What did Laban mean when he said to Jacob, 'The LORD watch between you and me' in Genesis 31:49?
"The LORD watch between you and me" is a statement Laban spoke to try to ensure Jacob would abide by the terms of their newly formed covenant agreement because both men had a history of deceit and trickery and could not trust the other to keep his word.
Jacob, who had deceived his brother Esau out of his inheritance (Genesis 25:31) and tricked his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn (Genesis 27:35), had now just snuck away from his father-in-law Laban without telling him (Genesis 31:26). Jacob had lived with Laban as a family member for the past twenty years. Back then, Laban offered Jacob refuge as he fled from his brother Esau who was angry to the point of feeling murderous after having both his inheritance and blessing stolen through trickery and deceit (Genesis 27:41–45; 28:1–5).
When Jacob arrived, he fell in love with Laban's daughter Rachel, which offered Laban an opportunity to trick the trickster. Laban promised that Jacob could marry Rachel if he worked for him as a shepherd for seven years. After seven years, however, Laban substituted his other daughter, Leah, during the wedding ceremony. He gave Rachel to Jacob after Leah's wedding week but required Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29). Jacob had worked those fourteen years and then spent another six years working to earn flocks of his own (Genesis 30:25–43; 31:41). Jacob was prosperous and saw that Laban no longer looked on him in favor, and God told Jacob to return to his homeland (Genesis 31:1–3). Because of Laban's previous deceit, Jacob worried that his father-in-law would not abide by their agreement and would prevent Jacob from leaving with his wives and flocks if he told Laban his plans (Genesis 31:31). So, instead, Jacob snuck away without informing Laban (Genesis 31:4–21).
When Laban discovered Jacob and his daughters missing, he was angry and did intend to harm Jacob, but God warned him in a dream to let Jacob go in peace (Genesis 31:24, 29). So when Laban caught up to Jacob and the two men came together, they made a treaty promising not to harm one another. Jacob set up a pillar of stones, which he called Galeed, meaning "heap of witness." Given their history of lies and trickery, neither man could trust the other (Genesis 31:43–54). For this reason, Laban called upon God to be the witness who would ensure the peace treaty would be honored. Thus the stone heap was also called Mizpah, meaning "watchpost." Laban reminded Jacob that God would be watching him and holding him accountable when Laban could not. "The LORD watch between you and me" is essentially a warning. The New Living Translation puts it this way: "May the LORD keep watch between us to make sure that we keep this covenant when we are out of each other's sight."
Far from being a prayer for God's favor and protection for Jacob, "the LORD watch between you and me" was a prayer for judgment and justice should Jacob ever break the covenant. God holds people accountable to keep their promises. The prophet Hosea explained about Israel, "They utter mere words; with empty oaths they make covenants; so judgment springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field" (Hosea 10:4). Empty oaths and broken covenants resulted in judgment. So Laban was asking God to bring judgment on Jacob if this newly formed covenant were ever broken (Genesis 31:51–53).
While agreements between people have the possibility of failing, God remains true to every covenant and promise He has ever uttered. The psalmist recorded, "He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations" (Psalm 105:8). We can rest confidently assured that God will remain true to His word even when the humans around us act in deceitful and disappointing ways.
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