not ready simply to trust in the Lord (Proverbs 3:5-6). He hopes to appease Esau by sending him elaborate gifts (Genesis 32:13-21).
- Jacob sends his family on ahead of him, crossing a river. He remains alone behind. We read then that he wrestles with a man until daybreak. He realizes that the man is God in some way (is this Jesus?). The result of this struggle is a major transformation. Jacob becomes Israel. He will be a different person. He is not unscathed in the struggle. He will forever limp thereafter. There is a crucial spiritual lesson here. If we are to be in God’s service we have to wrestle with him. This is true not only of Jacob but of Moses, Ruth, Job, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Esther and many others. It was crucial for Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness before he could begin his ministry. Even though he is being tempted by Satan, Jesus is wrestling with God because God sent him into the wilderness for that purpose (Matthew 4:1). Paul’s conflict with God takes the form of a thorn in his flesh (II Corinthians 12:1-10). God brings us into conflict, even conflict with himself. There are times when God does not seem clear to us, when God can even seem to be an antagonist. To wrestle with God is to confront our own weakness and vulnerability. Apart from this there can be no change in us, no spiritual growth. The paradox is that we find rest through the conflict (Matthew 4:11). Jacob’s encounter with Esau will not be what he thinks it will be.
Questions for Us –
- What would be examples of “household gods” for us? What are the subtle idols that we depend on in our lives?
- What do you think of the covenant that Jacob and Laban make? Is this family broken or can trust somehow be restored? What would be necessary for that to happen?
- How have we experienced wrestling with God in our lives? What lessons have we learned from these struggles?