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The Fear of Isaac

Date: Sep. 30, 2018

Author: Michael Mark

Genesis 31:1-55

Key Verse: Genesis 31:42

If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of 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, and last night he rebuked you.

In today’s chapter, and in this chapter only, we come across a unique name for God.  Jacob calls him “The Fear of Isaac.”  We have studied a couple of times in the past about the fear of God, and what it means to fear God, but it is an important topic. It is one of the key elements in our worship of God to worship him properly.  Heb 12:28 exhorts us to worship with “reverence and awe.” According to Martin Luther, he described 2 categories of fear.  One is servile fear.  This is the fear a prisoner might have to his torturer.  It is a fear and terror of a harsh master.  The other type of fear is filial fear.  This is a kind of fear that can be illustrated in the relationship a child has to their parents.  It is not one of dread and terror, but one of reverence, respect, honor, love, and maybe even a little bit of awe.  There is a desire to please the parents, and an avoidance of displeasing them, because they know they are loved and secure.  I heard a story yesterday about a young boy who looked like he was working very hard to prepare a plate, like a master chef.  He put some food on the plate, and in the empty space ever so carefully placed some slices of cheese on top of a couple of crackers.  Presentation is important you know.  Mary was wondering why he was working so meticulously.  Then he took the plate and brought it to his mother. Who taught him that?  Nobody told him to do it that way.  But naturally, out of love for his mom he wanted to prepare a plate that would rival the Iron Chefs on TV.  This is the filial fear.  Why?  Because he knew that his mom brought him into the world, and she could take him out (just kidding).  It’s because she is the source of love and security for him, and in turn he honors her for that.  Sometimes kids naturally exhibit this kind of attitude, sometimes they don’t, and it seems to get more and more rare as we grow up, and sometimes, God has to teach us all over again how to have a healthy, filial fear of God.  Jacob was learning this more and more, as he struggled under the discipline of his notoriously deceptive uncle Laban.

Look at v.1-2, “Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, ‘Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all his wealth from what belonged to our father.’ And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.”  Jacob’s life in his father-in-law’s house had now become very awkward. Laban’s sons were envious because Jacob grew exceedingly wealthy. Jacob did not take everything their father owned.  He even said in the last chapter that what little Laban had increased greatly.  But such is the evil eye of envy.  Just because Jacob was getting more, it felt like they were getting nothing.  Even Laban was poisoned by this, and he was no longer nice to Jacob.  Have you ever been in the same place with someone who did not like you?  It’s a terrible feeling.  Jacob had asked to go back home after working for Laban 14 years for his 2 wives, but Laban urged him to stay and Jacob agreed to work for him for an indefinite amount of time.  Now Jacob was starting to get into some trouble, and God used this as a catalyst to bring him back home.  Verse 3 says, “Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and your relatives, and I will be with you.”  He might have heard the Lord say this to him in the dream he is going to tell his wives about.

Jacob now had a tough task.  He wanted to go home.  God made it clear he should go home, but what about the wives and kids?  This was their father’s house.  But they had to go with him.  He called for Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields to meet him.  He called them out here so that no one in the house would overhear his plans to leave.  Notice that Rachel’s name comes first, perhaps now indicating she was the primary wife.  Jacob says to them in v.5, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me.”  Jacob acknowledges that God has been with him.  And God is always “God of my father.”  I’m not sure why he had to distinguish God so much, but maybe because he was living in a polytheistic society.  It’s kind of the same reason we distinguish all the Daves here. At one point we had 3 Davids, David of Henkins, David of Kim and David of Cook.  So Jacob may have wanted to make clear – the God of his father, Isaac. God had promised Jacob 20 years ago that he would be with him.  And through all that time, Jacob could still say, 20 years later, “God has been with me.” And he proves it by this – Laban tried to cheat him 10 times (which may not refer to exactly 10 times, but a way to say Laban tried to cheat me a lot), but God counteracted every wage change by providing an abundance in Jacob’s favor, against Laban’s schemes.

Now Jacob did do a little scheming himself, he wasn’t completely innocent, but he was looking out for number 1.  He kept the strong sheep to himself, and gave the weak ones to Laban.  Even so, Jacob could not succeed unless God helped him. We saw last week that in breeding season he put some striped branches for the sheep to look at, and also pointed some of his sheep to look at the other striped or spotted sheep, but it was not his tricks that produced the speckled spotted sheep.  It was the secret counsel of God.  He tells his wives in v.10 that in breeding season, he had a dream where he saw the male goats that were mating with the flock as streaked, speckled or spotted.  In the physical world, we could probably see solid colored goats mating.  But behind the scenes, God is putting the stripes, spots and specks on all the offspring, as he wills it.  In his dream the angel of God called out to him, “Jacob,” who answered, “Here I am.”  The angel of God pointed him to the vision of the mating goats, as if he was saying, “Fear not, look at what I’m going to do for you.”  The angel does say “I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you.” Dear brothers and sisters, children of God, this is why we can fear God with reverence and thanksgiving – because if you are mistreated, and you think no one knows, God knows.  He saw everything.  In those times Laban cheated Jacob, Laban thought he could get away with it. He didn’t think anyone else would care for Jacob, who is 450 miles from home.  But the angel tells Jacob: “I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you.” Have you been persecuted, mocked or shamed?  Have you been mistreated in secret, as we have heard so much lately in the news? When you think no one knows, or no one can help, God has taken notice, and will come to help.

The angel of God reveals himself in v.13, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me.  Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.”  The angel of the God says he is the God of Bethel. This might be the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.  Bethel was the place he visited Jacob, and Jacob’s vow was this (in summary): “Since God will be with me and watch over me, giving me food and clothing and bringing me back home safely, then the Lord will be my God, I will make this pillar God’s house, and give a tenth of all you give me.”  It was time now for God to fulfill the rest of his promise, and bring Jacob back home safely.

After hearing of this dream, Rachel and Leah were like “Say no more, we will go.”  They revealed that their father treated them like strangers, and never gave them any inheritance, dowry, or any of the profit that Laban received from Jacob’s labors for them.  This must have been a huge relief for Jacob.  He was not asking a small thing.  He was asking that they leave their father’s house.  But God had prepared them also for this journey, through the neglect and selfishness of Laban.  God does work in mysterious ways, and always for the good of those who love him. They believed Jacob’s dream and God’s providence, saying in v.16, “Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children.  So do whatever God has told you.”  Jacob, with the blessing of his wives, prepared everything and began driving all this livestock, goods and family members to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

Although the wives declared their belief in God, sin still crept in.  Look at v.19, “When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods.”  We get some interesting insight into Abraham’s extended family.  Abraham was a great-uncle to Laban.  He was Nahor’s brother, who was Laban’s grandfather. Laban had these household gods in his home.  These were small figurines shaped like humans, that were either worshipped, served or consulted, and were thought to bring prosperity and a comfortable life to the house.  Laban was not a true or pure worshipper of God.  He may have acknowledged God, and learned his name, but he worshipped other gods too.  This may have influenced his children, who have lived here all their lives.  So Rachel depended on these gods too.  They were important parts of the family. Laban had gone off to shear his sheep. He probably did have lots of sheep, thanks to Jacob, and sheep shearing was an all day job for several days. Laban also moved his sheep far away from his home, from the rest of his flock and Jacob’s, to keep them away from him. When Rachel saw the chance, she stole these household gods.  Likely her worship was not completely purified here in her father’s house.

Verse 20 says, “Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away.”  Oh man, Jacob deceives again?  But actually, this word “deceived,” in the original Hebrew translation, is the same word as “stole” in the previous verse, where Rachel stole the idol.  The original word means to steal away secretly. While perhaps Jacob may be justified, in the fact that Laban was becoming more hostile, and God told him to go, the sense is that Jacob quit his job and didn’t tell his boss, though again, maybe Laban didn’t deserve that courtesy.

Jacob was able to get a head start 3 whole days before Laban found out.  It may have been because his own sheep were so far away from his house.  Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob and caught up with him after 7 days in the hill country of Gilead.  Jacob was able to travel for 10 days before Laban caught up with him, and he made it to Gilead.  Gilead was actually in the land of Canaan, east of the Jordan river.  He was 300 miles away from Laban’s home, but still about 150 miles away from the home of his father Isaac.  Laban didn’t have to move massive numbers of animals or goods, so he was able to move faster and catch up with Jacob, although it took some time and he still had to move fast. 

Laban must have been furious when he found out Jacob ran away, especially since he was no longer friendly with him.  He might have had in mind to punish Jacob, or to bring him back and put him into forced labor, or do something else harmful to him.  But now God intervened to protect Jacob.  He only had to say one thing to Laban.  Look at v.24, “Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’” God said to Laban, “Be careful.” You better watch it.  The saying, “do not say anything, either good or bad,” meant that he must not get in the way of Jacob going back home.  He could not say anything good to Jacob to make him go back to Paddan Aram, nor could he say anything bad to Jacob to scare him into going back.  God was saying, “Don’t try to change his mind, and don’t you dare hurt him.”

With their tents pitched at Gilead, Jacob and Laban met.  Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done?  You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried of my daughters like captives in war [it is ironic that the daughters were actually willing to leave with Jacob]…I could have sent you away with joy with singing and music and harps.  You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye.  You have done a foolish thing.”  Either Laban was self-deceived, or he was not sincere.  In theory these would be the right thing to do, but all Laban did when Jacob was there was to take advantage of him and to try to take everything he has. It’s not a good thing when Jacob felt compelled to flee.

Look at v.29-30, Laban continues, “I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household.  But why did you steal my gods?”  Laban said, “I have the power to harm you.”  What a scary statement.  It shows what he thought of Jacob.  Almost as a slave.  But Laban also acknowledges who God is, and which God it was that spoke to him.  He also feared God, but with more of a servile fear than a filial fear.  He was afraid of the God of Isaac, so he held back his anger, and he did not try to compel Jacob to go back.  He said that he could understand why Jacob fled, because he longed for his father’s household.  But what Laban could not understand was why his household idols were stolen.  It is ironic that Laban reveres the household idols as gods, as beings with power.  Yet they were easily stolen.  There is no God except the one true God.

Jacob replied, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force.”  That’s the real reason why Jacob did not want to tell Laban he was leaving.  But Jacob was confident that no one stole Laban’s gods. He did not know Rachel did it.  So he made a really rash statement, saying anyone who had them shall not live.  This extreme statement put Rachel at risk of condemnation and death.  Maybe that’s why the Bible teaches us to simply let our yes be yes, and our no be no.  So Laban went through and searched the tents of the two female servants, and the tents of his daughters.  He found nothing in Leah’s tent, so he went into Rachel’s tent.  Rachel, I believe was in the tent, and she hid the idols in a camel’s saddle, and sat on them.  The camel’s saddle may have been made up of layers of carpet, and the idols were small enough to be hidden in them.  When Laban walked near, Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence, I’m having my period.”  So he didn’t ask her to get up.  Laban must have respected that request.  Wow.  Jacob, Laban and now Rachel all have their moments of great deception.  She was just like her father.

Since Laban found nothing, Jacob became very angry and vented out all his anger at Laban.  He “took him to task,” as v.36 says.  Jacob said, “What is my crime?  How have I wronged you?”  His first point is that he stole nothing.  He then proceeds to prove his innocence more by telling Laban all that he has done for him for the past 20 years.  Under his care, none of his sheep or goats miscarried, he did not eat any of the weaker animals, and he paid Laban for the animals that were torn by wild beasts or stolen.  Usually the owner, Laban, would bear the responsibility of the attacked or lost animals.  He then revealed Laban’s guilt by saying he changed his wages ten times.  Finally he proves he has been blameless in the sight of God.  Can we all please read v.42 togethers, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of 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, and last night he rebuked you.”  This is Jacob’s defense and confession of faith.  He calls God both the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.  This is one God, with 2 names: the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.  He calls God the Fear of Isaac.  The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac are one and the same, and there is no other God. Abraham worshiped one God only. He was the same God Isaac worshipped. Isaac feared God, not in a dreadful, terrified way, but in a reverent, honoring way.  Isaac believed Canaan was his home and his inheritance, though he did not own any of the land.  Isaac, though he favored Esau, submitted to God’s will and blessed Jacob and did not revoke that blessing.  He made Jacob lord over Esau.  Like his father Abraham he built altars to the Lord and called on his name.  Isaac had a filial fear of God, a child to his Father, and loved God first and foremost.  This is the Fear Jacob saw and knew, and he began to learn more, as he saw God’s love expressed in protection, provision and promises.  He acknowledged God was with him, even though he did not see him most of the 20 years.  He believed God was with him, because otherwise, Laban would have sent him away empty handed.  But God saw his hardship, and rebuked Laban.  Laban had no right to come and take Jacob and his possessions, which were given to him by God.  Laban had no right to try to harm Jacob, and God was the final judge of the matter, rebuking Laban for his actions.

Laban answered Jacob in v.43-44, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks.  All you see is mine.  Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne? Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.”  This was Laban’s heart.  He thought everything was his.  Maybe that’s why he thought he could take them back from Jacob, and why he changed Jacob’s wages so many times without conscience.  Everything was his.  But he now respected Jacob, where there was no respect before.  Instead of treating Jacob like a slave or subordinate, he now saw Jacob as an equal.  But he still might not have liked Jacob.  He might not want to be his friend, but he did see him as a legitimate threat, someone as powerful, or more powerful than he – so he wanted to make a covenant. Maybe for his own protection.  The Fear of Isaac, who is the God of Abraham was the strength of Jacob, and put fear into his rivals.

Jacob took the initiative and set up a pillar.  He then said to his relatives to gather some stones, and piled them all up into a heap. This was all in preparation for the covenant.  The heap may have been used for the sacrifice, a part of cutting the covenant, but I’m not entirely sure about that.  But the heap and the pillar were definitely used as witnesses of the covenant. And it’s not that the pillar and heap have eyes and ears, but both Laban and Jacob were calling on God to be a witness of the treaty being made.  Laban dictated the terms: Jacob was not to mistreat his daughters or take any other wives. This was a little bit hypocritical, because Laban was the one who made his daughters miserable and put Jacob into a polygamous marriage.  Then Laban defined the terms for his safety – that he will not pass the heap to do harm Jacob, and that Jacob will not pass the heap and pillar to do harm to Laban. This was not really necessary, because Jacob had no intention of going back to Paddan Aram, but maybe Laban just wanted to protect himself.

The two men then took their oaths and called upon their gods.  Look at v.53, “May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.  So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.”  It might seem like they are calling on the same God, but there is a big difference.  The God of Nahor and the God of their father (Terah), is not the same as the God of Abraham. The god of Terah, Abraham’s father, was a different God, not the one true God.  How do we know this?  The verb in verse 53, “judge,” in the Hebrew, is a plural verb.  The verb agrees with the subject.  So for example in English, a singular subject has a singular verb: “John takes the cake.”  Plural subjects have plural verbs: “James and John take the cake.”  The “s” is dropped to make it plural.  So in English, it is hard to tell, but in Hebrew, judge is plurally conjugated, so Laban is referring to multiple gods.  But even if you didn’t know the Hebrew, Joshua 24:2 tells us plainly that Terah worshiped other gods.  So why did Laban call on the other gods?  Because he is afraid of Jacob’s God.  And Jacob, in order to remind Laban of who is the one to be feared, took the oath in the name of the One God, the Fear of his father Isaac. After that a sacrifice was offered to confirm the treaty, and they all ate together.  Though Jacob and Laban might not have become friends, there was still peace made, and the agreement was made in a cordial way.  After they had eaten, they spent the night there, and the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them.  Then he left and returned home.  This is the last we hear of Laban.

Laban left with the terror of the servile fear of God.  It is to know that God knows all, He sees all, and He is the judge of all the earth.  Jacob, however, learned of filial fear of God.  Rather than become afraid that God knows all, sees all and judges, we can be comforted by the fact that God knows all, he sees all, and he will judge.  The fear of the Lord is the attitude we are to have when we worship God, but this fear is because we can find the source of love and security from God.  It is God’s grace that teaches our hearts to fear.  As we sang earlier in Amazing Grace: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”  Jesus said perfect love drives out fear.  Is this a contradiction?  It is not, when we understand that his love drives out the terror of judgment, but brings in the fear of reverence and love. 

God knows all our sins, he sees them all, even those that were in Jacob and Rachel.  But he has judged them all in his Son Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross – so for us there is no longer any judgment, but an invitation into his kingdom and his covenant, that He will be with us always, for eternity.  As God transforms our shame into glory, so he transforms our fears from terror to reverence. The fear of God becomes a blessing, rather than a curse.  Ps 25:14 says “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” As we have heard many times from Prov 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but foods despise wisdom and instruction.”  Because of what He has done and promised in Christ, the fear of the Lord is his greatness. “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods (Ps 96:4),” “In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him. (Ps 89:7).”  And so we worship in reverence and awe, and we can do his will.  Deut 10:12-13 shows us what it means to live in the fear of God, and gives the essence of the “Fear of Isaac”: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”  No doubt, the child we talked about earlier, who made the nice plate of food for his mom, found great favor and happiness from the mom.  There was a fear of mom in the form of honor and reverence.  The Fear of Isaac was the comfort and strength of Jacob, and may the fear of God bring you all of his favor, blessings and promises.

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Daily Bread

Produce Good Fruit with Repentance

Luke 3:1-20

Key Verse: 3:8a

Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

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