The Making of a Man of God
A sermon on Genesis 29:31-31:55 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 8/29/04
How does a man become a man of God?
How does a woman become a woman of God?
Last week, we considered Jacob’s experience of God – his encounter with God at Bethel. This encounter excites him, and he responds by making a vow – but the whole experience has no discernible impact on his life. He goes about the next phase of his life with no recorded prayer, with no recorded praise for God’s many gifts to him.
We concluded from this that the Christian life not lived by jolting from one crisis to another. Rather, the Christian life is a daily seeking of God’s face, the process of living hour by hour before Him. God may very well use crises in our lives to show us our weaknesses, to grab our attention – but the proof of God’s work in our life is in our living out our faith day by day.
Today’s passage in Genesis tells the stories of God’s work in the lives of four main characters over thirteen years: Leah, Rachel, Jacob, and Laban.
God works in strange ways in each of their lives, leading them through challenges, through stress, through disputes with each other. In three cases, we can see some impact of God’s work in their lives. As these three each show an increasing acknowledgment of the work of God in their lives, God seems to have them on the path to becoming a man or woman of God. None shows evidence of a complete conversion – but God is at work. The fourth, however, shows no such evidence; he stands as a warning to us all of the danger of rejecting God.
We will look at the mysterious ways God works in the lives of these four characters, and consider the lessons we can learn for our own lives from them.
Remember the story to this point: Jacob flees his home, fearing his brother Esau who wants to kill him because Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing and finagled his birthright from him. Jacob and his mother Rebekah use the pretense of Jacob’s going to get a wife from among Isaac’s relatives in order to get his father’s blessing on the journey. But when Jacob arrives at the home of his relatives, he is struck with cousin Rachel. He works 7 years to gain the right to marry her. But on the night of the wedding, his father-in-law Laban dresses Rachel’s older sister Leah in Rachel’s clothes and sends her in to Jacob. In the light of morning, seeing what happened, Jacob is irate. Laban allows him to marry Rachel too after agreeing to work another 7 years for her.
This week’s passage picks up right after those weddings.
In this culture, children are vital. Sons are especially important, as they provide security for their parents during their old age, and become heirs to the family property. A wife who bears many children – particularly many sons – is highly honored. A wife who does not bear children is in danger of being replaced.
This is still the case in many cultures. Beth and I have seen that ourselves. We moved to Kenya when we had been married for less than two years, and lived there for over three years. Beth, 24 years old but looking much younger, was working with rural women’s groups. She generally had a hard time convincing these women she was 24 and married, but when she had done so, their first question was usually, “How many children do you have?” When she said, “None,” their faces would appear somewhat worried, and they would ask, “Now, how long have you been married?” Upon her reply, “Two and a half years,” their faces would drop and they would ask, “Is he going to take a second wife?”
That was their experience. Husbands whose wives did not produce children in a few years would normally take another wife.
Leah lived in a similar culture. Children were valued very highly, and a wife who produced many children would be highly valued.
The circumstances surrounding her marriage showed that she was initially unloved. So Genesis 29:31 tells us, “The Lord opened Leah’s womb.” She bears four sons in short order. Look at their names to get a clue about what is going on in her life:
29:32: She called his name Reuben, for she said, "Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me."
Consider: What kind of statement is this about God? What does Leah want more than anything else?
NOT God! More than anything else, she wants her husband to love her!
In his booklet Marriage: Whose Dream? Paul Tripp tells the story of a similar woman:
I once was talking with a lady who had been married many years. She was married to a person who, very honestly, I would have to say was a bad man. He was angry, controlling, and manipulative. He said and did hurtful things. She had dreamed of the ultimate husband, but she certainly hadn't gotten him. Now she was so embittered by the blessings other women in her church enjoyed that she said she could no longer go to worship. She felt as if God had forsaken her, so much so that she couldn't read her Bible or pray. As I listened, I wanted her to understand her identity in Christ. I wanted her to know the love of the Lord; that God is a refuge and strength, an ever‑present help in trouble. So I started reading her passages that spoke of the amazing, abundant love of God, and in the middle of a verse she said, "Stop! Don't tell me again that God loves me. I want a husband who loves me!" And she pounded her fist on her chair as she said it.
That woman is seeking God’s gifts, rather than God Himself. She doesn’t want God’s love. She wants God to provide her with a husband to love her. We can understand her plight and feel for her – but do you understand how that attitude is demeaning to God? God implicitly becomes not the most beautiful One in all the universe, but the genie whose gifts give us delight. His presence is NOT fullness of joy – rather we want his gifts to bring us to fullness of joy.
Just so with Leah. She acknowledges God’s hand, and that’s good – as far as it goes. But she does not treasure God. In essence, she doesn’t even treasure the son God gives her. She treasures her husband’s withheld love. And so she’s miserable.
Leah bears two more sons and it doesn’t get any better:
29:33 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, "Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also." And she called his name Simeon. 34 Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, "Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons." Therefore his name was called Levi.
She’s still hoping to gain her husband’s love through the normal cultural means of having sons. But that attachment never happens.
Finally, after the birth of her fourth son, we see a different Leah:
29:35 And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, "This time I will praise the LORD." Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing.
Do you see the difference? This time, her statement gives no conditions. She is no longer trying to use her sons as a way to gain her husband’s love. Now she just praises God for what He has given.
Unfortunately, we will see shortly that Leah does not live day by day in a state of praising God. But at least after the birth of Judah, Leah shows us how to respond to God’s gifts. This is one step to becoming a man or woman of God: Acknowledging God as the source of all that is good in our lives, and praising Him for it; not pining after what we don’t have, but rejoicing in the God who is working together all things for His glory.
Rachel is the beloved wife, the sister who is more attractive physically, perhaps whose personality is more engaging. Jacob loves her dearly. He never wanted to marry Leah in the first place. Rachel is the wife he wanted. But God in his mysterious wisdom closes Rachel’s womb. Consider how Rachel here is similar to Leah (prior to her praising the Lord after Judah’s birth):
Rachel even says to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob simply responds angrily, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Now, Rachel is not the first wife of a patriarch who has problems bearing children. Remember, Sarah waited for decades for a son. Jacob’s mother Rebekah waited 20 years. In each case, their husbands prayed for them.
Does Jacob pray? There’s no mention of it.
Instead, Rachel decides to use the worst idea Sarah ever had: She gives Jacob her handmaiden, so that Rachel can vicariously have children through her. Jacob doesn’t even say anything in the narrative – he just does whatever Rachel says, like he did whatever his mother said a few chapters previously.
This servant bears two sons; Rachel’s naming of the second shows what’s going on in her heart:
30:8 Then Rachel said, "With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed." So she called his name Naphtali.
Leah rejoins the battle by giving HER servant to Jacob, who graciously complies
After that servant too has a couple of sons, a very strange incident takes place (v14ff). Reuben – Leah’s firstborn, maybe five years old now, finds mandrakes in the field. In many cultures, mandrakes were thought to increase fertility – and thus were valuable to barren Rachel. Rachel sees the mandrakes and asks Leah for them. Let’s read v15-18:
But she said to her, "Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son's mandrakes also?" Rachel said, "Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son's mandrakes." 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, "You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, "God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband." So she called his name Issachar.
So Rachel’s desired folk remedy, her attempt to take her childbearing into her own hands, does nothing – Leah becomes pregnant, not Rachel.
The whole incident just shows how dysfunctional this family is, and how unspiritual Rachel, Jacob, and even Leah are.
Rachel becomes pregnant only after this, when it will be clear to Rachel that the child is God’s gift, not the result of a silly folk remedy.
30:22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 She conceived and bore a son and said, "God has taken away my reproach." 24 And she called his name Joseph, saying, "May the LORD add to me another son!"
Do you see the indication that Rachel has changed? Verse 22 says, “God listened to her.” What does that imply? Rachel is praying! For the first time, Rachel is asking God.
Leah, at her best, teaches us that we must praise God for every good gift we receive.
Rachel, at her best, teaches us that we must ask God for His gifts.
Do you acknowledge this? Do you agree with James,
James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Or do you still think that you, apart from God, are able to run your life?
Now let’s turn to the character of Jacob. What does Jacob do from Genesis 29:31-30:24? In these 29 verses Jacob is busy. But he doesn’t say much – he speaks only his angry rejoinder to Rachel. Nor does he provide any leadership to his troubled family.
What does he do?
All he does is father children, with whatever woman his wives think he should have sex with next. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, he does not pray for barren Rachel. He makes no effort to calm the tensions between Leah and Rachel. He just performs his patriarchal duty and lets the squabbling go on.
So this passage begins with Jacob still showing no impact from his earlier encounter with God at Bethel. It was an experience – nothing more.
After Rachel bears Joseph, Jacob’s 14 years of work for his two wives are complete. So he asks Laban for permission to leave. Now, understand: Laban is taking advantage of Jacob here. Jacob owns no material goods – and he has, in effect, 4 wives and 12 children to care for. All his labor has been for his wives; he has earned no money.
Yet, Jacob should have received much more. The bride price in this culture was not supposed to be solely a transfer from the husband to the wife’s family. Part of that price was to be returned to the daughter and her family after she bore children – sort of a method of forced savings to ensure that children would have sufficient support when born.
But Laban offers Jacob, Leah, and Rachel none of the income he receives from Jacob’s labors. Indeed, this seems to be Laban’s plan – he sees that he is blessed by Jacob’s work as a shepherd, and so he tries to force Jacob to remain in his service. Their relationship is thus closer to master/slave than father-in-law/son-in-law.
But Jacob figures he’s smart enough and devious enough to match Laban’s wits and get his due from Laban if he stays longer. So he asks for all the animals in the flock that are striped or speckled – instead of the normal all white sheep or all black goats. This will make clear that Jacob is stealing nothing from Laban, and should make it obvious if Laban tries to steal from him.
But Laban tries to trick Jacob by removing all such animals far away. With only pure-colored goats and sheep to breed, it seems unlikely that Jacob will ever receive any wages.
In response to Laban’s trickery, Jacob then tries an absurd method of getting the pure-colored animals to bear striped offspring – having them look at a striped branch while mating. Of course, this folk method has no more power than Reuben’s mandrakes – but God chooses to intervene anyway and multiplies the numbers of striped and speckled animals. After being a virtual slave, after having a large family and no resources, after his father-in-law tries to trick him of what was rightfully his, Jacob at long last receives becomes rich – by the grace of God.
This brings us to 31:1-44, which we read earlier during the service. At long last, Jacob has changed substantially:
Jacob says this several times, but most clearly when talking to Laban in v42:
If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night."
So Jacob, like Rachel, finally admits that his deceitfulness gets him nothing. His fooling around with striped sticks got him nothing. His wits get him nothing. He realizes that all the riches he now has have come from God.
This is huge. This is an important step toward becoming a man of God. But Jacob – like Rachel and Leah – shows how much further he has to go if he is to become a man of God by trying to flee from Laban secretly. Instead of confronting Laban directly and trusting God to work through the situation, he tries to run away secretly. As he tells us in 31:31, his motivation is fear that Laban would take his wives away from him if he left publicly. Such a fear shows a failure to trust God – rather similar to the fear Abraham and Isaac displayed when they called their wives their sisters.
Nevertheless, do you see God’s hand at work in the lives of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob?
God patiently works with these sinners, working all things together to bring them to Himself. Through trials and frustrations, he brings Leah and Jacob to the point where they praise Him for ALL His good gifts. He helps them to see that they deserve nothing. Through a different type of trial, he brings Rachel to the end of her own resources, making her see that her beauty, her personality, her conniving, her folk remedies will not lead to the fulfillment of her desires. She must turn to God in prayer – and He answers.
Have you learned those lessons? Are you, perhaps, in the midst of learning those lessons now? Praise God that He is a patient teacher.
Laban is a sobering counterexample to the other three. Laban is a greedy character from the beginning. Back in chapter 24, he is most impressed when Abraham’s servant gives Rebekah a golden bracelet and nose ring. In the last few chapters, he has
Laban is able to harm Jacob. Does he? No. Why not? Only because God stops him.
Even then, even after God appears to him in a dream, does Laban learn anything? Does he repent? Does he acknowledge God’s hand on Jacob?
No. Look at his response to Jacob’s tirade against him:
31:43 Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.
Is this true?
So Laban represents that man whose life is all caught up in this world. As we read during the service, Paul says of such people:
Philippians 3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Laban’s god is his belly. His mind is set completely on earthly things, not things above. And his end is destruction.
God is at work in his life – God even appears to him. He has the ancestor of the Lord Jesus living in his household for 20 years. Indeed, through Leah he himself is an ancestor of the Lord Jesus. He can witness the supernatural blessings that God gives Jacob. But he learns nothing. And he heads straight to destruction.
So we have four individuals: Leah, Rachel, Jacob, and Laban.
But there is one more person in this story. The last person to examine is God.
Do you see how God is behind all that happens?
He is in control.
But do the characters see that? Even Jacob doesn’t really.
Imagine yourself in Jacob’s sandals, fleeing from Laban, knowing he will pursue you, thinking he might kill you or leave you with nothing and take your wives and children back to Paddan Aram.
Does Jacob feel like God is in control? Does he sense God’s leading?
In the midst of this crisis, he doesn’t see God’s hand. Even after all God has done, Jacob doesn’t have enough confidence in God to confront Laban boldly before leaving.
Have you experienced similar times?
William Cowper wrote these wise words about such times
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread;
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
God moves in His mysterious ways in the lives of all of these characters. By God’s grace, Jacob and his wives are becoming men and women of God.
But is Jacob a believer? Are Rachel and Leah? I don’t think so.
Acknowledging that God is the source of your blessings is good and right – but that is not saving faith.
Crying out to God for help when you are desperate is good and right – but that is not saving faith.
A husband and father leading his family and providing for them is good and right – but that is not saving faith.
Trusting in a promise of God for earthly blessings is good and right – but that is not saving faith.
So what about you? Are you like Jacob, Leah, and Rachel – showing some signs of faith, but lacking true faith?
My friends, God is in control. He is the source of every good gift.
And he offers us freely the greatest gift of all: Himself, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Throw yourself on His mercy! Trust the God who moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 8/29/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The Paul Tripp quote is from Marriage: Whose Dream (Resources for Changing Lives, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1999).
Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
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