The King’s Game
Chess is a two-player game played on a square board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. At the start, each player controls sixteen identical pieces, one side white and the other side black. The object of the game is to checkmate the opponent's king. This is where the king is under immediate attack and there is no way for it to escape. Chess is a game of tactics and strategy. Tactics usually concentrate on short-term actions such as forks, decoys, deflections and sacrifices. Strategy is concerned with the evaluation of chess positions and with setting up goals and long-term plans for future play. During this evaluation, players must take into account numerous factors such as the value of the pieces on the board, control of the center spaces, pawn structure, and king safety. Each player is making moves that may seem subtle at the time but over the long run could do major damage in the game if there are no counter tactics and strategies made.
In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, chess was called the “King’s Game.” It was part of the nobility culture and was used to teach war strategy. Chess was also often used as a basis of sermons on morality. Different chess pieces were used as metaphors for different classes of people, and human duties were derived from the rules of the game or from visual properties of the chess pieces. During the Age of Enlightenment, chess was viewed as a means of self-improvement. Benjamin Franklin, in his article "The Morals of Chess" written in 1750 said we can learn three things: “We may learn, foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action, circumspection, which surveys the whole board, or scene of action, in relation of several Pieces, and their situations, and caution, not to make our moves too hastily. Chess was also occasionally criticized in the 19th century as a waste of time and has been present in contemporary popular culture. For example, the characters in Star Trek play a futuristic version of the game called “Tri-Dimensional Chess" and "Wizard's Chess" is played in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. Today, chess is one of the world's most popular games, played by millions of people worldwide.
How many people here today have ever played chess? How many really, really love and enjoy playing chess? Well, I absolutely love it. My father taught me how to play from an early age and I was in Chess Club in high school. I enjoy chess so much that I play it every day on an app on my phone that allows me to play with people all over the world. I have actually played someone from the Horn of Africa. That was probably the coolest.
This morning we are going to be studying Genesis 30:25-43 and what we see is a game of chess being played between Jacob and Laban. Each one is making subtle tactical and strategic moves with each one’s motives being to checkmate the other, which is getting what they want from the other and getting the best of them. We will see tactics such as decoys and deflections and strategies that set up goals for the long term, in this case six years down the road. Each player is making moves and counter moves that they think will put them a better position than the other.
Both Jacob and Laban have been blessed by God. Laban’s flocks have been multiplied by God because of Jacob’s presence and Jacob has been blessed with twelve children. Jacob has also been promised land and that he would be prosperous. These promises would come later. But these blessings from God were not for Jacob and Laban’s benefit; they were given to them in order to fulfill God’s purposes for the world. The same is true for us today. We have been and continue to be abundantly blessed by God. But his blessings to us are not for us to horde and keep to ourselves; they are to be used by us to fulfill God’s purposes for this world which is to make disciples who make disciples –to fulfill the Great Commission to pursue, grow and multiply disciples. That brings us to our big idea this morning which is God’s blessings in our lives are for his purposes, not our benefit. Now I am not saying we don’t benefit from them just that our benefit is not the purpose for them.
Before we start our study of the passage this morning, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, pour out your Holy Spirit on us this morning as we open your word. Help us to have open ears, minds and hearts to learn from it. We thank you that you have breathed your Word, and inspired the authors to write these words down so that we could use them to teach, rebuke, correct and train ourselves in righteousness. I thank you for the privilege to be in your Word and to study it as workers who do not need to be ashamed as we correctly handle your word of truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Again, we are in Genesis 30:25-43. There are three points this morning. The first is the opening moves of our chess match called the King’s Gambit found in verses 25 - 31a. This is what God’s Word says, “Now it came about, when Rachel had given birth to Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, so that I may go to my own place and to my own country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you yourself know my service which I have rendered you.” But Laban said to him, “If it pleases you at all, stay with me; I have determined by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your account.” He continued, “Name me your wages, and I will give them.” But Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you and how your livestock have fared with me. For you had little before I came, and it has increased to a multitude, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. But now, when shall I provide for my own household also?” So he said, “What shall I give you?”
The first thing we need to talk about is what started this battle of wits – this chess match, if you will, between Jacob and Laban. (Chess Board – Beginning) Jacob has worked for Laban for the past fourteen years in order to acquire his two wives Rachel and Leah. Now he approaches Laban to gain his release from his service. What has changed? What has changed is that Jacob’s preferred wife, Rachel, has birthed a child of her own. This was important for a number of reasons. One, was for her protection. It was important for women in that culture to give their husband’s children. If Jacob would have left Mesopotamia before Rachel had her own children there was no guarantee that at some point Jacob wouldn’t have kicked her out and left her by the side of the road. So for Rachel staying close to her family was good for her. It protected her. This reminds me again of the principle that God is in control of all things. Rachel was an integral part of the covenant and God protected her. But now that Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob could make his opening moves and approach Laban about going back home to Canaan. These moves by Jacob were calculated for his maximum benefit.
But it really wasn’t practical for Jacob to leave at this time and it wasn’t going to be that easy to get Laban to agree and Jacob knew this. There were a couple of reasons why it wasn’t practical for Jacob to leave. The first was because he had no assets or resources to get back home to Canaan. He had worked for fourteen years for his two wives but he didn’t really get paid for his work. Jacob came to Laban with nothing and so the fourteen years of labor was to pay the bride prices for Rachel and Leah. Now Jacob didn’t want for anything because he was a part of Laban’s household but in the end he had nothing to show for the last fourteen years besides his wives and children. How would he get back to Canaan without resources – food, camels, etc? And then once he got back how would he buy assets such as flocks, crops, etc. Second, Jacob was indebted to Laban and in that culture it would have been respectful to get his permission to leave his household. Third, Laban was technically the owner of his daughters and the children they have given birth to so Jacob couldn’t just assume he had the right to take them away. It was possible that Laban could say, “Go ahead and leave but your wives and children must stay with me.”
So realizing he really can’t leave, Jacob strategically approaches Laban in order to persuade him to make certain moves in his favor. His tone is not subservient. He doesn’t say “please” but seemingly demands that Laban let him go back to where he came from. Jacob is probably thinking about the promises of God made to him at Bethel. God promised to protect him and he has. God promised him descendants and now he has twelve children who will have children and so on and so on. God promised to give him land as his inheritance and now Jacob wants to return to Canaan and claim that inheritance. Jacob appeals to the fact that he has faithfully served Laban. He mentions this service three times in verse 26 highlighting this fact. It is like he was saying, “Laban, you know what I have done for you and now you need to release me.” These were Jacob’s first moves in the chess match.
Laban now responds with his first moves. Notice he doesn’t respond to Jacob’s demand instead he acts like he’s the humble servant and Jacob is the master. He politely asks that Jacob stay, like Laban has treated Jacob fairly all these years. Laban also appeals to Jacob in a spiritual sense even though his words don’t show that he has embraced Jacob’s God as his own. Most commentators don’t agree with the word that is translated “divination.” Divination is defined as the attempt to discover hidden knowledge through incantation or other supernatural means. It was normally used if a situation were not going well and you wanted to find out why, like Rebekah inquiring of the Lord about the war raging in her womb during pregnancy. And divination was used to see the future.
But Laban is not going through bad times, in fact his flocks are growing and he is doing well. He is also talking about the past and not the future. More accurately translated, Laban is saying he has learned “by experience” that the Lord has blessed him because of Jacob. However Laban discerned the Lord’s blessing upon him it is clear that he consulted something other than God which led him to that conclusion. What is the author trying to tell us here? The author is contrasting the spiritual conditions of Jacob and Laban. Laban wasn’t interested in Jacob’s God only the blessings he could receive because of him. He had seen the blessing of God upon Abraham and his family and wanted to get the most out of them. We see the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 12:3 here; that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham and his descendants. There is a principle here that we have seen before: God keeps his promises. We can trust in that and believe that he will always keep his promises to us as he did for the patriarchs. We also see our big idea in that Laban has not been blessed on his own account but on Jacob’s account. God has blessed Laban in order to fulfill his own divine purposes. (Big Idea).
Laban asks Jacob to name his wages. We have seen this before and are reminded of Jacob negotiations with Laban to take Rachel as his wife back in Genesis 29:18. This was a cunning reply on Laban’s part because he didn’t owe Jacob anything and it implies that in order to leave Jacob would need to compensate Laban. Having an opening defense is the most important moves in the early part of a chess match. And next Jacob continues to set up his defense as he again reminds Laban of his service to him. He reiterates his service saying that Laban’s flocks have done well and Laban has been a witness to it; he can’t deny it. Jacob may be exaggerating a little when he says that before he arrived on the scene Laban had “little” and now his flocks have increased to a multitude. But he agrees with Laban that the Lord has blessed him wherever Jacob turned. It didn’t matter what pastures or wells that Jacob led Laban’s flocks to, they have increased and thrived because of the Lord’s blessing. Now after providing for Laban’s family, Jacob wants to provide for his own family. This would have been a practical and logical request. One that Laban shouldn’t turn down because Jacob’s family was also Laban’s family. But Laban was not just going to turn him loose, family or no family, because Jacob was too much of an asset to him. We can really see the character of Laban here.
Laban’s last opening move was to inquire what he should give Jacob. Jacob had already asked him to give him his wives, children and his freedom. Laban has ignored that request and asked what wages he could pay him. Now he asks what he can give Jacob. As the opening part of the chess match comes to a close and the middle game starts it gets interesting as both parties have set up their defense for what will happen next. (Chessboard – both parties castled)
Our second point is the middle game called the Bishop’s sacrifice, found in verses 31b - 36. This is what God’s Word says, And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled or spotted sheep and every black sheep among the lambs, and the spotted or speckled among the goats; and those shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled or spotted among the goats, or black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.” Laban said, “Good, let it be according to your word.” So he removed on that day the striped or spotted male goats, and all the speckled or spotted female goats, everyone with white on it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and put them in the care of his sons. And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.”
Jacob now makes his next moves. He doesn’t want to be beholden to Laban. He doesn’t want anything from him but he will stay and continue to pasture his flocks if Laban will do one thing for him. Jacob asks to go through Laban’s flock and remove every speckled or spotted sheep, every black lamb and every speckled or spotted goat. This is what Jacob asked to be his wages for as long as he stayed in Laban’s employ. There were two reasons on the surface that Jacob wanted these particular lambs and goats. First, the majority of the Mediterranean flocks consisted of white sheep and black goats. The abnormally colored sheep and goats were in the minority. Jacob probably felt that by choosing the abnormally colored animals that Laban would be more agreeable. Second, all Laban would have to do is look at Jacob’s flock to see that he hadn’t taken anything that wasn’t his. Jacob’s honesty would be at stake. So Laban readily agrees probably because this move by Jacob on the surface was not a great one. Laban was getting the better end of the deal. The normal shepherd wages of that day were between 10-20% of the newborn sheep and goats. With this arrangement, Jacob’s wages would probably amount to 10% or less of Laban’s flock. But to Jacob, starting with nothing, even 10% would be a good beginning to his own flock. Gangel & Bramer in their commentary, quote Morris, “The arrangement clearly was highly favorable to Laban and of very doubtful value to Jacob. It was an act of pure faith on Jacob’s part. He had put himself entirely at God’s mercy. It would be up to the Lord to indicate, by a very unlikely set of circumstances whether Jacob should prosper personally or not.” This was Jacob’s middle game. His plan was to make a sacrifice by offering to take less wages trusting God to give him what he needed from Laban to improve his situation.
Laban counters with moves of his own that seem to be deceptive. Laban, probably not trusting Jacob to be fair, preemptively goes through his flock and removes all the abnormally colored sheep and goats. There was probably no deception on Laban’s part for two reason: First, Jacob doesn’t complain so it must not have mattered who removed the animals from Laban’s flock. Second, remember that the shepherd’s wages back then were usually from the newborn sheep and goats. The initial flock was still considered to be the owner’s property. But by separating the abnormal sheep and goats from his flock before Jacob can pass through it left only solid colored sheep and goats. By doing this, Laban has significantly lowered the percentages of his flock that will produce Jacob’s wages. It was clever but not necessarily against the rules in this battle of wits between the two. Laban also took those separated animals and put them in the care of his sons putting a three days’ journey between them and his flocks that Jacob would be tending. This would guarantee that none of those animals would stray and come back to Laban’s flock making it easier for Jacob to produce the abnormal offspring. Laban was going to get any advantage he could. Once these moves were made our scriptures says that Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks. He started to tend and take care of them as he promised. At this point in the “game” it may seem as Laban has the upper hand as we continue to the endgame. (Chessboard – after Bishop’s Sacrifice).
Our third point is the endgame called the Rook Strategy found in verses 37 - 43. This is what God’s Word says, Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar, almond, and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white that was in the rods. He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the drinking troughs, that is, in the watering channels where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks delivered striped, speckled, and spotted offspring. Then Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Moreover, whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the drinking troughs, so that they would mate by the rods; but when the flock was sickly, he did not put them in; so the sickly were Laban’s, and the stronger were Jacob’s. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
As I just said it seems that Laban has the upper hand but as in any chess match one opponent or the other makes a fatal mistake. Laban has gotten overconfident and probably ignored Jacob thinking there is no way that he can produce a very big flock with what he has to work with. Plus he is confident that as long as Jacob is in charge, his flocks will prosper as before. He is probably feeling pretty good about his odds. Jacob’s next move seem weird to us today as he took rods or tree limbs from poplar, almond and plane trees and peeled them so that they seemed striped. The commentators aren’t sure why he picked these particular trees. It may be because of the play on words for “poplar” and “Laban.” In Hebrew “poplar” sounds similar to “white” and Laban’s name means “white.” Jacob put these striped rods in the watering troughs so that when the flock came to drink during mating season they would see them. This caused the offspring to be striped, speckled and spotted. Then he separated the lambs and made them face toward the striped and all the black in Laban’s flock during mating season.
In that time and culture it was believed that these acts could influence the kind of offspring they would have. Briscoe says “It was a common belief in that culture that when animals were breeding the embryo was affected by any strange sight which might confront the mother during pregnancy.” The use of the striped rods were the equivalent to using mandrakes to get pregnant that Pastor Stuart showed us a couple of weeks ago. They were folk traditions that didn’t have any power to accomplish what the people thought it would. But Jacob at some level either believed the folk traditions or was doing as he was directed or maybe both. Of course the real reason for spotted and speckled offspring was due to the recessive genes inside the white sheep and the black goats and, of course, the power of God to quickly affect these results.
Jacob had been building his flocks up and now separated his herd from Laban’s herd. Then he started to employ selective breeding. He knew which sheep and goats were the strongest and when they were mating he would put the rods in their sight in the drinking troughs. But when the sickly and weaker animals would be mating he would not put the rods in their sight. The result was that the strongest animals would mate with other strong animals and their offspring would be striped and speckled and would become part of Jacob’s flock. And the weaker animals would mate with other weak animals and their offspring would remain a solid color and would become part of Laban’s flock.
I didn’t make the final verse of our scripture this morning its own point but if I did I would have called it “Checkmate.” Jacob’s strategy was to build up his flocks so that when he was able to go home he would have the assets and resources to make the journey to Canaan and then be able to prosper once he arrived there. Verse 43 tells us that the man, talking about Jacob, became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys. “Exceedingly prosperous” reminds us of God’s promises to Jacob at Bethel that he would “expand and spread out” which included descendants, possessions and later the Promised Land. His possessions now include large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys. His prosperity in seen in a couple of ways: One, camels were considered rare and costly. Two, this list reminds us of what Abraham acquired in Egypt from Pharaoh. God had prospered Abraham in Egypt and now Jacob in exile. Jacob is more ready to return to Canaan than he was when he approached Laban asking for his release. God had promised the patriarchs possessions and prosperity and he fulfilled that promise to Jacob using Laban’s own sheep and goats. Checkmate!
In thinking about next steps I wanted us to think about the blessings of God in our lives. First, the big idea states that God’s blessings are not for our benefit but to be used to fulfill his purposes. Second, having received the blessings of God in the past we can and should anticipate his continued blessing in our lives in the future That brings us to the first next step on the back of your communication card which is to anticipate God’s blessings in my life and be ready to use them to fulfill his purpose to pursue, grow and multiply disciples. Third, we should not only anticipate his blessings but give him glory, honor, praise and thanksgiving for the blessings we receive from him. The question becomes: Do we take the credit ourselves for the blessings that come our way? Or do we forget to thank him when we receive his blessings? Or do we gratefully give him the glory for what he has done for us? That brings us to the last next step which is to give God the glory, honor, praise and thanksgiving for the blessings I receive from him.
As the praise team comes to lead us in a final song, let’s bow our heads in a closing prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for the blessings you have given us and to our church. Help us to realize that those blessings are not for us to keep to ourselves but to be used to fulfill your purposes in the world. Help us to anticipate your blessings in our lives and church and to remember to give you the glory, honor, praise and thanksgiving as we receive them. Take us from this place willing to speak of your blessings and your glory to those we come in contact this week. In Jesus’ name, Amen.