After twenty long years, Jacob leaves Laban and returns home. Jacob has worked for his father-in-law under different arrangements and for ever-changing wages. He worked for his wives and he worked for his flocks, and throughout the whole time God blessed him while Laban cheated him. The situation has now deteriorated to the point that Jacob knows it’s time to return to Canaan. But as with all things regarding Laban, the parting is messy and fraught with misunderstanding and deceit. Nevertheless, God is faithful and protects him and provides for him. The ultimate story of Jacob’s sojourn in Haran is of God keeping His promise to be with him and to bless him even in the face of overtly unjust treatment.
The method whereby Jacob builds his wealth – making sure only the strong produce his speckled flocks while the weak produce Laban’s white ones – apparently pays off fabulously as he becomes very wealthy (note how the sons of Laban refer to this wealth as if it’s apparent to everyone how much Jacob has) while Laban’s flocks dwindle. The change in fortunes is not unnoticed. Laban’s sons begin to grumble about Jacob growing more and more prosperous seemingly at their father’s expense. Laban – unsurprisingly – isn’t happy either, and begins to treat Jacob differently. He isn’t overly friendly to his son-in-law anymore.
At the same time God appears to Jacob and tells him to go back to Canaan. He not only tells him to go back, He tells him, “I will be with you.” Once again God is incredibly faithful to Jacob. He’s done everything He promised when He appeared at Bethel (over 20 years ago) and now encourages Jacob again during a stressful time. And unlike the decision to leave Canaan – made as a result of Jacob’s sin and for his survival – God is clearly with Jacob this time. Jacob has divine guidance that now is the right time to return home.
Based on the behavior of Laban and his sons and based on God’s command, Jacob decides to return home. He calls for his wives to meet him in the field with his flocks (probably so no one associated with Laban would overhear the conversation) and tells them it’s time to go.
He apparently thinks the women will take some convincing as he spends time building a case for leaving. He first tells them that things have changed with Laban and his attitude toward Jacob isn’t good. He then rehearses for them how bad it’s been working for Laban – how Laban’s changed Jacob’s wages ten times and repeatedly been unfaithful to him. Nevertheless, God has blessed him and even appeared to him in a vision and told him that He had seen how Laban treated him and that He would bless him at Laban’s expense (his explanation of the vision may mean that his using almond rods to affect offspring – 30:37-43 – was as a result of God’s guidance). He ends his case by telling them that God told him to leave and return to Canaan.
If Jacob worried that the women wouldn’t want to go, his worries were for naught. Rachel and Leah resent their father and have no problem leaving. They point out to Jacob that Laban profited from his giving them (“he sold us”) to Jacob and then did nothing to provide for their security. They say he “…entirely consumed our purchase price.” It’s not entirely clear what this means, but it could be that as the father of the two brides he was supposed to hold the bride price in trust that would accrue to them either upon his death or if they were deserted and in need. Instead of holding on to it, however, he profited from the 14 years of Jacob’s free labor and did nothing on behalf of his daughters. Thus they consider the wealth that God took away from Laban and gave to Jacob as justifiably theirs. It’s the wealth that should’ve been held for them anyway.
The women’s words to Jacob are the first sign we have in the story that perhaps they weren’t thrilled with how their dad manipulated the weddings. Remember that Rachel was betrothed to Jacob for seven years only to have him taken away at the last minute and given to her sister. And Leah’s marriage to him was based on trickery and deceit. So neither exactly had a storybook arrangement and 13 years later it appears they haven’t forgotten or forgiven. So as far as leaving the only home they’ve ever known and going to a land they’ve never been before – no problem at all. They effectively say to Jacob, “We’re all in, let’s leave.”
Once the three of them agree, Jacob makes arrangements to leave. He gathers his wives and children and puts them on camels and then begins to drive his flocks and livestock away. He does this while Laban is out shearing his sheep (a very labor-intensive process that requires many hands – likely no one associated with Laban is around as a result), so he doesn’t have to tell him he’s leaving. He sneaks away and avoids any confrontation.
Before the family leaves, Rachel steals Laban’s household idols. Nothing in the text explains why she does this. It could be that she’s superstitious and wants them along to guarantee her good luck and safety on a long journey and in a new home. Or possibly she takes them simply because they’re valuable (perhaps as another way to get what she thinks is rightfully hers). Regardless, it’s a short-sighted act that endangers the whole group. She has to know they’re very meaningful and/or valuable to her father. Surely she knows he won’t take their absence lightly.
Laban hears about Jacob leaving a few days later (the days mentioned in this text are somewhat problematic – it would be hard for Jacob to cover the distance the text says he covers in just 10 days with livestock and a family – and it doesn’t seem reasonable that Laban would need seven days to catch him even after Jacob has a three day head-start – it could be that the days mentioned are approximate or perhaps that Laban lingers a few days after hearing about Jacob’s departure before pursuing him) and goes after him. He catches up to him several days later and camps close by.
God appears to Laban on the night he catches up to Jacob. God tells him simply and clearly to be careful and not to harm Jacob. It is reminiscent of God’s appearance to Abimelech after he took Sarah into his harem and God told him he’d die as a result (20:3). In both cases the message is short and very clear – “Do not harm My servant.” And in both cases the message is heard and understood. God leaves no doubt as to whose side He’s on.
The next day Laban comes to Jacob and expresses his exasperation. He asks why he left without telling anyone and why he took Laban’s daughters away like captives. He then tells him how hurt he is that he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to his daughters and grandkids and send them all away with a great feast and celebration.
Laban’s words ring hollow. It’s hard to believe that he would’ve festively toasted Jacob’s departure. He already showed that he knew he had been blessed by Jacob’s presence and did his best to keep him from leaving at the end of the seven years worked for Rachel (30:27). And his relationship with his daughters doesn’t appear to be one that made parting difficult. And as for his contention that Jacob dragged the women away like captives, we know from their words earlier that they willingly left and felt no connection to their father at all. And if he’s sincere about regretting that he couldn’t give them a big sendoff, why did God have to warn him not to harm Jacob?
To Laban’s credit, he admits that God appeared to him (a proud man might hesitate to admit God tied his hands). He tells Jacob that it’s in his power to harm Jacob (“Yes I wanted to have a party for you, but I could also kill you right now”), but that he can’t because of God’s warning.
Laban ends his words with an accusation that likely takes Jacob completely by surprise. He says, “And now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” It would be interesting to witness this scene and watch Rachel. Might she have a knot in her stomach? Would we see her wince and try to act naturally?
Jacob explains to Laban that he left surreptitiously because he was afraid of what Laban would do. Specifically, he was afraid that Laban would take Rachel and Leah by force. We probably shouldn’t be too tough on Jacob, but his fear of Laban seems to stem from a lack of faith. Remember that God told Jacob to leave. Thus he didn’t have to sneak away the way he did when he fled from Esau. If God was behind his leaving Haran, it seems reasonable to assume he could’ve left in plain sight. He snuck away because he apparently didn’t trust God to protect him (which ironically is exactly what God is doing now).
Jacob also responds to Laban’s accusation regarding the gods. He tells Laban to look anywhere he wants and that anyone found in possession of the gods will die. He obviously has no idea Rachel took them. It may show how intense this encounter is for Jacob that he offers to execute anyone who has them. You get the impression in reading this that his emotions are raw and seeing Laban stirs up all kinds of feelings in him. [It would again be interesting to watch Rachel’s reaction when she hears Jacob offer to execute anyone who has the gods.]
Laban takes Jacob’s offer to look around very seriously. He goes through all of the tents – Jacob’s, Bilhah’s, Zilpah’s, Leah’s, and finally Rachel’s. Rachel – as we know – has the gods. She takes them (they apparently aren’t very big) and hides them in the camel’s saddle she has in the tent. Then she sits down on the saddle. When Laban comes into her tent, she tells him she’s menstruating (“the manner of women is upon me”) and can’t get up. Consequently, when he searches her tent (notice that he actually feels through her belongings – he REALLY wants these gods back) he finds nothing.
We should notice what this story says about Laban’s gods. First, they can be stolen and hidden. Second, they can be sat upon by a pseudo-menstruating woman. To the Hebrew mind this would be pathetic. Any gods that can be taken and hidden are no gods at all. And a menstruating woman is unclean and everywhere she sits is unclean (Lev 15:19-20), so for gods to be sat upon by a woman in her condition (even though she really isn’t in that condition) is disgraceful. The circumstances of the story show how worthless (other than in a monetary sense) Laban’s gods are.
When Laban finds nothing in the camp, Jacob goes off. It’s as if 20 years of frustration all come out. He demands of Laban to show what he found and explain what Jacob has done to justify Laban chasing him down. He then launches into a defense of how he served Laban for 20 years and that he never cheated him once. And even though he served Laban faithfully, Laban did nothing but cheat him and change his wages and treat him poorly. Jacob watched his flocks day and night, in good and bad weather, and always absorbed any losses from sheep being stolen or attacked. Yet Laban was ruthless with him and Jacob wouldn’t have anything at all if not for God’s faithfulness.
When Jacob describes God, he uses some interesting terms. He describes God as, “…the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac.” It’s not entirely clear why he says this (the author will use similar wording in verse 53). He refers twice to his father – once as father and once as Isaac. By saying God is the fear of Isaac, he may mean that God is the one who strikes fear into others. God watched over Isaac and caused those around Isaac to fear. It may also mean that God is one who Isaac fears. Either definition is possible and valid.
Laban responds to Jacob’s diatribe by claiming to be solely responsible for Jacob’s family and his wealth. He says Rachel and Leah are his, the children are his, and the flocks and livestock are his. Everything Jacob has is from Laban. He defends himself against Jacob’s claim that Laban treated him unfairly. Laban MADE Jacob (no room for God’s blessing in Laban’s perspective). He’s a proud man who wants to pretend he’s leaving on his own terms.
He tells Jacob they should make a covenant. They should covenant to never cross this land to harm one another. And Jacob must promise to treat Laban’s daughters well and not take other wives. And they should set up some kind of monument to mark the covenant.
It’s interesting to consider what Jacob thinks when he hears Laban’s suggestion. If there’s anyone who would have no problem breaking his word, it’s Laban. He’s proved over and over that he can’t be trusted. Yet he now wants to set up an everlasting covenant.
Regardless of what goes through Jacob’s mind, he agrees and sets up a monument to the agreement. He first raises a stone pillar (similar to what he did at Bethel – 28:18), and then asks the men who are there to gather stones and make a heap. Both the stone and the heap of stones will mark the covenant.
Laban says something interesting in verse 52 after the stones are raised. He says the stones will be a witness between the two men and that, “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor (Laban’s grandfather and Abraham’s brother), the God of their father, judge between us.” Notice that he doesn’t say anything about God being his God. God is the God of his fathers. When Laban is done speaking, Jacob swears by the fear of his father Isaac (which kind of sounds like he’s really scared of his dad). God is Jacob’s God regardless of what He is to Laban.
Once the monuments are up, Jacob offers a sacrifice and the group eats a covenant meal. The meal serves to seal the agreement. When the meal is over, Laban and his men spend the night and leave in the morning. Laban kisses his daughters and grandchildren (what he said he missed when Jacob snuck away) and blesses them. He then returns to Haran and exits the story of Genesis. This is the last of Laban in the book (and anyone who’s had dealings with him is not sad to see him go).
The story of Jacob’s sojourn in Haran with Laban is of God’s faithfulness in the midst of man’s continual deceit and selfishness (pretty much the message of any narrative in the Bible). Laban mistreats Jacob for almost the entire 20 years they’re associated with each other. And Jacob doesn’t always show himself to be righteous. Yet God faithfully does everything He promised at Bethel. When Jacob encountered Him at Bethel, God told him that He would be with him and would bless him and would bring him back to Canaan where his innumerable descendants would live (28:13-15). So Jacob spends 20 years being cheated out of wages and working for someone who takes advantage of him at every turn and yet comes back to Canaan enormously wealthy with 12 kids and two wives. Laban does everything he can to benefit from Jacob and use him. Yet in the end Laban’s wealth shrinks and Jacob prospers abundantly. The unjust circumstances of this life and the difficult people in this world are no match for the faithfulness of God.