Commentary on Genesis 31

Last updated: October 14, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” 2And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before. 3Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

4So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was 5and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. 8If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. 9Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'” 14Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.”

17So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

22When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

25And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” 31Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.

33So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. 34Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. 35And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods.

36Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. 38These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.”

43Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day for these my daughters or for their children whom they have borne? 44Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me.” 45So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. 48Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he named it Galeed, 49and Mizpah, for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. 50If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”

51Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.

55Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.

Notes

1 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.”

The sons of Laban view the transfer of wealth as a bad thing while the daughters of Laban view it as a good thing (vv 14-16). Jacob acquired the wealth fairly (30:25-43). The sons lament the loss of much of their inheritance.

3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

Laban’s change of heart (v 2) is contrasted with God’s consistent attitude toward Jacob (28:13-16).

4-5 So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me.

The meeting is held in the field because it would make it more difficult for someone to eavesdrop on them. In his speech, Jacob contrasts Laban to God and makes it evident that God is on his side.

8 If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped.

The writer here presupposes the previous story. This makes it less likely that a different course of events is being described; rather, the same events are being viewed from two different perspectives. There, it was the author’s viewpoint; here, it is Jacob’s perhaps somewhat tendentious account designed to impress his wives that God is really with him. This is why he emphasizes that however Laban switched the agreement, fate minutely followed him: speckled and striped differ by only one letter in the Hebrew. No doubt there would have been times in the six years that Jacob was stock-breeding for Laban to change the agreement in the hope of doing better out of it. So it seems unlikely that the details here are incompatible with the version in 30:25-31:1.1

9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.

The Hebrew literally says that God rescued the livestock. God has done them a favor by giving them to Jacob.2

12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.

This obscure vision shows that God was behind Jacob’s successful breeding techniques.

13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'”

Jacob is reminded of his vow at Bethel where he said that if God would protect him on his journey he would return to the promised land and worship God.

14-16 Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.”

The willingness of Leah and Rachel to leave is premised on an accusation against their father concerning his handling of their inheritance. As mentioned above, the bride price paid by the husband’s family was supposed to be held in trust in the event it was needed to provide for the wife if she were abandoned or widowed. Jacob, of course, gave no bride price but his labor, so the equivalent of his wages should have been set aside for the women. Apparently that was never done. Jacob’s labor has benefited Laban, not the women; thus, it is as if he has “sold” them to Jacob. If their father’s house holds no economic security for them, they have no reason to stay.3

18 He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac.

This cluster of phrases underscores Jacob’s claim to absolute and rightful ownership of all his possessions.

19 Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods.

Jacob was able to escape because Laban was shearing sheep, a very busy time for sheep farmers.4 It is unclear why Rachel stole the household gods (teraphim). If they were made of precious metal, she may have stolen them to make up for the inheritance she thought her father had deprived her of.5

21 He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

Gilead stretched from its northern boundary of the Yarmuk River, lying alongside the eastern side of the Jordan valley, to the southern border of the Arnon River, an area approximating modern Jordan. The flow of the River Jabbok divides the region into northern and southern sectors, which was the momentous site of Jacob’s crossing (32:22). Mention of the “hill country” suits the topography of the region that was mountainous and lushly forested. Such challenging terrain for the migration of herds would have impeded his progress significantly but provided a good hideout.6

22-23 When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead.

Whenever the text refers to a journey of a particular number of days, the number is one, three, or seven. This suggests we are dealing with an idiomatic expression here. Gilead is over three hundred miles from Haran and therefore it would take more than ten days for Laban to overtake Jacob in Gilead.7

24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

This dream is similar to the dream of Abimelech in 20:3. As the later narrative shows, this dream does not prohibit Laban from speaking to Jacob, rather it prohibits him from harming Jacob (v 29).

26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword?

What have you done” were the words spoken by Jacob the morning after his wedding (29:25). Laban’s daughters went willingly with Jacob (vv 14-16).

35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods.

Rachel says her menstrual cycle prevented her from standing. According to Leviticus 15:19-26, the household gods would have been defiled if they were sat on by a menstruating woman.

39 What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night.

Under traditional ancient Near Eastern law, the shepherd was not responsible for losses caused by wild beasts and in some cases theft (Exodus 22:9-12).8

47 Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed.

Both Jegar-sahadutha and Galeed mean “heap of witness.” Jegar-sahadutha is an Aramaic name (Galeed is Hebrew), presumably reflecting Laban’s mother tongue.9

48-50 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he named it Galeed, and Mizpah, for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”

Mizpah means watchtower.10 Laban may have forbidden Jacob from marrying other women so that his daughters’ children would not have to share the inheritance with the offspring of other women.

51-54 Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.

In accord with the typical pattern of treaty between peoples, Laban invoked the deity to observe their compliance to the stipulations of the covenant. Different interpretations of Laban’s invocation have implications for understanding the nature of Laban’s religion. The plural number verb in the clause “. . . judge (yispetu) between us” may indicate that the deities of Abraham and Nahor are different gods. The SP and LXX reflect the single verb (yispot), indicating that the deity is the same. The further expression, “the God [or gods] [elohe] of their father,” recalls the two parties’ common ancestor, Terah, who practiced polytheism (Josh 24:15, “the gods [elohim] you forefathers served beyond the River”). A plural interpretation, “the gods of their father,” is possible, referring to different deities (cf. “their ancestral deities,” NAB, NJPS). Since the phrase is absent in the LXX, some commentators and EVs (NJB, REB) consider the clause a gloss. That it suits, however, what we know of the author’s desire in this chapter to show the final severing of the two clans argues for accepting it as original. That Jacob swears by his own father’s God (“Fear of his father Isaac”) implies a difference in the deities of the families. Some EVs indicate Laban’s different religion by translating “the god of Nahor” (NJB, NAB, NJPS) or “the gods of Nahor” (HCSB), distinguishing his deity from the orthodox “God of Abraham.”11

55 Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.

God had faithfully returned Jacob to the promised land. Laban was able to kiss his daughters and grandchildren goodbye (v 28) and then the two peoples (Arameans and Hebrews) separated completely.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 271.

2Ibid.

3Walton, Genesis, 590.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 299.

5Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 517-520.

6Ibid., 520.

7Walton, Genesis, 590-591.

8Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 277.

9Ibid., 280.

10Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 533.

11Ibid., 535.

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