Genesis 29 - 31
In the NE United States, codfish are not only delectable, they are also a very big commercial enterprise. A vast industry has grown up around catching, preparing and shipping codfish to every part of the country. But the great demand for codfish posed a problem to the shippers. At first they froze the codfish before shipping, but freezing took away much of the flavour. Then they tried shipping the codfish alive in salt water, but that didn’t work.
Finally, someone hit on a creative solution. The codfish were placed in a shipping tank with their natural enemy—catfish. From the time the codfish left the east coast until they arrived at their destination, the catfish chased the codfish all over the tank! When they arrived, the codfish were as fresh as when they were first caught with no loss of flavor or texture.
All of us live in a “tank” of particular circumstances. Into that tank God has placed a few divinely appointed “catfish” who chase us from morning till night. Who knows? You may be living with a catfish right now. You may see one at work tomorrow morning. You may live next door to one. The catfish in your life are not sent to destroy you but to keep you healthy, alert, and always swimming. Without them, your unique flavour and texture would soon disappear.
Here are 3 irrefutable facts about the catfish of life:
1. They make life difficult when it ought to be easy.
2. They always seem to catch us in our weaker moments.
3. They keep us swimming when we’d rather be resting.
Jacob had a catfish whose name was Laban. For 20 years Uncle Laban the catfish chased Jacob all over the tank. He never let Jacob rest—not even for a moment. God allowed it in order to keep Jacob swimming when he would rather be resting.
Genesis 29 - 31 tells the story of those 20 stress-filled years. These 3 chapters bring us 3 crucial moments in the unending struggle between Jacob and Laban. I think of these 3 chapters as a 3 round heavyweight boxing match between Laban the champion and Jacob the up-and-coming contender. By examining each round blow-by-blow, we can get a handle on how God sends catfish and how we should respond.
Round # 1: The Marriage Trap Ch. 29
When Jacob said to Laban, “You deceived me,” he was telling the truth. But behind Laban stands Almighty God who is bringing Jacob’s lifetime pattern of deceit down upon his own head.
—He had tricked his older brother out of the birthright.
—Now he is forced to marry the older sister first—thus honoring the birthright.
—He deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing.
—Now he is deceived by his father-in-law Laban.
Divine justice is at work in this story. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Jacob ends up on the receiving end of a great deception. The con man is conned, the cheater is cheated, the deceiver is deceived. Jacob can say nothing because he is only reaping what he sowed years earlier. Round 1 goes to Laban.
Round # 2: The Case of the Speckled Sheep Ch. 30
Jacob has gained 11 sons—6 by Leah, 1 by Rachel, 2 by Bilhah, and 2 by Zilpah. The only thing he hasn’t gained is wealth. All his labour has gone to increase Laban’s flocks and herds. Jacob has a large family, but he doesn’t have the means to support them. When Jacob mentions this fact, Laban introduces a new—and important—principle into the discussion – v. 27, 28
Laban was an ungodly, ruthless man. Jacob, for all his moral weakness, is a man of faith in God. Both men agree on a remarkable fact: God has blessed a bad man because he had a good man working for him. Laban’s increase came on Jacob’s account. God blesses the people of the world because the people of God are nearby. If you are a believer, your marriage is different (and better) because you are there. If you are a believer, your workplace is different (and better) because you are there. If you are a believer, your school is different (and better) because you are there. If you are a believer, your family is different (and better) because you are there.
Let me say it this way. God wants to bless his children so much, he will even bless the deceitful people of the world through them. Jacob says, “God has been blessing you on my account.” Laban says, “That’s right. Everything has been looking up since you joined the team.”
A Deal He Can’t Refuse v. 31 - 33
No wonder Laban agrees. He can’t believe his ears. This deal is too good to be true. No wonder Jacob is still broke. You can’t get rich making deals like that.
So the experiment begins – v. 37 - 42. Genesis 31: 9 - Jacob clearly indicates that it was God who gave the increase. After 6 years the results were in – v. 43. Don’t miss the main point: God wanted to bless Jacob so much that he blessed Laban on Jacob’s account. Later, when Jacob made a deal that seemingly was against his own best interests, God blessed him even when he stacked the deck against himself.
This arrangement clearly was highly favourable to Laban; of very doubtful value to Jacob. Indeed, it was an act of pure faith on his part. He had put himself entirely at God’s mercy. It would be up to the Lord to indicate, by a very unlikely set of circumstances, whether Jacob should prosper personally or not.
Jacob is counting on God. You’ve heard it said that God plus one equals a majority. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if the deck is stacked against you. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if the game is rigged against you. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if you are dealing with unscrupulous people. If God is on your side, he can take the solids of life and turn out 1000 speckled sheep. He can do it because he is God!
Laban doesn’t do that, and the Labans of the world have never understood that truth. Which is why time and again they rig the rules against the people of God, and in the end the people of God win anyway.
That of course is exactly what happened in this situation. God overruled the “normal” course of things and used this “unfavourable” plan to abundantly bless Jacob. It is yet another example of the principle that when God wants to bless a man, he will bless him regardless of the circumstances!
Round 2 goes to Jacob.
Round # 3: Jacob Goes Home Ch. 31
The 20 years in Haran are almost over. Jacob came to town expecting to spend a few months or perhaps a year there. He ended up spending 20 years—7 years for Leah, 7 years for Rachel, and 6 years building up his flocks. But now the time has finally come to go home. The turning point comes when Jacob heard that Laban’s son had grown envious of his prosperity. He also realized that Laban had slowly changed his attitude toward him.
With that in mind, he approaches Rachel and Leah with the idea of leaving Haran. Among other things, he points out that Laban has changed his wages 10 times. He also tells them about a dream in which God says – v. 13. The 2 wives agree and the family makes ready to leave. This was a considerable task involving many servants and the large herd of livestock he had built up.
2 things happened that marred the departure: 1. Rachel stole her father’s household gods – v. 19.
2. Jacob deceived Laban by not telling him he was running away – v. 20.
These 2 facts show that Jacob is still Jacob—trusting God and living by his wits. He wants to obey God—even if he has to deceive someone else to do it. It also shows how badly his relationship with Laban had deteriorated. Evidently his uncle was like many men of the world—nice enough when he is on top, but mean as a snake when someone else prospers at his expense.
Off they go, crossing the Euphrates to journey to the Promised Land. 3 days later Laban learns that Jacob has left without saying goodbye - he caught up with Jacob after 7 days.
Two Angry Men
1. Laban accuses Jacob of deception (true), carrying off his daughters like captives in war (not true), depriving him of the right of giving his daughters and grandchildren a proper farewell (true) and stealing his household gods (true, but Jacob didn’t know it).
2. Jacob angrily replies he was afraid that Laban would take Leah and Rachel by force (a legitimate fear). He also denies stealing the household gods and promises to put to death anyone in his family who is found with them.
3. Laban searched for the gods but cannot find them because Rachel hides them in her saddle and then pretends she can’t stand up because she is in her period.
4. Jacob now denounces Laban for 20 years of mistreatment, lack of respect, deliberately taking advantage of him, unfairly changing his wages and concludes by saying that if God had not been with him, Laban would have sent him away empty-handed.
5. Laban is clearly shocked by Jacob’s ungrateful attitude. He replies by saying, in essence, “All that you have—including your wives and children—actually belongs to me.” Then he says, “But if you’re going to be so hard-headed, there’s nothing I can do, so let’s settle the matter here and now.”
6. Jacob and his relatives set up a pile of stones marking the boundary between Jacob and Laban. Laban then utters those famous words – v. 49. He goes on to warn Jacob not to harm his daughters or to take any other wives.
7. Jacob agreed, taking an oath in the name of God. He offered a sacrifice there and then everyone shared a meal together. After that they spent the night there.
8. The next day Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren and blessed them. Then he left and returned home to Haran.
The story of Jacob and Laban has come to an unhappy ending. It ends with deception, anger, and bitter accusations. What a contrast with the happy welcome Laban gave Jacob when first he came to Haran. As far as we know, Jacob and Laban never meet again.
Round 3 goes to Jacob by a split decision.
Wrapping Up 20 Hard Years
What can we say about Laban? He is a man of the world. At every point he thinks and acts like the people of the world. He is outwardly friendly and inwardly greedy. He cheats and then piously justifies himself. He changes the rules of the game in order to suit himself. He uses other people to better himself.
God used him in Jacob’s life to produce godly character through unjust suffering. After his time in Haran, Jacob is a changed man. He now returns to the Promised Land exactly as God had promised. Most importantly, his greatest days are yet in front of him.
Lessons from the Laban's of Life
1. God often sends difficult people to us who have the peculiar gift of bringing out the worst in us.
2. Those difficult people force us to come to grips with our hidden weaknesses.
3. Those difficult people also force us to examine our motives carefully.
4. In the end we will thank God because we discover truth about ourselves we couldn’t learn any other way.
Three Prayers to Pray
1. Lord, make me soft and tender, not hard and bitter.
2. Lord, use me to show your love to the difficult people in my life.
3. Lord, teach me the lessons I need to learn.
God used that difficult experience to develop godly character in Jacob’s life.
You’ve complained, haven’t you? So have I. You’ve been angry. So have I. Have you ever said, “Thank you for sending this disagreeable person into my life?”
Though it may not seem true to you, God doesn’t send these people to destroy you. He sends people like Laban into your life to keep you swimming. In the end you’ll be glad he did.
Prayer - Lord Jesus, we know that nothing is wasted in life. We know that everything has a purpose. We thank you for sending the Labans of life. Although it seems difficult to us, we know that you use unpleasant people to develop godly character in us.
For those who are hurting because they have been hurt by others, grant new faith to believe that even our wounds are meant for our own healing. In the end we will thank you for the pain, if the pain drives us closer to you.
We love you, Lord, and we reaffirm our confidence that you have our best interests at heart. When we are hurt by others, may we respond with blessing. When we are slandered, may we respond with grace.
Lord Jesus, whatever it takes to make us like you, do it, Lord, and in the end we will be glad that you answered our prayer. Amen.