Wednesday, January 18, 2017

a covenant between two thieves

Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm."
Genesis 31:51-52

This part of the story of Jacob is sometimes misunderstood. This happens because God's name is invoked in the "Mizpah" in Genesis 31:49: "The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another's sight.." I've often seen Christians use this as a sort of relational principle. I remember twenty and thirty years ago seeing Christian jewelry with this phrasing on it. Christian married couples have even had it engraved on their wedding rings, in total misunderstanding of the original intent of the words. Despite God's name being invoked, this is not a prayer or a holy moment. It is a thieve's deal between two men who have stolen from one another so much that they can't settle out who owes what. They totally distrust one another.

Basically Laban and Jacob have been scheming against each other for 14 long years in the context of family. Laban deceived his nephew Jacob in the rigged deal to marry Rachel that forced Jacob to marry both of Laban's daughter. Jacob deceived Laban in the deal for his wages taken from Laban's flocks. They outsmarted one another in "the art of the deal" like a couple of greasy, greedy businessmen operating on the dark side of ethics. They are now more mafia than family. And so, like the crime bosses they have become, they carve out boundaries for their territories of operation. The Mizpah stones are like gang graffiti, and the words of the "promise" they make are just a covenant between two thieves.

At this point in Jacob's story, God is more superstition to him than a substantive part of his life. That will change very soon in the text. But to read substantive spiritual growth into this criminal pact with Laban would be a huge mistake. Laban and Jacob are swearing by God, not surrendering to God. God will have to literally grapple with Jacob to change his heart. It should amaze us that God's grace would honor a thief like him. That's the real point of Jacob's story anyway. God blessed him despite his deceptive ways.

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