Genesis 31

The Word Made Fresh

1Jacob got word that Laban’s sons were accusing him of robbing Laban, saying things like, “He has gotten rich by taking what belonged to our father,” 2and he was aware that Laban had become a bit distant to him.

3Then God said to Jacob, “It’s time to go back to the land of your ancestors and your family. I will go with you.”

4So, Jacob sent for Rachel and Leah to meet him in the countryside where his flocks were kept. 5He said, “I can tell that your father is not as agreeable to me as he was, but my father’s God has been with me. 6You know quite well that I have served your father faithfully, 7but he has not treated me fairly. He has changed my wages ten times, but God has not let him do me any great harm. 8If your father said I could have the speckled and spotted animals, then they bore speckled and spotted lambs and kids. If he said I could have the striped ones, they all bore striped ones. 9That is how God took away from your father and gave to me. 10During the mating season I once had a dream in which I saw that the males mounting the females were all striped and speckled and spotted. 11In the dream the angel of God said to me, 12‘Jacob, look and see how the male goats mounting the females are striped, speckled and spotted. I am aware of how Laban is trying to cheat you, 13for I am the God of Bethel where you poured oil over the stone and made a promise to me. Now leave this land right away and return to the land where you were born.’”

14Rachel and Leah said, “There is nothing left for us in our father’s house. 15He treats us as foreigners. He sold us out by spending on himself the dowries that should have belonged to us. 16As far as we are concerned, everything God has taken from our father belongs to us and our children, so do whatever God has told you to do.”

17With that, Jacob prepared to leave. He gave his children and his wives camels to ride, 18and he drove all the animals he had gotten in Paddan-aram ahead of them, and brought along all the property he had acquired and headed back to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

19Meanwhile, Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel swiped her father’s household idols. 20Also, Jacob had tricked Laban by not telling him that he was leaving. 21He left with all his belongings. He crossed the Euphrates River and turned toward the Gilead hill country.

22Jacob had been gone three days when Laban was told he had fled. 23He summoned his relatives to go with him and chased Jacob for seven days. He caught up with him in the Gilead hill country. 24But God appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream that night and told him, “Be careful that you don’t accuse Jacob of anything, good or bad.”

25Laban caught up with Jacob where he had camped in the hill country. Laban set up his camp there as well. 26He said to Jacob, “What are you doing? You have tricked me and taken my daughters off like you had captured them in battle. 27Why did you run off in secret without saying anything to me? I would have thrown a big party for you, with laughter and singing and instruments playing. 28Why didn’t you let me kiss my grandsons and my daughters farewell? What you’ve done is inexcusable, 29and it is certainly within my power to do you harm. But your father’s God spoke to me last night, telling me not to charge you with anything, good or bad. 30Even if you had to leave because you wanted to see your father and your family again, why did you take my gods?”

31“I was afraid you would take your daughters from me by force,” Jacob answered. 32“But if anyone here took your idols, they will not live. In full view of everyone here show me what I have that belongs to you, and take it.” Jacob didn’t know Rachel had stolen the idols.

33Laban searched Leah’s tent and the tents of the two maids and found nothing. Then he entered Rachel’s tent. 34Rachel had taken the idols and hidden them in the camel’s saddlebags. She was sitting on them. Laban looked all through her tent but didn’t find anything. Rachel said to her father, “Please forgive me for not standing before you; the way of women is upon me.” So, Laban searched, but didn’t find his household idols.

36Jacob was angry. He lit into Laban and said, “What is my crime? What have I done wrong to make you chase me across the country? 37You have felt around through everything I have. Show me anything that belongs to you! Put it here where everybody can see it! Let all these witnesses decide which of us is in the right! 38I worked for you for 20 years. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, and I haven’t butchered a single ram from your flocks. 39If any of your animals were mangled by wild animals I didn’t bother you; I took the loss myself. That was your rule whenever one of your animals was stolen day or night. 40I worked for you in the heat of the day and in the chill of the night, and many was the night I lost sleep. 41I have been in your employ for 20 years; 14 of them for your two daughters and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42If the God of Abraham and Isaac had not been on my side you would have sent me away with nothing. But God saw how I was being treated in spite of all my hard work. That’s why God spoke to you last night.”

43“Look,” Laban countered, “these are my daughters, their children are my children, the flocks are my flocks. Everything you see here is mine. But I can’t do anything about it today. 44So, let’s make an agreement with one another, and it will keep the peace between us.”

45Jacob found a stone and set it up as a marker. 46He said to his family, “Find some more stones.” They picked up stones and made a pile of them, then they ate together beside the pile of stones. 47Laban called the place Jegarsahadutha, “the witness pile.” Jacob called it Galeed. 48Laban said, “This pile of stones is a marker for the two of us. 48Jacob called it Galeed 49and Mizpah, another word for “the witness pile,” 49saying, “The LORD watch between us when we are separated.”

50Laban said, “If you mistreat my daughters, or if you marry other women, even though no one reports back to me, remember that God is our witness. 51Look at this pile of rocks, and this marker which we have set up between us. 52This pile of rocks is a witness, and this marker is a witness that I will not pass beyond this point towards you, and you will not pass beyond it towards me to do any harm. 53May the God of Abraham and Nahor, who is the God of their father, be the judge between us.”

So, Jacob swore by the God of his father Isaac, 54and then offered a sacrifice on the pile, and called all his relatives to take bread together. They ate, and lingered all night long in the hill country.

55Laban rose early the next morning, kissed his grandchildren and his daughters, wished them well, then started for home.

Commentary

1-9: It comes as no surprise that tension grows between Jacob and Laban and his sons. Jacob senses that the LORD is telling him it’s time to go home, and this time he doesn’t bother to approach Laban. Instead he calls Leah and Rachel out to the field where they can talk confidentially, and he summarizes his dealings with their father. In his estimation he has been mistreated from the very start.

10-16: He tells them that his success is due to a dream God gave him, and that God is telling him it is time to return to Canaan. The girls agree. They can see that their father simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to be very successful whereas Jacob obviously does. They encourage him in his plan to leave.

17-18: So, off they go.

19-21: Laban is out of town attending to the annual sheep-shearing. Rachel seizes the opportunity to claim for herself the family idols, and Jacob and his wives and children hit the road back to Canaan.

22-24: Laban is told they have gone and pursues them across the country. It takes him a week to catch up to them, and then his anger is stymied by a dream that he has in which God warns him not to say anything either good or bad to Jacob. In other words, no more deals!

25-32: Laban launches into a tirade about Jacob stealing his daughters and denying him the opportunity to organize a suitable send-off and tell them goodbye properly. Then he remembers his dream and backs off, but he demands to know why Jacob has stolen his household idols. Jacob invites him to search his camp, and because he doesn’t know what Rachel has done, says that whoever stole the idols will die. How will Rachel get out of this one?

33-35: Laban searches Jacob’s tent, and Leah’s tent, and Bilhah’s tent, and Zilpah’s tent, and of course finds nothing. Then he goes into Rachel’s tent, and the tension mounts. But the idols are not in Rachel’s tent. She’s sitting on them on her camel! She makes an excuse that only a woman can make for not alighting, and Laban is deceived. Her theft goes undiscovered.

36-42: Now it is Jacob’s turn to fume and fuss. He accuses Laban of all manner of deceptions and abuses. Interestingly we learn in his tirade that he has not completed the seven years agreed upon for his title to the sheep and goats, but only six.

43-50: Laban refuses to budge on the issue of ownership, but grudgingly grants that Jacob can take his wives and children and other people and things and go. He offers to make a treaty with Jacob, and Jacob sets a stone marker, and Laban’s sons make a pile of stones. They call these monuments “heap of witness” (jegar-sahadutha in Aramaic, galeed in Hebrew). You often hear people recite Laban’s parting words, “The LORD watch between you and me while we are apart from one another,” thinking it is a blessing, but it is more than that. It is an acknowledgement that Jacob’s God is more potent than the Mesopotamian deities and their idols worshiped by Laban (and Rachel, it seems), and is a way of saying, “You’d better behave because Somebody is watching you!”

51-55:  Laban continues outlining the terms of the treaty. Neither party is to pass beyond that heap of stones to harm the other, and he again invokes their respective gods – Abraham’s and Nahor’s – to judge between them. Nahor, you will recall, was Abraham’s brother. Laban is his grandson as Jacob is Abraham’s grandson. Jacob offers a sacrifice to the LORD, and they have a big party that lasts all night. Then Laban kisses his daughters and his grandchildren and mounts his camel and rides off into the sunrise.

Takeaway

This chapter is the first indication we have that people are worshiping other gods. In keeping with our observation that God is gradually instituting rules for people to follow, God does not punish Laban and his clan for imagining there are other gods. It is later, in Egypt, that God demonstrates the foolishness of believing in other gods, and it is not until the Ten Commandments are given in Exodus, chapter 20, that the worship of other gods is clearly named as a sin.

The first law was “be fruitful and multiply.” Then the knowledge of good and evil was denounced in the Garden of Eden. Then murder was identified as an act God would not bless when Cain killed Abel. And so forth. The laws governing human behavior will evolve all through the Old Testament and into the New.