The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Famously Misapplied: May the Lord Keep Watch Between You and Me (Genesis 31:49)


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This verse should get the gold medal for being grossly misapplied. Somehow it has found its way onto greeting cards, plaques, and all manner of Christian paraphernalia. Often surrounded with hearts and flowers, it is used to express warm affection between separated friends and loved ones. Yet how on earth did we get so far astray? Clearly we don’t realize who we’re quoting. It’s nasty old Uncle Laban—that conniving cheat who stuffed Leah into the marriage tent with an unsuspecting Jacob. He’s the same snake who tricked Jacob into fourteen years of labor for sexy Rachel. He’s that lizard who lied and double-crossed every chance he got. Who would ever want to put Laban on a greeting card to a friend?

Laban is serpent-in-the-garden material and here in Genesis 31, the serpent has coiled himself into a knot of irritability because his nephew Jacob has finally managed to cut ties with him. Laban’s season of usury is over and he’s none too pleased about it. Having received word that Jacob secretly snuck off with his daughters and grandkids in tow, Laban chases him down in hot pursuit. He’s got an army of relatives with him and when he finally catches up to Jacob, Laban says:

“What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why 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 timbrels and harps? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I 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.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:26-30)

Laban claims that God told him not to say anything to Jacob.  Clearly this long speech is an act of defiance, and by now we know not to trust any sugary words from Laban’s lips. No doubt he’s making up the part about throwing Jacob a farewell party. Instead he’s found a good excuse to start trouble: the family idols are missing.

Indeed, they are, because Miss Rachel stole them. When Laban starts poking his nosy nose into all the tents, she stuffs the idols into her camel’s saddle and sits down on them. When daddy shows up, she claims to be on her period, therefore she can’t get up and he certainly doesn’t want to touch anything she’s sitting on in that unclean state. The scheme works and Laban’s attempt to start trouble falls flat. By now Jacob is ticked. He’s done with being treated like a subordinate. He and Laban have a tense man-to-man discussion and even Laban can’t cook up a way to drag Jacob back under his thumb. So he agrees to let him go, but not before delivering this last threat:

“May Yahweh keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. If 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.”  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.” (Gen. 31:49-53)

Battle lines have been drawn, and both men agree to stay on their side of the heap. The air is filled with mutual dislike. Laban returns home, satisfied that he’s found some way to continue to control Jacob from afar by getting him to swear that he won’t ever marry again. Notice how he came to get his idols back, but he’s good at leveraging the Name of the real God in order to intimidate his nephew. Nice guy, Laban. Don’t we all wish we had an uncle just like him?

It’s nice to wish a friend well, or to remind them that God is watching over them. But if that’s what you want to say, then just say it. Don’t tag on a verse reference that turns your nice note into a poison pen letter. What if your friend were to get curious and look up the context of Genesis 31:49? You’d end up embarrassed and wishing you’d looked it up first. When it comes to Scripture, the rule of thumb should be: if you don’t remember the context, then don’t quote it.

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