Genesis 31 - Jacob Flees from Laban then Laban Pursues Jacob
Genesis 31 – Jacob Flees from Laban then Laban Pursues Jacob
Jacob overheard Laban’s sons saying that he became wealthy by taking what belonged to Laban. Jacob fled from Laban with his wives, children and flocks.
Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” Genesis 31:1-3
Jacob had served Laban faithfully for twenty years, yet Laban’s sons were claiming that Jacob had taken what rightfully belonged to their father. Jacob didn’t take what belonged to Laban but had worked to accumulate his own wealth. Laban had deceived Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter Leah. The first seven years of Jacob’s service paid the bridal price for Leah and the next seven years paid the bridal price for Rachel. Once Rachel was bound to Jacob through their child Joseph, and his fourteen years of service were completed, Jacob was ready to return to his homeland. But Laban persuaded Jacob to stay by making him an offer to “name his wages.” Although Laban initiated an agreement with Jacob because he knew Jacob was blessed by the LORD, Laban became jealous and covetous of Jacob’s success. The LORD told Jacob to return to the Promised Land. The LORD assured Jacob that He would be with Jacob just as He promised 20 years ago at Bethel.
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15
So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. Genesis 31:4-5
Jacob called for his wives Rachel and Leah who were the daughters of Laban and not for their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah although they bore him children. He had them come out to the fields where he was tending his flocks to speak to them privately about their father.
You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me. Genesis 31:6-9
Each time that Jacob’s flocks of sheep and goats mostly produced young of a particular color, Laban switched Jacob’s wages. When the next breeding season came and Jacob’s new born lambs and kids were predominately that color, Laban switched the wages again for a total of ten times. God blessed Jacob in spite of Laban’s attempts to cheat Jacob.
“In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. Genesis 31:10-12
The angel of God spoke to Jacob in a dream. He reassured Jacob that He was aware of Laban’s manipulations. He encouraged Jacob to continue his shepherding and revealed that Jacob would be successful.
I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’” Genesis 31:13
Although it was “the angel of God” who spoke to Jacob in a dream, He revealed Himself as the God of Bethel. The angel of God and the angel of the LORD are both titles of the pre-incarnate Christ. Those appearances of Jesus in the Old Testament are known as Christophanies. Jacob is commanded by God to leave Padan Aram. Padan Aram means the plain of Aram which was the name for the region around the northern-Syria city of Hara and was located at the northernmost reach of the Euphrates. Jacob is commanded by God to return to Canaan immediately.
Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.” Genesis 31:14-16
Rachel and Leah eventually protested against their father’s heartless cruelty and insatiable greed. Laban had not treated Jacob's wives as daughters but if they were strangers and were sold as slaves. In the Mesopotamian culture, the “wife's dowry” or “bridal price” was saved, at least in part, for the daughter. However, Laban had taken the wealth derived from fourteen years of Jacob’s servitude and totally consumed it.
Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead. Genesis 31:17-21
By divine revelation God commanded Jacob to return to the Promised Land. Having received the assurance that his wives were in support of this move, Jacob hastily packed up all of their goods and left for home. It does not appear to be merely coincidental that Jacob departed at a time when Laban was busily occupied in shearing his flock. Since Jacob’s flocks and Laban’s flocks were separated by a three-day journey, it would give Jacob a good head start. Jacob probably reasoned that “leaving without warning” was the way to depart without any resistance from Laban who might have refused to release Jacob’s wives or his flocks.
What Jacob did not know was that Rachel had stolen Laban’s gods just before they departed. Many speculations are made concerning Rachel’s motives, but the reason best supported by the text and by archaeology is that Rachel stole the household gods in order to establish a future claim on Laban’s family inheritance. The household gods were a token of rightful claim to the possessions and the headship of the family. Rachel must have felt justified in stealing these gods and in expecting to share in the family inheritance. After all, this is what she and Leah had just affirmed to Jacob when they said, “Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children.”
On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” Genesis 31:22-24
The LORD had promised Jacob that He would be with Jacob would watch over him and would bring Jacob back to Canaan. The LORD protected Jacob from Laban by appearing to Laban in a dream. The LORD warned Laban to be careful not to say anything good to Jacob, in an effort to persuade Jacob to return to Padam Aram, or anything bad to Jacob, in an effort to coerce Jacob to return to Mesopotamia or take away his possessions by force.
Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrels and harps? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. Genesis 31:25-28
Although Laban bemoans the situation, claims that he was the injured party, and alleges that he would have sent Jacob away with joy, his original intentions in pursuing Jacob were most likely hostile based on his character and past actions. Laban is greedy and self-serving, his word cannot be trusted and his daughters meant little to him.
I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?” Genesis 31:29-30
Although Laban had the men and weapons to overpower Jacob, he was restrained by the LORD. Laban didn’t even dare to claim that Jacob’s flocks belonged to him. Assuming that Jacob had stolen his idols, Laban asks Jacob, “Why did you steal my gods?” The idols were most probably covered with silver or gold and had monetary value in addition to their use in pagan religious practices.
Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. Genesis 31:31-32
Laban asked, “Why did you run off secretly and deceive me?” Jacob’s response was honest, and most probably true when he said, “I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force.”
Jacob being unaware of Rachel’s theft puts her life in jeopardy by saying that anyone who has Laban’s gods shall not live.
So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.
Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So he searched but could not find the household gods. Genesis 31:33-35
Ironically, Laban who deceived Jacob concerning his marriage to Rachel is now deceived by Rachel. Laban who loved wealth more than his daughter Rachel, now loses both his wealth and his daughters.
Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us. Genesis 31:36-37
After twenty years of manipulation and deception by Laban, this false accusation against Jacob is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jacob who had quietly endured two decades of mistreatment is incensed and outraged.
“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” Genesis 31:38-42
Jacob makes the case for his faithfulness as a shepherd and honoring of his agreement with Laban and contrasts his actions with Laban’s unfaithfulness and dishonesty. Jacob recounts his hardship and toil over the course of twenty years. Jacob asserts that if it weren’t for the God of Abraham, Laban would have sent him away empty-handed.
Laban answered Jacob, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne? Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.” Genesis 31:43-44
No matter how clearly and passionately Jacob made his case, his twenty years of toil, the devoted labor under scorching heat and freezing cold, Laban just stood unmoved. Laban in his cold-heartedness and self-centeredness declared, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and whatever you have is mine.” Not willing to admit his own faults and in fear of Jacob’s God, Laban proposes a covenant of friendship between them, to which Jacob readily agrees.
So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. Genesis 31:45-47
Laban called the pillar of stones, Jegar Sahadutha which means “witness heap” in Aramaic. Jacob called it Galeed which means the same thing, “witness heap” but in Hebrew. Laban the Aramean was an idolater, while Jacob the Hebrew served Yehovah. Although Laban asked to make a covenant, it was Jacob that took a stone and set it up as a pillar. Twenty years before Jacob took the stone that he slept upon, and after he had a dream of a stairway to heaven, set it up as a pillar and called that place Bethel – the House of God.
Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 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.” Genesis 31:48-50
The heap of stones that served as a witness between Laban and Jacob was also called Mizpah which means a “watchtower.” These two men, father-in-law Laban and son-in-law Jacob, had had a tense relationship for twenty years and in these verses we are told of their last time together. These would be their final words and actions before they separated from one another to live five hundred miles apart. Laban would be going back to Paddan Aram, and Jacob going home to the Promised Land. But they were always to be related to one another. Laban would always be the grandfather of the many sons of Jacob. There could be no divorce in that relationship. Jacob had received from Laban the gift of his two daughters, and from these sisters and their maid servants, eleven sons and a daughter had been born. At this time, there had to be a dignified parting and that is why this formal ceremony of farewell.
Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 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. The God of Abraham, and the gods of Nahor--the gods of their father--will judge between us." And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. Genesis 31:51-53
Jacob and Laban made a covenant and set up stones not only as a witness, or reminder, of the covenant but also as a borderline—one that neither one of them was to cross for the purpose of harming the other. Laban stated that may the God of Abraham and the gods of Nahor judge between himself and Jacob. Nahor was the son of Terah and brother of Abraham and Haran. Both Terah and Nahor were idolaters as were Nahor’s descendants, the Arameans.
Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. Joshua 24:2
But Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. Jacob calls God the “Fear of Isaac” because Isaac was willing to lay down his life as a burnt offering since he loved, worshiped and feared God.
While the sons of Israel will inherit the Promised Land, the Arameans are to dwell in Babylon. This physical divide and five hundred mile separation between the Hebrews, the people of the God of Abraham, and the Arameans who are idolaters, symbolizes the great chasm between the bosom of Abraham (Paradise) and hell.
So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there.
Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home. Genesis 31:54-55
Jacob offered a sacrifice to ratify his covenant with Laban and then took part in a covenant meal with his relatives. The next morning Laban returned home empty-handed but Jacob had great wealth.
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous. Proverbs 13:22