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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 31

The Church Pulpit CommentaryChurch Pulpit Commentary

Verses 6-7


‘With all my power I have served your father: and your father bath deceived me.’

Genesis 31:6-7

I. There is a reason for every step in our education, whether we see it or not, and, though Jacob could not have guessed it at the time, yet, as we look back, we can easily understand why his residence at Haran was suddenly closed, and his home broken up, and he driven across the desert, as a fugitive, hotly pursued, much as he had been years before, only in the reverse direction.

II. In point of fact, Jacob was becoming too contented in that strange land. Like Ulysses and his crews, he was in danger of forgetting the land of his birth, the tents of his father, and the promises of which he was the heir. He was fast losing the pilgrim spirit, and settling into a citizen of that far country. His mean and crafty arts to increase his wealth were honeycombing his spirit, and eating out his nobler nature, prostituting it to the meanest ends. His wives, infected with the idolatry of their father’s house, were in danger of corrupting the minds of his children; and how then would fare the holy seed, destined to give the world the messages of God? It was evident that his nest must be broken up in Haran, that he must be driven back into the pilgrim-life, to become a stranger and a sojourner, as his fathers were. And this was another step nearer the moment when he became an Israel, a prince with God. This may be your destiny, my hearer; and, if it be, accept meekly the discipline which forces you towards it. It is the hand that was pierced with nails that breaks up the nest of the past, and beckons you to the untried but blessed realities in front.

III. He who had said ‘Return,’ had pledged Himself to be with His servant as he obeyed Him. When we are on God’s plan, we may always count upon Him, and when He is with us we are invulnerable. If Jacob had realised this, he would not have needed to resort to stealth and subterfuge in getting away from Laban. The fear of man always breeds a snare, and robs the child of God of that noble upright bearing which commands the respect even of men of the world. The straightforward course is always the wisest and safest. To steal away is only to excite pursuit and angry recriminations. But even though Jacob had acted so meanly and unworthily, there was no slackening in God’s love or care. He said to Laban, ‘Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.’ Though we believe not, yet He remaineth faithful, He cannot deny Himself. Our unbelief cannot make His promises of none effect.


(1) ‘There are many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification, and sometimes it is difficult to know the voice of the Lord. But the more truly we partake of the nature of “His own sheep,” the more unerringly shall we detect the voice of the Good Shepherd. If you are not quite sure, wait till you are. It is the Shepherd’s business to make His presence and wish understood by the timid and perplexed in His flock. The only necessity is to be willing to do His will so soon as it is clearly seen. If you are in doubt, wait in faith, till every other door is shut, and one path lies open before you, and you are able to say: “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” ’

(2) ‘Jacob was an erring and unworthy child, but God did not leave or forsake him. He does not love us (as we so often falsely tell little children) because we are good, but to make us so. As He does not set his love on us because of our deserts, so He does not turn it away from us because of our sins. He hates our sin, but His love surrounds us, as the warm summer ocean laps about the iceberg, which has drifted into its midst, until it melts it into streams of crystal clearness. Thus He was able to throw His protection round His erring child, and this was part of the loving discipline which was leading Jacob to a goal of which he never dreamed.’

( For outline on Genesis 31:38, see page 118.)

Verse 38


‘And Jacob served.’

Genesis 29:20

‘This twenty years have I been with thee.’

Genesis 31:38

The twenty years of his sojourn in Mesopotamia are the least interesting portion of Jacob’s life. The record of this period is spread over three chapters, and in these simple annals of his personal and domestic history we are introduced to a multitude of those little incidents which, however trifling in themselves, go to make up so large a portion of human life, and help considerably in the formation of character. Life is not all a Bethel-vision, an opening of the door, a standing at ‘the gate of heaven.’ There are long stretches of monotonous earth scenery, and myriads of experiences utterly devoid of glory or romance. After ‘heaven’s gate’ comes Laban and his household, ‘a wily, politic, deceitful set’—after enraptured gazing on troops of angel forms comes weary tendance of flocks and herds for twenty long years, of which Jacob could say with the pathos of sincerity, ‘Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night: and my sleep departed from mine eyes.’

A brief epitome of its principal points is all that is needed as the groundwork of sermonic reflection. Encouraged by the vision at Bethel, Jacob resumed his journey, and in due season reached Haran, where he was received with welcome by Laban and his household. He became the keeper of his uncle’s flocks, and under very peculiar circumstances the husband of both his daughters, for whom by an infamous trick he was required to serve fourteen years. Six years longer he remained there on new terms, terms which certainly appeared more likely to remunerate the master than the servant, but which really enriched the latter. During this period a large household grew up around him, and with his increasing family circle his cares, too, grew numerous. Jehovah’s blessing, however, did not fail him; he became possessed of vast pastoral wealth. At last, Divine intimation, coupled with the growing jealousy and envy of Laban and his sons, induced him to think of returning to the land of promise.

More in detail, let us now consider Jacob’s life in Mesopotamia.

I. Its sins. II. Its trials. III. Its blessings.

I. The errors of the years of servitude.—Perhaps the leading error of this period was allowing himself, at the end of the first seven years, to be drawn into a violation of the original law of marriage. Jacob became a polygamist, under circumstances, it is true, of an extenuating character, but yet not such as could excuse or atone for his moral blunder and crime. By and by we find him the husband of four wives, and even if we admit that such a circumstance did not in this primitive age wholly militate against the possession of true religion, yet it cannot be denied that Jacob suffered severely for his indulgence, and must frequently have had occasion in after life to reflect, that, though his conduct had not deprived him of religious hope, it had prepared for him all that series of sorrows with which he was subsequently oppressed, and had nearly ‘brought down his gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.’

Nor, in spite of the well-meant efforts of some apologists for Jacob, can it be denied that the arrangement which Jacob made with Laban at the beginning of the last six years of his stay in Haran ( Genesis 30:31-36) savoured too much of deceit, and bore too striking a resemblance to the greedy and unscrupulous conduct of Laban himself. The proposal to which Laban so very readily agreed was one which resulted, as Jacob naturally expected it would, to the latter’s advantage. The adoption by Jacob of this device showed want of faith in God. Probably he argued that it was necessary that deceit should be met by deceit; but now, as years before, he is guilty of the besetting sin of making haste. ‘He would not wait for the Lord to fulfil His promise; he would use his own means, employ his cunning and devices, to accomplish the purpose of God, instead of committing his cause unto Him.’ The same taint of evil marked his conduct in leaving his father-in-law. His stealthiness of procedure was due to a lack of trust in God’s promise and care. One who had such to rely upon had no need to say, ‘Because I was afraid’ ( Genesis 31:31), for ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?”

II. Its trials.—His life in Haran was no long Arcadian interval, but, as part of the Divine training, had in it elements of hardness and bitterness such as Abraham and Isaac had never known. During all this period Jacob was compelled to dwell in the society of those who were little else than idolaters; and this, to one who had known the purity of the monotheistic faith, must have been a constant source of trial.

Again, the unpleasant relations in which he was often compelled to stand towards his own relatives must have been a grievous trouble. His sharp-witted employer and father-in-law seemed to look upon Jacob merely in the light of a very profitable servant, to be made the most of, at the least possible expense.

These trials could only be intensified to the subject of them by the thought that many were of a retributive character. Having sowed ‘the wind,’ he reaped ‘the whirlwind.’ Jacob was forced over and over again to remember what we may take a New Testament Apostle’s words to express, ‘Be not deceived, God is not mocked: whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’

III. Its blessings.—The ‘few days’ of Rebekah’s intention lengthened out to twenty years. This period was a season during which Jehovah began to fulfil the promises made at Bethel. He had promised ‘to be with him and keep him in all places whither he would go,’ and at the end of this time we find Jacob grown exceedingly rich, and with a large and unbroken family circle. So manifestly did the blessing of Heaven rest upon him, that it overflowed to others; for even the selfish Laban was constrained to admit, ‘I have learned by experience that the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake.’ And the still more visible tokens of Divine favour which Jacob enjoyed during the last years of his stay in Mesopotamia excited the envy of Laban and his sons.

We do not, it is true, discern many signs of ‘growth in grace.’ Still there was growth—growth in self-knowledge, growth in self-distrust. More than the history explicitly reveals to us must be supposed to underlie these seemingly prosaic and uneventful years; discipline, personal and domestic, slowly but surely preparing the imperfect and unlovely nature for the great change which Peniel was to witness.


‘Blessed human love that softens the hardest lot, casting a halo over difficulty, as sunset glow over the hard outlines of the hills. To have this a man might well be content to forego the choicest gifts of earthly fortune. But if the love of woman could thus gladden those long dark days, surely the blessed love of Jesus would do the same and more. Life may be long and lonely, bereaved of those dearer far than light, daily tasks irksome, the hills of difficulty many, but if the heart has learnt to take all from the love of Jesus, and to do all in Him, by Him, and for Him, all is changed. The days, as they pass by, become channels down which the strong tides of eternal bliss are ever running at the flood.’

Verse 48


‘And Laban said, This heap is a heap of witness between me and thee this day.’

Genesis 31:48

I. God had appeared to Laban the previous night and warned him against doing any harm to Jacob. Compelled thus to abandon his real object, he can but explain the hot haste with which he has pursued his nephew, at such a loss of time and at so busy a season, by alleging a desire to give a parting parental salute to his daughters and grandchildren, and recover some household images which have been stolen from him. The cautious Jacob carefully restrains himself until a search has been made throughout the camp without result, and even makes a kind of apology for his unceremonious and secret departure.

But he is no sooner sure of his ground than he breaks out into hot and defiant words against his father-in-law, and relieves his mind of a long series of complaints against him during his twenty years’ sojourn with him, which his natural timidity had hitherto caused him to bear in silence. When at length calmer feelings prevail on each side, Laban proposes that they should make a solemn covenant with each other. It may be the hill-top above them was already known as a sacred spot, and may have received the name of Mizpah from the people of the land, as was the case with other similar spots. Thither, then, uncle and nephew ascend, each attended by his sons and brethren and the chief men of his company. Jacob selects the spot. From among the fragments of rock lying around he takes one larger than the rest, rolls it to the place, and sets it up on end. Holding it thus in position, he bids all those assembled bring each one his stone and pile around it until a considerable heap has been accumulated. This done, Laban as the elder first approaches it, and laying his hand upon it, while the rest of the company stand around and look on, he addresses Jacob in their hearing, saying, ‘This heap shall be a witness between me and thee this day.’ If Jacob should afflict his daughters; if he should take beside them other wives; or if he should pass beyond this spot with harmful projects towards Laban—then this heap should be a silent witness of the broken faith, and God should see and judge between them. ‘Jegar-sahadutha,’ says Laban, speaking in the Syrian tongue—‘The heap of witness shall this heap be called.’

II. Jacob has now his part to perform. Laban’s fears, indeed, are but pretences to afford him plausible cover for retreat after so hot a pursuit. Jacob has no such intentions as the oath he is asked to make would seem to attribute to him. He can, therefore, the more easily enter into the covenant which Laban requires him to ratify. Stretching out his hand in his turn, and laying it upon the heap, he gives the undertaking required of him—‘Swearing by the fear of his father Isaac.’ And he, too, solemnly names the heap, calling it in the Hebrew language Galeed, meaning, as before, ‘the heap of witness.’ Thenceforward the spot came to be known among the Hebrew people by both its old and its new name, ‘Mizpah Galeed’—the watch-tower from which the Lord Himself would watch over covenants there made, the heap which should silently bear witness to the words of promise spoken.

The covenant thus ratified was followed by a sacrifice offered upon the mount, and a feast of which all partook.

—Rev. J. Wagstaff, b.d.


(1) ‘ “The fear of his father Isaac”—what does that mean? The word “fear” should be printed with a capital F, and you will find it is printed so in the Revised Version. “The Fear”—that is the name which Isaac gave to his God. Laban sware “by the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor,” that is, he sware by Jehovah, and by the idol whom their common ancestor worshipped as God. But Jacob—it is this I wish to emphasise—sware by “the Fear of his father Isaac,” that is, Jacob sware by Him whom Isaac worshipped as “the Fear.” All these Old Testament patriarchs and saints had their own name for the God whom they served; to one He was “the Rock,” to another “the Shield,” to another “the Shepherd”; but to Isaac He was “the Fear,” “the Dreadful One,” or “the Terror.”

That was Isaac’s name for God. What think ye of God? How do we name Him? What is He to us? “Nothing is easier,” says John Henry Newman somewhere, “than to use the name God and to mean nothing by it.” “I believe in God”—so begins the Apostles’ Creed; and we must all begin there—there is the foundation, the starting-point. “He that cometh to God must believe that He is.” ’

(2) ‘A midshipman, who was about to leave the sailor’s home, where he had been converted, came to the superintendent on the day of going on board, and asked him to write on a card, in plain bold characters, the words, “I am a Christian.” When he was asked his object, he said, “As soon as I get on board I shall go to my hammock, and put this card where everybody can see it; it will save a lot of trouble, for everyone will know at once which side I am on, and will expect me to keep true to it.” This is raising the heap of witness.

Let us raise that heap, let me help you rear it, gather stones, and pile them into the form of that cross by which the world was crucified to St. Paul and he to the world.’

(3) ‘One idea underlies this incident—the sacredness of truth. Here we are taught to remember that there is One who hears our spoken promises and avenges all departures from fidelity and truth. He watches over the compacts which men make with each other, and takes note of falsity and perjury; of broken faith and untruthfulness in all its forms.’

Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 31". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/genesis-31.html. 1876.
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