God’s Catfish

Genesis 29-31

October 11, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

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 pos-sible 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 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.

—He had tricked his older brother out of the birthright.

—Now he is forced to marry the older sister first—thus honoring the birthright.

—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.

Round 1 goes to Laban.

Round # 2: The Case of the Speckled Sheep 30

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. “The Lord has blessed me because of you.” (27) Jacob agrees, saying, “The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I have been.” (28)

Before we go on, this principle deserves some elaboration. Beyond all question, Laban was an ungodly, ruthless man. And Jacob, for all his moral weakness, is a man of deep faith in God. Both men agree on a remarkable fact: God has blessed a bad man because he had a good man working for him. Laban’s increase came on Jacob’s account. This concept occurs several times in the Bible. We see it when God promised to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if 10 righteous men could be found in the city (Genesis 18). We see it when God prospers Potiphar because Joseph is part of his household (Genesis 39). I Corinthians 7:12-14 contains a fascinating discussion of the problem of mixed marriages where one partner is a believer and the other is not. In such a case, the unbelieving partner (and any children that may be involved) is “sanctified” through the believing partner. The same thought is behind Jesus’ allusion to believers as “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt purifies, preserves and slows the process of decay while light illuminates, dispels darkness, and uncovers reality.

Taken together, these passages illustrate the concept that Jacob and Laban are discussing in Genesis 30. God blesses the people of the world because the people of God are nearby. 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.

Let me say it this way. 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.”

A Deal He Can’t Refuse

At that point 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.” If you want to read the details for yourself, they are recorded in Genesis 30:32-33. Basically the deal involved solid color sheep and speckled (or streaked) 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 streaked or speckled goat and every dark-colored lamb from Laban’s flocks. Jacob is saying, “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 virtually guaranteeing his plan would fail.

No wonder Laban agrees. He can’t believe his ears. This deal is 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 tells about placing peeled poplar branches in the watering trough so that when the animals were in heat, they would mate in front of the branches. “And they bore young which were speckled or spotted.” (39) To be frank, I am not sure what this means. The commentators are divided. Is Jacob exercising some kind of local superstition? Is he trying to manipulate the situation in order to help God out? Or were the peeled poplar branches an expression of his faith in God? In one sense, we don’t have to know the answer because in Genesis 31:9, Jacob clearly indicates that it was God who gave the increase.

After six years the results were in: “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” (43) 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. Henry Morris summarizes the situation this way:

This arrangement clearly was highly favorable to Laban; of very doubtful value to Jacob. Indeed, it was an act of pure faith on his part. He had put himself entirely at God’s mercy. It would be up to the Lord to indicate, by a very unlikely set of circumstances, whether Jacob should prosper personally or not. (The Genesis Record, p. 473)

Jacob is counting on God. You’ve heard it said that God plus one equals a majority. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if the deck is stacked against you. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if the game is rigged against you. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter if you are dealing with unscrupulous people. If God is on your side, he can take the solids of life and turn out a thousand speckled sheep. He can do it because he is God!

Laban doesn’t do 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.

That of course is exactly what happened in this situation. God overruled the “normal” course of things and used this “unfavorable” 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!

Round 2 goes to Jacob.

Round # 3: Jacob Goes Home 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—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 turning point comes 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 (7). He also tells them about a dream in which God says, “Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.” (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:

1. Rachel stole her father’s household gods (19).

2. Jacob deceived Laban by not telling him he was running away (20).

These two facts show that Jacob is still Jacob—trusting God and 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.

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.

Two Angry Men

What follows is a classic confrontation between two angry men:

1. Laban speaks first, accusing Jacob of deception (which was true), carrying off his daughters like captives in war (not true, but an effective accusation), depriving him of the right of giving his daughters and grandchildren a proper farewell (true, but would he really have let them go?), and stealing his household gods (true, but Jacob didn’t know it). (vv. 26-30)

2. Jacob angrily replies he was afraid that Laban would take away Leah and Rachel by force (a legitimate fear, given the animosity that existed). He also denies stealing the household gods and promises to put to death anyone in his family who is found with them. (vv. 31-32)

3. Laban searched for the gods 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. (vv. 33-35)

4. Jacob now denounces Laban for 20 years of mistreatment, accusing him of false accusation (true as far as Jacob knew; not true in actuality), lack of respect, deliberately taking advantage of him, unfairly changing his wages, and concludes by saying that if God had not been with him, Laban would have sent him away empty-handed. (vv. 36-42)

5. Laban is clearly shocked by Jacob’s ungrateful attitude. He replies by saying, in essence, “All that you have—including your wives and children—actually belongs to me.” (An absurd claim since Jacob entered into a legitimate business arrangement with Laban.) Then he says, “But if you’re going to be so hard-headed, there’s nothing I can do, so let’s settle the matter here and now.” (vv. 43-44)

6. Jacob and his relatives set up a “witness heap”—a pile of stones marking the boundary between Jacob and Laban. Laban then utters those famous words that have been so often misapplied in wedding ceremonies, “May the Lord watch between you and me while we are away from each other.” (49) He goes on to warn Jacob not to harm his daughters or to take any other wives. The pillar, says Laban, stands as a demarcation point that “I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (52) He ends by piously calling on God to “judge between us.” (53)

7. Jacob agreed to the non-aggression pact, taking an oath in the name of God. He offered a sacrifice there and then everyone shared a meal together. After that they spent the night there. (53-54)

8. The next day Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren and blessed them. Then he left and returned home to Haran. (55)

The story of Jacob and Laban has come to an unhappy ending. It ends with deception, anger, and bitter accusations. What a contrast with the happy welcome Laban gave Jacob when first he came to Haran. As far as we know, Jacob and Laban never meet again.

Round 3 goes to Jacob by a split decision.

Wrapping Up 20 Hard Years

What can we say about Laban?

1. He 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.

2. He is not a nice man.

3. He is a catfish.

4. He was God’s catfish. God used him in Jacob’s life to produce godly character through unjust suffer-ing. Laban kept Jacob swimming for 20 long years.

After his time in Haran, Jacob is a changed man. He now returns to the Promised Land exactly as God had promised.

—He left alone and returns with a large family.

—He left penniless and returns rich.

—He left younger and returns older and wiser.

Most importantly, his greatest days are yet in front of him.

Lessons from the Labans of Life

Before we say farewell to Uncle Laban, let’s remind ourselves 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.

1. God often sends difficult people to us who have the peculiar gift of bringing out the worst in us.

That’s the definition of a catfish—people who bring out the worst in us.

2. Those difficult people 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.

3. Those difficult people also force us to examine our motives care-fully.

We say, “Lord, I’m doing this for you.” Then a catfish starts nipping at us and we are 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.

4. 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:

1. You reap what you sow.

2. The awful cost of deceiving others.

3. The pain of an unhappy ending.

4. God’s ability to bless in spite of difficult circumstances.

5. God’s determination to keep his promises.

These were lessons that would stand Jacob in good stead in the days to come. And they were lessons he needed to learn before he could be greatly used by God.

Three Prayers to Pray When the Catfish Are Nipping at Your Heels

Let’s wrap this up with three short prayers to pray when you feel the catfish nipping at your heels:

1. Lord, make me soft and tender, not hard and bitter.

2. Lord, use me to show your love to the Labans in my life.

3. Lord, teach me the lessons I need to learn.

Laban was Jacob’s catfish. Although it wasn’t pleasant or easy, God used that difficult experience to develop godly character in Jacob’s life.

Question: 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.

Challenge: Try thanking God for your catfish. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

You’ve complained about your catfish, haven’t you? So have I. You’ve been angry. So have I. Have you ever said, “Thank you for sending this disagreeable person into my life?”

When I mentioned that recently, a friend came up to me and said, “You don’t know how important this day is in my life. When you said that, I thanked God for my ex-husband for the first time since we were divorced.” It doesn’t get much more basic than that.

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.

Lord Jesus, we know that nothing is wasted in life. We know that everything has a pur-pose. We thank you for sending the Labans of life. Although it seems difficult to us, we know that you use unpleasant people to develop godly character in us.

For those who are hurting because they have been hurt by others, grant new faith to believe that even our wounds are meant for our own healing. In the end we will thank you for the pain, if the pain drives us closer to you.

We love you, Lord, and we reaffirm our confidence that you have our best interests at heart. When we are hurt by others, may we respond with blessing. When we are slan-dered, may we respond with grace.

Lord Jesus, whatever it takes to make us like you, do it, Lord, and in the end we will be glad that you answered our prayer. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?