The God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, Jacob, and Us

The God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, Jacob, and Us

As we saw last week, after the LORD appeared to Jacob and told him to return to the land of his father, letting him know that he would be with him,[1] Jacob obeyed him. He sent for his wives, Rachel and Leah, and recounted the work he had done for their father. He also let them know that the LORD had disclosed to him that God was the one who had caused Jacob’s flock to prosper and now it was time for him to return home.[2] The women readily agreed and they all made ready to set out for the land of Canaan where Isaac, Jacob’s father, lived.

Our passage in verse 19 then picks up with the narrative as we’re told, “When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods.” This is a striking statement for it would appear that at this point in her life Rachel still followed the gods of her father, Laban. As one commentator suggests, “Rachel was not yet free of her pagan background (see 35:2; Jos 24:2).”[3] Another similarly observes, “Unlike Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel had not given up her pagan idols or ethics (vv. 34, 35; 35:2).”[4]

What is more, verses 20–21, although Jacob and his wives had agreed to leave Laban, “Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. 21 So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead.”[5] By not informing Laban that he was leaving, Jacob had yet again lived up to his name[6] by deceiving his father-in-law, fleeing him like an outlaw. It’s interesting to consider that as Jacob had once fled from his brother Esau and left his homeland, now he fled from Laban as he returned back to that homeland.

When on “the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled,” verse 22, Laban took his relatives and “pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead,” verse 23. So we see that around ten days after Jacob left him, Laban caught up with him. And though we’re not told what Laban had hoped to do once he caught up with Jacob, we are told, verse 24, “Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’” This phrase “good or bad” is another way of saying that Laban ought not enter into a dispute with or press any claim against Jacob.[7] By way of this revelation to Laban, a man who didn’t worship him, we see how God was with Jacob in protecting him just as he had promised. We saw this happen before when the LORD protected Sarah by warning Abimelek, a king who similarly didn’t worship him, not to touch her when Abraham had claimed she was his sister rather than his wife.[8]

Now though Laban heeded God’s warning and didn’t dispute with Jacob or press any claim against him, he did take him to task for leaving him unawares. Laban’s speech to Jacob is recorded beginning with verse 26:

What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. 27 Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrels and harps? 28 You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. 29 I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” 30 Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?

Now in this recounting Laban made a number of dubious claims. For one, as we’ve already noted, his daughters weren’t taken as “captives in war” but rather Rachel and Leah had gone willingly with Jacob.[9] And though it may not have been right for Jacob to “run off secretly and deceive” Laban, it’s highly unlikely that had Jacob let him know he was leaving that Laban would have sent him away “with joy and singing to the music of timbrels and harps.” As we saw last week, Laban and his sons were none too happy with Jacob by this point. Lastly, and legitimately, Laban asked why Jacob had stolen his gods, that is, the idols he considered to be gods.

Jacob’s initial response to all of this is found in verses 31–32: “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. 32 But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Jacob was probably correct in his assessment of Laban for six years earlier Laban hadn’t wanted Jacob to leave. For again, here at the end of those six years, the formerly positive attitude that Laban and his sons had had towards Jacob had changed. [10] Therefore we can understand why he feared that Laban might take his wives—and possibly his possessions—by force. But before saying anything further, Jacob encouraged Laban to search and see if he could find any of his possessions among the things Jacob had brought with him. And he made a rash promise—never a wise idea—that anyone who had stolen Laban’s gods would not live. An editorial note then adds that Jacob didn’t know that Rachel, his favorite wife, “had stolen the gods.” The tension, therefore, mounts for if the gods Rachel had stolen were found, she would be put to death by the rash pronouncement declared from the mouth of her own husband.

Now as noted in verse 33,[11] Laban found nothing in the tents of Jacob, Leah, or their female servants (Jacob’s concubines), Zilpah[12] and Bilhah.[13] When he then arrived at Rachel’s tent, he was equally unsuccessful[14]—not because the gods weren’t there but because she had hidden them in the camel’s saddle upon which she sat.[15] In order to explain why she remained seated as he entered, Rachel lied to her father saying, verse 35, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.”—and I confess that I prefer the more genteel translation, “The way of women is upon me”![16] Be that as it may, in this instance it wasn’t Jacob who was the deceiver but his wife, Rachel. And the fact that she was able to literally sit upon these “gods” indicates just how powerless they really were.

Well, upon seeing that Laban hadn’t found any stolen possessions, Jacob became angry in light of his own innocence, verses 36–37.[17] He then went on to recount all of the injustices he had suffered at Laban’s hand, expanding upon what he had told Rachel and Leah after the LORD appeared to him and told him to return back to Canaan, the land of his father Isaac.[18] Beginning with verse 38, we read how Jacob said to Laban,

38 I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 39 I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. 40 This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times.

Jacob essentially confronted Laban’s righteous indignation over his leaving without informing him with his own indignation and list of grievances. He pointed out how:

For the past twenty years, Laban’s sheep and goats hadn’t miscarried nor had Jacob eaten from the rams—i.e., the male sheep—from his flock (verse 38);

What is more, Jacob had borne the loss of any animals that had been attacked by wild beasts;

Not only that but Laban had required payment for any stolen animals—a circumstance beyond Jacob’s control (verse 39);

Jacob, who was first introduced in Genesis 25 as being “content to stay at home among the tents,”[19] then told Laban how for the past twenty years as he worked seven years for each of his daughters and six years for his flocks—during which time Laban continuously changed the terms of his wages (verse 41)—“The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes” (verse 40). It had been a long time since the days when Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.

But for Jacob the bright light in all of this was the sustenance he had received from the LORD who had first appeared to him at Bethel.[20] For as recorded in verse 42 Jacob went on to testify, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” Jacob—the convert on his way to a full-fledged faith in the LORD—here acknowledged that but for God’s watching over him, Laban would have left him without anything to show for the twenty years he had worked. Yet because, true to his character the omniscient and just and true God knows everything, he had seen Jacob’s hardship and toil and had rebuked Laban on his behalf.

That Jacob was correct in his initial assessment of his father-in-law is suggested in verse 43 as Laban responded, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne?”[21] The fact that Laban claimed that his daughters, grandchildren, and Jacob’s flocks or “all you see” legitimately belonged to him rather than Jacob indicates that he would indeed have sent Jacob away empty-handed if he had been given the chance. However, Laban admitted defeat in verse 44 as he suggested that he and Jacob make a covenant, recounted in verses 45–53.[22]

This covenant was memorialized by two things: a pillar set up by Jacob and stones piled up in a heap by his relatives—hence they were called “Jegar Sahadutha” by Laban, and “Galeed” by Jacob, respectively reflecting the Aramaic and Hebrew for “witness heap” (verse 47). Since the heap was referred to as a witness between the two men, it was further called “Mizpah” meaning watchtower (verses 48–49).[23] One commentator offers an interesting observation concerning these two markers, suggesting that “The creation of two witnesses may have been intended to underline the seriousness of the oath. More likely, the two witnesses reflect in some way the deities worshiped by Jacob and Laban. Jacob’s single stone stands in marked contrast to the heap of stones set up by Laban and his relatives. Jacob’s monotheistic faith is set alongside the polytheism of Laban.”[24] These witnesses then served as boundary markers between Laban and Jacob’s territories—as well as between Laban’s gods and the God of Abraham, the Fear of Isaac, who was with Jacob.

Next, verse 53 records how Laban proclaimed, “May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” In using this language, it’s possible, as noted by one scholar, that Laban “regarded the God of Abraham as one of the gods of his family.”[25] (Since Abraham and Nahor were brothers, sons of Terah who “worshiped other gods.)[26] But for his part, “Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.” The same source suggests that the distinction Jacob made was intentional: “Not equating the God of Abraham with the God Nahor, Jacob swore by the ‘Fear of his father Isaac’…another name for the God of Abraham.”[27] With this, the men offered a sacrifice, verse 54, invited their relatives to a meal, and afterwards slept there. Last we’re told, verse 55, “Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.”

In turning to our New Testament passage from Acts 10, we see that as Jacob had referred to the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, fear continues to play an important role in faith. This chapter in Acts presents us with the conversion of the last people group that Jesus had told his disciples about before he ascended to heaven after having risen from the dead. As recorded in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus promised his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[28] This is precisely what plays out in the book of Acts. Starting with chapter 2, the Holy Spirit fell upon Jewish believers from all nations at the festival of Pentecost; by the time we arrive at chapter 10 we see how the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius who represents the Gentiles, “the ends of the earth.”

At this point in the account of Cornelius’ conversion, the Lord had appeared to both him and to Peter, providentially bringing them together. But for God’s urging Peter, a letter-of-the-law Jewish follower of Jesus, would never have had any dealings with Gentiles. Notice that the first thing he said to the large gathering of people at Cornelius’ home was, verses 28–29, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (emphasis added.)

Yet upon hearing Cornelius’ testimony, dear Peter replied with what is recorded in verses 34–35 in our passage: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Did you catch that? God doesn’t show favoritism but willingly embraces those who turn to him for acceptance.[29] The criteria Peter provides for being accepted by God are, first, that we fear him. Now in speaking of the fear of God, whether the “Fear of Isaac,” the God of Abraham, or the fear of the triune God in general, the sense is that of having great awe and reverence in his presence. Therefore, to fear God, we must first believe in him for how can one fear—how can one express awe and reverence—unless they first believe in God? And belief in God, as Paul states in Romans 10, occurs “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”[30]

Second, if we have believed in him, then we will do what is right. We will do what is right, we will do as he says, because we do fear him; because we express awe and reverence before him. Speaking of our dear risen Lord Jesus, Peter goes on to testify, beginning in verse 41, “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” And as Peter was saying this, verses 44­–45, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.” That is, even upon Cornelius and the large group that had gathered at his home. And this was all because they feared God and sought to do what is right.

Now as to Laban, he followed his own gods. He may have feared the one true God, but he didn’t do what was right for he chose to worship his own idols rather than the God who had made him. But make no mistake, if down the road Laban did choose to do what was right, God would embrace him with open arms.

But Jacob was well on his way to complete faith for he increasingly came not only to fear God but also to do what was right, that is, to obey what God told him to do. Jacob the deceiver was being changed into Jacob the believer by the God who, twenty years earlier, had first appeared to him at Bethel. For Jacob was part of the Messianic line through whom Christ Jesus, Messiah Jesus, would one day come. Jacob was part of the Messianic line through whom Christ Jesus, Messiah Jesus, would one day bless not only the Jewish nation but, as God had promised Abraham,[31] all nations. This is why Cornelius—and you—and I who was born in Cuba, are part of the “all nations” that Christ came to save. Therefore, Cornelius and all who believe in and receive Christ are now part of the eternal family of our heavenly Father as evidenced by his claiming us for his own by sealing and indwelling us with his Holy Spirit.[32]

Therefore, dear sisters and brothers, let us express our awe and reverence before the God of Abraham, the fear of Isaac;

Let us thank him for sending his Son, Christ Jesus, Messiah Jesus, to live, suffer, die, and rise from death for us and our salvation;

Let us rejoice in the fact that by the Holy Spirit he has given us, everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name;

And let us follow Paul’s exhortation and now live “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, [and] clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 [Let us] Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of [us] has a grievance against someone. [Let us] Forgive as the Lord forgave [us]. 14 And over all these virtues [let us] put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”[33]

Let us pray.

Benediction: Colossians 3:12–14: 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.


[1] Genesis 31:3: Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

[2] Genesis 31:10–13: 10 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

[3] The Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:19. The passages referenced state: Genesis 35:2: So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.; Joshua 24:2: Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.

[4] The Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:19. The passage referenced states: Genesis 35:2: So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.

[5] According to the Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:21, the hill country of Gilead was several hundred miles south of Paddan-Aram, to the east of the Jordan River. The Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on this same verse further observes that Gilead was “an area of exceptionally good grazing land southeast of the Sea of Galilee (see Nu 32:1)….”

[6] The name Jacob means he grasps the heel, a Hebrew idiom for he deceives.

[7] Zondervan NIV Bible Study note on Genesis 31:24.

[8] Genesis 20:3–7:But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” See also sermon preached on June 21, 2020, Trusting God’s Provident Protection, on Genesis 12:10–13:4.

[9] Genesis 31:14–16: 14 Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? 15 Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. 16 Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”

[10] Genesis 31:1–2: 1 Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.

[11] “So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent.”

[12] Genesis 29:24: And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.

[13] Genesis 29:29: Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her attendant.

[14] As stated at the end of verse 35, “So [Laban] searched but could not find the household gods.”

[15] Genesis 31:34: Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.

[16] RSV, ESV. KJV states “the custom of women is upon me.”

[17] Genesis 31:36–37: 36 Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? 37 Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us.

[18] See Genesis 31:5–9:He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

[19] Genesis 25:27.

[20] Genesis 28:13–15: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

[21] Emphases added.

[22] Genesis 31:45–53: 45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. 48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. 49 It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50 If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.” 51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, 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. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.”

[23] The Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:47–49 states that Mizpah “became the name of a settlement north of the Jabbok River; it was the hometown of Jephthah (see Judg. 11:11). The name ‘Mizpah’ was also given to an important city located on the boundary between Israel and Judah, 8 miles…northwest of Jersusalem (see Judges 20).”

[24] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:45–46.

[25] The Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:53 states in full: “The pagan Laban apparently regarded the God of Abraham as one of the gods of his family. Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, had probably been a moon-worshiper in Ur (11:27 note; Josh. 24:14).”

[26] See Joshua 24:2–5:Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt.; Genesis 11:26–27: 26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. 27 This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.

[27] Also from the Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 31:53.

[28] Acts 1:8.

[29] See also: Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.; Romans 2:9–11: There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.”; Therefore, James 2:1: My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.

[30] Romans 10:9. Emphasis added.

[31] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[32] 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[33] Colossians 3:12–14.