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God's Catfish (Genesis 29-31)
The Story of Jacob
God's Catfish
Genesis 29-31
In one of his books Chuck Swindoll tells the following story. It seems that in the northeastern United States, codfish are not only delectable, they are also a very big commercial enterprise. A vast industry has grown up around catching, preparing and shipping codfish to every part of the country.
But the great demand for codfish posed a problem to the shippers. At first they froze the codfish before shipping, but freezing them took away much of the flavor. Then they tried shipping the codfish alive in salt water, but that didn’t work either.
Finally, someone hit on a creative solution. The codfish were placed in a shipping tank with their natural enemy—catfish. From the time the codfish left the east coast until they arrived at their destination, the catfish chased the codfish all over the tank! When they arrived, the codfish were as fresh as when they were first caught with no loss of flavor or texture.
All of us live in a “tank” of particular circumstances. Into that tank God has placed a few divinely appointed “catfish” who chase us from morning till night. Who knows? You may be living with a catfish right now. You may see one at work tomorrow morning. You may live next door to one.
The catfish in your life are not sent to destroy you but to keep you healthy, alert, and always swimming. Without them, you would soon get fat and flabby. Your unique flavor and texture would soon disappear.
Losing Your “Unique Flavor and Texture”
Chuck Swindoll is right. We live in a world filled with catfish who chase us day and night. It’s entirely possible that you’ve been swimming hard all week with a great big “channel cat” nipping at your heels. To be honest about it, you may feel as if your “unique flavor and texture” disappeared sometime last Thursday morning.
Here are three irrefutable facts about the catfish of life:
1. They make life difficult when it ought to be easy.
2. They always seem to catch us in our weaker moments.
3. They keep us swimming when we’d rather be resting.
That last point is very important. God has an important purpose for sending catfish into your life. He wants to keep you swimming. When you swim, you stay strong; when you stop swimming, you get fat and flabby.
Jacob had a catfish whose name was Laban. For 20 years Uncle Laban the catfish chased Jacob all over the tank. He never let Jacob rest—not even for a moment. And God allowed it in order to keep Jacob swimming when he would rather be resting.
Genesis 29-31 tells the story of those 20 stress-filled years. In fact, these three chapters bring us before three crucial moments in the unending struggle between Jacob and Laban.
I think of these three chapters as a three-round heavyweight boxing match between Laban the champion and Jacob the up-and-coming contender. By examining each round blow-by-blow, we can get a handle on how God sends catfish and how we should respond.
Round # 1: The Marriage Trap
Chapter 29
While fleeing from his brother, Jacob has come to Haran in search of a wife. When he gets there, he meets Rachel and falls in love with her. Her father Laban agrees to the proposed marriage, on the condition that Jacob work seven years for him first. Jacob agrees, and the seven years passed quickly because of his great love for Rachel.
Then on the wedding night, Laban pulls the old switcheroo. Instead of bringing Rachel to Jacob, he brings her older sister Leah. In the darkness, Jacob doesn’t notice the difference and sleeps with the woman he believes to be Rachel.
The next morning he discovers the truth. He angrily confronts Laban who calmly tells him that it was not customary to allow the younger daughter to marry first. The marriage to Leah must stand. If Jacob wants to marry Rachel, he must work another seven years. Jacob agrees—what else could he do?
When Jacob said to Laban, "You deceived me,” he was telling the truth. But behind Laban stands Almighty God who is bringing Jacob’s lifetime pattern of deceit down upon his own head.
Think of the irony that is found in what Laban did to Jacob. It was Jacob that had tricked his older brother out of the birthright. Now he is forced to marry the older sister first which honors the birthright of the firstborn.
He deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing. —Now he is deceived by his father-in-law Laban.
Divine justice is at work in this story. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Jacob ends up on the receiving end of a great deception. The con man is conned, the cheater is cheated, the deceiver is deceived. Jacob can say nothing because he is only reaping what he sowed years earlier.
So round 1 goes to Laban.
Round # 2: The Case of the Speckled Sheep
chapter 30:25-43
Seven more years pass, and now Jacob is anxious to return home. In the intervening years he has gained 11 sons—6 by Leah, 1 by Rachel, 2 by Bilhah, and 2 by Zilpah. The only thing he hasn’t gained is wealth. All his labor has gone to increase Laban’s flocks and herds. Jacob has a large family, but he doesn’t have the means to support them. When Jacob mentions this fact, Laban introduces a new—and important—principle into the discussion.
Notice what Laban says in
verse 27
“The Lord has blessed me because of you.”
That was true, and Jacob agrees.
verse 28
Let's just stop there for a moment and think about that principle. Is it true that God blesses the ungodly through the godly? Well, there is no doubt Laban was an ungodly, ruthless man. And Jacob, in spite of his character flaws and weaknesses, is a man of deep faith in God.
And both of these men come to realize that God has, in fact, blessed a bad man because he had a good man working for him. Laban’s increase came because of Jacob. That truth occurs several times in the Bible. In Genesis 18 we see it when God promised to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 righteous men could be found in the city.
We see it when God prospers Potiphar because Joseph is part of his household in Genesis 39.
I Corinthians 7:12-14 contains the discussion of the problem of a believer being married to an unbeliever and the unbelieving partner and any children that may be involved are “sanctified” through the believing partner.
The same thought is behind Jesus’ reference to believers as “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” in the Sermon on the Mount.
Salt purifies, preserves and slows the process of decay while light illuminates, dispels darkness, and uncovers reality.
And that is the concept that Jacob and Laban are discussing here in Genesis 30. God blesses the people of the world because the people of God are nearby.
That means if you are a believer, your marriage is different and better because you are there. If you are a believer, your workplace is different and better because you are there. If you are a believer, your school is different and better because you are there. If you are a believer, your family is different and better because you are there.
Isn't that amazing? God wants to bless his children so much, he will even bless the deceitful people of the world through them. Jacob says, “God has been blessing you on my account.” Laban says, “That’s right. Everything has been looking up since you joined the team.”
And it is at that point that Jacob offers Laban a deal he can’t refuse. Jacob says, “You know those flocks out in the field?” Laban says, “Yeah.” Jacob says, “Let’s make a deal about your flocks.”
verses 32-33
Just so we're clear, the deal involved solid color sheep and speckled sheep. Evidently Laban’s sheep were white and his goats were dark. Since like tends to produce like, not many speckled or streaked sheep or goats were born. But that’s what Jacob agreed to keep as his wages.
Jacob also proposed to stack the deck against himself by removing any speckled goat and every dark-colored lamb from Laban’s flocks.
So what Jacob is saying is, “I will only keep the goats born in the future that are speckled, spotted or streaked or lambs that are dark-colored.” But by removing the goats and lambs that already fit that description, he was almost guaranteeing the plan would fail.
Obviously, Laban agrees. In fact, he can’t believe his ears.
verse 34
If only this were a legitimate offer! It's too good to be true!. No wonder Jacob is still broke. You can’t get rich making deals like that.
So the experiment begins.
Genesis 30:37-42
So what's that all about? I don't have a clue! I remember several years ago, my brother got the bright idea to artificially inseminate the cows in my dad's herd.
Now to be successful, you've got to keep a pretty close eye on the heifers and with some their cycles came and went and my brother missed on the AI opportunity, therefore no calves were produced.
I remember dad telling him he could mess around if he wanted to, but he was putting a bull in the pasture!
That is about the extent of my livestock experience. To be honest, what Jacob does sounds a little superstitious to me. Some believe there may have been some sexual stimulant released when the bark was peeled. But whatever was going on, Jacob gave God the glory for it as we see in later in chapter 31.
So six years go by and the results come in.
verse 43
And don’t miss the main point: God wanted to bless Jacob so much that he blessed Laban on Jacob’s account. Later, when Jacob made a deal that seemingly was against his own best interests, God blessed him even when he stacked the deck against himself.
And what that means is Jacob is trusting God. It was an act of pure faith on his part and he is entirely at the Lord's mercy. But if the Lord is on your side, He can turn out as many speckled sheep as He wants to!
Laban doesn't live like that and the Labans of the world have never understood that truth. Which is why time and again they rig the rules against the people of God, and in the end the people of God win anyway.
And that's what happens in this situation. God overruled the “normal” course of things and used this “unlikely” plan to abundantly bless Jacob. It is yet another example of the principle that when God wants to bless a man, he will bless him regardless of the circumstances!
So round 2 goes to Jacob.
Round # 3: Jacob Goes Home
chapter 31
So when we come to chapter 31, the 20 years in Haran are almost over. Jacob came to town expecting to spend a few months or perhaps a year there. He ended up spending 20 years. He has worked 7 years for Leah, 7 years for Rachel, and 6 years building up his flocks.
But now the time has finally come to go home.
The deciding factor is when Jacob heard that Laban’s son had grown envious of his prosperity. He also realized that Laban had slowly changed his attitude toward him.
With that in mind, he approaches Rachel and Leah with the idea of leaving Haran. Among other things, he points out that Laban has changed his wages 10 times.
verse 7
He also tells them about a dream in which God spoke to him.
verse 13
The two wives agree and the family makes ready to leave. This was a considerable task involving many servants and the large herd of livestock he had built up.
Two things happened that marred the departure. One of them is recorded in
verse 19
The second is in
verse 20.
So Rachel stole her father’s household gods and Jacob deceived Laban by not telling him he was running away.
These two facts show that Jacob is still Jacob. He is trusting God, but he is also living by his wits. He wants to obey God, even if he has to deceive someone else to do it. It also shows how badly his relationship with Laban had deteriorated.
Evidently his uncle was like many men of the world—nice enough when he is on top, but mean as a snake when someone else prospers at his expense.
So off they go, crossing the Euphrates to journey to the Promised Land. Their first destination is the hill of Gilead—the mountainous region to the north and east of the Jordan River. Three days later Laban learns that Jacob has left without saying goodbye. Since he was traveling much later, he caught up with Jacob after 7 days somewhere in Gilead.
And what happens next is a classic confrontation between two angry men:
Laban speaks first.
verses 26-30
Notice Jacob's response:
verses 31-32
In verses 33-35, Laban searches for the idols but cannot find them because Rachel hides them in her saddle and then pretends she can’t stand up because she is in her period.
And then, Jacob tears into Laban
verses 36-42
Well Laban is shocked that Jacob would be so ungrateful. Listen to his reply:
verses 43-44
So Laban offers a truce, and they make a covenant and set up a pile of stones as a testimony to the agreement. They are actually marking off the boundaries between Jacob and Laban.
Then Laban makes that famous statement that very often gets misused in wedding ceremonies and is found on coins that friends share.
verse 49
That sounds sweet and spiritual, but notice what follows.
verse 50
In other words, "May the Lord watch over you", but just know I've got my eye on you also!"
And then Laban says that these stones are going so serve as a line between us. "I won't cross the line and harm you and you won't cross the line to my side and attack me."
And then he ends, as verse 53 tells us, by calling on God to “judge between us.”
Jacob agreed to the non-aggression pact and takes an oath in the name of God. He then offered a sacrifice, and everyone shared a meal together.
After that they spent the night there, and the next day Laban kissed his family goodbye and left them with a blessing. Then he left and returned home to Haran.
That is certainly not "and everyone lived happily ever after" kind of ending. It fact, it is a rather unhappy ending. Once again, Jacob is involved in deception that leaves people angry and making accusations.
This is not what his momma had in mind when she sent him to live with Laban and it's sure not what he expected when he rode into town 20 years ago. And as far as we know, Jacob and Laban never spoke again.
So I guess round 3 goes to Jacob by a split decision.
So let me close with a couple of thoughts about Laban and his place in the story and what we learn from people like him.
No doubt, Laban is a man of the world. At every point he thinks and acts like the people of the world. He is outwardly friendly and inwardly greedy.
He cheats and then piously justifies himself. He changes the rules of the game in order to suit himself. He uses other people to better himself.
Obviously, he is not a nice man and he is a reminder of people who are involved in the lives of everyone of us from time to time. To use the term I mentioned earlier, he is a catfish.
He was God’s catfish in Jacob's life and God used him in to produce godly character through unjust suffering. Laban kept Jacob swimming for 20 long years.
But when that 20 years is over, Jacob is a changed man. And he now returns to the Promised Land exactly as God had promised. What was God's promise to him when he sleeping out there on the rock at Bethel?
Genesis 28:13-15
So Jacob arrived in Haran alone, but he returns with a large family. He left penniless, but he returns rich.
He left younger and returns older and wiser. And most importantly, his greatest days are yet in front of him.
Just in case you missed the point of the story, let me remind you that everyone has a catfish. You’ve got at least one and so do I. As disagreeable as they may be, God’s catfish teach us lessons we couldn’t learn any other way.
For instance, through God's catfish we learn that
God often sends difficult people to us who have the peculiar gift of bringing out the worst in us. In fact, that's a good definition of a catfish—people who bring out the worst in us.
And it is those difficult people that force us to come to grips with our hidden weaknesses. Jacob had lived his life relying on trickery and deceit to get what he wanted. Uncle Laban turned the tables on Jacob, forcing him to take a dose of his own medicine. After Haran, Jacob would at least think twice before cheating someone else. He now knows how Esau felt.
It is those difficult people also force us to examine our motives carefully. We may say, “Lord, I’m doing this for you” but when a catfish starts nipping at us, we get angry, bitter, defensive and accusatory. Then the Lord says, “Are you sure you’re doing this for me?” Without the catfish, we’d never even consider that question.
In the end we will thank God that we spent time with Uncle Laban—even though it seemed unfair at the time—because we discovered truth about ourselves we couldn’t learn any other way.
Think of the lessons Jacob learned. He learned you reap what you sow. He learned the awful cost of deceiving others. he learned the pain of an unhappy ending. He discovered God’s ability to bless in spite of difficult circumstances. And he found out God is determined to keep his promises.
Those lessons will serve Jacob well in the days to come. And they were lessons he needed to learn before he could be greatly used by God.
So, who’s your catfish? That’s a question you don’t have to pray about. If you have to pray about it, you don’t have a catfish. If you’ve got a catfish, you already know who he is.
Let me challenge you to try thanking God for your catfish. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? It's easy to complain about the problem people in our life. It's easy to lash our in anger or swell up and be miserable.
But have you ever said, “God, I want to thank you for sending this disagreeable person into my life”?
Though it may not seem true to you, God doesn’t send catfish to destroy you. He sends people like Laban into your life to keep you swimming. In the end you’ll be glad he did.
Let's pray.
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