Hard Times in Haran
September 20, 1992
There are many ways in the English language to express the idea of retribution. For instance, we say, “Everything that goes around, comes around.” And we say, “Things have a way of evening out in the end.” We teach our children, “Crime doesn’t pay.” We talk about the chickens coming home to roost and the skeletons rattling out of the closet.
Some of our greatest quotations deal with the idea of retribution. One of my favorites is by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in one of those great speeches for which he is justly famous, said, “The arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Thomas Jefferson, speaking of the evils of the slave trade, said, “I tremble when I remember that God is just.” One of the most famous quotations on this theme is the little two-line couplet translated by Longfellow:
Though the mills of God grind slowly
Yet they grind exceeding small.
The Bible has much to say about retribution. I’m sure you’ve heard of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a life for a life.” Two of the most famous Bible verses speak about retribution:
“Be sure your sin will find your out.” (Numbers 32:23)
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
Jacob has been sowing for a long, long time. Reaping day has come. He’s been sowing the seeds of deceit, and the harvest is about to come.
A New Spring in His Step
When last we left our hero, he has just awakened from a hard night’s sleep on a rock outside the city of Luz. During the night he had that strange dream about a ladder stretching from heaven to earth. In that dream the Lord himself had spoken to Jacob—reassuring him that if he went, God would go with him.
It happened while Jacob was on a long journey from Beersheba in the south of Palestine to a place called Haran—a distance of some 500 miles. It meant leaving the Promised Land and venturing into territory Jacob had never entered. Before that night at Bethel, Jacob’s heart was filled with fear; afterward he walked with a new spring in his steps. Before he felt the weight of his past; afterward he looked with excitement to the future. Before he was running for his life; afterward he was running to find a wife.
All of that and more is implied by the first phrase of Genesis 29:1, which literally reads, “Then Jacob lifted up his feet,” suggesting a new spring in his steps as a result of the encounter with God at Bethel. If before he was a fugitive, now he is a seasoned traveler.
After many days of traveling, Jacob arrives in Haran. He plans to stay there for a few months, find a wife, and then return home to Beersheba. Little does he know that Haran is going to be his home for 20 long years. Little does he know that what awaits him is hard times in Haran.
I. Why God Sent Jacob to Haran
Genesis 29 explains for us the four reasons why God sent Jacob to Haran.
A. To Find a Wife 1-12
When Jacob finally arrived on the outskirts of Haran, the first thing he saw was a well, with a herd of sheep nearby. When Jacob asked the shepherds if they knew of a man named Laban, they replied, “Yes, we know him.” At that very moment—seemingly by coincidence but actually in the providence of God—the shepherds pointed to a beautiful young woman who was walking toward the well with her sheep. She “happened” to be Rachel, Laban’s daughter.
S. Lewis Johnson (Believers Bible Bulletin, 12/9/79, p. 3) points out that “this striking example of divine providence illustrates the fact that God guides the steps of his own without ordinarily interfering with the usual course of life. He simply guides them in the exercise of their senses and intelligence … Believers today should learn to practice the same art of discerning the finger of God in the common events of life.”
This is evidently one of those rare cases of “love at first sight,” because when Jacob saw Rachel, Genesis 29:11 says that he “kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.” But this is more than sentimental emotion. Jacob rejoices because he recognizes in his “chance” meeting with Rachel the providential care of God. “Anyone who has ever experienced the providence of God will understand the weeping of Jacob.” (S. Lewis Johnson, p. 4)
Since Rachel was the daughter of Laban, and Laban was the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebekah, that means that Jacob and Rachel were actually first cousins—”kissing cousins,” I suppose. In any case, clearly Rachel doesn’t mind the kiss because she runs to tell her father Laban—which brings us to our second reason God sent Jacob to Haran.
B. To Meet His Uncle Laban 13-14
“As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.” Uncle Laban is going to change Jacob’s life forever. Up until this point, Jacob has lived by his wits. He has survived by relying on his native intelligence and his shrewd ability to take care of himself in any situation. True, things haven’t always worked out for him, but even when things have gone bad, Jacob has somehow managed to land on his feet. Like a cat with nine lives, Jacob has been getting into and out of tough spots all his life. Sometimes he’s left the playing field with a black eye, but no matter, at least he always walks off under his own power.
All that is about to change because in Uncle Laban, Jacob is finally going to meet his match. Before this, Jacob has lived as a penny-ante con man, pulling the wool over his brother’s eyes, and deceiving his father with that ridiculous goatskin routine. Kid stuff, you might say. But unfortunately Jacob has been playing in the Little League. When he meets Laban, he is joining the NFL of con men. Laban is about to take Jacob to the cleaners. And there’s nothing Jacob can do about it.
In the providence of God, Jacob is about to be enrolled in the oldest school known to man—the School of Hard Knocks. And Uncle Laban is about to give his nephew Jacob 20 years of free post-graduate education.
That brings us to the third reason God sent Jacob to Haran.
C. To Marry Leah 14-25
To understand this point you simply need to know that Rachel had an older sister named Leah. The text is rather specific on the point of the comparative outward beauty of Laban’s two daughters. Leah had “weak” eyes (which perhaps means that they were dull in appearance—or it may mean that they were “delicate,” in which case the term “weak” is meant as a compliment), but Rachel was “lovely in form and beautiful.” That is, Leah had striking eyes but Rachel was beautiful all over! Jacob didn’t fail to notice the difference. In fact, the text says that “Jacob was in love with Rachel.” (18)
What you have is Leah the older—unlovely and unloved, and Rachel the younger—lovely and loved. Thus the stage is set.
Jacob moves in with Laban and goes to work for him. When Laban asks, “What should your wages be?” Jacob is ready with an answer: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” (18) Laban responds with a practical wisdom of a father with two daughters on his hands: “It is better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me”—not a ringing endorsement perhaps, but most fathers with daughters can understand the sentiment. This is a straightforward business proposition—”I’ll give you seven years of labor if at the end of that period, you’ll give me your daughter Rachel to be my wife.”
So the seven years pass. The Bible sums up this period in one of the most strikingly beautiful verses in all the Bible: “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.” (20) Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “No man could be a bad man who loved as Jacob loved Rachel.” All I can say is this: If you don’t understand that verse, it’s because you’ve never really been in love. If you’ve ever been in love, then you know exactly how Jacob felt.
Now we’ve come to the wedding night. First, there is a huge feast in honor of the happy couple. That took most of the day. Then at night, the husband retired to his chambers and the bride was escorted by her father to meet the groom, and thus the marriage was consummated. Until that point, everything has gone as planned. But Uncle Laban has a surprise in store for Jacob: “When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her.” There are many questions we would like to ask at this point, the main one being, How in the world could something like this happen? The answer is, it couldn’t if you are following modern American wedding customs. No man could be fooled this way. But weddings in the ancient Near East followed different patterns. The most likely explanation is that when Laban brought his daughter Leah to Jacob, it was late and very dark and she was veiled from head to toe. If there had been much drinking at the feast, that might have impaired Jacob’s faculties—although the Bible says nothing about this. In the darkness, somehow Jacob didn’t realize the woman next to him was Leah and not Rachel. So the marriage was consummated … but with the wrong woman!
(Other questions: Where was Rachel that night? The text doesn’t tell us. Did she know about the swap? Why did Leah go along with this? Was it a case of two sisters competing for the same man? Did Leah feel jealous of her younger, more beautiful sister? We don’t know for sure, but Genesis 30 may lead one to conclude that sisterly jealousy was part of this deception.)
Verse 25 tells us the whole story: “When morning came, there was Leah!” In the Hebrew, that phrase contains two words: “Behold, Leah!” He wakes up a contented man. He rolls over to kiss Rachel. But the face smiling back at him is not Rachel. It’s Leah! I’m surprised he didn’t have a heart attack. Then it hits him: He’s slept with the wrong woman. How could this have happened? Then the second thought hits him: Laban! It had to be Laban because he was the one who brought his “bride” to his chambers.
With that thought in mind, Jacob bolts out of bed, puts on his robe, and goes after Laban. In Genesis 29:25 Jacob asks Laban a crucial question, “Why have you deceived me?” Good question. But unknowingly Jacob has used a form of the same Hebrew word that Isaac used when he told Esau that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36). Bingo! The noose is tightening around Jacob’s neck, but he doesn’t know it yet. The chickens are coming home to roost. “The arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Laban rather cooly replies that he was forced by custom to give Leah in marriage first because she was the firstborn. This is the second direct hit by God. Jacob had dishonored the principle of the firstborn by cheating his brother out of the birthright and the blessing. Now God forces him to honor the principle he had violated by marrying Leah first. And who had Jacob deceived? His father Isaac. Now the deceiver is deceived by his father-in-law! Everything that goes around, comes around.
That brings us to the final reason God sent Jacob to Haran:
D. To Marry Rachel 26-30
The story now moves swiftly to its conclusion. Knowing a sucker when he’s got one on the line, Laban moves in for the kill. He offers to let Jacob marry Rachel as well, but with one tiny condition: He must serve Laban for another seven years. Genesis 29:28 simply says, “And Jacob did so.” Jacob completes the bridal week for Leah, then evidently married Rachel right on the spot, and then begins his second seven years of service to Laban. Verse 30 offers this final note: “Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah”—a fact that will bring much sorrow to Leah, much bitterness between the two sisters, and much dissension to the children yet to be born.
What a story! God gets even with his wayward servant who was all-too-willing to cheat others. But note carefully: God evens the score in the very areas in which Jacob had been cheating:
1. He deceives Esau and his father; now his father-in-law deceives him.
2. He ignores the principle of first-born rights; now he is forced to honor that
principle by marrying Leah first.
3. Esau was forced to live with the results of Jacob’s deception; now Jacob is forced
to live with the results of Laban’s deception.
II. Why God Really Sent Jacob to Haran
Now that we’ve looked at the story, lets go behind the scenes to ask why God really sent Jacob to Haran. We know the facts; now let’s go after the reasons.
A. So That Jacob Would Have Plenty of Time to Think About the Way He Had Lived.
For all those years in the Promised Land, Jacob had richly earned the title “deceiver.” Now God puts Jacob in a spiritual “time-out” chair in Haran. For 20 years Jacob had lots of time to consider the course of his life.
All parents understand this. Most of us use the “time-out” chair because it gives our children time to think quietly about what they have done. Or perhaps you send your children to their room. That serves several purposes—including the prevention of homicide!—but foremost among them is giving your children a chance to slow down, cool off, and begin to think.
As long as Jacob was in Beersheba, he could get away with almost anything. But in Haran, Jacob is in foreign territory. God’s got him in a place far removed from his comfort zone, a place where Jacob is forced to think about his life.
That’s what God does with us. From time to time he just sits us down and says, “You don’t need that job anymore. You need some time to think.” Or he says, “I’m going to put you in the hospital for a couple of weeks so you’ll have time to think.” “I’m going to let your dreams crumble so you’ll have time to consider the way you’ve been living.”
B. So That God Could Humble Jacob at the Point of His Perceived Strength.
If you had asked Jacob, “What’s your strong point?” he would have no doubt said, “I know how to cut a deal. I know how to handle people. I know how to negotiate a contract.” Then he would have said, “I’m always in control. No one ever gets the best of me.”
When he meets Uncle Laban, all his boasting comes to nothing. Suddenly he’s no longer in control. He’s not on top anymore. He cut a deal, and ended up losing. He negotiated a contract, and Uncle Laban snookered him.
Do you see what God has done? He has touched Jacob at the point of his strength and humbled him.
Wasn’t there a man in the New Testament like that? Peter said, “Even though everyone else denies you, I will never deny you.” And Jesus said, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” It’s the principle: God humbled Peter at the point of his self-perceived strength.
God does that to you and me—touching us at the point where we feel strongest. He brings us down so that we will understand our confidence must be in God alone. He wants us to know that even our strength must come from him.
C. So That Godly Character Would be Developed Through Unjust Treatment.
Was Jacob treated unfairly here? Yes. Without question, Laban took advantage of his nephew from Beersheba. Was it fair for Laban to switch sisters on Jacob? No it wasn’t. What was the price Jacob had to pay? An extra seven years working for uncle Laban. Was that unjust? Yes.
Then why did God allow it? Because God knew that was the only way he could develop godly character in Jacob’s life.
So many people go through life saying, “It’s not fair.” True, but God never promised to be fair with you. He never promised that the world would treat you justly. If God would let his Son be crucified while he was innocent of any wrongdoing, do you think he will exempt you from unjust treatment? No way.
The great danger for us is that in reacting to unjust treatment, we will become perpetual victims. First we get angry, then we get bitter, then we victimize ourselves. I know some people—even some Christians—who go through life as perpetual victims. Someone is always mistreating them, always misusing them, always taking advantage of them. And they are angry with God for allowing it to happen.
For the most part, godly character is not developed in the good times of life, but in the bad. Godly character is developed in your life as you respond positively and creatively to unjust treatment. Isn’t that what Romans 5:3-4 tells us? “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” One thing leads to another—and what begins as injustice leads to perseverance which leads on to character which leads on to hope in God. But if you say, “Nobody can mistreat me,” then what you are saying is, “I will not allow God to develop his character in my life.”
That’s why I love that statement Jim Warren shared with me a few months ago. When you are in trouble and you feel circumstances piling up against you, the key to survival is: Be a student, not a victim. A victim says, “Why is this happening to me?” A student says, “What can I learn from this?”
D. So That His Plans For the Future Might Be Worked Out Through Human Weakness.
When Jacob comes to Haran, he is penniless, homeless and alone. When he leaves 20 years later, he is a rich man, with 2 wives, 2 maidservants, 11 sons, a host of servants, and an abundance of cattle, sheep and donkeys. He comes with nothing, but leaves as a man of means. In between, however, he suffers repeated humiliation at the hands of Laban.
What’s going on here? On one hand, God is using Laban to teach Jacob valuable lessons. On the other hand, God is keeping his promise to prosper Jacob and to raise up descendants who will carry on his name. Through adversity—and in spite of much personal difficulty—God is keeping his promise. In the wisdom of God, Jacob is being prospered by God at the very same time he is being disciplined by God.
The result? Jacob has nothing to boast about when he leaves Haran. God has done it all. He has kept his promise and has allowed his servant to experience great hardship. Jacob will never be able to say, “I did it.” He will only be able to say, “God did it in spite of me.” As I Corinthians 1 says, God chooses the weak things of the world in order that he might confound the strong; he chooses the foolish to shame the wise, “so that no one may boast before him.”
III. Why God Still Sends His Children to Haran Today
Jacob is not the only one to make the long journey out of the Promised Land to the foreign city of Haran. God still sends his children to Haran today. Here’s a working definition of Haran: Haran is any place in your life where you are experiencing suffering or difficulty. It could be a relationship, it could be your marriage, it could be your work situation or your financial condition. Haran for you might be that impossible person you work with every day. Or it might be a troubling health condition.
Why does God still send his children to Haran? Why doesn’t he let us stay in the Promised Land? Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness.” When God sends you to Haran, it’s not because he hates you; it’s because he loves you. It’s not because he wants to destroy you; it’s because he wants to make you stronger.
The road to the Promised Land goes through Haran. In the course of a lifetime, most of us will make several extended trips to Haran. No one is exempt. No one gets a free ride.
Let’s make this application very personal: In the space, write down what you think your personal “Haran” is. Then write beneath what you believe God wants to accomplish in your life through this particular “Haran.”
God’s Message to Me
My personal “Haran” is …
This is what I think God wants to do in my life …
I close with an unusual question. Have you ever thanked God for sending you to Haran? Have you ever thanked him for that part of your life that is bringing you suffering and difficulty?
You’ve been bitter, you’ve been angry, you’ve been depressed, you’ve wanted to give up. Have you ever tried thanking God for your personal “Haran?” Have you ever said, “Lord, this is so painful, but I believe you know what you are doing. I don’t understand the big picture, but I thank you for allowing me to go through this because it has brought me closer to you?”
Your life could be revolutionized if—instead of getting angry—you began thanking God for your personal “Haran.” I offer you no easy answer, no quick fixes, no fast train to the Promised Land. But I do promise this, that if you are on your way to Haran right now, God has promised that he will go with you. And if you are living in Haran today, God has promised that you won’t have to stay there forever. He’ll bring you back to the Promised Land sooner or later.
You want to go to the Promised Land? The bus stops in Haran. And while we are there, let us console ourselves with this thought: As painful as Haran may be, it is God’s way of preparing us for better things to come.