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We see it on greeting cards, complete with fancy script and a striking sunset backdrop. It’s been spotted on mugs and bookmarks, engraved in jewelry, and posted on social media. It’s a timeless phrase from Scripture:

“May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.”
Genesis 31:49

What a wonderful and encouraging verse to share when we’re apart from a loved one, right? Well, hold on a minute… Before we share this verse with others, we should really check to see what Genesis 31 is all about. Taken by itself, verse 49 may sound like a heartwarming sentiment. But surprisingly, these words were not spoken at the tender parting of friends, or in the context of a long-distance romance. This quote is actually part of a tense encounter between relatives who were at extreme odds with one another!

The common use (or misuse) of this verse demonstrates how important it is for us to check the context of any passage of Scripture we use or study. It’s a key principle of biblical interpretation, or “hermeneutics.” We all know how frustrating it is when unbelievers pluck a verse out of the Bible and twist the meaning, so let’s be sure we don’t do it ourselves!

“Hermeneutics” may sound like an intimidating word, but you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to check the surrounding text of a passage. In fact, simply reading the very next verse in Genesis 31 gives us a clear indication that things were not all hunky-dory.

“May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. If you mistreat my daughters or if you marry other wives, God will see it even if no one else does.”
Genesis 31:49-50

So much for the Hallmark moment! No wonder we don’t see the extended version at our local card store.

So what’s really going on in these verses, anyway? The two people involved here were Jacob and his uncle, Laban. Looking at their back-story, we see that both these men had a history of deception. Years earlier, Jacob had deceived his aging father, Isaac, and stolen the family blessing from his brother, Esau (Genesis 27). And Laban somehow duped Jacob into marrying his daughter, Leah, when Jacob had worked seven years for his other daughter, Rachel (still not sure how Laban pulled that one off!). Laban then conned Jacob into seven more years of work for Rachel (Gen 29:16-30).

As time went on, the relationship between Jacob, Laban, and their families, became strained due to further dishonesty, jealousy, and bitterness. Things got so bad that Jacob decided to pack up his family and leave town without telling anyone. Verse 20 indicates that this secret departure was yet another deceptive move on Jacob’s part.

When Laban got wind of their leaving, he went after them and an all-out confrontation took place. Laban spewed a string of accusations, and Jacob vented all the frustrations of working for dishonest Laban over the past 20 years (v26-42). If not for direct intervention from God, things may have even gotten violent (v29).

It’s this tense and heated exchange that culminated in the well-known quote from Genesis 31:49. With that background in place, we can see this was definitely not a chummy farewell. Laban wasn’t patting Jacob on the back and saying, “Good luck, my dear friend! May God bless and protect you!” No, both Jacob and Laban were angry, suspicious and hurt. They weren’t parting as friends, but rather as passive enemies. This verse is really a strained treaty -- a vow not to harm each other (v51-53).

Genesis 31:49 is a great reminder of how important it is to practice good hermeneutics when we study or quote Scripture. Sending a card to a friend with this verse is essentially like saying, “I don’t really trust you!”

Most Christians don’t deliberately pull Scripture out of context, but it can happen unintentionally when the context is overlooked. We may think it’s harmless (as in this example of sending an inaccurate greeting card). But sometimes the result can be serious, or even heretical -- and could even lead people astray.

Remember, there’s a historical and literary context to every verse in Scripture. It doesn’t take much to check it out. And perhaps a better verse to send to your loved ones would be Numbers 6:24-26, which, in context, is a true blessing.

“May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.”

Now that’s a true Hallmark moment!

2 Timothy 2:15 – “Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.”

- Ron Reid

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