Jacob’s life is, like ours, marked by transitions from one stage to another. First, there is the transition from a young man settled in a family to being on the run. Second, there is the transition to the challenges of marriage and family. This morning we are looking at the transition from years of working in difficult circumstances to success and going out on his own by leaving Laban.
If there is one thread that is consistent in the life of Jacob it is this: “I will be with you.” At every point of change in his life, he hears that from God. He may not know where he is going or what he is going to do but there is always the affirmation from God that he is not completely alone. We first hear it when he has the vision of the angels at Bethel. God tells him that He will be with him and will watch over him wherever he goes.
We see it again in the passage this morning. “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”
Not many people have that assurance in their lives – or perhaps not many people realize it. They have come to believe they are on their own so they are afraid of change or risk. They are unable to trust that God is with them when difficulties or even new opportunities come. Their circumstances determine their faith.
God does not promise an easy life when He says he will be with us. He does not promise us a charmed life with no obstacles or hardships. If you look at the lives of the saints you will often see one theme – difficulty. It may be physical or emotional or spiritual. They have learned that the pursuit of maturity is not the pursuit of happiness. Instead, it is through the road of trials and even suffering.
This was certainly true in the life of Jacob. He came to Laban’s home looking for refuge and a wife. I suspect it was in his mind that it would be as easy for him as it was for his father finding his mother, Rebekah. Instead, what did he find? He found it would take him twenty years of infighting, jealousy, envy and being treated unfairly by his in-laws. As he says to Laban, “I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times.”
But Jacob perseveres and plays the hand he is dealt. He makes the best of a bad situation and is not constantly asking for signs or signals from God about when things are going to get better. Some of us want constant inspiration, affirmation, and encouragement and we cannot survive the “in between times”. Hummingbirds need to eat three times their weight every day. Camels, on the other hand, can go six to seven months with no water. Camels can live in the “in-between times” far better than hummingbirds.
Someone has said it is our struggles that define us.
“Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.”
― Steve Goodier
When we are in the middle of the struggle it is difficult to see their purpose. We simply want a way out. It’s often tempting to bail out but then, later in life, we find it is those very difficulties that shaped us and our character. My first five years of teaching were in a situation I thought would kill me with tension, opposition, incompetent leadership, and my own immaturity. Surely, this could not be God’s will for my life. I wrestled with whether to stay or leave. I didn’t know what the right thing was to do. Of course, now that I look back on those times I can see how important they were. I don’t romanticize them or have any desire to return but those hard times did define and shape me.
As hard as it is for us as parents to see our children go through difficulties early in life, we cannot help them by removing those challenges. It doesn’t help to tell war stories about how we walked uphill in the snow to school but it is important to think about what our lives would be like had all those hardships that built character and perseverance been removed. John Gardner said, “History never looks like history when you are living through it,” and he was right. The same is true for those parts of our life that are the building blocks of future success. We want the pursuit of happiness and not the pursuit of character. We don’t want twenty years of obstacles and hardship for our children. We want them to have all the advantages we did not have – and it robs them of what makes them mature.
Our struggles do indeed define us.
I love the words of Wendell Berry about the value of obstacles and difficult decisions:
”It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Jacob came to a similar turning point when he recognized he was at a crossroad in his life. He had become “prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants, and camels and donkeys.” Rachel and Leah’s family were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father. And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.” He could have ignored it and tried to make it work. After all, who could know what would happen if he left and went out on his own?
Bill McKibben wrote: There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”
But that was not Jacob. After twenty years of God’s silence and making the best of a bad situation he hears from God that it is time to leave. He and God are agreed on this. He realized that his success was not welcome in the family. In fact, instead of celebrating his accomplishments and his contribution to the overall wealth of the family they were resentful and jealous. There is almost always a price to success – and often the price is the loss or change of relationships. You leave people behind or they feel you have. My father struggled with one of his brothers their whole lives because Dad’s success only made his brother more and more resentful of him. In the end, his brother died a bitter man isolated not only from his parents and other brothers but from his own wife and children. Instead of being proud of his brother his resentment destroyed his life.
Even Laban’s daughters recognize what has happened. “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”
They are ready to leave as well. They can see it is not going to get better after twenty years. It’s the one thing where they can finally agree. They have been robbed by their father of what they believed was theirs.
In some ways, this is a characteristic of Laban’s whole family – even his daughters. They all believe they have been shortchanged by life. Life has not been fair to them. They deserve more than they have.
For me, this is where the story takes a turn – a permanent turn in the life of Jacob.
How does Rachel respond to feeling treated unfairly? She steals her father’s household gods on the way out. It’s a puzzling story as we’re not altogether sure about why she did it. Some have said she wanted something to remind her of home. Some say she wanted to keep her father from worshiping false gods. Others have said it was a sign of her total transfer of loyalty from her father to Jacob. I believe it had something to do with it being the one thing she could do in leaving that would hurt him the most. “If I cannot have what is rightfully mine then I will even the score and take what is yours.”
How does Laban respond to feeling the same? “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. You have done a foolish thing. The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine.”
How does Jacob respond? Yes, he is angry about the twenty years he has served Laban and received nothing but resentment and no appreciation. However, he also recognizes that it is God who has protected him and made him a success. He does not claim it as his own doing. “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands…” It is not pride speaking. It is the recognition that what he has comes from God. Not by magic or on his own but by years of hard work and the hand of God.
Many years later, when Jacob’s descendants come into the land of Canaan to possess it, God warns them: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”
When Laban says, “All that you see is mine” and his sons say, “Jacob has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father,” and his daughters say, “Surely all the wealth…belongs to us and our children..” it is important to see how different Jacob is. He does not look at all he has and say, “This is mine.”
In a way, the responses of his wives and their family are there to reflect and even accentuate the changes and the differences in the life of Jacob. He has matured through difficulties. He has come to recognize the protection of God in his life without that becoming pride or recklessness. He has become wealthy by the hand of God and has resisted the temptation to claim the wealth as his own.
Jacob never works for anyone else ever again. I know the feeling! He and Laban come to an agreement that they will leave each other alone and that is the last we hear of Laban and his family. My guess is nothing much changes for them and they likely continue to fight among themselves about who owns everything. Try to imagine what it is like when Laban dies and the brothers are left to fight over what is left. I wonder if there will be enough to fight over. After all, Jacob tells them, “The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I have been.” Likely, once Jacob left there would be a return to what little they had before he arrived. That would make the fights even more intense.
It does not mean that Jacob’s family is free of the same envy and jealousy. We’ll see that later in the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the coat of many colors. But Jacob moves on – a better, wealthier, and wiser man than he was twenty years ago.