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Jacob’s time with Laban: Genesis 30–31

Boundaries can be set centuries before they’re seen on the ground, or even longer.

Laban gave up his chase of Jacob in the hills of Gilead, at a pile of stones set up as a commemorative pillar. Jacob called the place Mizpah:

Genesis 31:52-53 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. May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.

Boundary stones were important in their day.

In Deuteronomy, moving boundary stones leads to being cursed, along with murder, idolatory, dishonouring parents and sexual immorality. It was serious business indeed:

Deuteronomy 27:17 ‘Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbour’s boundary stone.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

If the Law in Deuteronomy were even slightly indicative of the values of the day, Laban would have understood and respected the significance of these boundary stones.

Where was this Mizpah?

We don’t really know. The word itself means watchtower, so it is a common name. The Bible records a few places called Mizpah (or Mizpeh), including in the western foothills of Judah, in the territory of Benjamin and in Moab. It was also a region on the slopes of Mount Hermon and a district of Israel after the exile to Babylon.

The exact location of this Mizpah, where Jacob and Laban parted ways, isn’t known. Some commentators believe it is the same place as Ramoth-Gilead, but some are less dogmatic about it. The only point of agreement is that it was in the hills of Gilead, east of the Jordan River, and north of Mahaneim.

If it were Ramoth-Gilead, Mizpah would have been in the territory later occupied by Manasseh, which wasn’t part of the land originally promised to Moses and Joshua (or Abraham for that matter). It was one of the first of Israel’s territories to fall to the Assyrians after Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms following Solomon’s death.