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God Watch Between Me and Thee

By Reverend Laurie DeMott

November 11, 2007

It is traditional in most Christian worships to end the service with a benediction and in some churches that benediction time becomes part of a cherished custom. When I was growing up, my church always sang a benediction set to the tune of Edelweiss, a tradition that ended only when Roger Hammerstein’s family began threatening lawsuits against all churches using their copyrighted tune. Many of our long-time members can still recite a prayer that Rick Bergren, a former pastor of this church, used as a Benediction: “And now may the Spirit of Him whose love is eternal, be within you to refresh you, Above you to bless you, Around you to protect you, Beneath you to bear you up, Before you to lead you on, One God, world without end. Amen.” For the last several years, I’ve used a form of a Gaelic benediction, not because I’m Irish (which I’m not) but because I feel it is an appropriate Benediction as we enter what some refer to as the Ecological age of Christianity, a time when the church is expanding our understanding of God to include all parts of creation.

Benedictions often function, then, as more than simple prayers of blessing: they can capture the character of a congregation or its minister, summarize a worship, or convey a specific understanding about our relationship to God.

When Laban uttered his words of “Benediction” to Jacob, he chose words that he believed would create a certain type of bond between Jacob, himself, and God. The words Laban chose were powerful, words that most of us hear in the King James Version – “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,” – and those words touch that deep part of the human heart that always feels a certain anxiety when we are parted from loved ones. “If I can’t be with you to watch over you,” we want to say, “then let me take comfort in knowing that God is watching over you.” Laban’s words became known in Judaism as the Mizpah blessing and have been likewise adopted by generations of Christians often as benedictions in their own worship services.. Lyndon Johnson’s mother often wrote the single word, “Mizpah”, on the back of her letters to her son as a shorthand way of letting him know she was keeping him in her prayers.

These words have given millions of people comfort and may be some of the best known words in the entire Genesis saga and so it is a surprise that when we go to the source of these words and read them in their original context, we find that when Laban said these words to Jacob, he didn’t have any warm fuzzy feelings in his heart and he certainly wasn’t at all concerned about Jacob’s welfare. Laban wasn’t calling upon God to watch over Jacob as a protective guardian angel but was calling upon God to watch over Jacob like a probation officer making sure that Jacob stayed on the straight and narrow.

One biblical scholar writes (in a tone of obvious frustration), “Careless reading of the Word of God has made this statement familiar to millions in a totally false application. That it should be engraved on rings, made the motto of a youth organization, and used for a benediction to close a meeting is preposterous. It did not stand for blessing, communion, and fellowship; rather it indicates armistice, separation, menace, and warning.”

Rather than the warm sentimental tones in which we today pronounce Laban’s words, his actual meaning finds a better parallel in another contemporary and forthright Irish benediction: “May those that love us love us, and those that don't love us, may God turn their hearts. And if God doesn't turn their hearts, may God turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping.”

Laban tells Jacob, “I may not be able to keep an eye on you every moment but never forget that God sees everything you do and will remember it.” And Jacob, not cowed by Laban’s warning, throws it back at him and says, “Yes, and God will keep an eye on you as well.” And so in their mutual distrust, they together erect a mizpah – a pillar of stones representing a guardpost to remind everyone to be on their best behavior because God is always watching.

One of my favorite stories from my son’s childhood occurred when John was about eleven years old. I had gone to a conference and left him with my parents for a few days and one night, I called him to see how things were going. As we chatted, I mentioned that that evening I was going with some friends to check out a local casino. I don’t really enjoy casinos because I’m not a gambler but this night my friends really wanted to go so they had convinced me to come along. As I told my plans to John, I suggested that I might even be extravagant and play a few slot machines. John said solemnly, “Well, just remember the eye in the sky that never sleeps.” Taken aback by John’s deep theological awareness, I said, “I’m sure God will forgive a few quarters,” to which John responded, “I don’t mean God. I mean the security cameras!” (He’d obviously been watching too many reality cop shows.)

Our image of God easily embraces a God who is like a scout always watching the horizon for any on-coming danger but every now and then the Bible reminds us that God is also the eye in the sky that never sleeps, the eye focused squarely on us because God knows that often our worst enemy is not something over the horizon but something within ourselves. Laban and Jacob had spent over a decade engaged in a battle of wills marked by deceit and mistrust. Similar in character, both Laban and Jacob were naturally competitive and their first impulse was always to cheat their way through to victory over the other. Their constant desire for dominance led eventually to a complete rupture of the family, and exhausted by their own machinations, pushed to the edge of hatred and despair, the two men realize finally that they must call a truce. They set up the guardpost of stones to watch over each other and they look to God to constrain the spiraling deceit that has marked their relationship. Although we have read chapter upon chapter of Jacob’s conniving ways, after this moment in which Jacob and Laban consent to the watchful eye of God, Jacob appears to be a reformed man. No more deal making, no more dishonesty – instead from here on out Jacob becomes the caring husband, brother, father, and the faithful man of God.

Did Jacob suddenly develop a peaceful nature here at Galeed? Did his personality suddenly lose all of its competitiveness? Maybe, but I think it is more likely that Jacob, having been warned by Laban that the eye of God was upon him, finally learned to check his natural inclinations and think twice before he acted.

I have said it many times, and I will say it again, “Faithful discipleship has nothing to do with your first impulse; it has everything to do with your second impulse.” If being a person of faith meant becoming naturally compassionate, generous, kind-hearted, and easily moved to love, most of us would be doomed because we may just not have been born with such high quality genes. You may have been born more like Jacob, inclined to competition or with a tendency to think first of your own desires. Or you may have grown up in an environment that taught you to mistrust others. Or you may have been abused as children or had a devastating experience that hampered your inclination toward sympathy. If the quality of our faith depended on the natural character of our personalities, few of us could claim the name of Christian. The Bible assures us, however, that the quality of your discipleship and the measure of your conviction to Christ reveals itself not in the first inclinations of your heart and mind but in that which follows upon its heels. Being a Christian is what happens in those moments between your first natural impulse and your decision to act. Being a Christian is all about your second impulse that arises from the knowledge that God is watching what you do.

Sam Donaldson, who was ABC’s White House Correspondent during several presidential administrations, jokes about his often testy relationship with presidents of both parties. He tells of one time when he was traveling with President Jimmy Carter to a small village in India which was exploring creative methods to meet its energy needs. Outside of the town, the villagers had dug a large pit into which they threw their cows’ manure which then produced enough methane gas to provide electricity to the village. As the reporters and the officials with Carter all stood on the lip of this manure pit inspecting the process, Donaldson joked, “If I fell in, you'd pull me out wouldn't you, Mr. President?”

“Certainly,” Carter replied. Then he paused and added, “after a suitable interval.”

The prayer of Mizpah forged between Jacob and Laban reminds us that it is not our first impulse that God cares about; it is our second impulse shaped by the knowledge that God is watching and desires goodness from us. God is the eye in the sky watching between me and thee to ensure that we work to resist those natural inclinations of our hearts that may be destructive to ourselves and others and act only on our second more faithful impulse for good.

Frederick Buechner writes, “Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have.... Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely, but Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against anything in us that diminishes our joy.”

As we come to this table today, may we come with the distinctly discomforting sense that we come under the watchful eye of our God who sees us with a terrible clarity and calls us to lay down those natural impulses to selfishness, anger, competition, and despair, and act instead on our second impulse shaped by the goodness of Christ’s love for others.

These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39That which was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself; of my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42If 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 labour of my hands, and rebuked you last night.’
Laban and Jacob Make a Covenant43 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. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? 44Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.’ 45So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. 46And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, ‘Gather stones,’ and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap. 47Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha:* but Jacob called it Galeed.* 48Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ Therefore he called it Galeed, 49and the pillar* Mizpah,* for he said, ‘The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. 50If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.’
51 Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. 53May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor’—the God of their father—‘judge between us.’ So Jacob swore by the Fear* of his father Isaac, 54and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country.
55 *Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.