Another Look at “Mizpah”

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God bless and keep thee through all thy days,
God bless and keep thee in all thy ways;
“Mizpah” our parting sweet,
“Mizpah” our hearts repeat,
Till we again shall meet with songs of praise.

– An old English hymn by Henry de Flutier

 

Introduction: The Case for a Second Look

The popular 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. As the above verse from the old Adventist Hymnal (1941) shows, it is an expression of love and friendship.

The greeting is derived from Genesis 31. In the passage, Laban and Jacob name a heap of stones Mizpah, because, as Laban said, it symbolized that God would watch between them when they were absent from each other.
Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” – Genesis 31:48, 49

The greeting, itself, goes more or less, like this:

Greeting: “Mizpah!”

Response: “May the Lord watch between you and I as we depart one from another.”

For a long time I have wondered why we’d choose this word for such a greeting. On the face of it, it sounds like a positive word with a positive meaning. Yet my reading of the text has always conveyed quite a different picture. “Mizpah” appears in the context of a serious disagreement between Laban and Jacob. Without recounting all the details, there is suspicion, anger, and distrust involved. I believe a second look is warranted in order to place the meaning of the word in its proper context. This way, we can recontextualize it for our own purposes if we so choose, but in an informed way.

“Mizpah” appears in the context of a serious disagreement between Laban and Jacob. Without recounting all the 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:

I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” ­– Genesis 31:29 (NIV)

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:

It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.” – Genesis 31:49, 50 (NIV)

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.”

After Jacob asks his servants to build the heap of stones, both men name it. Apart from accounting for their different languages (Laban named it in Aramaic, and Jacob in Hebrew), it also indicates competition. Naming something was an act of authority or dominion. Indeed, Laban goes on to claim that the pillar is his; he is its builder (v 51), and he will determine what its purpose will be.

Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” – Genesis 31:51, 52 (NIV)

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.

Why must God watch?

You may harm my daughters

After their altercation, Laban could not be sure that Jacob would not mete 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.

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.

You may try to harm me

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”.

Mizpah makes God a perpetual ombudsman of a life-long conflict

No Love Lost

There is no doubt that the two men parted amicably, one might even say as allies of sorts, 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 against 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.

If indeed this were a story of making up and letting bygones be bygones, it should expectedly have ended on a friendlier note. Hugs and kisses and “I will miss you so!” What do we get instead in the parting final verse of the story?

“Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them Then he left and returned home.” V 55

If Leah and Racheal had had all their children by this time, then Laban kissed fifteen people in total: the twelve sons, Leah’s daughter Dinah, and their mothers. Jacob, it appears, wasn’t even in the friend zone. He got no kiss from the embittered Laban.

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.

Finally, Mizpah

Is it wrong, then, to greet each other with a hearty Mizpah when we part? I don’t think it is. We have every right, I believe, to reclaim the word as we have for our own amiable purposes. I just thought to point out that it is a reclamation, and one which I think is made more meaningful by an accurate knowledge of its biblical meaning.

Mizpah!


Photo credit: Gann Matsuda, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manzanar#/media/File:ManzanarWatchTowerReplica.jpg


 

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.