The Really Good Shepherd
The Really Good Shepherd
According to the United States Social Security Administration, Jacob was the number one male baby name for the year 2007. In the Bible the name "Jacob" is popular as well. God is referred to as the "God of Jacob" (or something very close to it) 25 times in the Bible. Countless times the nation of Israel is referred to with titles such as "the house of Jacob" or even just "Jacob."
But why this elevation of Jacob—both yesterday and today? This question becomes even more pronounced, more puzzling, when we look into the life of Jacob in the Bible. So far in our series, we've seen Jacob swindle his brother out of his birthright, take advantage of his blind, bed-ridden father in order to deceptively gain the family blessing, get cheated by his uncle into marrying a woman whom he did not want to marry, and get passed around like a piece of meat between his two wives in a desperate contest over who can have the most children. What's so exceptional about this guy?
Some of you are probably thinking, Yeah, but you've left out all of the good stuff in Jacob's life. Don't forget his great encounters with God or the fact that the children born out of his crazy marriages are none other than the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Certainly these things count for something! I would say to you, "Yes, they do. But notice the constant here: all of these things are the result solely of the sheer blessing of God on Jacob's life. God blesses Jacob in spite of, not because of, what Jacob has done. The twelve tribes born from Jacob are not the result of fabulous parenting skills. In fact, as you read on, you can observe the blatant favoritism Jacob showers on his youngest sons, Joseph and Benjamin. It is offered at the detriment of the rest of his family. His sons flourish and become the great nation of Israel because God promised to do so, not because of anything Jacob did. So again: why this elevation of Jacob?
Jacob's stunning reversal of fortune
The life of Jacob is elevated because it helps us see a very important truth: God is the architect of the blessed life. God takes a man who is sneaky, deceiving, stumbling, and untrusting and builds out of him a people through whom all of the nations of the earth will be blessed. As the stars shine brightest in the darkest skies, so does the glory of God show strongest in the life of a person whose faith is nothing to write home about.
I'm happy we have the stories about Jacob, because I'm a lot like him. I'm happy the Bible doesn't just feature Noahs and Pauls and Marys—people who are terrific examples of faithfulness and steadfastness. As great as they are, they are difficult to identify with. I'm happy to know that God's hand can be seen working so powerfully in the lives of men like Jacob.
As we make our way into our text, Genesis 30:25-31:18, let's consider its context. Jacob has been living in Haran for 14 years, because Esau, his brother, wants to kill him for cheating him out of his birthright. While in Haran, Jacob met the love of his life, his cousin Rachel, and since he had no dowry to give her father, Laban, Jacob's uncle, he agreed to work for seven years for her hand in marriage. But when the wedding night came, Laban pulled a fast one on Jacob, giving away his older daughter, Leah. Laban later agreed also to give Rachel's hand in marriage to Jacob, but it cost Jacob seven more years of work. Today we are going to look at the moment where Jacob can finally hand in his resignation to Laban. The additional seven years of work are over.
In Genesis 30:25-26, Jacob says to Laban, "Send me away, that I may go to my own home and my land. Give me my wives and my sons, for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you." But as we well know, Laban doesn't just "send" anyone away. Earlier in Genesis, when Abraham's servant came to his family seeking a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son, we met a much younger Laban. After the arrangements had been set and the dowry paid, the servant said the same thing to Laban: "Send me away." But Laban did as much as possible to keep the wealthy servant by his side. It was only after much deliberation that the servant was allowed to go back to Canaan.
As we read the text, we see that Laban is intent on keeping Jacob, just as he was intent on keeping Abraham's servant. After all, the situation with Jacob had been a pretty sweet deal for Laban. In his little power play, he had married off both his daughters, including the less-attractive Leah, and had received 14 years of cheap labor. Laban's response in verses 27-28, then, is not too surprising: "If I have found favor in your eyes—I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you—name your wages, and I will give it."
Is Laban being kind, even generous? Not at all! Laban knows something that we are going to find out in the next two verses: Jacob's been working hand to mouth. In other words, he doesn't have anything but the clothes on his back, his walking staff, and his wives. His options are limited. Is he going to go back to his family in Beersheba? For all he knows, Esau is still waiting to kill him. For now, he needs a flock of his own, so that he can have milk from the goats and wool from the sheep. At least then he would have a reasonable means of existence.
Jacob responds to Laban in verses 29-30: "You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. For you had little before I came, and now you have increased abundantly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I set my feet. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?"
Jacob is getting old. He has lost his inheritance and 14 precious years because of his slimy uncle. He has to do something or else he'll wind up working for Laban for the rest of his life, or he will die, doomed and destitute. Laban has been blessed because of Jacob, but Jacob himself is not yet blessed. He's had numerous offspring, but he has no means to feed them. They have probably become more of a burden than a blessing. So watch what Jacob does in verses 31-34:
Jacob said, "You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, then once again I will pasture your flock and keep it: Let me pass through all your flocks today, removing from it every spotted and multicolored sheep and every dark lamb, along with the multicolored and spotted among the goats, and they shall be my wages. So my righteousness will testify for me later, when you come to look into my wages. Every one that is not spotted and multicolored among the goats and dark among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen." Laban said, "Good! Let it be as you have said."
It turns out Jacob has something up his sleeve. He agrees to shepherd Laban's flock for a few more years. Previously the wages that Jacob had received for working for Laban were his wives and room and board. He wants Laban to give him a different kind of wage. If you were a shepherd in ancient times, you could expect to be paid in sheep, goats, or whatever else it was that you shepherded. The standard going rate was 20 percent of all newborn animals born under your care. That means that one in every five animals born under a shepherd's care rightfully belonged to the shepherd. Jacob, however, doesn't propose 20 percent. He proposes that he be allowed to keep any animal born under his care that is born with irregular color. As we all know, sheep tend to be white. So, the sheep that weren't white—sheep that were either dark or multicolored—would belong to Jacob. Goats tend to be dark, so any spotted or striped goat would be his. With this in mind, it was likely that Jacob would end up with considerably less than the standard 20 percent. An odd deal, right?
But that's not all. Jacob proposes that they go through the flock before they even begin, removing any animal that is already oddly-colored. This would actually make Jacob's chances of breeding oddly-colored animals much smaller.
After hearing this proposal, how could we not want to slap Jacob upside the head and say, "Jacob, what are you doing? You're never going to breed a flock that way!" Laban is startled, too. He can't believe his ears—and he certainly doesn't hesitate to reply: "Good!" he says. "Let it be as you have said."
Laban is no dummy. He knows a deal that's too good to be true when he hears it. With that in mind, he ventures into the flock and removes all of the oddly-colored animals himself. Then, just to be safe, he puts them under the care of his own sons. Then, to be even safer, he sets a distance of three days between himself and Jacob. Such a far distance would prevent Jacob from sneaking back into his flock and stealing some speckled animals, while also preventing animals from wandering back from Laban's flock into Jacob's flock. Unfortunately for Laban, it also prevents him from seeing what Jacob is up to day after day with his flock.
What follows can be confusing, so let me tell you what Jacob does. Jacob is stuck with a flock of only normal-colored animals—white sheep and monochrome goats—and his task is somehow to breed oddly-colored animals. So, he takes some sticks from three different kinds of trees and peels off their bark, leaving streaks. In other words, he creates branches that look like what he wants his animals to look like. He then places the branches by or in the watering troughs, which is where the animals come to mate. He is apparently acting in accord with an ancient belief that what an animal or a person sees during conception will influence the characteristic of the offspring. Lo and behold, Jacob is able to produce oddly-colored sheep and goats at will.
But that's not all. Jacob only did this when strong animals were mating. Therefore, only strong animals bore oddly-colored offspring. After six years, Jacob had a large flock of odd-looking-but-surprisingly-strong animals, while Laban was left with a flock of normal-looking-but-surprisingly-weak animals. As verse 43 says, "Thus the man [Jacob] increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys."
At the beginning of the six years, Jacob had virtually nothing. But now the Lord had blessed him, and he was able to trade with locals and acquired great wealth.
For the patriarchs' wealth was a sure sign of God's blessing. In fact, Genesis 26:12-14 strongly links material wealth to the blessing of God: "And Isaac sowed in the land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him." All this to say that the note in our text, that Jacob "increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, camels and donkeys," should be interpreted as being connected to God's blessing. To get a little bit better picture as to how materially blessed Jacob had become, consider that only a short time after our passage, in Genesis 32:14-15, Jacob will send Esau "two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys"—all in an effort to pacify his brother. That means Jacob's wealth was stunning. This is clearly the blessing of God, just as it had been with his father and with his grandfather.
God is at work all around us, regardless of how clever we might be.
What do we do with a story like this? Jacob needs a flock of his own, but Laban doesn't really want to give it to him. In order to secure a flock for himself, Jacob uses means that are laughable, misguided, superstitious, or even magical. But then he receives God's blessing! In order to understand this correctly, I am convinced that we have to take note of Jacob's character.
As I said before, Jacob, like all of us, wants to trust God, but he also wants to have a bit of security, just in case. After the 14 years that have passed since God met him at Bethel, Jacob had little to show for himself. He had acquired quite a few children, but as we saw last week, that had been a mixed blessing. From where Jacob was standing, it didn't really look like God's blessings were going to come through for him, so he designed an insurance policy of sorts: his little scheme involving the sticks. But as we read on, we soon discover that God confirmed to Jacob that God was the sole reason for Jacob's success.
A few verses after the most recent events with Laban and flocks, we read about a conversation Jacob had with his wives. In 31:10, he explains that during the mating season, he had been given a dream. In that dream the flocks being bred were multi-colored, striped, and spotted.
If Jacob had this dream during the mating season, the dream happened after he made the deal with Laban. In other words, the dream allowed Jacob to realize that God was commandeering Jacob's little scheme. We should also notice another thing: when Jacob is recounting this dream to his wives, he doesn't say a word about what he did with the sticks. Not a word! Jacob knows that his blessing is due not to some plan of his own, but to God alone.
When Jacob decided to do his little trick with the sticks, he was doing what we all do when faced with similar circumstances: he was being clever. His faith was getting weary, so he clung to a clever idea. But notice what God did not do. When Jacob started placing those sticks in the troughs, God did not say, "That's it! You want to cling to your little superstition, Jacob, like your wives clung to the mandrakes a few years ago! Well, forget it! I'm out of here!" No! God in his mercy did his work anyway and blessed Jacob.
This brings us to our first main point: God is always at work all around us—at home, at work, when we interact with other people, and when we do ministry. And he is always at work regardless of our being clever. It's about God being God.
To be sure, some of the sticks we use in our daily lives may not be as fraught with superstition, but nevertheless, sticks are there. A life that desires God's blessing can be compared to "take your kid to work day." A boy wakes up early, excited to go with his dad to work. They commute in together. They get to the office, and dad introduces his son to everyone. They all comment on how excited the little boy must be to be working with Daddy today—and he is. Then work begins, and the dad goes about his day as usual, being sure to include his boy in as much as possible. He lets him stuff some envelopes and lick some stamps. Maybe if he's really good, his dad will let him run a few copies. But for most of the time, the boy pretty much sits at the end of the desk and colors. Then he comes home with all of the little crayon pictures he drew, and his mother asks him, "What did you do today, Sweetie?" The boy answers, "I helped dad at work."
At the risk of sounding overly sappy, at the end of every day, the most we can say regarding our lives is, "I helped Dad at work today." Sometimes our little helps are good and noble and pleasing to God in the best way. He is honored when we do what he commands us to do. Sometimes our helps are on a level similar to Jacob's waving sticks around—we do our clever little things. Sometimes we show Christ's love to others in beautiful, meaningful ways, and sometimes we do things that aren't so helpful. Sometimes we act in exact accord with what God has revealed in his Word, and sometimes our theological underpinnings are weak and uninformed. The point is that we don't have to go around worrying that God needs us to get everything right in order to bless us. How wonderful it is that we have a God who uses people who wave sticks!
The blessed life is available to those who align themselves with God's promises.
By this point in the story, Jacob has a large, strong flock, and Laban is not too happy about it. Not only is Laban unhappy, but imagine how his sons must have felt. Their inheritance had been reduced to scrawny little animals. In fact, we soon learn in Genesis 31:1-2 just how angry they (and Laban) are:
Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, "Jacob has taken all that was our father's, and from that which was our father's he has gained all this wealth." And Jacob saw the face of Laban, that he was not with him as he was before.
I'd say it's safe to say Laban was not "with" Jacob. But guess who was? Verse 3: "Then the Lord said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.'" This promise, which we last heard uttered to Jacob 20 years ago, now had quite a ring of authenticity. If it hadn't been clear in the past, it was certainly clear now: God was with Jacob.
But would his wives see the blessings bestowed upon him by God? He goes to find out in verse 4: "Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was." Jacob now needs to convince his wives that they would be better off with him than with their father, so what does he do? He brings them into the middle of the field where they can see his goofy-looking, but overwhelmingly impressive flock. What better way to convince them that God was with them than to put them smack dab in the middle of his success? In verse 5, he says to them, "I saw your father's face, that it is not as it was toward me before. But the God of my father has been with me. And you know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and has changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me."
Jacob then continues to make his case for God blessing him instead of Laban in verse 8: "If he said, 'The spotted shall be your wages,' then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, 'The speckled shall be your wages,' then all the flock bore speckled. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and has given them to me."
Next Jacob tells them about the dream he had. He says:
When the flock was mating, I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream—and behold!—the goats that mated with the flock were speckled spotted, and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, "Jacob." And I said, "Here I am!" And he said, "Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are speckled, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban has done to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to me. Now rise, leave this land and return to the land of your kindred."
Don't miss what God says to Jacob in his dream. Jacob has bred his flock and has had enormous success in doing so. The fact that he had such success probably raised suspicion in his mind: I wonder if God is with me after all. Then came the dream.
First God reveals in the dream that he had been the one who was blessing Jacob with the sheep, and despite the many years when it seemed that Laban was running roughshod over Jacob, God was watching and taking account of every wrong suffered by his blessed one. God then reminds Jacob of the vow he had made at Bethel, 20 years earlier. As Jacob concludes: "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you."
It was clear to Jacob that God had fulfilled what he said he would: he was with Jacob—he had kept him safe, provided for him, and was now commanding him to return to his father's house. Most importantly, he was inviting Jacob to live with Yahweh as his God. In essence, God is saying to Jacob: It is now your time to fulfill your vow to me.
But how would Jacob's wives respond? Would they be compelled to follow Jacob, trusting in a God whose name hasn't appeared on Jacob's lips since he made his vow? We have their response in the verse 14:
Then Rachel and Leah answered, and they said to him, "Is there still any portion or inheritance left for us in our father's house? Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. For all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. And now, whatever God has said to you, do." So Jacob arose, and set his sons and his wives on camels, and he drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan.
For Rachel and Leah, the decision was not difficult. Their father didn't give a hoot about them, and here they were, standing in the midst of God's blessing with the man whom God has chosen to bless. For them to stay would be foolish. Though it will soon become clear that they are far from becoming devoted followers of the one true God, they have taken the first step by acknowledging what God is doing and choosing to be a part of it.
Here we find our second main point of the passage: The blessed life is available to those who align themselves with God's promises. God has acted in very specific ways in human history, and his blessing is available to all who step onto his path.
But now we have come to a difficulty in our train of thought. We've talked about how strongly God's blessing is evident in Jacob's life because he was prosperous. If we left it at that, it would almost seem as if the sum total of God's plan was to single out a single family and make them rich. But it's not. God is singling out a single family to make a fallen world prosperous—to do away with evil, murder, injustice, and violence.
The Bible tells us that mankind cannot fix the problem of sin. So God, in his great wisdom and mercy, steps into human history, and chooses one man, Abraham, and promises to make him into a great nation, with a land, with a blessing that will bless all peoples. In Jacob, we have the tangible evidence that God is indeed doing this.
But that is not the end. How would God be answering the problem of evil in the world if he simply made one nation wealthy? God, the architect of all true blessing, raised up the nation of Israel so that from it would come a king who would surpass all the other kings of the earth—a son of David whose throne would be eternal and whose rule would establish justice and righteousness forever. God brought King Jesus to establish justice and righteousness by shedding his blood on the Cross of Calvary as an atoning sacrifice for human sin. Now all who believe in him might enter into the joy of the Father—that the curse of the Fall might come undone and that God's good creation might be restored to a right relationship with its Creator.
The reason God blessed Jacob was so that the blessing of Christ might come. Quite contrary to the patriarch Jacob, who was blessed with flocks and servants and camels, Jesus tells us, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied … but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry." We should not look at Jacob's wealth and say, "That's what I want! Why doesn't God bless me like that?" Why would we want that when the blessing of Christ is held out to us? How do these blessings even compare? As Paul says in Ephesians 1:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him …. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.