Accompanying Bob Deffinbaugh sermon: The Difference Between Legality and Morality
In our passage today we see that it is entirely possible to obey God in a disobedient and immoral way. Yes, God had told Jacob to leave Haran, but there were two wrongs committed in the process. First, Jacob left without telling Laban, and at a time it would be inconvenient to prevent him from leaving. Second, Rachel stole the household gods.
Many speculations are made concerning Rachel’s motives, but the reason best supported by the text and by archaeology is that Rachel stole the household gods in order to establish a future claim on Laban’s family inheritance. The household gods were a token of rightful claim to the possessions and the headship of the family. Rachel must have felt justified in stealing these gods and in expecting to share in the family inheritance. After all, this is what she and Leah had just affirmed to Jacob:
Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you (Genesis 31:14b-16).
In Rachel’s mind getting Laban’s wealth was God’s will. If that were so with the matter of the flocks which Jacob had been tending, why should it not be true of the estate at Laban’s death? I believe that Rachel felt entirely justified in stealing the family gods for this reason. It is interesting, however, that she did not tell Jacob of her theft.
When Laban returns to find his gods and Jacob gone, it is no surprise that he presumes Jacob to have stolen them. Though he comes under the guise of offended father/grandfather, it is clear that the retrieval of the household gods is his primary concern, and explains why God ordered Laban to do nothing to harm Jacob.
Jacob evidenced fear and a lack of trust in God when he left Haran (Laban) secretly. God has promised to bring him back to the land safely, but Jacob didn't believe Him. Feeling certain he was innocent of the charge of stealing the household gods, Jacob quickly turns the conversation in that direction, hastily promising the death of anyone who had committed the theft.
When Laban fails to discover the idols, Jacob feels vindicated and rants in "righteous" anger...
Never had Laban’s herds suffered from Jacob’s neglect, nor had he even eaten at Laban’s expense. The animals that were lost to natural causes Jacob replaced, even though he was not responsible. Laban insisted upon this, and Jacob did so without protest—until now. Jacob worked hard, suffering the hardships of a shepherd’s life, and all this while Laban continued to change his wages repeatedly.
Having gotten his years of frustration off his chest, Jacob used his trump card, triumphantly capping off his defense by asserting that God was on his side (verse 42). Had God not been looking out for him, Laban might have gotten away with his double dealing. All his prosperity, Jacob maintained, was God’s blessing on his life. God had seen his affliction, it was true (cf. verse 12), but Jacob went too far when he added “and the toil of my hands” (verse 42). Nowhere had God ever indicated to Jacob that His blessing was in any way related to Jacob’s works. In fact, God had revealed to Jacob that just the opposite was the case (verses 10-13). The warning which God had issued to Laban on the previous night was proof to Jacob that God was on his side. God had rendered judgment, and Jacob maintained that he had been proven innocent.
I come away from Jacob’s defense with the uneasy feeling that he has grossly overstated his case. God did see all that Laban had done to Jacob. Jacob’s prosperity was from God’s hand, but it had little or nothing to do with Jacob’s piety or productive genius. God had been blessing him on the basis of grace, but Jacob had used God’s intervention as the basis for his self-defense. Jacob maintained that he had prevailed and that God had intervened because he was spiritual, while Laban was carnal. I find myself unconvinced by Jacob’s best efforts. Laban does not appear to be overly impressed either. While he has not been able to prove Jacob’s dishonesty, he still is convinced of it. Thus, he initiates the covenant that is made
Jacob promised never to mistreat Laban's daughters, to never marry more wives, and to never cross over that point to harm Laban. This next section is a bit long, but Deffinbaugh explains it so well, I wanted to include it all....
Now stop and think about it for a moment. Laban had lived in close association with Jacob for twenty years, and he was convinced of his lack of integrity. He believed that Jacob stole his gods. He believed that Jacob had underhandedly gotten possession of his flocks. He felt compelled to get Jacob to swear a holy oath that he would not mistreat his wives or someday return to Laban with hostile intent. Does this sound like a man who was convinced that Jacob was a godly man? Just as the covenants between Abimelech and Abraham (21:22-24), and later Abimelech and Isaac (26:26-31), were evidence of the carnal state of these patriarchs, so this treaty with Laban reveals the character flaws of Jacob. He was a man who could not be trusted. He would, at least, keep the letter of the law, and thus Laban spelled out assurances which he felt were needed. What a poor testimony to the character of Jacob.
And yet Jacob seems to be convinced of his integrity. He is certain that God is on his side because of his uprightness. How could Jacob have been so mistaken? I have come to believe that the answer is to be found in the fact that Jacob was a legalist. Jacob prided himself on being a man who kept the letter of the law. Never, to his knowledge at least, had he ever broken his word. He had made a deal with Laban, and he had always lived up to it. Oh, he had peeled those poles all right, but that was not a breach of their agreement.
Jacob, I believe, had no real system of ethics. He equated morality with legality. Whatever was within the law was morally right so far as he was concerned. Thus, he could stand before Laban with justified righteous indignation and demand that any evidence of wrongdoing on his part be put forth. He could claim with great assurance that God was on his side. How could this not be true when Jacob had always lived within the law?
But here is the heart of the error of legalism, for legalism equates morality with legality. It believes that righteousness and the keeping of the law are one and the same thing. A man may have no system of ethics whatever, but so long as he does not break the law he feels morally pure. He feels confident of the approval and blessing of God.
With this mentality Jacob was hardly different from the Jews of Jesus’ day. They felt that being a descendant of Abraham assured them of God’s favor (cf. John 8:39). They were confident that a meticulous keeping of the law made them acceptable to God. This puts the Sermon on the Mount in an entirely different light for me. Jesus spoke these words to Jews who were legalists. They felt that a mere living within the law was sufficient to merit them a righteousness acceptable to God. Our Lord went on to show them that a much greater righteousness was necessary (cf. Matthew 5:20). A genuine faith was not so much a matter of form as of faith. Those who were genuinely members of the kingdom were those whose hearts were pure before God. Thus our Lord dealt more with motives than with methods. He dealt more with function than mere forms.
The law was only a minimum standard; it was not intended to make men feel righteous but to demonstrate to men how far from God’s holiness they fell. The New Testament does not tell us that the standards set by the Old are no longer valid (Matthew 5:17), for those who walk in the Spirit will fulfill the requirement (singular) of the law (Romans 8:4). Legalism is sinful because men love to set human standards which, if they are kept, produce a man’s righteousness. Christian liberty views the standard for our thoughts and actions to be our Lord Himself, for it is to His image that we are being conformed (Romans 8:29).
Jacob may have felt self-righteous, but Laban was totally unconvinced. He resorted to legalism (that is, a legal covenant) because that was all he could trust Jacob to do—keep a few rules. Many Christians today are no different than Jacob. They (we?), too, are legalists. We think that we are pious and holy because we do not smoke or chew or curse. But ask those who have to work for us or those who have to employ us, and they will do just as Laban did—get it all down in writing. You see, even with all our pious talk the world knows better, for they have to live with us too. While we may keep a certain list of do’s and don’t’s, we may undermine and manipulate; we may deceive and destroy; we may seek our success at the expense of others. True righteousness, I believe, involves much more than keeping a few rules to the letter. It is a matter of the heart. No wonder so many unbelievers (and Christians) are reluctant to do business with Christians. They know that while God may be with us, we do not always act in a godly way.
Ethics, as I have said, is the difference between legality and morality. We live in a day when Christians and non-Christians alike think that whatever is legal is legitimate Christian activity. We, like Jacob, have our own pole-peeling and wheeling and dealing, which we think God is obliged to bless. No wonder the world is trying to legalize homosexuality and abortion and the like. To them, legality is morality. If it isn’t illegal, it is moral, they suppose.
The Bible does draw lines, clear lines at times. There are absolutes, and there are rules. But in addition to these, perhaps I should say above all these, is another standard of conduct which we shall call ethics or convictions. Many Christians seem to have too few of these, and yet this is what sets a true Christian apart in the eyes of the world. How many of us are viewed by the world as Jacob was by Laban? How many of us have convictions that cause us to avoid certain practices, even if they are legal? Christian ethics should be so high that legalistic rules are never necessary, at least for those who are righteous (I Timothy 1:9-10).
The bottom line for Jacob was that of faith. He tried to sneak off without telling Laban because he was afraid (verse 31). He trusted God but not enough to do that which was honorable in the sight of all men. He did not think that God could spare him and his family if he acted honorably before Laban. His God, in the words of J. B. Phillips, was “too small.” Isn’t that the case for most of us? The reason why we are reluctant to live by firm convictions is that we do not trust God to be able to bless us under these added restrictions. Have we forgotten how Elijah had barrels of water poured on his sacrifice so that those who watched could only give God the glory (cf. I Kings 18, especially verses 33-35)? Is this not the reason why we desperately try to dispensationalize the Sermon on the Mount, so that we do not have to try to live by its teachings? A faith that is firm does not fear to live in such a way that only God can be given the glory.
What a lesson this must have been to the ancient Israelites who received the law of God from the author of Genesis. While God gave Israel the law, He did so to provide a standard of righteousness which would convince men of their sinfulness, of their need of a sacrifice, and their need of a Savior Who would pay the penalty for their sins and provide the righteousness they could not produce for themselves by the work of their hands.
Jacob’s actions were wrong for another reason, I believe. While Jacob was willing to keep his deception within the law, his actions taught others to try to get ahead by stepping outside the law. This is what happened, I believe, to Rachel. She had learned well from her husband. She stole Laban’s household gods (verse 19), but in the very next verse we are told that “Jacob stole the heart of Laban …” (verse 20, margin, NASV). The same Hebrew word is employed for the acts of Rachel and Jacob. Do you think this is a coincidence? I do not. Jacob stole the heart of Laban but barely within the letter of the law. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, just outside the law. She did not see the fine distinctions of her husband. Our deception, even if within the law, leads others to go beyond us.
Finally, Jacob’s actions here remind me that one may be doing the will of God but in a way that is offensive to the character of God. God had commanded Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of promise (verse 3). In this sense Jacob was doing God’s will for his life. But he was not doing the will of God in God’s way. Sometimes we get so caught up in the fact that what we are doing is right that we forget to ask if how we are doing God’s will is right. Our methods must always be consistent with our Master if our actions will be honoring to Him.
The end does not justify the means. We are to be obedient to God in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. And we should never forget what a big God we serve!
Tomorrow's scripture focus: Genesis 32