Jacob says to Laban, “‘These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. If 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.’ …So, Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac” (Genesis 31:41-42, 53).
“The Fear of Isaac” is a rather strange designation. It is used only here in Genesis 31:42, 53 in the entire Bible. Why does Jacob use this designation for his father, Isaac? Archaeologist Emile Puech suggests it is “to be understood as a principal attribute of the god of Isaac, whose protective power sows terror among all his enemies” (Puech, 780). This seems to fit the intended meaning of Jacob who is attempting to invoke the fear of God in Laban.
For 20 years, Laban cheated Jacob for his labour. Despite Laban’s unfairness, Jacob has still prospered, which he attributes to Yahweh, whom he calls the Fear of Isaac. It is this God who instills terrors in people’s hearts, Jacob says, who “saw my affliction and the labour of my hands and rebuked you last night.” And it is by this fearful God whom Jacob swears will judge between them (v. 53).
We don’t know how God judged between them because the last we hear of Laban is in vv. 51-55 when Jacob and Laban make some sort of covenant with each other. When their final exchange ends, “Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country. Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home” (vv. 54-55).
So, what’s the point of this account? Luther brings us to contrast the two men, Jacob and Laban:
…Isaiah understood this passage when he calls God our dread or fear, namely, on account of the worship which is offered to God according to His precepts and promises, not only with the lips, as hypocrites fear and worship, without the Word and on the basis of the commandments of men. Jacob, accordingly, sacrifices with this faith and confession, which a hypocrite does not do. It seems to the latter that he is too good and too holy to have need of making a sacrifice and invocation to God, for he justifies his iniquities. But Jacob gives thanks to God; he sacrifices and prepares a banquet, which was required for a sacrifice; he calls his friends together and undoubtedly preaches a sermon here. Laban paid no attention to the sacrifice, although, perhaps, he joined the others in the banquet. But Jacob praises God and the Fear of his father, that is, Christ, because he was liberated from that scoundrel. When the banquet was over, Laban departed. We are also now rid of the miserable rascal!
But before he departs, the hypocrite kisses his sons and daughters not with a paternal love and affection but with a certain show of humanity and attachment observed for fashion’s sake in the customs and conventions of all the nations. For he dismisses them without any remuneration. He takes leave of them in words, but inwardly in his heart he nourishes ill will and the most bitter hatred, in which he cannot even refrain from begrudging them the things which they had acquired by God’s blessing and without his gift. These, then, are two contrary pictures, that of a most cruel hypocrite who sins without end and is an example of all crimes, idolatry, hypocrisy, avarice, and final impenitence, and that of an excellent and saintly man, who had a conflict on his hands for such a long time with a monster of this kind.LW 6:86
In short, the point is to differentiate between Laban, the scoundrel and hypocrite, and Jacob, the honest saint. Laban’s life was a life of mischief and hypocrisy, even in the worship of God. The Christian life is to differ from this and, rather, to be genuine like Jacob’s faith. The genuine Christian, unlike Laban, does not merely go through the motions of Christian life and worship. It is a life of sincere faith, including genuine practices like repentance (which is the proper exercise of the fear of God), lament, and praise.
The hypocritical Christian goes to church merely for the sake of going to church—church to them is simply a country club instead of the local Body of Christ. They have a punch card mentality where they come to church, punch their card (attend service), and leave. They have a me, myself, and I mentality—the false trinity. Their narcissistic church attendance is no different than the drunkard who attends the local bar. Indeed, there is even the worst hypocrite who invents all sorts of devilish excuses that they don’t need to come to church to worship their God with the community of saints.
The genuine Christian, on the other hand, lives organically within the Body of Christ in faithful reception of the Sacraments and engagement with the body of believers in fellowship, Bible study, and service to one another in love and humility. Being the church is not about themselves; rather, it is about loving God and neighbour.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Volume 6: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.
Puech, Emile. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. “Fear of Isaac.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Translated by Sarah Lind. New York: Doubleday, 1992.