Genesis 31:19-31:55 Fathers’ Gods

family idols… folly… addiction… God’s chosen… trickster is tricked… wrong gods… years of anger… cruel exploitation… wise request… witness heap… Yahweh watching… emotional integrity… blessing…

Genesis 31:19-31:55

And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images that [were] her father’s. And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled.

Thus begins the “chase scene.” It is a dramatic picture. Laban is innocently going out to shear the sheep (gazaz tso’n). Rachel sneaks in to steal (ganab) Laban’s family idols (t@raphiym). Jacob sneaks out to steal Laban’s family.

We know why Jacob sneaks out, but why does Rachel sneak in? After all that Yahweh has done, why does she feel the need for false idols? Especially given how poorly they’ve served Laban, compared to what Yahweh has done for Jacob.

Yet, isn’t it always that way with children? We cling to the weak gods of childhood, even after we’ve encountered the Power of the One True God. Worse, we follow the idolatry of our parents, even though we despise what it did to them. Why?

One of the most insightful teachings I ever received was at SBCC in San Jose, when Dick Hockett spoke on the three types in Proverbs: simple, fool & mocker. In particular, he connected folly with addiction and idolatry — both being a denial of the true God and a search for meaning in a false one.

It is one thing to acknowledge God with our head, based on the visible experiences around us. It is another to accept God in our hearts, overcoming the conditioning and pain of our youth. Perhaps because Rachel had not forgiven Laban, she carried his folly with her — at great expense, as we shall see!

And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob was fled. And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days’ journey; and they overtook him in the mount Gilead.

It is interesting that Laban did not go alone. While his brethren (‘ach) may have just been worried family members, they would probably also have been his fighting force, in case it came down to a confrontation. At any rate, God is concerned enough to intervene:

And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.

I assume that’s an idiom warning against a confrontational approach. Still, one could take that as a warning to neither bribe (towb) nor bully (ra`) God’s chosen. Though Laban at least doesn’t take it completely literally, in that he does speak (and sharply) to Jacob:

And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters, as captives [taken] with the sword? Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp? And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters?

One wonders whether Laban is being sincere, or just wary of God’s displeasure. I actually think its both, sort of. If Jacob had come to him openly, I’m sure he’d have promised Jacob a party, and even now believes he would have thrown it in good faith. But, in practice, I suspect he’d have kept putting off the actual event, and finding ways to keep Jacob around. Even now, he makes it clear that the only reason he treats Jacob well is God’s protection — not any natural compassion:

thou hast now done foolishly in [so] doing. It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.

So much for that; but then the plot thickens:

And now, [though] thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father’s house, [yet] wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?

Jacob defends his departure:

And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou wouldest take by force thy daughters from me.

Perhaps excessive fear (yare’), but then again perhaps not; after all, nobody interceded on his behalf when he was cheated of a wife before.

Conversely, he vehemently (and sincerely) denies any involvement with the theft of Laban’s gods:

With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern thou what [is] thine with me, and take [it] to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them.

Poor Jacob. Perhaps in his case love truly was blind as to how much of Laban’s folly Rachel still carried with her.

Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel’s furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found [them] not.

Laban the trickster is tricked again, this time by his own offspring. He feels around (mashash) for his gods without finding (matsa’) them. Rachel is bold enough to lie to his face about it:

And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women [is] upon me. And he searched, but found not the images.

Interestingly, he searches (chaphas) again (apparently after her odd statement), but still without finding (matsa’). Poor Laban, looking for the wrong gods in almost the right place.

Jacob apparently takes this lack of success as proof that the whole scheme was another trick of Laban’s to harass him. Unfair, but understandable:

And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What [is] my trespass? what [is] my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me?

That’s the way of it. When a relationship is based on fear rather than love, resentment builds up, until even legitimate actions are seen as persecution. Jacob proceeds to vent (riyb) twenty years of anger (charah):

This twenty years [have] I [been] with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn [of beasts] I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, [whether] stolen by day, or stolen by night. [Thus] I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times.

Yow! We know the first seven years were served joyfully, but the weight of the other thirteen, especially the last six, have burned that memory out of him; or caused him to see them as a cruel exploitation rather than an act of love.

Interestingly, though, that very injustice is what manifested God’s graciousness:

Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked [thee] yesternight.

Laban’s reply is odd, and if anything seems to support Jacob’s fear that Laban would have held on to what Jacob had earned:

And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, [These] daughters [are] my daughters, and [these] children [are] my children, and [these] cattle [are] my cattle, and all that thou seest [is] mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or unto their children which they have born?

Not sure if he’s bewailing the loss of his possessions, or the loss of opportunity to bless his family — or just admitting that he can’t attack Jacob without hurting himself. I suspect his grief is genuine, though I doubt even he can tell when he’s being sincere nowadays.

Still, despite all that, he does seem to make a wise request for a covenant (b@riyth):

Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee.

The witness (‘ed) is sealed with a heap (gal) of stones (‘eben) and supper (‘akal):

And Jacob took a stone, and set it up [for] a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap.

So Jacob calls it a witness heap (Gal`ed) in Hebrew, as Laban does in Aramaic (Y@gar Sahaduwtha’):

And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.

Then Laban adds Mizpah (Mitspah), for Yawheh is watching (tsaphah) over his daughters (bath):

And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take [other] wives beside my daughters, no man [is] with us; see, God [is] witness betwixt me and thee.

At some level, I’m sure Laban really did love his daughters, and wanted what was best for them. It is just, like an alcoholic, he didn’t have the emotional integrity to act consistent with that intention.

They swear by the God (‘elohiym) of their respective ancestors:

The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac.

sealed with a sacrifice (zebach):

Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount.

and ending with a blessing (barak), which apparently included the grandchildren:

And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place.

I have to say, I feel for Laban. I know his problems are mostly of his own making, and that his good behavior towards Jacob at the end is more forced than spontaneous. Yet, he was a creature of his times, and his family; and whatever his other faults, he did what he could for his children, as best he knew how. When the rubber hit the road, and his gods of trickery and deceit had deserted him, he called on the true God to protect his family, and blessed them in His name.

Few of us can aspire to do much better than that.


God, perhaps the reason I speak so harshly of Laban is that I see myself in him. Though I’ve known you since my youth, I’ve often trusted in my own cleverness and manipulation to achieve my goals, even the noble ones. May I not wait until my children rob me of my idols to call on Your name. May I call on You as a witness even now, before they are born, to watch over and protect them, and grant them godly mates who will love and honor them. Teach me that my possessions, even my loved ones, belong to you even before they belong to me. Remind me that you are watching over my every step; may your hand be upon me, to keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain. Amen.