Comments Off on Mizpah

Every week at the Sunday School I attended as a child, the superintendent closed our brief worship service with the same words.

“Let’s all join in the Mizpah Benediction.”  Then we would recite, in lyrical King James English: The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another.

I have no doubt that our superintendent, a good and gracious man, felt confident he was teaching us a verse of scripture that embodied this heartfelt wish:  “Everybody, may God watch over you and bless you until we all meet here again next Sunday morning.” 

A similar sentiment is associated with the popular piece of jewelry called the Mizpah pendant.  It is typically shaped like a coin that has been cut in two along a zigzag line.  The two parts of the pendant have individual necklaces, so a pair of friends or siblings or spouses can each wear one-half of the same “the Lord watch between me and thee” verse.  The words have come to connote an unbreakable emotional bond during times of separation.

There are more than a few “Mizpah Cemeteries,” and numerous poignant references to Mizpah on headstones.  We’re absent from each other for a little while; may God watch over us until we meet again.

This is perfectly lovely.  And we have good reasons for believing that God does indeed watch over his people during times of separation. 

But one of those reasons is not rooted in Genesis 31:49, aka the “Mizpah verse.”  Let’s do a little digging into the original context. 

Jacob, the grandson of Abraham – and thus one of the key figures in biblical history – had a major struggle with taking things that didn’t belong to him.  His very name, Ya’akov in Hebrew, may be loosely translated, “He who comes alongside but wants to jump out in front.”  We could simply call him Grabber.  Jacob was the twin brother of Esau, who by virtue of being born a few minutes earlier was in line to receive the dual priceless gifts of his family’s birthright and his father’s blessing.  Jacob the Grabber managed to steal both.

Subversively aided and abetted by their mother (Esau really could say what Tommy Smothers always said to his brother: “Mom liked you best!”) Jacob ran for his life.  He fled to his grandfather’s country of origin, where over the course of 20 years he managed to marry both of his Uncle Laban’s daughters and snag a huge portion of the older man’s livestock.  This would be like making off with his 401(k).  

As his uncle’s attitude toward him noticeably cooled, Jacob did what he did best.  He ran for his life, this time back in the direction of Palestine. 

Laban and his entourage charged after him.  As they stood face to face seven days later, the tension was thick.  Laban wanted revenge over this Grabber who had fleeced him. 

But God intervened in a dream, reminding Laban (who was just as crafty and underhanded as his nephew) that he needed to watch himself. 

The showdown ended in a compromise.  The two men decided to make an uneasy peace.  They gathered stones into a huge heap.  “Laban said, ‘This monument of stones will be a witness, beginning now, between you and me.’ (That’s why it is called Galeed—Witness Monument.) It is also called Mizpah (Watchtower) because Laban said, ‘God keep watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. If you mistreat my daughters or take other wives when there’s no one around to see you, God will see you and stand witness between us.’” (Genesis 31:49-50)

Essentially, these two men were saying to each other, “Look, pal, I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you.  Since I can’t keep my eye on you all the time, God will be watching.  Don’t think for a moment he won’t notice if you mess up.”    

At the very least we need to rethink the so-called Mizpah Benediction (“a good word”).  It seems much more like a Malediction (“a God’s-going-to-get-you word”).    

Right now, if you’re feeling as if you’ve just “lost” one of your favorite Bible verses – especially if you’re beginning to regret having Genesis 31:49 engraved on your wedding ring – don’t fear.  There are lots of other compelling scriptural statements about the depths of love and partnership.

One of the most powerful is John 15:13, where Jesus quite simply redefines friendship: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”

Jesus, of course, did that literally. 

Sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, we may be asked to do the same.  It’s impossible to overstate the enduring bond experienced by a “band of brothers” who have been ready and willing to lay down their lives for each other in combat. 

But in the course of so-called ordinary existence any one of us can do the same for friends, family, and neighbors – and not just once, but day after day. 

We die for each other when we give away gifts that cannot be reclaimed.  That would include our time.  And our encouragement.  And the gift of paying attention.  And our need to be in control or to insist on our own agenda.  I am loving you when I give up the life I would otherwise have lived so that you might be blessed. 

Such sacrifices always feel a bit like death.  But they bring life. 

Instead of warning each other, “I’m keeping my eye on you,” we’re pledging, “I’m on the lookout for endless new ways to help you thrive.” 

Which just might be the best benediction – “good word” – our friends and family will ever hear.