Separation and Uneasy Reconciliation between Jacob and Laban
Genesis 31. This chapter closes out Jacob’s time in Padan-Aram. Six years earlier, he had wanted to leave, but was convinced by Laban’s offer of wages to stay. All through the difficulties with his family, and even when Laban was taking advantage of him and changing his wages, Jacob never utters as word of complaint. Perhaps his silence shows that he submitted to the discipline. In chapter 31 we have the same old scheming, deceiving Jacob, but he had grown somewhat in his soul. He had learned to appreciate the providence of God. Jacob finally left Haran without notifying Laban; another deception. At last Jacob reconciled with Laban, but it was an uneasy reconciliation. The last tie with the old family of Terah is broken, and we never read of Laban again. Genesis 31 pictures a time in the work of God in the wayward soul when they realize that this world is not our home, and that we belong to another country. There is more to come before Jacob finally gets back to Bethel, but still there is progress in his soul.
- Jacob Leaves Laban (31:1-21)
- Uneasy reconciliation (31:22-55)
Jacob Leaves Laban (31:1-21)
Laban becomes Unfavorable toward Jacob (vv.1-2)
1 And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and of what was our father’s he has acquired all this glory. 2 And Jacob saw the countenance of Laban, and behold, it was not toward him as previously. vv.1-2 Laban becomes unfavorable. The Lord had blessed Jacob materially in that the majority of the prosperity went to Jacob rather than Laban. This was Jacob’s intention, at least at first. However, Jacob quickly realized that this was the Lord’s doing, as he explains to his wives in vv.6-12. The sons of Laban did not see this as the Lord’s doing, but rather “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and of what was our father’s he has acquired all this glory”. The fact is that that Laban did not have very much before Jacob arrived, and as he previously admitted, “I have discovered that Jehovah has blessed me for thy sake” (Gen. 30:27). It is remarkable how quickly humans can forget to be thankful and appreciative. Jacob saw that Laban had become unfavorable toward him and knew that he needed to leave. Jacob was in what we would call (in the language of 2 Cor. 6) an “unequal yoke” with Laban, and these arrangements almost always turn sour.
Jacob’s Decision to Leave (vv.3-16)
3 And Jehovah said to Jacob, Return into the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee. v.3 A Word from the Lord. At the very time when Jacob saw that Laban and become unfavorable toward him, Jehovah spoke to him and gave him a direct command to return to Canaan. These are two ways the Lord can speak to us: through circumstances and through God’s Word. When the Lord gives us a command, He also gives us the grace to follow through and obey it; “and I will be with thee”. Notice that the Lord doesn’t reprimand Jacob for scheming. He leaves it to Jacob’s own conscience.
4 And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the fields to his flock, 5 and said to them, I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as previously; but the God of my father has been with me. 6 And you know that with all my power I have served your father. 7 And your father has mocked me, and has changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me. 8 If he said thus; The speckled shall be thy hire, then all the flocks bore speckled; and if he said thus: The ringstraked shall be thy hire, then all the flocks bore ringstraked. 9 And God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me. 10 And it came to pass at the time of the ardour of the flocks, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and behold, the rams that leaped upon the flocks were ringstraked, speckled, and spotted. 11 And the Angel of God said to me in a dream, Jacob! And I said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see: all the rams that leap upon the flock are ringstraked, speckled, and spotted; for I have seen all that Laban does to thee. 13 I am the GOD of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, where thou vowedst a vow to me. Now arise, depart out of this land, and return to the land of thy kindred. vv.4-13 Jacob explains to his wives. Jacob needed to explain his reasons for leaving to his wives. He “called Rachel and Leah to the fields”, which could have been because he wanted to do it away from Laban. He explained that even though he had worked honestly and faithfully, Laban had turned against him, and tried to rob him by changing his wages. But God, Elohim, was with Jacob, and would not allow Laban to succeed. Apparently Laban would zero in on one kind of cattle that was multiplying, and change Jacob’s wages to be only one kind; but the Lord would cause whichever type Laban chose for Jacob to multiply. “If he said thus; The speckled shall be thy hire, then all the flocks bore speckled; and if he said thus: The ringstraked shall be thy hire, then all the flocks bore ringstraked.” At first Jacob seemed to think it was his own skill in breeding that was the reason for his success, but he soon learned that the Lord was the cause; “God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me”. But as to which cattle Jacob should choose, the natural choice would have been to pick the solid colored, unblemished animals. But God appeared to Jacob in a dream and showed him which animals to choose. Jacob makes no mention of rods, instead acknowledging that it was the Lord who had blessed him. God identified Himself to Jacob as “the God of Bethel”, showing that He had kept His promise to be with Jacob, and care for his needs. It seems as if Jacob had grown in his soul. From being afraid at Bethel, he had come to value the Lord, if not walk in communion with Him. He could say, “Here am I”; this was a thing Samuel had to be taught, and Jacob as well. In recounting this dream, Jacob merged it with the one he had just had, in which the Lord told him to “arise, depart out of this land, and return to the land of thy kindred”. This also goes back to the dream at Bethel, where God told Jacob that He would bring him into the land of Canaan again. It is interesting that God reminds Jacob of the vow he had made at Bethel. Although it was not an intelligent thing to do at that time, perhaps the Lord valued it in a certain sense. This is similar to when Peter promised Jesus that he would lay down is own life for the Lord. Although it was wrong to say, the Lord valued the expression of devotion, and later gave Peter the strength and privilege to keep his vow.
14 And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not reckoned of him strangers? for he has sold us, and has even constantly devoured our money. 16 For all the wealth that God has taken from our father is ours and our children’s; and now whatever God has said to thee do. vv.14-16 Rachel and Leah Agree. Rachel and Leah seem to have had a poor relationship with their father Laban. They realized that Laban had more interest in money than in his girls; “for he has sold us”. They see no point in staying in Haran, because God had taken Laban’s wealth (or the wealth Laban gained through Jacob) and given it to Jacob. They viewed this wealth as their inheritance, and it was coming with Jacob wherever he went. Contrast the response of Rebecca in ch.24 compared with that of Rachel and Leah. Rebecca told her parents, “I will go with this man”. But Rachel and Leah agreed reluctantly to leave with Jacob, because there was no other option. They followed the money. Laban had taught his children his values. He valued money and his idols. His children had the same values.
Jacob Deceives Laban (vv.17-21)
17 And Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels, 18 and carried away all his cattle, and all his property that he had acquired — the cattle of his possessions that he had acquired in Padan-Aram, to go to Isaac his father, into the land of Canaan. 19 And Laban had gone to shear his sheep. And Rachel stole the teraphim that belonged to her father. 20 And Jacob deceived Laban the Syrian, in that he did not tell him that he fled. 21 And he fled with all that he had; and he rose up and passed over the river, and set his face toward mount Gilead. vv.17-21 Jacob packed up everything he had, his family and his possessions, and got set to return to Canaan. This is the first mention of Isaac’s name since ch.28. Jacob apparently did not want Laban to know he was leaving. Perhaps he feared that Laban would harm him in some way. It was right for Jacob to leave, but it was wrong for him to deceive Laban. Moreover, it was wrong for Rachel to steal Laban’s household gods, called “teraphim”. It is not stated exactly why Rachel stole the household gods. Some have suggested that she was merely trying to prevent Laban from consulting them, as he might use them to divine which direction Jacob had fled. However, Rachel’s defense of the idols later in the chapter (vv.31-35) would perhaps indicate that she actually wanted them for herself. She perhaps thought they would bring her good fortune. Remember that these were the gods the girls had grown up worshiping from their youth. Family habits and family idols are hard to let go of. Idolatry would later become a major snare to the children of Israel, resulting in their eventual expulsion from Canaan. How careful we need to be; “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Jacob left without a word to Laban, after twenty years of service. He passed over “the river”, which refers to the Euphrates, and headed toward Mt. Gilead, which was a rich cattle land to the east of the Jordan River.
Uneasy reconciliation (31:22-55)
Laban Pursues Jacob (vv.22-25)
22 And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled. 23 And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days` journey, and overtook him on mount Gilead. 24 And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said to him, Take care thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 25 And Laban came up with Jacob; and Jacob had pitched his tent on the mountain; Laban also with his brethren pitched on mount Gilead. vv.23-25 Laban wasted no time pursuing Jacob. No doubt he intended to have some harsh words for Jacob. However, God appeared to Laban and warned him to be careful; “Take care thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad”. This is another example of how the Lord was watching over Jacob providentially all this time. Nothing could hurt Jacob unless the Lord allowed it! In similar we, we as believers in Christ can be sure that He is watching over us, and can – if it is His will – stop anyone who seeks to hurt us. It is clear why God forbade Laban to speak “bad” to Jacob, but why was he forbidden to speak “good” to Jacob? Because God was dealing with Jacob in His government. It is possible, in our interactions with those God is chastening, to interfere in His work in their lives.
Laban Accuses Jacob (vv.26-30)
26 And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast deceived me, and hast carried away my daughters as captives of war? 27 Why didst thou flee away covertly, and steal away from me, and didst not tell me, that I might have conducted thee with mirth and with songs, with tambour and with harp; 28 and hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now thou hast acted foolishly. 29 It would be in the power of my hand to do you hurt; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, Take care that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 30 And now that thou must needs be gone, because thou greatly longedst after thy father’s house, why hast thou stolen my gods? vv.26-30 Laban next laid out his case against Jacob. It was quite dramatic. It was true that Jacob had deceived him; that was not an upright way for Jacob to leave. However, to say that Jacob had carried away Laban’s daughters “as captives of war” was a fine piece of lawyer-speech. Laban had very little affection for his daughters, and they all knew it. He then bemoans the lost opportunity to have a sending-off party; “with mirth and with songs, with tambour and with harp”. Laban made it sound like they were one big happy family; “and hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters”. In the next sentence, he says that if God hadn’t spoken to him, he could have hurt Jacob, in what way is not said. How deep was his affection for his daughters and grandchildren? Not very. But at last he brings up the issue of the stolen idols. Yet notice, how Laban could speak of the God of Jacob’s fathers and then of his own gods. Laban’s dream ought to have made him fear Elohim, and forget about his teraphim. But idols are hard to get rid of.
Jacob’s Defense (vv.31-42)
31 And Jacob answered and said to Laban, I was afraid; for I said, Lest thou shouldest take by force thy daughters from me. 32 With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, he shall not live. Before our brethren discern what is thine with me, and take it to thee. But Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. vv.31-32 Jacob’s Short Defense. Jacob revealed that he had acted out of fear, afraid that Laban would have refused to let Rachel and Leah leave. Whenever we act out of fear, unless it is the fear of the Lord, we act wrongly. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). Jacob then acts rashly, not fully appreciating what Rachel was capable of, and endangered her life; “with whomsoever thou findest thy gods, he shall not live”. Nevertheless, it shows that Jacob was personally innocent of the charge. In the matter of the idols, Jacob and Rachel were not on the same page. Often, when it comes to family idols, young husbands and wives find themselves discovering things that their spouse has brought into the marriage unbeknownst to them. We do well to never hide anything from our husband or our wife.
Idols in Jacobs’ Family. Jacob later became aware of the idols, as we see in ch.35. When the Lord appeared to Jacob and told him to go up to Bethel, Jacob decided that it was time to get rid of the idols. “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments… and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem” (Gen. 35:2-4). It would seem by this time that perhaps Rachel’s idolatry had spread through the whole family. Jacob insisted on a complete change before they went to Bethel (house of God). The idols were buried, their clothes changed, etc. It was a thorough cleansing, at least outwardly. The “oak” represents the cross of Christ, which separates us from everything in this world (Gal. 6:14).
33 And Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the two handmaids` tents, and found nothing; and he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered into Rachel’s tent. 34 Now Rachel had taken the teraphim and put them under the camel’s saddle; and she sat upon them. And Laban explored all the tent, but found nothing. 35 And she said to her father, Let it not be an occasion of anger in the eyes of my lord that I cannot rise up before thee, for it is with me after the manner of women. And he searched carefully, but did not find the teraphim. vv.34-35 Search for the Teraphim. Rachel was intent on hiding the teraphim. Whether she was worried for her life is doubtful. She may have been worried for Jacob and her son Joseph. But perhaps her wanted to keep these idols for herself. Family idols are the hardest ones to get rid of. Rachel gave an excuse for why she couldn’t get up. She told Laban that she was in her menstrual period, and therefore could not rise that he might search under the camel’s saddle. We aren’t told whether or not this was a lie, but it seems to be so. At any rate, it was a dishonest excuse to avoid Laban finding the idol. Sometimes we use physical excuses (and they may be legitimate, or perhaps not) to avoid obligation to do certain things or give up certain pet ideas; but underneath it all is an idol that we are trying to protect. Rachel’s excuse was effective; “And he searched carefully, but did not find the teraphim”.
36 And Jacob was angry, and he disputed with Laban. And Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my fault, what my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me? 37 Whereas thou hast explored all my baggage, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? Set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, and let them decide between us both. 38 These twenty years have I been with thee: thy ewes and thy she-goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock I have not eaten. 39 What was torn I have not brought to thee; I had to bear the loss of it: of my hand hast thou required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 Thus it was with me: in the day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep fled from mine eyes. 41 I have been these twenty years in thy house: I have served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy flock; and thou hast changed my wages ten times. 42 Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, been with me, it is certain thou wouldest have sent me away now empty. God has looked upon my affliction and the labour of my hands, and has judged last night. vv.36-42 Jacob’s Long Defense. Jacob’s defense earlier had been cut short by Laban’s accusation of the stolen idols. Now, with the search complete, Jacob has even more weight to his arguments! (At this time, he was still ignorant of Rachel’s actions.) Jacob was now angry, and he let loose on Laban. If Laban could talk like a lawyer, so could Jacob! Dramatically, Jacob says “Whereas thou hast explored all my baggage, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? Set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, and let them decide between us both.” We must remember that the search for the idols was very humiliating for Jacob; Laban had “explored” or “felt” all of Jacob’s baggage. It was a very natural response to be angry. Jacob went on to remind Laban of his diligent care for the sheep, and the personal cost to him; the heat, the frost, the sleepless nights, the twenty years of service, the changing wages. This shows the Jacob had a shepherd’s heart. It is interesting that some of the notable servants of God in the Old Testament, such as Moses and David, were shepherds. A shepherd knows what it is to sacrifice for the good of the sheep. God valued that character in Jacob. Finally, Jacob brings God into it. He finally seems to connect himself with “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac”. This is tremendous growth compared to where Jacob was in ch.28. Jacob had learned two things in Haran: that Laban was not on his side, and the God was on his side. These are two lessons we learn in the wilderness. Jacob was right. If God hadn’t been with Jacob, Laban would have used him indefinitely. This is the character of the world; it will exploit any who are willing to be exploited. As much energy and time as you are willing to give, the world will take it, and at the end, send you away “empty”. But God was watching over Jacob, and saw that he was compensated. It is beautiful to see Jacob acknowledge this.
The Covenant between Laban and Jacob (vv.43-55)
43 And Laban answered and said to Jacob, The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the flock is my flock, and all that thou seest is mine; but as for my daughters, what can I do this day to them, or to their sons whom they have brought forth? 44 And now, come, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be a witness between me and thee. vv.43-44 Laban still thought everything was his, though it was rightfully Jacob’s. This is the character of the world; to constantly claim things for one’s own, even what is rightfully another’s. This is the opposite to the character of men like Abraham. Abraham was willing to forego what he could have rightfully claimed (Gen. 13:9; 14:22-23; 23:16).
45 And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. 46 And Jacob said to his brethren, Gather stones. And they took stones, and made a heap, and ate there upon the heap. 47 And Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha [‘heap of witness’ (Aramaic)], and Jacob called it Galeed [‘heap of witness’ (Hebrew)]. 48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed, 49 — and Mizpah; for he said [‘watchtower’ (Hebrew)], Let Jehovah watch between me and thee, when we shall be hidden one from another: 50 if thou shouldest afflict my daughters, or if thou shouldest take wives besides my daughters, — no man is with us; see, God is witness between me and thee! 51 And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold the pillar which I have set up between me and thee: 52 let this heap be witness, and the pillar a witness, that neither I pass this heap to go to thee, nor thou pass this heap and this pillar to come to me, for harm. 53 The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us! And Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac. vv.45-53 The Heap and the Covenant. It is interesting that Jacob and Laban use different names that mean the same thing: “heap of witness”. Jacob used Hebrew, Laban used the Syrian tongue, or Aramaic. Jacob seems to be turning more toward home, and the land of promise, using the language of his own family rather than of Syria. In was an uneasy reconciliation with Laban. The terms of the covenant are less than friendly. Laban insults Jacob with the warning that he should not hurt Rachel and Leah, nor marry additional women. Had Laban forgotten that multiple wives for Jacob was his own idea? Jacob never seems to have wanted more than one wife. He insinuates that Jacob could not be trusted, therefore the Lord would watch him. Jacob made no stipulations, and was more interested in protection, that no harm would come to his family or his possessions. He was glad to be done with Laban. How sad when family relations deteriorate to a point where a legal agreement is needed between parties. This is the second of four pillars that Jacob sets up in his lifetime (see Gen. 28:18). This pillar marks his peace with and separation from Laban.
54 And Jacob offered a sacrifice upon the mountain, and invited his brethren to eat bread: and they ate bread, and lodged on the mountain. 55 And Laban rose early in the morning, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them; and Laban went and returned to his place. vv.54-55 Sacrifice and Departure. This is the first time we read of Jacob having a sacrifice. It would seem to be peace or thanksgiving offerings that were offered, in appreciation for the Lord’s protection. The extended family had one final meal together, although there is no mention of joy and laughter. Laban kissed his daughters and sons (grandsons meant) and returned to Haran.
Family Religion. God had called Abraham, but Terah had followed. Laban speaks of it as a family religion; “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father (Terah)”. But Laban never acknowledged the Lord as his own god; never the god of Laban. Laban had other gods. Laban was the third generation from Terah. This family had the outward profession of faith in God, but it had become empty. Laban was an empty shell. And this is the last we hear of that family.
Going back to his roots. In this chapter we have another step in the spiritual growth in the life of Jacob. He realized that Haran was not where he belonged, and now speaks of “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac”. Often when a believer goes off into the world, there comes a point where they are brought to realize that the world is not our home. Jacob has not yet returned to Bethel, nor can we call this “communion”, but it is a step in the right direction.
Typical Teaching. There is an application of this chapter to the uneasy relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles apart from Christ. The Gentiles (like Laban) accuse the Jews of being deceptive and of taking their wealth. In reality, though there was deception on Jacob’s part, the wealth was the result of God’s providential blessing. The Jews (like Jacob) accuse the Gentiles of oppressing them and mistreating them, which is true. But ultimately God has His hand upon the Jew for blessing as well as discipline. In Christ the “middle wall of partition” dividing Jew and Gentile has been removed.