“God Behind the Scenes”
October 28, 2007
God sometimes parts the backstage curtain so that we can see him and get with his program.
I. Behind Jacob’s Prosperity (Genesis 31:1-21)
II. Behind Laban’s Restraint (Genesis 31:22-42)
III. Behind the Treaty of Separation (Genesis 31:43-55)
As I’ve worked through this part of Genesis, I’ve used the terms ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ to describe God’s role in the narrative. He was on stage in Genesis 28 when Jacob dreamed of the ladder to heaven, and God promised his presence and providence. He was off stage in Genesis 29, where Jacob prayerlessly pursued Rachel at the well and was deceived by Rachel’s father Laban, given Leah as his first wife. He was mostly off stage last week where these desperate wives competed for Jacob’s affection, and Jacob desperately tried to use magic to increase his flocks and herds.
This week God is mostly back stage. He’s a little like the stage director in this drama. I spoke to Michelle Murray, who teaches drama and other classes using Trinity’s facilities, and asked her about the work of the stage manager. Here’s what she said:
So God takes that kind of role. He’s backstage, but his eyes are everywhere, and he’s cueing the actors and getting the props in place and making sure that everything happens the way it’s supposed to. The only difference between this chapter and some others, is that occasionally the backstage curtain is drawn back, and we see what God is doing. We see him working behind Jacob’s prosperity, behind Laban’s restraint, and behind the treaty they make. God sometimes parts the backstage curtain so we can see him and get with his program.
I. Behind Jacob’s Prosperity (Genesis 31:1-21)
In the first scene we’ll see the backstage curtain drawn back to explain how God is behind Jacob’s prosperity. Genesis 31:1-21 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." 2And Jacob noticed that Laban's attitude toward him was not what it had been. 3Then the Lord said to Jacob, "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you."
4So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. 5He said to them, "I see that your father's attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. 6You know that I've worked for your father with all my strength, 7yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 8If he said, 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked young. 9So God has taken away your father's livestock and has given them to me.
10"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. 11The angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob.' I answered, 'Here I am.' 12And he said, 'Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13I 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.' "
14Then Rachel and Leah replied, "Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father's estate? 15Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. 16Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you."
17Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, 18and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. 19When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father's household gods. 20Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. 21So he fled with all he had, and crossing the River, he headed for the hill country of Gilead.
Last week we saw the on-stage drama of Jacob’s prosperity. From that point of view Jacob seemed to be prospering because of his cleverness, using a form of pagan magic to get the sheep and goats to produce abnormally colored animals, outwitting Laban, weakening Laban’s flocks and strengthening and multiplying his own. But if we see behind the curtain, we find that it was God who was sovereignly at work all along.
Laban’s sons and Laban himself were becoming antagonistic toward Jacob because of his prosperity, which was accomplished at Laban’s expense. Jacob notices this, but does not take any action until God intevenes and says "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you." God affirms his promise to be with Jacob, which was the focus of his words the last time he was on stage.
So Jacob needs to leave, but first he has to be sure his wives will accompany him and support him against their father. So he invites them to the fields, where the evidence of God’s blessing is all around them, and he makes the case. In contrast to his previous speeches, here Jacob openly proclaims his faith and gives all credit to God for his blessing. ‘I’ve worked for your father with all my strength. He’s cheated me by changing the contract ten time. But God has not allowed him to harm me.’
Behind the scenes, God was at work: “If your father said 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' all the flocks bore streaked young.” The whole focus on abnormally colored animals was not Jacob’s idea but God’s, revealed in a dream: “Look up and see; all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all Laban has been doing to you.” The increase of these animals was God’s idea; the branches Jacob used were his untrusting innovation. With the curtain drawn back, we see that it was God who brought the increase. Now God has spoken again to Jacob and said “Leave this land at once and go back to your native land.” God speaks from off stage to give Jacob direction.
Leah and Rachel, agreeing for once, tell Jacob that as far as they’re concerned their father has disowned them. He’s treated them as foreigners and property. Further, the price that Jacob paid for them, seven years of labor each, should have in part been passed on to them as the brides. So they conclude that “all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”
That clinches it for Jacob. He puts his wives and children on camels, gathers his stuff, drives the livestock before him and heads out toward Canaan. But before they leave, something important happens. It’s springtime; while Laban is out in the fields shearing sheep, Rachel goes back to the town and steals Laban’s household gods, the small idols that were worshiped as his protectors and benefactors. Some speculate that Rachel did this to have a claim on her father’s estate, but I think it had more to do with a remnant of idolatry in Rachel’s life. She’s not as convinced as her sister of the reality of Jacob’s God.
So Jacob leaves. He crosses the Euphrates river and heads to Gilead, the hill country north of Canaan. Verse 20 says he deceived Laban by not telling him he was leaving, but this isn’t the same word used of Jacob deceiving Esau or Laban deceiving Jacob. This word is more like ‘stole away’. Rachel stole the idols and Jacob stole away.
So the Lord is not on stage in this section, but is clearly at work. He created the prosperity Jacob needed to make a return to Canaan possible. Then he spoke to Jacob from offstage, telling him that it was time to leave. God the stage manager is giving Jacob the cues he needs to walk the path God, the drama’s director has laid out.
The example I always think of in the life of our church is God’s provision of this building. We were ‘knocking on doors that only God could open’. God was off stage, not visible, yet he opened the door to the pursuit of this building, provided the funding necessary to do it, and called us to take the step of faith to walk through that door. When it was all over, it didn’t take much insight to see that God had been at work.
II. Behind Laban’s Restraint (Genesis 31:22-42)
When Jacob left, God was also at work to restrain Laban. Verses 22 to 42: On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 24Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, "Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad."
25Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. 26Then Laban said to Jacob, "What have you done? You've deceived me, and you've carried off my daughters like captives in war. 27Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn't you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps?
28You didn't even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters good-by. You have done a foolish thing. 29I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, 'Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.' 30Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father's house. But why did you steal my gods?"
31Jacob answered Laban, "I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. 32But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it." Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. 33So Laban went into Jacob's tent and into Leah's tent and into the tent of the two maidservants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah's tent, he entered Rachel's tent.
34Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in her camel's saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched everything in the tent but found nothing. 35Rachel said to her father, "Don't be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand in your presence; I'm having my period." So he searched but could not find the household gods.
36Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. "What is my crime?" he asked Laban. "What sin have I committed that you hunt me down? 37Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us.
38"I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 39I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. 40This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes.
41It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. 42If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, 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 he rebuked you."
Laban is near Haran shearing sheep. Jacob is south, near Paddan Aran. When Rachel comes back from Haran, Jacobs sets out immediately, and three days later Laban hears about it. He gathers the clan and sets out in pursuit. Traveling lighter and faster, he catches up with Jacob in seven days, meaning Jacob has traveled ten days with the flocks. He makes pretty good time, because Laban doesn’t catch him until the hill country of Gilead, the northern part of what will become Israel.
But Laban is restrained. God, the director of providence, the stage manager of history, speaks from backstage and in a dream warns Laban: "Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad." In that culture, where word and deed were not so strongly separated as in ours, God is telling Laban to leave Jacob alone.
Jacob is probably expecting a physical attack, and may have been surprised when Laban contented himself with only strong words. Laban accuses Jacob of deceiving him, taking away his daughters like captives, depriving him of the courtesy due a father and stealing his gods. His words sound like a distressed father, but we’ve read the previous chapters; we know how slippery Laban has been and how his daughters have recognized his misuse of them and declared their allegiance to Jacob.
Laban calls Jacob a fool, pointing out that his kinsmen could easily defeat Jacob’s small group of servants, women and children. But Laban admits that the God of Jacob’s father, Isaac, warned him against such action. Laban knows enough to fear God. But he is still enough of a pagan that he adds ‘why did you take my gods?’
Jacob defends his flight: he was afraid Laban would hold his daughters hostage if he tried to leave openly. But Jacob doesn’t know about the stolen idols, he invites Laban to search. And Laban does: into Jacob’s tent, into Leah’s tent, into Bilhah’s tent, into Zilpah’s tent, and finally, climactically, into Rachel’s tent. Rachel, who stole the idols, doesn’t want them found. She sits on the saddle bag and claims that because it’s that time of month, she can’t rise. Laban searches, but does not find the idols.
Jacob proceeds to get angry. He reminds Laban that he has served him with integrity for twenty years, doing more than an indentured servant would be expected to do, and suffering in the process. He accuses Laban of changing their agreement ten times.
But our deceiving friend is learning faith. He knows God has worked behind the scenes: “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, 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 he rebuked you.” Don’t you love that? ‘The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac’. He’s the God Isaac held in awe; the God Jacob feared and worshiped at Bethel. Jacob may easily fall into prayerlessness and self reliance, but when God pulls back the curtain, Jacob at least has the wisdom to recognize him, that it is his word that has restrained Laban.
Do we have that wisdom? Do we see God at work when bad things don’t happen to us? Some of you may remember that our building was hit by lightning this summer, apparently someplace near the Sunday School wing. It took out our fire alarm, our wired internet, and one or two wall switches. The interesting thing is that one of the switches caught fire: melted the switch, burned the wires, scorched the sheet rock. But it did not burn the building. I hope we praise God often for a whole world of bad stuff that doesn’t overcome us. God restrains evil as he providentially stage manages the world - including the special effects - for our good and for his glory.
III. Behind the Treaty of Separation (Genesis 31:43-55)
And finally, God prepares outcomes for our good. In Jacob’s case God is behind a treaty of separation that makes it impossible for Jacob to turn from God’s path. Verses 43-55. Laban answered Jacob, "The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne? 44Come now, let's make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us."
45So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46He said to his relatives, "Gather some stones." So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. 48Laban said, "This heap is a witness between you and me today." That is why it was called Galeed.
49It was also called Mizpah, because he said, "May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me."
51Laban also said to Jacob, "Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me. 53May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us."
So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. 54He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there. 55Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.
Laban continues to claim that Jacob is taking his stuff, but you can almost hear Laban sighing deeply as he says ‘yet what can I do about these daughters of mine?’ He may be realizing that his daughters have sided with Jacob and have no desire to return to his home with his grandchildren.
Given that, Laban proposes a treaty to protect himself, a covenant of separation between him and Jacob. It is marked with two monuments. Jacob sets up a stone, similar to the stone he had set up at Bethel, marking God’s presence and provision. Together, Jacob and Laban also make a heap of stones. As with most covenants, they have a ceremonial meal, and name the marker. Laban calls it ‘witnesss heap’ in Aramean, Jacob does so in the language of Canaan. Thus there is an explicit recognition that Jacob is not of the same nation as Laban - they are separate entities.
The treaty itself only has two provisions - first that Jacob take care of Laban’s daughters. Laban apparently feels he’s been taking care of till now, and propriety dictates he make provision for them as they part. The second provision is a pact of separation: “I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” ‘You can’t come back, Jacob’. This treaty restrains Jacob from ever giving in to fear of Esau and returning to Haran.
Laban vows to Abraham’s God and Nahor’s God, who may not be the same. Jacob takes his oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. There’s that phrase again. Enjoy it, because it doesn’t appear anywhere else in Scripture, and yet it’s one of the great names of God: you are the fear; you are the awe; you are one who authors trembling. Jacob is aware of God’s hand at work; in addition to the covenant feast he makes a sacrifice and they have a second feast in that place. The next morning Laban kisses his daughters and grand-children good bye and sets off for Haran.
So what have we seen? God is at work behind the scenes. In this chapter he has pulled back the curtain a bit, voiced instructions that allow Jacob to know his presence and get with his program. He was behind Jacob’s prosperity. He was behind Laban’s restraint. He was behind the treaty of separation. These things took place so that his purposes for Jacob could be fulfilled, so that Jacob could continue on the path of maturity, leading him from deceiver to God dependant, from Jacob to Israel.
And God is at work in us as well, to reveal himself from behind the scenes, a voice from offstage, telling us it’s not about us, it’s about him. Seth Quinones experienced that at the Bible Immersion Camp two weeks ago. Here’s his story:
Sometimes God parts the backstage curtain, or speaks through it, to reveal himself so that we can get with his program.