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In Genesis 31:

48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. 49 It was also called Mizpah because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50 If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.”

51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that 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. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.”

It sounds to me like a Mizpah is a truce or treaty between near-enemies, but in the Mizpah article on wikipedia:

Since that time, the mizpah has come to connote an emotional bond between people who are separated (either physically or by death). Mizpah jewelry is often made in the form of a coin-shaped pendant cut in two with a zig-zag line bearing the words "The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another" (Genesis 31:49). This is worn to signify the bond. Additionally, the word "mizpah" can often be found on headstones in cemeteries and on other memorials.

Why would it have assumed this meaning? Is it just meaning ascribed to the quote taken out of context, or is that sentiment actually in the text?

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  • Since that time - meanings change all the time. – curiousdannii Mar 29 '16 at 23:42
  • @All Let's keep this question open-and see if there are Midrash or other sources to lend understanding. – Tau Mar 30 '16 at 2:57
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צָפָה / Tsapah

Mizpah comes from the root word צָפָה / tsapah, which is used frequently through the Tanakh to speak of 'watchmen' or otherwise keeping watch over things. Unfortunately this is the only occurrence of the word in the Pentateuch, and so we have to rely on later usage for its meaning. Thankfully later usage is clear and consistent:

Now the watchman (וְהַצֹּפֶה֩) was standing on the tower in Jezreel, and he saw the company of Jehu as he came and said, “I see a company.” - 2 Kings 9:17a (ESV)

For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman (הַֽמְצַפֶּ֔ה); let him announce what he sees" - Isaiah 21:6 (ESV)

Seeing the given usage of 'Mizpah' in the Tanakh, it would appear to be invariably a place name (for two or more locations), and one which becomes prominent from the time of the Judges onwards. Given the way the name is set up in your given Genesis passage, this isn't surprising:

It was also called Mizpah because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other..." - Genesis 31:49

Whilst the spoken tone is defensive and semi-confrontational, I think it would be a mistake to read this into all usage of the word.

Context of Mizpah in the Tanakh

It seems significant that a Mizpah (whether the same location or otherwise) would become a typical rallying place for Israel, a place where it had been proclaimed "the Lord is watching". It's the place where all Israel gather to pronounce judgement on the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:1), it's the place where Samuel set up his seat to judge, and later appointed the King (1 Samuel 7:6, 10:17), and even Gedaliah later set up the seat of Judah in the early days of the Exile (Jeremiah 40:10), when Jerusalem had been destroyed.

Even in your questioned usage from Genesis it's not an entirely negative term, but seems somewhat neutral - it's not 'God is watching you', but rather 'God is watching us', and Laban makes this clear:

This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that 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. - Genesis 31:52

In view of your question, I'd say its early usage is more in line with 'God is keeping watch' rather than 'truce/treaty between near-enemies'. It's certainly a truce between them, but seems to be on the basis of 'let God keep watch over us' rather than them keeping watch over one another. The frequency of its later use suggests the people considered it as a place where God could be sought to bear witness to things, rather than a place to gather when seeking judgement or vengeance from him.


Towards modern usage

This fits well with the usage you're asking about, where God is to watch over two or more parties in a positive sense. I don't think an 'emotional bond' is a great way to describe it, but the concept of such a pendant bearing those words of 'may the Lord keep watch' seems to be a fair usage of the phrase, albeit in a very different context to Laban and Jacob.

Yes, the quote is being taken out of its context, and won't naturally be read by others in its correct light, but at face value the way it's being understood isn't necessarily a bad way of understanding the phrase. Given the usage of Mizpah throughout the Tanakh, such a modern usage seems to be fair and in-keeping with the term's wider usage.

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Hogwash. Taken in its context, it has nothing to do with an "emotional bond." This is simply another case in which the world has highjacked and morphed a Biblical event and reinterpreted it for its own convenience and romantic fancy.

Mizpah was a declaration of mistrust; the need for a reminder that God is watching to ensure that Jacob did not abuse Laban's daughters, nor take additional wives, and that God is also watching to ensure that neither party passes the heap with ill intent toward the other. It is NOT, "God is watching over us to keep us safe while we are apart." Rather, it is, "Watch your step, because GOD IS WATCHING to make sure you don't violate our terms of agreement."

A few weeks before I asked my dear wife of 32 years to marry me, I told her that she would never have to tell me that she was sorry for doing anything I found offensive, because I was (and still am!) so certain of her love for me, that, if she ever did anything I found offensive, I KNOW that her intent was NOT to offend or hurt me; I have that much confidence in her sincerity and love.

The Mizpah story we find in Genesis is not even on the same planet as that kind of love, and ought not to be twisted to make it fit so. Though it is a pleasant thought that the Lord will watch between two people when they must be separated (and I believe he will!), to draw that idea from this story and text is a gross misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture.

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