I remember years ago there were these paired necklaces. The two pairs together made a whole coin, called a Mizpah coin. On the coin were two hearts with beautiful text from the Bible, along the lines of “The LORD keep watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another.” The coin was then cut in two in a jagged way, and each part hung on a chain. It was either a couples thing or a BFF thing depending on how you looked at it.
I was young and naive. I always thought it was such a beautiful expression of care and concern. So much so, that I whispered it in my husband’s ear as they were wheeling him away for a medical procedure. And even as I was doing it, I had this queasy feeling like I was wrong, like it was the wrong thing to say or the wrong situation.
So, while I was eating lunch, I did the Christian equivalent of Bible google. It was not a pleasant situation that I found. The words we as a culture always thought to be so loving and caring were actually part of a threat from a father-in-law to a son-in-law. Let me explain.
The words come from a story in the life of Jacob, later renamed by God to Israel. Jacob’s life spans many years and many chapters in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a right rascal. He’d deceived his father into giving him the inheritance even though the custom was that the firstborn was to receive it; Jacob was second born, a twin who delivered by grabbing Esau’s ankle and following Esau out.
Esau was naturally disturbed, well more like in a murderous rage. So Jacob went on the run and found his way to working for Laban. Laban had two daughters. Jacob did not like the look of Leah, but loved Rachel. Laban agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel.
Jacob was not getting a good and kind father-in-law; instead he was getting a lesson in the wrongness of deception. By the point in our story that the quote is said, Laban has:
- Tricked Jacob into working seven years to earn Rachel
- Tricked Jacob into marrying Leah
- Tricked Jacob into working another seven years for Rachel
- Changed how much Jacob could earn while he worked for Laban (10 times no less)
So Jacob lied to Laban and took off with all his wives, kids, and earthly goods. Evidently, deception was a family affair because Rachel stole some idols from her father. Laban caught up with everyone and accused Jacob of the idol theft. Jacob, as a follower of God, would have detested idols, so he said Laban could search his caravan, seize the idols if found, and kill the thief. Obviously, Jacob trusted Rachel too much, but Rachel wasn’t done. She sat on the idols and refused to move, deceptively stating it was “that time of the month.” (All of us modern peeps know not to mess with PMS, right?)
With the idols not found, Laban blesses them all, and he and Jacob build a pile of stones as an altar, closing with the following quote before he literally kisses them all goodbye and leaves:
And Laban said, “This pile is a witness between me and you today.” That is why its name is Gal-ed, or Mizpah, for he said, “Let Adonai keep watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight. If you mistreat my daughters, and if you take wives besides my daughters, though no one is with us, look! God is the witness between you and me.”
Laban said further to Jacob, “Behold, this pile, and this pillar which I’ve set up between you and me: this pile serves as a witness, that I won’t pass by this pillar to go to you, and that you won’t pass by this pile and this pillar to go to me—with evil intent. May the God of Abraham and the gods of Nahor, the gods of their father, judge between us.”
Jacob also made an oath by the fear of his father Isaac.
–Genesis 31:48-53, Tree of Life Version
So what is the Mizpah Mistake?
First, when you take a Scripture verse out of context, no matter how beautiful, you miss the point of the lesson to be learned and you settle for less than God’s best that the Scripture is designed to give you in life.
Second, it’s the point missed from the entire passage. Sometimes, relationships are so broken, and the people in the relationships are so broken, that we just have to let go. Not only let go, but let go the right way:
- Talk it out
- Agree to disagree
- Set the boundaries
- Go your own way.