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Genesis 31:17-55 > Legalism and Morality

When is something ethically correct to do or not to do? One can perhaps argue that – if something is legally allowed according to the law, that it is also ethically correct.

For example: If the law allows unborn babies to be murdered – then it is quite in order to have an abortion.

But we all know that one’s conscience before God does not allow everything that is lawful. Especially for someone, in whom the Holy Spirit has done a work of grace, morality is something that runs much wider than what the law allows.

A Christian woman will know deep inside that – even though the law allows abortion – it shall not.

There is a difference between morality and that which is lawful. It is upon that difference (which is sometimes balanced as on the sharp edge of a knife) that we find what we call ETHICS. That which is ETHICAL, is what makes the difference between morality and what is legally permissible.

But to Jacob legality was EQUAL to morality. Anything that was not in contradiction to the law, did not bother his conscience. For example: To buy Esau’s birthright from him in exchange for a cup of soup was probably allowed within the decrees of the ancient law. But it was certainly not ETHICALLY correct.

The same applies to the way Jacob deceived his father Isaac. And how he manipulated his uncle Laban’s flock to get more mottled goats and sheep. It is not unlawful, but certainly also not ethically correct. Particularly seen in the light of the new life that the Spirit had created in Jacob. Questionable ethical practices and behaviour will always have consequences. One can see it in Jacob’s last meeting with Laban when their paths finally parted, and Jacob returned to the land of God’s promise.

1 JACOB RUNS AWAY (verses 17-21)
We know how circumstances – by the Lord God’s disposal– showed Jacob that it was time for him to return to the promised land. In addition, the Lord also gave him a directive which confirmed everything.

While Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob decided to run away. Without warning. Then perhaps Laban’s opposition would be less, he thought. Because remember: Laban would most certainly have tried to prevent his daughters and livestock to be taken from him.

But Jacob was not aware that Rachel – just before they left – had stolen her father’s household gods. Perhaps she did that to claim possession of the family’s estate in the future.

The household gods were an ancient symbol of the lawful rightful ownership of the possessions of a family, of fertility and protection, and belonged to the head of the family. We know this from the archaeological excavations of the so-called Nuzi tablets dating from that period. The Nuzi tablets show how the eldest son had to remain in possession of the household gods (the teraphim) in order to inherit.

The household gods were therefore something which dated from the idolatrous culture of ancient Asia Minor. They were figurines – mostly female and depicted naked or half-naked.

Therefore it was something that was not instated or willed by the Lord, but Laban took it over from the culture. We also read about the teraphim in 2 Kings 23 and Ezek 21. Thus it was a pagan practice that the ancient covenant-nation (or some of them) intermingled with their service to the Lord. A kind of syncretism. Something the human heart is very susceptible to. To intermingle truth and error. To its own advantage of course. The fallen human nature is not very inclined to embrace ONLY the Truth of God’s Word. It requires a deep work of God’s Spirit to make man love ONLY the Truth.

In a nutshell: Rachel stole her father’s household gods in an effort to ensure that Jacob would be the lawful heir of her father’s possessions, and to ensure that they would be safe on their journey. From verses 14-16 we can conclude that Rachel was of the opinion that it was definitely the will of God that Jacob must get Laban’s wealth – meaning the full inheritance after Laban’s death. She therefore felt fully justified for stealing the teraphim. Even though she did not tell Jacob about it!

Here is Jacob then, busy doing the will of God by returning to the promised land. But he does not do it ACCORDING to the will of God! He simply disappears, and Rachel steals the teraphim.

2 THE CHASE (verses 22-35)
It was only on the third day that Laban heard that Jacob had left. He pursued him and caught up to him. But the Lord interceded and warned Laban in a dream. “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” the Lord told him.

Laban pretended to be very upset about the daughters and grandchildren he was losing. We know he was pretending, because in verses 14-16 Rachel and Leah already told how little their father really cared. What Laban was REALLY concerned about, were the household gods! He wanted them back, otherwise Jacob could one day return and claim the property! But Jacob was totally unaware that Rachel had stolen the household gods! It appeared that he absconded for fear that Laban would refuse to let his daughters go. Fear causes one to do strange things. He did not have enough trust in the Lord that God would be able to deliver him from Laban. The cause of fear is unbelief (inadequate faith). And unbelief is due to the fact that we do not understand very well WHAT it is that God really promised us. The Lord explicitly promised Jacob that He definitely would take him back to the promised land (Gen 28:15). But Jacob’s sight on this promise was muddied. And then fear took over.

How must a Christian-believer protect him-/herself against fear? Fill yourself up with that which the Lord God said and promised and focus on THAT. It will create faith in your heart. And where Divine promises and Holy Spirit-worked trust take root, fear does not easily survive.

Laban was not so concerned about his daughters who have gone. He wanted the household gods. Jacob was absolutely certain that neither himself nor anyone else had stolen it. Therefore Laban could happily search through everything. Rachel was never a suspect in Laban’s eyes. Jacob was the obvious suspect. But he was not guilty! Rachel was. But all the time she is sitting on the saddlebags where she had the teraphim hidden. And when her father wanted to look there, she told him that she cannot get up because the monthly way of woman was upon her and there may be some embarrassment if she should get up. And naturally her father believed her.

Rachel’s theft was therefore not disclosed. Laban did not know what happened of his household gods. In addition the Lord had warned him to be careful what he does to Jacob. And now Jacob was the man of the moment – he was not guilty of theft and on top of that, Laban was not allowed to do anything to him. He clearly had the upper hand over Laban. And he poured his indignation out in anger. Laban could say nothing because he found no proof. He had no leg to stand on. With relish Jacob rubbed salt in the wounds. It is as if he wanted to get rid of all the frustrations he had to suffer over the years with Laban. And now he had the opportunity. Laban was defenceless.

But Jacob’s trump-card against Laban was this: The LORD is on HIS (Jacob’s) side (verse 42). If it was not that the LORD was with him, Laban could have gotten away with bad things and he would have been left with nothing. The wealth he had accumulated was the Lord’s blessing on his labour. So he argued.

Here Jacob was in error. Yes, the Lord saw his suffering. But nowhere did the Lord say that His blessing on Jacob’s life was the result of Jacob’s labour. God’s blessing was never in correlation with Jacob’s labour. Indeed, it was the exact opposite (verses 10-13). God’s blessings had nothing to do with Jacob’s piousness and productive innovations. God’s blessings was the fruit of His free undeserved favour, and not the human merit/labour. It is a principle that runs right throughout the Bible. But Jacob was under the impression that God was on his side because he was so spiritual and so steady in his relationship with God. And now he was using the fact of the Lord’s blessing in his life to justify himself against Laban. How cunning the human heart is.

3 THE PEACE TREATY (31:43-55).

Laban could not prove Jacob’s guilt, but still he did not trust him.

That is why Laban initiated a covenant with Jacob that would prevent Jacob from using the household gods for his own gain against Laban. Laban could not get the household gods back nor prove anything against Jacob. All that remained is: He used Jacob’s God AGAINST Jacob! He (take note: only him) devised a covenant-formula that implied that – if Jacob should break the agreement, the LORD would hold him to account. Laban could not do anything further to prevent Jacob from coming back to claim the property. Therefore the LORD had to keep an eye on him!

In short, that is what the covenant agreement was all about.

And a covenant always has signs: The promises of the New Covenant are sealed with water, bread and wine. Or rather, water and a meal. In the case of Laban and Jacob it was a heap of stones and a meal. However it may be: the meaning is the same and important: The external signs confirm and guarantee to both parties the veracity of each other’s faithfulness in regards to the implementation of the covenant-agreement.

With one great difference to God’s covenant: He does not need and or have any necessity of a sign from our side of OUR veracity and faithfulness, because we have nothing. We have a need of signs of HIS veracity and faithfulness. And that is exactly what baptism guarantees for us. And the meal, communion. That is the reason why we MUST be present and partake at Communion Services. A Communion Service is not the time for an off weekend. If you have any understanding of what God’s covenant-signs are all about, keep an eye on the Church’s calendar! The “Fear of Isaac” demands it from us for our own good!

Is it not amazingly beautiful how the living God is called here? “The Fear of Isaac”. The awe-inspiring living Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who must be FEARED with all reverence.

In general it looks as if Jacob was walking away from Laban as the winner. But was he? Laban continued to think that Jacob couldn’t be trusted 100%. And we also think so! However, the Lord had warned Laban and therefore he could do very little to stop Jacob.

Isn’t it strange that Jacob himself was so convinced of his own integrity. He was so sure that the Lord was on his side because he was perfectly blameless.

How is it possible that Jacob could be so mistaken in his judgment?

The answer is that Jacob was essentially legalistic. He boasted that he was a man who obeyed the Lord’s Law to the last letter. Yes, he did move the boundaries a little here and there, but as far as he was concerned, he was always faithful and obedient. And because he tried to obey the law, he was morally pure and without blame. Because to him, morality was equal to legality. Everything that is lawful, is also morally correct – as far as he was concerned. As long as he did not break the Lord’s law, he felt pure and he worthy of the Lord’s regard and blessings.

Perhaps you want to say: “But that is exactly the way I also think and feel!”

Exactly! Jacob reflects THE HUMAN heart. By nature all people argue like that, because all people are in their fallen human nature legalistic and do not understand God’s grace and the way grace works. All of us think in our deepest heart of hearts that if there are certain laws (standards) in place and we keep to it, it makes us people of righteousness and that we must on that basis be acceptable to God as a matter of course.

And yet the people whom we live and work with know exactly who and what we are. How we manipulate and undermine and cheat and strive for success at the cost of others. You see, a person can live lawfully CORRECT and still live totally incorrect. You can live right by not committing adultery, because the Law says that you must not commit adultery, yet you still can be an adulterer in your thoughts and desires and the things you watch in secret and therefore be ethically incorrect. Laban knew that Jacob was correct on the surface, but that he was wrong deep inside.

You see, God’s law was not given by Him with the the intention to make people live right and then for them to feel self-righteous. The Law was never meant to say to man: “Try to keep these standards, then God will perhaps like you and possibly allow you into heaven.”

The Law has been given to show us how deep our sin is hidden and how sinful we are and how much we need a Saviour. The Law shows us that we must seek refuge in the Lord Jesus and that we must be clothed in His perfect righteousness. Then the Holy Spirit will enter our lives and change us from top to bottom, and LOVE will take hold of our hearts and we will start to live in a living relationship with Him. This kind of free grace turns everything in our lives upside down. Thankfulness and marvel take over.

Our new found righteousness before the holy God is suddenly a million times MORE than we could ever have by keeping the law. Because now we are clothed with JESUS’ righteousness. And His is perfect. We then realize that we are acceptable before God – NOT because you are keeping the law – but because JESUS’ cloak of righteousness, that we are now clothed with, makes us acceptable before God. And the love that bubbles comes forth of this causes that we spontaneously WANT to be obedient to God’s will – his law. Voluntarily – out of marvel at such a great love.

Translated by Marthie Wilson
Main source: Bob Deffinbaugh

Category Genesis Series

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