A Pillar of Witness

An infuriated Laban pursued after Jacob when he learned that Jacob had fled with his wives, children, and cattle. Although when he caught up with Jacob he put on a front of loving his daughters and grandchildren so much that it pained him to have them leave without as much as saying good-by to him, the statement above is true. He was far more infuriated than hurt because of deep love. He was angry and not lonesome. And although we will not say that he did not have reason to be angry with Jacob, he acted more hurt about being separated from his children and grandchildren than he actually felt. 

These were his daughters, even though now they were Jacob’s wives. Nothing can ever change that. Likewise, these were his grandchildren, and nothing is going to change that. Jacob’s departure was one of stealth. Genesis 31:20 says that he “stole away unawares.” And to take Laban’s daughters and his grandchildren away in that manner is not above criticism, even though God told him to go back home. God did not, however, tell him to do it that way. The statement follows the revelation that Laban had gone to shear sheep some distance from the home. The implication is plain that Jacob knew this and took advantage of this departure of Laban to get away without bidding him farewell, and without letting his family do the same thing. Granted that Laban did not love his children, and that the love of the daughters had waxed cold toward their father, there is that command of God — even though it was not yet written in stone in the Ten Commandments — that children should honour their father and mother. And Jacob did not give them the opportunity to do so. Laban’s daughters erred, and Jacob helped them to do so, before they would drop out of Laban’s life forever. 

Then, too, Jacob had worked deceitfully in the service of Laban. He did faithfully the work assigned to him. But his attempted trickery with the pilled rods was not a work of honesty. Even though the pilled had nothing to do with the cattle bringing forth the kind of sheep that Jacob had with Laban decided would he his hire, his attempt to gain Laban’s sheep and cattle that way was far from above reproach. The fury of Laban is then to be understood. Jacob’s trick did not work to cause the sheep to bring forth the specified kind of offspring, but it did work to create bitterness between Laban and Jacob. 

We are, however, to doubt very seriously Laban’s claim that he would have prepared a farewell feast. There is nothing recorded concerning him in the whole account in Scripture that would indicate such action as forthcoming from Laban. Certainly the misrepresentation that Laban makes in verse 43 is against such an idea. He is correct when he states that these are his daughters, but not in the sense in which he presents it. He begat them, but they are not his possession. He sold them to Jacob. These are his children, if you speak of grandchildren, but they are not that which he has a right to insist must remain in Haran. And he is all wrong when he says that these are his cattle. These were Jacob’s hire. He cannot even say that they ever were his cattle, for in his own tricky way Jacob’s hire depended on his sheep bearing young. And if Jacob worked for a year and the sheep were sterile or their young were born dead, Jacob would have been out of all that work with no pay. But the moment the sheep was born of the kind agreed upon by both of them, it was Jacob’s and at no time Laban’s. 

Jacob expressed his fear. And he not only had reason to fear such a man as Laban, but he was helpless with his family and servants over against the brethren of Laban, the other Syrians which he took along. And that in itself reveals that Laban was furious and meant to capture them and bring them back to Haran. Only the grace of God that protected Jacob and warned Laban in a dream kept him from violence and capture of Jacob and his family. 

And after Laban accused him of stealing his gods, Jacob became furious, and no doubt would have liked to lay his hands on this man who had treated him so shamefully, though he was a close relative, not only as an uncle, but also as his father-in-law. We must see this tense, hate-filled scene to appreciate that pillar of witness which Laban and Jacob erect. That pillar is often misrepresented because these facts are not taken into consideration. 

Before we take further note of this pillar, however, let it be pointed out that the approach of Jacob to the whole situation is quite different from Laban’s. He was wroth, we read in verse 36. But having rehearsed all the evil that Laban did to him Jacob confessed that it was God who protected him over against Laban and his evil deeds. And he challenges Laban to mention one sin which he committed so that these men who came with Laban may judge whether Jacob is guilty of it. And then he warns Laban that God saw his affliction in Laban’s house and was witness to all the ill treatment afforded him. Indeed Laban also spoke of God, but not in faith, and as though God was on his side. He boasted in verse 29 of having Jacob in his power — which also indicates that he wanted to capture him and bring him back, and that Jacob had reason to be filled with fear at the sight of Laban and his brethren. But he is forced to speak of God, and reveals that God told him not to speak good or bad to Jacob. Jacob’s confidence is in God. Laban is forced to walk in God’s way with Jacob. And Laban has an idol which he loves so much that he searched all of Jacob’s tents and goods to have it restored to him. 

On that background, of Jacob putting his trust in God and Laban being afraid to touch Jacob because God is with him as his protection, they make a covenant, and build a pillar of witness to that covenant. The idea of the covenant comes from this idol-worshipping Laban who cannot do what he intended to do and still wanted to do, but was warned against doing it by the word of God. 

If we will take careful note of Laban’s speech we will find that by this pillar he did not have in mind what is usually ascribed to this pile of stones. It will become plain that he did not have kind and pleasant thoughts toward Jacob. Mizpah to many today represents God’s gracious watching over His people while of necessity they are absent one from the other, due to work or travel or any other circumstance that makes for separation between those who love each other. And in the church, believers will say Mizpah to each other when they separate. Laban did not mean that at all. He is not here wishing Jacob God’s blessing. He is not expressing his desire to see the mercy of God rest upon Jacob. He is not wishing him well. The watch of God over Jacob of which he speaks is not one of loving care. He is not declaring his deep concern for Jacob to be kept in safety and in loving protection from harm and evil. 

Note verses 44-53: “Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee. . . . And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it Galeed and Mizpah: for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see God is witness betwixt me and thee. And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwix us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac.” 

Plainly Laban’s meaning is, “Jacob, don’t you dare hurt my daughters, either physically or psychically. Bring no injury upon their bodies, and torment not their souls by taking other wives besides them. And remember, Jacob, that God will judge you and sees all your actions. I cannot watch you from the land of Haran to which I return. And I do not trust you, Jacob, so I demand of you that you promise not to hurt my daughters, or to come back this way to bring harm to me. This pillar, this heap of stones will be witness, and will remind you that God sees you while I cannot. He will judge you in my absence. Do not cross this line with harm to me in mind. And I will not cross it to harm you. But God is on both sides, and He will punish you for your evil.” 

It was not then a token of deep love, and a pillar to witness such love since now they part from one another and will not see each other’s faces again. It was not meant to be a call for God’s mercy and protecting care. It was a warning that God would watch his deeds. The very wording is significant. Laban does not say, “The Lord watch over us that no harm befall either one of us and that we may meet again.” Instead it is a warning that God will watch Jacob’s actions to see that he does no more of his tricks, and does not return to take more of Laban’s goods from him. Mizpah is not the same as Ebenezer. 

Samuel took a stone and set it between this same place called Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”I Samuel 7:12. This is quite a different situation and an entirely different type of speech. God had thundered that day upon the Philistines and discomfited them, so that the Israelites smote them and had the victory. Here we have a beautiful picture and beautiful speech of faith. Here is praise to God and thanks for all that which He did in His watchful care over His people, with hope of that same protection for the future. Ebenezer speaks of joy and hope. Mizpah speaks of suspicion and fear. The one is a place of hope. The other is a place of distrust. 

That does not mean that we may not use Laban’s speech, and as we part from one another to say, “The Lord watch between us, when we are absent one from another.” It all depends on what we mean by watch, when we declare our desire to have Him watch between us. We do better to express our desire that God watch over us and not between us. Laban’s between has an unpleasant sound to it, and therefore Mizpah gives off a bad taste. And truly to wish one another God’s blessing by such an expressed desire that He watch over us while we are absent one from the other is far to be preferred to, “Take it Easy.” Or, “Be good,” “Be seeing you,” or the like. Such speech is wholly without faith. Why not reveal your faith in God? Believers should wish each other God’s blessing. Paul speaks of greeting one another with an holy kiss. I Corinthians 16:20, and again in II Corinthians 13:12. He does the same thing to the Church at Thessalonica in his first epistle, chapter 5:26. Certainly we ought not to part with suspicions, demanding of each other oaths and covenants that we will not injure and seek harm to loved ones. Instead of asking God to witness between us, let us pray Him to watch over us in tender mercy as those for whom the blood of Christ was shed to cover our sins and to assure us that all will work together for our good for His sake.