The Mizpah covenant.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 April

Genesis 31.48-49.

When I was a kid, and people hadn’t yet figured out how to use the internet for shopping, my family got the Sears catalog. Basically it was a 500-page, full-color, softcover book. It’d contain every single thing Sears sold—particularly stuff you couldn’t find in its stores, but thanks to the catalog you could order it by phone. Then wait 4 weeks for it to be delivered. Yep, a month. Sometimes longer. (Anyone who’s nostalgic for “the good old days” is a moron.)

A typical mizpah coin.

When bored I’d browse the things. Usually the toys. But next to the toy section was the jewelry section, and among the baubles Sears offered were mizpah coins. Maybe you’ve seen them too… or maybe half of one. They’re meant for couples. The coin is split in two, and one partner gets one half, the other t’other. You have to put them together to read the entire verse:

Genesis 31.48-49 KJV
48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; 49 and Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.

Aww, how romantic. May God watch over us when we’re apart.

Except in context, it’s not at all romantic. Laban and Jacob didn’t make a pile of stones and swear this oath because they were gonna miss one another, and want each other to be safe. It was because they didn’t trust one another. For good reason: Both those guys were lying, scheming weasels.

If you have the context of this verse in mind, giving it to your significant other kinda means you don’t trust your significant other. Which is why you gotta invoke the LORD. He’s gotta watch over your partner, because for all you know, your partner’s banging their way through every bar in the state. And, like Jacob or Laban, totally lying to you about everything, and they have no idea why it burns when you urinate. Probably something you did.

The funny thing about most people is it often doesn’t matter if they know the context: They’ll still totally quote it out of context anyway. I’ve known preachers who taught, in great detail, on the seriously dysfunctional relationships Jacob had with his family. They know all about why Laban and Jacob made their mizpah pile. And yet they and their spouses wear mizpah coins… because that’s not what they mean with their mizpah coins. Well if that’s not what you mean, stop referencing bible!

But enough ranting. Let’s get to the actual context.

Untrustworthy men; totally trustworthy God.

Jacob is the second son of Isaac ben Abraham, whom the LORD later renamed Israel. Yep, the Israelis are descended from him; the 13 tribes are named for his 11 sons and two grandsons. He’s kind of a big deal.

Customarily the eldest son would inherit the patriarchy from his father, but Genesis tells two stories of Jacob scheming to get the birthright away from his slightly-elder twin brother Esau. First he traded Esau lentil stew for his birthright. Ge 25.29-34 Next—and far less honestly—Jacob disguised himself as Esau so his near-blind father would grant him Esau’s irrevocable birthright-type blessing. Ge 27 This pissed Esau off to the point he meant to murder Jacob, and to keep him alive, Jacob’s mother got her husband to send Jacob to her family in Paddán-Arám, ostensibly to find a Hebrew wife. (Esau had two Canaanite wives, and the family did not get along with ’em.)

In Paddán-Arám, Jacob fell immediately, and hard, for his first cousin Rachel bat Laban. (Eww.) He had no wealth to speak of, so Laban got him to agree to seven years of labor in exchange for Rachel. A typical dowry in the ancient middle east was 30 sheqels of silver, and a typical labor was a sheqel a month, so properly that’s about four years of labor, not seven; but Jacob was too lovestruck to haggle. But then Laban swapped out Rachel for his other daughter Leah on their wedding night, and by the time Jacob discovered the switch it was too late; they’d had sex, so they were married. If Jacob wanted Rachel as a second wife, it was gonna cost him another seven years. Laban got 14 years labor out of Jacob; 10 years more than Jacob should’ve reasonably expected. Ge 29 Obviously Jacob met a superior con artist.

After that, Jacob worked for wages. Which Laban kept changing; likely decreasing, ’cause “expenses.” So Jacob came up with a scheme where he finally came out ahead: Laban gave him all the striped and speckled goats, and the brown sheep, as wages. Jacob did some weird folk-medicine thing with sticks which got his own animals to breed more. Ge 30 Once Laban’s sons objected that Jacob was getting too prosperous, the LORD informed Jacob that maybe now was the time to go back to Canaan. So he did… but because he didn’t inform Laban, much less get his permission as his patriarch, Laban came after him. Ge 31 After all, Laban’s attitude was, “These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine.” Ge 31.43 KJV He didn’t see Jacob as his nephew or son-in-law; just a subject he could exploit.

But the LORD told Laban to leave Jacob be, Ge 31.24 and Laban did heed the LORD, if no one else. He wouldn’t just leave Jacob alone though; he wanted a covenant which stipulated Jacob would care for his daughters, and marry no one else, Ge 31.50 and that neither would invade or attack the other. Ge 31.52 They put up memorial stones, offered a sacrifice, ate together, and that was that.

Laban called the stones יְגַר שַׂהֲדוּתָא/yegár šahadúta, Aramaic for “witness pile [of rocks],” and by Jacob גַּלְעֵד/galéd, Hebrew for the very same thing—“witness pile.” The word מִצְפָּה/michpá (KJV “Mizpah”), “watchtower,” is another thing the place is called, from Laban’s oath, “The LORD watch between me and thee.” Ge 31.49 There’s where we get the name for those broken coins—and no, nobody breaks a coin in half anywhere in the Jacob/Laban story. Not even in Jewish mythology.

There’s the context. Using Mizpah as a name for cemeteries, for jewelry, for oaths or any other promises to stay together, with the LORD watching over us to keep us safe: It has nothing to do with Jacob and Laban’s relationship. That’s about a control-freak father-in-law wanting some form of petty victory when it turned out he wasn’t getting his way that day. And I would hope our romantic relationships aren’t as messed up as Jacob and Laban’s relationship; yikes.