The popular Ghanaian Adventist greeting Mizpah is spoken at the end of meetings of the saints. It is used as an expression of brotherly love and belief in God’s protection between meetings. It is a statement of faith that God will bring together again those who are parting, at the next meeting. The greeting is derived from Genesis 31. In the passage, Laban and Jacob name a heap of stones Mizpah, because, as Laban said, it symbolised that God would watch between them when they were absent from each other.
Genesis 31:48, 49:
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.
I have for a long time wondered curiously why people would choose this word for a greeting. On the face of it, it sounds like a positive word with a positive meaning. My own study over the last three or four years (for I have come back to this study many times in the period) reveals otherwise.
The declaration is made in the context of a serious disagreement between the two men. Without recounting all the (well-known) details, there is suspicion, anger, and distrust involved.
Cease Fire or I Love You?
To many readers, it appears as though there is a reconciliation because the two “did eat there upon the heap” vs 46. However, when one considers the ensuing dialogue, as well as the customs of the ancient Near-Easterners, the meal was at best a covenant of peace (and in this case the cessation of intended hostilities), rather than a testament of affection.
For early Jews and much of the Near-Eastern civilisation, eating together was and still is a symbol of peace. It does, as well, symbolise love between the parties, but this cannot always be assumed, as the activity may be employed for either or both purposes depending on the prevailing circumstances. In the New Testament, eating the body of Christ (John 6:49 – 51) symbolises believing in Jesus, by which means we end our war with Him through sin (Ephesians 2:14, Colossians 1:20) and enter the covenant of Peace (Isaiah 54:5 – 10, Ezekiel 37:26, Romans 5:1, etc.). Obedience to the law reveals the love which keeps us in good standing in the covenant (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14, etc.).
Before the meal, Laban had been given a dream (v 24) in which he was told simply to neither accuse nor excuse Jacob. Did he arrive at Jacob’s camp with a change of heart towards him? Mark his words:
Genesis 31:29: “It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.”
Clearly, Laban does not say that God cleared up the matter for him. The dream did not explain that Jacob was innocent of his uncle’s accusations. Laban was not convinced that his pursuit of Jacob was morally unjustified. He was simply told to leave it alone. Without explanation, and with peremptory force, he was essentially told “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.” (1 Chronicles 16:22). Laban’s suspicions were not ended by the dream. They were overruled by Divine fiat.
Indeed, it appears that while Laban heeded the warning by not directly condemning Jacob, he could not be restrained from accusing him still. From vs 26 to 28, and 36 to 42, the two men engage in what the New Bible Commentary has described as “charge and counter charge” before their amicable parting.
After their meal his words are telling of the exact sentiment in his heart. Indeed, in the same monologue in which he names the heap of their meal Mizpah, he explains the intent behind the christening:
49 And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. 50 If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee. 51 And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; 52 This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm.
In vs 49, Laban asks God to watch between them while they are absent one form another. This is an important phrase. He is concerned with the uncertainty about what each party, particularly Jacob, whom he feels has tricked him, may be up to when the other is not watching. He is hoping that God will keep Jacob faithful to the terms, not safe from evil per se. Essentially, Laban declares: “Let’s call this a watchtower,” (which is what the word means: an observatory, especially for military purposes:—watch tower. Strong’s Concordance 4707), “because God will watch from here between us, and ensure we both honour this agreement.”
Why must God watch?
1. You may harm my daughters: After their altercation, Laban could not be sure that Jacob would not mette his fury out on his wives, Laban’s daughters, as indirect retribution. This was a common practice in those days, where the family members of one’s enemy were fair game when direct revenge was not possible or adequate.
2. You may marry other wives: Apparently, part of Laban’s strict marriage agreement with Jacob was not only that he would work seven years each for Leah and Rachael, but also that he would marry no others. If Jacob fell out of love with them because of this family feud, then marrying other wives became more likely, and Laban was not convinced that Jacob would be faithful without a strong oath.
3. The pillar: In vs 46, Jacob asks his servants to build the heap of stones. In vs 52 Laban erects his own pillar. Why did he do this? Monuments were often erected to claim ownership or rulership of territory. The Patriarchs did so to define the territories of their sojourn and of the Promised Land on behalf of God (as in Bethel) and kings did so to declare their dominion after conquests.
For Laban, it was not enough that Jacob had a heap there – indeed, it was dangerous – for it could be mistaken as the centre of a dominion stretching outwards from it and possibly into Laban’s territory. Laban erected his own pillar, likely some space from Jacob’s heap, to define a sort of no-man’s-land, and thereby protect his own territory from a future invasion he clearly thought possible, if not likely.
4. For harm: This phrase says it all. It can be understood in a number of ways. It could mean, “To cause harm” or “At risk of harm/at one’s own peril”. Either way, the sentiment is not very reassuring of trust. The first says, “I don’t trust you” and the second, “I am warning you.” Neither declares, “I love you dearly”.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the two men parted amicably, one might even say as allies, but certainly not as friends. They made a peace treaty with their heap and pillar, declared a military buffer zone and erected a guard post for the Lord, Who was to be the sentinel soldier to guard agains a breach of the agreement. At least Laban was very clear with his continued distrust of his nephew, and relied only on the God Whom he knew Jacob believed in to stay his nephew’s hand from future provocation and keep his daughters safe.
Mizpah, then, is a symbol of God’s watching between, not over the two men. There is a big difference. In our greetings, we clearly imply the latter, but in my view this is not the spirit of the word’s original purpose. Mizpah makes God a perpetual ombudsman of a life-long conflict. It makes Him the arbiter of unending distrust and suspicion.
May we want to reconsider our use of this term, or do we rather intend to reclaim it for our more friendly 21st Century purposes? I personally never make a big fuss of it. I do not respond to the greeting, as many are aware, because I have my doubts about this application of a Biblically derived (but in my view misconstrued) word. I do not prevent or judge those who do, because clearly the intent is pure, and God is invited to watch over, for peace, rather than between, for harm.