Alfred Place Baptist Church

The Covenant of Mizpah

 

Genesis 31:43-32:2 “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? Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.’ So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. He said to his relatives, ‘Gather some stones.’ So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ That is why it was called Galeed. It was also called Mizpah, because he said, ‘May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. If you ill-treat 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.’ Laban also said to Jacob, ‘Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. This 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. May 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.He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there. Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home. Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanaim.”

 

These two men, father-in-law Laban and son-in-law Jacob, had had a tense relationship for twenty years and in these verses we are told of their last time together, their final words and actions before they separated from one another to live five hundred miles apart, Laban going back to Paddan Aram, and Jacob going home to Canaan in the Promised Land. But they were always to be related to one another. Laban would always be the grandfather of many sons of Jacob. There could be no divorce in that relationship. Jacob had received from Laban the gift of his two daughters, and from these sisters and their serving maids eleven sons and a daughter had so far appeared. There had to be a non-casual, dignified parting, some formal ceremony of farewell which included words and actions. I spoke to the deacons of a church where a minister had been for over thirty years until his retirement. He insisted on no farewell meeting. Nothing at all. He decreed that it should be like that. The deacon sadly said to me, “He just walked out of the church on his last Sunday night, and never returned.” That is not the way to end a pastorate even if you feel you have not had a successful ministry with numbers declining. You might personally feel you have let down the church. Still, you’d been the affectionate pastor who loved that flock. There are times and places to feel various emotions and even shed tears in public and private. Shouldn’t there be? Giving a flock a feeling of abandonment and perplexity is not even doing things ‘decently and in order.’ You are all aware of proper endings, for example, when you determine you must attend the funeral service of a friend, a pastor or a distant family member. You have to be there; you want to see the last act, otherwise there is a feeling of dissatisfaction. Be careful of hostility to form, and always dismissing it as ‘formalism.’.

 

So it was Laban, the older man, who determined what would happen. He was to be losing the most and so he set out before Jacob and his company what had to be done then and there. Jacob scarcely opened his mouth. He had made a long speech (vv.36-42) and said all that he planned to say, probably saying too much. He had earlier rashly challenged Laban, “What have you found that belongs to your household?” (v.37). If Laban had searched more thoroughly he would have found the stolen idols. Now just three more words of Jacob’s are recorded, “Gather some stones” (v.45), a command of his to his sons and family. All the speeches in this section are Laban’s with his customary slant on what had happened. He must answer Jacob’s taunt, “What have you found that belongs to your household?” Not finding his household gods doesn’t mean that they hadn’t been stolen and hidden somewhere, and so angry Laban bursts out to Jacob, “These are my own daughters. These children are my own children. These flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine.” In other words, “What do you mean, ‘Set before you what belongs to me’? It all belongs to me. They would not be under your headship if they had not first belonged to me (v.43).”

 

It was, of course, a highly debatable claim. A daughter leaves her father and mother and cleaves to her husband. The girls were no longer first of all the daughters of Laban, they were now Jacob’s wives. And their children belonged to them, to Jacob and Rachel and Leah, not to their grandfather. The flocks were Jacob’s wages. Laban may huff and puff and claim ownership of that which is no longer his, but God had made it clear on whom his favour rested. The Lord had told Laban to do no harm to Jacob. So Laban cannot do what Jacob feared. He can’t do what he wanted to do. He can’t come and pull up his daughters behind him on a camel and ride off with them taking them by force. He cannot drive the thousand head of animals back to Paddan Aram. God has tied Laban’s hands. He can shout his frustration as they all are taken from him never to be seen again, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine” (v.43). It is helpless rage and sadness. Laban has behaved abominably; he lost their love years ago, but now he is losing their presence too. Jacob can see the anguish in this bitter old man and he stays quiet.

 

1. LABAN REQUESTED THAT THEY MADE A COVENANT.

 

There’s a pause as his rage subsides. Laban is facing up to the inevitable, and then he says to Jacob in a more rational tone of voice, “Come now . . .” It’s a great moment of reconciliation after the tension and the disappointment. This defeated man soon to return home empty-handed says, “Come now . . .” Let’s all be saying to one another when we are aware of tensions, “Come now . . .” You remember the great invitation of the gospel? “Come now let us reason together. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow.” It is God who is saying those words to rebels. Let us say them when we are hurting. Let’s be peacemakers. Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

The outburst of Laban. The time of silence. Then the words, “Come now . . . There must not be a distance between us. Come up to me and shake my hand. Come and stand by me.” He says, “Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us” (v.44). A covenant is all that he can hope for from now on. He can’t win against Jacob. Jehovah the Lord of hosts is protecting Jacob. What if his son-in-law should then turn on him and attack him? It would be all up for Laban. For years he has been calling the shots in Haran as ‘The Boss.’ Those days are all over and now he is the one who had to negotiate with the man he has wronged. “Treat me as an equal,” he is saying. “Let’s make a covenant. Let’s be civilized men. Let’s agree not to harm one another.” But Jacob has no need of a covenant to protect him from Laban. The Lord of hosts has erected an impregnable fortress about him. Jacob could sing, “With salvation’s walls surrounded I may smile at all my foes.” So Laban is coming, cap in hand, and pressing for an agreement. Laban is now the inferior one, and he begs Jacob the superior not to take advantage of the ring of steel around him. The Lord has vindicated Jacob against his father-in-law. Laban wants to be secure. He wants to make sure that Jacob is never going to come to Haran later with an army and attack him. Laban needs a peace treaty, appeasement, a covenant with Jacob. Even a pagan knows how to run to a covenant for refuge. We Christians certainly know this,

 

“His oath, his covenant, his blood

Support me in the whelming flood.

When all around my soul gives way,

He then is all my help and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand.”

 

Christ is the Lamb of God in whose blood the new covenant is ratified. So Laban requests that he and Jacob make an alliance, a pact of friendship before their gods to witness publicly and legally that they will do one another no harm. Let us examine it.

 

2. THE CONTENT OF THE COVENANT.

 

Laban then takes the initiative and spells out the nature of this covenant relationship. The content of that covenant is explained in verses 45 to 55. Every component of this covenant serves to confirm that these two men, Laban and Jacob, are in a secure relationship.

 

i] A covenant sign is erected (vv. 45-49). In a covenant there must be a focus, an object, not a concept, and not something vague, a ‘thingy.’ No. The one appropriate fitting sign showing this covenant has been established is a pillar and a heap of stones. Jacob, you notice, takes the initiative in this. He doesn’t speak to Laban. He simply takes a stone and by his own great strength sets it up as his pillar. The covenant sign is not a tree or anything organic that one day will die. It is a rock, a rock of ages. How can we forget the last time Jacob had done this? It was at Bethel. He had rested his head on a rock that night when God suddenly perforated his sleep and met with him at the foot of a staircase to heaven, and he told him, “Behold I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until what I have done what I have spoken to you.” Then the next day Jacob took that stone and he set it up and secured it as a pillar, then he poured oil on top of it. The stone had been horizontal, his earthly protection, but Jacob heaved it up vertically to point to heaven from whence came Jacob’s help, his help came from the Lord who made heaven and earth. So here again at Mizpah Jacob lifts a stone up and it points to heaven as a testimony that the Lord, the God of his father Isaac, would be his sovereign protector. He is the Lord who bears witness to this covenant.

 

Then he turns away from Laban and addresses his relatives, his wives and his sons, big teenage boys, anybody that Laban might want to claim belongs to him. He tells his kinfolk, “You go pick up stones and you add them to this central stone. Gather some stones.” The activity is done by those whose faith is in the God of their father, and their grandfather and great-grandfather. It is to those of Jehovah’s covenant community that Jacob speaks when he says, “Gather some stones.” And so in verses 45 through 49 this heap is set up as a covenant testimony by Jacob and his seed. It is a pillar of witness of what was done in the place. I too bear witness to all who would hear me in these sermons from the Word of God each Sunday. I point men to heaven, but not me alone, for you also say your words to the people in college and school and work and on the streets for the rest of the week. You also add your stones to my pillar of truth and together we raise a testimony of witness.

 

The stone having been erected, Laban goes across to it and he says, “I call this heap of stones ‘Jegar Sahadutha.’” That was Aramaic for ‘a heap of witness.’ Then Jacob speaks and he says, “I call this heap of stones ‘Galeed.’” That was Hebrew for ‘a heap of witness.’ There was no difference at all. Then the pillar itself was named ‘Mizpah’ (v.49). You might think from the NIV translation of Laban’s words in verse 48 that it is another name for the heap of stones but the evidence suggests this is actually the name given to the central pillar. Mizpah means ‘watchtower’ and that calls to mind not a heap of stones but a high pillar.

 

ii] A covenant meal is eaten (v. 46). “They ate there by the heap.” Who ate there? From the context it must be Jacob’s relatives, the people who added their stones to the major stone that pointed up to the Sovereign King of heaven and earth. Jacob’s people have accepted the fact of a covenant and have identified with it in their heaping up of their own stones, and then, their work over, the seed of Abraham and the seed of the woman sit and eat together to show their harmony in what they together have agreed and performed.

 

iii] Covenant terms are spelled out (v.50). What does Laban want from this agreement? Two things:

A) The protection of his daughters. What is all this about? In verse 50 Laban says, “Now look, Jacob, I don’t want you to take any other wives; you have my daughters, and for fear they would be displaced in the inheritance that must be it.” What Laban wants is the security of his daughters’ position in the inheritance. He doesn’t want a new young wife to come on the scene and win such favour in Jacob’s eyes that she gets everything after Jacob’s death. So he is speaking up for his daughters, and then he adds that he doesn’t want Jacob to mistreat them. It is an unpleasant thing to say, isn’t it, for all sorts of reasons. Jacob has been his son-in-law, living in his compound, for twenty years. He is tarring Jacob’s image as he says, “I don’t trust you Jacob, and I am using this great pubic declaration and monument as extra ammunition to urge you to stop beating my daughters.” That’s rich, coming from Laban who insisted that Jacob must marry both his daughters. This father had been so inattentive to his girls that they told Jacob that they felt like strangers to him. Those who have no natural affection often pretend they do, and speak loudly about it when it’s to their advantage. ‘Oh, I so deeply care about these, my darling girls. Jacob I don’t want you to mistreat them.’ Laban, of all fathers, thinks he can give Jacob a lesson in how to treat his wives, but once again Jacob says nothing. But there is something else, far more important, that Laban wants in this covenant.

 

B) The protection of himself. Laban goes on to point at the pillar Mizpah, and he says, “We’ve set up this pillar and this is what it stands for, that neither of us will ever come this way and pass it by on a mission to do the other harm. We have set up this pillar, and we will call on the name of the God of Abraham to judge between us. Laban is wanting security for himself. Isn’t it interesting that those who are most spiteful are also most fearful of the spite of others? I believe that Laban was thinking to himself, ‘If I were in Jacob’s position, I’d want revenge, so I’d better do all I can to protect myself from revenge.’ Calvin puts it this way. ‘Wicked men always judge others from their own disposition.’ In other words, they think that everybody else is thinking as wickedly as they are. I mean Laban had been plotting revenge on Jacob for weeks, and he thinks, ‘Well, surely Jacob is doing the same towards me.’ But it’s very clear from this passage that all Jacob wants is to go home, to get away from his father-in-law, and be rid of Laban once and for all. He just doesn’t want to have to deal with him anymore. He wants to be out of his sight, out of his presence, out of his memory. He wants nothing from him, he wants to do nothing to him, he just wants to go home. But Laban can’t believe that a man would think like that. Because he has enmity and murder in his own heart, he thinks that Jacob has also got enmity and murder in his. So Laban seeks protection in a covenant.

 

But notice the words of Laban; “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” (v.54). Those actions are not really equal are they? It was impossible for Laban to pass by that heap to harm Jacob. Jacob’s God won’t let him. The gates of hell can’t prevail against Jacob and Laban knows it. What Laban is really asking is that Jacob promises that he’d never come hunting for Laban. Jacob could do that. He was powerful enough. The Lord was with him, and so Laban was pleading that Jacob would refrain. That’s the bottom line of this covenant. What in the world is Laban doing? Hasn’t the living God spoken to him telling him that he was protecting Jacob? And where were Laban’s gods? They had been stolen – as utterly impotent to protect themselves or curse their thief – and they were hidden in Rachel’s tent. What in the world is Laban doing? He has tasted the power of the world to come. He has tasted the nearness of God. Why doesn’t he leave his rotten world behind him, say good-bye to Haran and join Jacob on his journey to the Promised Land? Why doesn’t he forsake the earth and seek heaven? Instead of that all he wants is to borrow a little time, to have some years of freedom from warfare, to delay the inevitable death and judgment that lay before him. One day we know that the sons of Jacob are going to conquer the sons of Laban. One day the sons of God will conquer the sons of this world.

 

Don’t you understand that this is what Genesis has been about? It’s about the division between two seeds, the serpent’s and the woman’s; the covenantal and the anti-covenantal; two worlds and the triumph of the seed of the woman and the heavenly world; Cain versus Abel, but Abel reborn in Seth; the world versus Noah, but Noah brought into a new creation; Abraham leaving behind his home in Ur to seek the presence of God; the tower of Babel and the tower of Bethel – this is what the whole Bible has been about, the bifurcation of human life by a distinguishing God, Jehovah the Lord of hosts. One day the heavenly shall triumph. Indeed it has already triumphed in Christ. Hasn’t he conquered your enemies – sin, satan, death – and now you await the last day when his victory will be revealed. Meanwhile, though the world persecutes you and hates you – as it persecuted and hated your Saviour – you take no vengeance. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.” You remain silent as Jacob did.

 

Laban knows this because God has made sure he knows it – just as he has made sure you all know it. Laban knows that he has offended Jacob, and that he cannot defend himself against Jacob without violating the word of the Lord not to do him any harm. He dare not do that. His position is vulnerable. So he pleads with Jacob: don’t hurt me. Laban is like the demons who come cringing up to Christ crying, “Have you come to torment us before the time?” They recognize in Jesus the one who will finally overcome them and consign them to hell. Clearly they have some prior arrangement with God that he will withhold his judgment against them until the last day. So Laban, the son of this world, only wants to buy some time to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of this life. So this covenant is not between two equal parties, as much as Laban would want it to be a bi-partisan treaty. It’s his plea for appeasement, a truce, a lull in the constant tension between these two men which has largely been created by Laban. Laban wants to be left alone for the remaining year of his life to do his own thing, while Jacob seeks the things of God.

 

iv] A covenant sacrifice is made (v. 54). Jacob went on to a mountain in the hill country, we are told, and there he offered a sacrifice. In other words, although Jacob said nothing, and the whole initiative for cutting this covenant had been Laban’s, yet Jacob took his obligations most seriously. He solemnized the covenant in an act of religious worship. He cut the throat of a spotless lamb and offered the lamb as sacrifice to God. It was Jacob who did this, not Laban. It was not even Jacob plus Laban. Laban did not do the sacrificing. He just did the talking. He proposed the covenant agreement but he didn’t see that without the shedding of blood there can be no abiding covenant. The God to whom Jacob offered that sacrifice was not the God of Laban. Jacob’s God is the one true God who is the fear of Isaac, and this God requires sacrifice. That is deep in his very nature. That is how God, the only God, is. So Jacob climbed a mountain and built an altar and made a sacrifice and called on the name of the Lord to confirm all that he was promising, and to bear witness to this relationship. That was the fourth component of this covenant. The pillar of witness as the covenant sign; the covenant meal eaten by the seed of Jacob; the covenant terms spelled out, and here the sacrificial offering.

 

v] The covenant ceremony is climaxed in a feast (v.54). The meal itself indicates the cessation of enmity. You remember in the New Testament period there was the Lord’s Supper, and then there were also so called ‘love feasts’ when the congregation sat and ate together. Churches need both, holy communion and fellowship lunch. Both those elements are reflected on this occasion. There was the meal at the pillar (v.46) and then the late night meal which both parties participated in. A meal is not just sitting in a chair in front of a plate and putting food in your mouth. We are not animals. It is a time of affection and conversation, of welcome and of farewells, and the ceremonial meal confirming this covenant sets forth and visualizes the family reconciliation that has been established between Jacob and Laban. That’s the fifth component.

 

vi] The covenant relationship is sealed with an oath (v.53). Laban puts it this way; “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other” (v.49). Now please don’t think that that was a blessing. Sometimes it is called the ‘blessing of Mizpah’ but it is rather the statement of a fearful and unbelieving man who is basically speaking down at his son-in-law once again. Laban is saying, “Jacob, I’m an honorable man. I would never do anything to harm you when we’re apart from one another. But you on the other hand can’t be trusted, so I call upon your God to keep a close eye on you so that you never do anything against me while we’re apart.” That’s the oath that Laban lifts up to heaven. It stands for distrust and warning. It is an unkind word, full of suspicion. We shouldn’t use it in our partings, at the end of our youth meetings; “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” Then Laban goes on, from one faux pas to the next, saying now, “May the God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us” (v.53). Isn’t it fascinating to see Laban covering his bases, appealing to the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, sort of ‘your God and my God’? Nahor was Abraham’s grandfather, and it was the name of his brother. Neither of these Nahors worshipped Jehovah; they both served the gods of Ur of the Chaldees. So here we have multi-faith again.

 

Then Jacob makes his oath, and it’s fascinating that Jacob’s oath is “in the name of the Fear of his father, Isaac.” That’s circumlocution for the God of Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it? Isaac had never worshiped idols. Abraham, his father, had spent years in vanity as an idolalter, but Isaac never so. He knew God and feared the Lord too greatly to worship ‘gods,’ things that could be stolen and hidden in a saddle bag and sat upon. Jacob here gets one last jab in: “I’m not going to swear by idols or the gods of idol worshipers. I’m going to swear by the God of my father, Isaac, who never worshiped idols, by the only true God, the one who redeemed Abraham and brought him out of idolatrous Ur of the Chaldees.”

 

That is the covenant, the oath mutually binding the two men and observed by them both until their death, establishing a peaceful relationship between Jacob and Laban. Then they finally had a long feast until late into the night and early the next morning Laban rose and his men. He showed his strange affection to his grandchildren and his daughters. He kissed them all. His promise and his eating with his family had been a reality for him though he was still a rebel and a stranger to the God of the covenant. We know that there will be those in the Great Day who will protest to Christ, “We ate and drank with you,” to whom he will say, “Depart from me I never knew you.” Laban finally departed.

 

3. JACOB ENJOYS THE BLESSINGS OF THE COVENANT GOD.

 

Have you noticed that that there are two of everything in this narrative?

 

A) There’s a pillar and a heap (vv. 45&46), the pillar – pointing to heaven – represents Jacob’s side of the covenant whereas the heap – hugging the earth – represents Laban’s. Even though they both speak of the same covenant, the perspectives on the covenant were different. For Jacob it is a pledge to seek the heavenly rather than attack Laban to gain the earthly, while for Laban it is a protection of his earthly goods.

 

B) There are two names for the heap (v. 47), Jegar Sahadutha and Galeed. One is in the language of Laban. The other in the language of Jacob.  Even when they agree on the name, ‘Heap of Witness,’ it’s only a formal agreement. For Laban the name refers to a witness to this earthly covenant. For Jacob it is a witness before the Lord who had promised him heaven.

 

C) There are two gods that are called to witness (v. 53), the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor. The God of the one called Abraham out of this world and the god of the other encouraged his brother to remain in Ur.

 

D) There are two destinations (Gen.31:55 and 32:1). Laban goes back to ‘his place.’ The man of the world returned to the world. He went away from the presence of God. He returned home to eke out whatever meaning he can find in that meaningless life that he had chosen for himself. So this sad, unbelieving tyrant disappears from the biblical record and we know nothing of his latter end. But Jacob departs on his way to heaven. He goes forward, and soon on his journey in the Promised Land he meets some figures. We are told, “Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanaim” (Gen 32:1&2). Jacob has the same experience as his grandfather Abraham had in the heat of the day under the great trees of Mamre when he saw three men standing nearby and Abraham hurried along to meet them. Perhaps it was the same three who now were sent by Jehovah to meet with Jacob. This patriarch has chosen the heavenly portion, and here God gives him confirmation of the rightness of his choice. Jacob will walk with angels in the land of
promise; they will bear him up lest he dash his foot against a stone.

 

Jacob is walking into danger, to meet the brother whom he offended and cheated twenty years earlier. He is taking no army with him, but the God who promised he would never leave him and take him home sends these seraphim, the angelic warriors, to greet him to assure him they would be watching over him. They appeared at the right moment and in the right manner. These manifestations of God’s love are always characterized by their appropriateness. If it is comfort we need then the Lord will provide it. If it is warning then he will touch our consciences. If we feel our own great weakness then he will come and reinvigorate us. Jacob was walking into the unknown, but he was not walking alone and he was walking the path of obedience. God had told him to leave Haran and go to the Promised Land. There is always help for those who walk in obedience to God. When you submit to the God who guides your way that God will guard your way. You may meet Esaus and Labans on the road but you will also meet his angels who will keep you.

 

Off to the land flowing with milk and honey walked Jacob and it was not long before he came across the encampment of God. Jacob names it ‘Mahanaim’ meaning ‘two camps’ for here the camp of heaven reaches down and touches the earth. So it is with us. The Son of God who is in heaven is also present where two or three gather in his name. We have left the world behind us; we are not obsessed with its glittering prizes, its possessions, the prestige of its promises, and the satisfaction of its claimants that “they have peace without any thoughts of God.” Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, we know it, all his boasting, pomp and show. They are nothing, but as we go through life then week by week we meet with the Son of God as he gathers with us. He fellowships with us and he talks to us. We walk with him through the world as citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Walk as citizens of heaven, loving that which is eternal, seeking the kingdom that is for ever.

 

These two worlds shall exist until Christ comes – not two geographical locations but spiritual realities, the heavenly and the earthly, that which is eternal and that which is passing away. Then in the last day, Laban’s world, this world, shall be dissolved, and its elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the city of God will remain, the heavenly world of Christ where he is all and in all.

 

5th December 2010  GEOFFREY THOMAS