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In the Service of Laban
The story occupied by Genesis 29-31 represents one of the oft-recurring mysteries of human life. That is to say, in view of what has just taken place, that story seems to be an anti-climax, and is felt to be, in some serious sense, even a disappointment. It is almost impossible to bring the mind from the contemplations upon which it has just been fixed to read such an incident as that which spreads itself over these three chapters. When a man has seen angels, heaven, God: whatever he sees next must be poor and small, wanting in light and pale in colour. It is hardly just to some scenes to come to them from greater visions. By force of contrast they do not get the credit which is fairly due to their smaller dimensions and their simpler beauty. After all, in every sense, it is a long way from heaven to earth. We have first seen Jacob made solemn by a great fear, and ennobled by a surprising revelation; now he has become as he was yesterday and the day before one of ourselves. Yet this is the way through which we are divinely conducted all life through sometimes on the mountain; then swiftly driven down into lonely places; today in great rapture almost in heaven everything there but the body, and tomorrow we shall be writing our names in the dust, eating the bread which stands for a moment between us and death, and be quite common men again. We tell of a great dream, saying what we have seen in the visions of the night, and presently we are sold off into Egyptian slavery; our faces burn when we commune with God upon the mountain-top, and presently we descend to be mocked by Aaron and Miriam; now we are upon Tabor, the mount of transfiguration, where we would gladly build; and behold presently we are sent down to heal the sorrow which is moaning at its base. It is so with Jacob now. After the fulness of light, the quiver of mysterious joy which is half fear, half hope, he must pick up the threads of life and work patiently like a drudge who has never been off the common way. This is so with us. The poetical balance of things would be disturbed when we read this history but for the confirmation of it which is supplied by our own daily experience; we should say the contrast is too sudden, too violent; only one hour has passed, and behold the great transformation has been wrought. As literary readers we would criticise the swiftness of the transition, and ask for more space, and a finer gradation of events; but life is always contradicting criticism, for life will have its own strange way. God will not accept the pathways which we cut for his Providence; he reigns, he is the One Sovereign; there is no measure to be laid upon his scheme of things; we must take its unfoldment as he sends it always holding ourselves ready for gracious surprises, for new changes, for unexpected wonders and heavens. How wondrous the change here! We, who have just been with Jacob in his dream, and have overheard his solemn words, now see him with staff in hand going on his journey, and coming into the land of the people of the east.
Jacob has left home as a deceiver how will he be made to feel that? In a very direct manner: Jacob himself will be deceived, as he had deceived his own father. There is no escape from that rule. Judgment cannot be avoided or evaded, eluded, bribed, or deprived of its terrific but righteous force and claim. Jacob goes out and is himself deceived: the only intelligible way by which he can be taught the wickedness of deceit. Yet how surprised we are when we are made the victims of our own policy. Jacob was amazed when he found that he had been deceived by his kinsfolk. His countenance was a picture; his face was marked all over with signs of amazement that he, of all living creatures, should have been deceived. We do not like to be paid in our own coin; it does not enter into our minds that we have to reap the produce which we have sown. Is it to be supposed that we can do just what we like, and hasten away from the consequences, or escape the penalty due to evil? "Be sure your sin will find you out." What eyes it has! what keenness of scent! what little need of rest or sleep! The sinner has but twelve hours in the day judgment has twenty-four; it overtakes us in the dark. If we have been vainly thinking that we would sleep and the sin would sleep at the same time, we have miscalculated the operation of forces. Is not Jacob most human when he lifts up his pale, innocent face, and says, "What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?" How soon we forget our own selves. The mark of the supplanter was upon every feature of his face; he was a vagabond on the face of the earth; he had himself run away from the deception of his own father, and behold he says, "What is this thou hast done unto me?" Jacob turned into Daniel! The supplanter on the judicial seat! The beautiful innocence that never put on skins that his hands might be hairy asks Laban however it has come to pass that he, Jacob, of all guileless persons, should be deceived. We understand the mystery: it is part of our own daily life; but how utterly surprising that any of us should be misled, that we should be robbed, that we should be unkindly treated. Is there not a cause? Can you rob others without in turn being robbed? Can you sow bad seed and reap good crops? Can you escape the solemn consequence of events which is now known amongst us and magnified under the holy name of Providence? Is there not a God that judgeth in the earth a mysterious, unmeasurable, sometimes unnameable, Power that seizes us and says, "There is something due to you now"? Then comes the great stroke that almost severs us in twain; then the great blow that stuns us and lays us prostrate on the earth, or then the subtle craftiness that makes fools of us in the twilight, mocks us in the darkness, and leaves us helpless in the morning. We ask, What is this? Poor innocence, sweet guilelessness; how can it be that any Laban should have sunk to such a depth of wickedness as to practise an imposture upon us? How odd that we should have to suffer. How mysterious the ways of Providence. No: how mysterious the ways of man first. There is a mystery in us: that we, who were made to sing God's praise, and to hold converse with heaven in holy prayer, should have deceived the old, and the blind, and the helpless. That is the ineffable and eternal mystery. "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished." "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged." "The Lord hath done unto me as I have done unto others." It is well; the balance of things is exquisitely kept. "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord" not today, or tomorrow, or here, or there according to your fixing and appointing: but God's word cannot be broken. Is this a shaft shot into the core of some hearts? Is this an awful blow aimed at some self-righteousness? The Lord be blessed! There is a smiting that is followed by healing; there is a cry of contrition which may be followed by a hymn of praise.
Further pursuing the story, you will find that Jacob must be made to feel the strength and agony of natural instincts, and so enter into sympathy with his distressed father. The Lord will complete his educational work in Jacob; the Lord will make him cry bitterly. We do not deceive our fathers for nothing. The Lord will not allow the old man's heart to be sawn asunder, as it were, by our cruelty, without making us feel some day what sorrow we have wrought. In the far-away land, Jacob speaks about "mine own place, and my country," saying, "Let me go back to them; nor let me go alone: let me take with me my wives and my children." Thus God gets hold of us at a thousand points. God creates a great heart-hunger for the old country, the old homestead, the old folks we have left behind, the old associations; and that hunger bites us, gives us mortal pain, and, through that hunger, we are sometimes led to pray. Jacob says, Let me take my wives and my children with me. He is beginning himself now to feel the mystery of the home-feeling. When he perpetrated the deed of supplanting, and accomplished the transfer of the blessing to himself, there was in the view of his selfishness but one man; he seemed to have no one to consider but himself; he could perform an evil deed and flee away without needing family counsel, or without rending family or paternal sensibility on his own part. Now the case is different: now Jacob has struck his social roots deep into the earth: now it is like taking up some well-planted tree to move him. Yet he says, "Let me go." God thus gets hold of us: he gets hold of us through our little children, through our family interests, through our household circle. We are nailed and bound down by uncontrollable instincts and forces. Again and again these forces renew themselves. Why does not Jacob go away alone? He cannot: there are some murders which even Jacob cannot commit. How is it that even men who can lie, deceive, cheat, rob, and do many wicked things, always fall back from one particular crime which seems to shock them and produce in their minds a feeling of unutterable revulsion? This is the mystery of God. It is imaginatively hard to break all the ten commandments at a stroke: who does not leave just one that he cannot violate? and having left that one which he himself cannot break, how the man wonders that any other human creature can break that particular statute. He prides himself that one is untouched, and has yet upon it the bloom of its honour. In what various ways our hearts are wrung. Could we see a map of all the ways by which men are brought back again to God, we should be amazed at the intricacy, and relations, and crossings of the innumerable lines; here they coincide, there they sharply separate, again they seem to touch; across them run other lines in great surprises of movement, and yet, by some mysterious action, all the lines converge upon the abandoned house of the Father, the discarded altar of the Cross, and all the various voices of life are one in the solemn pathos of the confession and petition for pardon. This is the Lord's way.
As to the transactions between Jacob and Laban, they must stand without explanation or defence. They amaze us. It would seem impossible for some men to live other than a life of trickery, scheming, and selfish policy. Did we not know it in ourselves, we should resent it on the page of the biographer, or in the verses of the poet. It is a mystery in the moral kingdom beyond all other mysteries of a human kind that men can be perpetrating deeds of evil, can be following policies of self-aggrandisement, can be telling or acting lies, and yet all the time have a certain broad line of religious feeling and aspiration drawing itself through their divided and chaotic life. This is mystery. We need not go into heaven to ask for wonders: we ourselves are living problems; enigmas to which there is no present and satisfactory reply. Jacob was still a swindler; Jacob still divided his week into opportunities for promoting himself and deceiving his mother's brother. Do not let us become special pleaders on Jacob's behalf. All I can say can be said under two divisions of thought. First, God spared Jacob: therefore I must not strike; God forbore him, had patience with him, saw something in him that no one else could see. Blessed be God! he is the same with us, or who could live one whole day upon the earth? Were he to mark one iniquity in a thousand, who could ever pray again? or lift up his head in hope? or feel upon his blanched face the warmth of the sun's bright smile? God sees in every Jacob more than Jacob sees in himself. Second: We may not really know the whole story. Who can tell all a man's life every word, syllable, and tittle of it? We are all seen in phases, aspects, and partial manifestations, and the reports which are made of us partake very largely of the imperfection of the manifestations which we ourselves make to our fellow-creatures. We do not know all that Jacob did, or all that Laban did. We know in part; the part we do know we do not admire; but we must always fall back upon the circumstance that God spares, and therefore has a reason for the sparing. If the case were so narrow, and little, and puny, as we often make it a criminal and a judge, a felony and destruction why then the whole tragedy of life could be settled in a moment; but in the worst of us there is some faint sparkle of better things which God sees, in the meanest of us there is a soul meant for heaven. Even the man who is basest, who has broken all the commandments, and has been almost sorry there were not more commandments to break, has in him, in God's sight, some point on which, if not the Divine complacency, the Divine compassion may be fixed. His mercy endureth for ever; his patience is greater than our transgression. Where sin aboundeth, grace doth much more abound like a great billow of the sea rising, heightening, swelling into infiniteness of pathos. On these grounds, then, I rest, viz., the forbearance of God, therefore the possibility of features of a redeeming kind I do not see; and, second, the incompleteness of my knowledge which, when completed, may enable me to judge otherwise. This will be the explanation of the rest of heaven; this will be the mitigation of the judgment day namely, that we shall then see things from God's own standpoint We shall then see hell as God sees it; we shall then know perfectly according to the measure of our capacity; and whether the issue be darkness outer and unspeakable, or light complete and ineffable, we shall say, "He hath done all things well."
How bold a book is the Bible. The Bible hides nothing of shame; the Bible is not afraid of words which make the cheek burn; the Bible conceals nothing of moral crippleness, infirmity, or weakness, or evil. The Bible holds everything up in the light. Recognise, at least, the fearless honesty of the book. This is not a gallery of artistic figures; this is no gathering together of dramatic characters painted, arrayed, taught to perform their part aesthetically, without fault and beyond criticism; these are living men and women when they pray, when they sin, when they shout like a host of worshippers, and when they fall down like a host of rebels, or flee like a host of cowards. The Bible paints real characters. God says what is true about every one of us. If there is shame in it, we must feel it: the wrong is ours, not his. No other book could be so dauntless, could paint what we call the defective side of human nature with so bold a hand and yet claim to be the revelation of God. Things, however, must always be looked at in their proper relation and in their right perspective. You may bring some chapters of the Bible so closely to your eyes as to be shocked by their revelations. You say they are not to be read, they are not to be spoken of: they are to be quickly hastened over. Or you yourself can rise by the grace of God to such heroic righteousness as to be able to look upon putrefaction, and blasphemy, and all wickedness, and great hell itself, and name them all without a blush, or without a shudder. Things are what they are in their right relation and proper atmosphere.
So we return to our starting-point Life is varied sometimes a dream all light, sometimes a vision of blue heavens; a great cloudless day, or a night burning with innumerable stars lamps of an unseen sanctuary; sometimes a transfiguration, sometimes a holy ecstasy, sometimes a vale of tears a place of weeping, a desert of sand, a sea all storm; sometimes extraordinary all but supernatural, without one trace of commonness or familiarity upon it; and then servitude, sheep-tending, field-culture, monotony: rising in the morning, going the daily round, retiring at night weary, eating the bread of industry, and sleeping the sleep of honesty a commonplace, dull, pendulum-life. So be it It is not mine to choose my life: let me resign the disposal of the lot into the hand of God, saying, "Lord, if it be mine to dream on the way to Padan-aram, and to build a Bethel in unexpected places, blessed be thy name! Or if it be mine to be a common herdsman, a gatherer of sycamore fruit; if it be mine to be a hewer of wood or a drawer of water, thy will be done; if thou dost mean me to be a flying angel, thy will be done; if thou dost lay me upon a bed of suffering and say, 'By patience learn the mystery of my purpose,' thy will, my God, not mine be done." To say all this under such circumstances is to touch the very acme and sublimity of grace.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 30". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany