55. Genesis 31

III. C. continued

5.  Jacob’s Escape from Laban (Genesis 31)

When a cheat realizes his plans are failing, he grows angry with his intended victim. After six years of the new deal they had agreed on,  it had become clear to Laban and his sons that the deal had gone sour, that all the good animals belonged to Jacob and belonged incontestably to him due to their coloring, that God was taking away what was Laban’s and was giving it to Jacob. If Laban did see God’s hand in Jacob’s share of the flocks then he profoundly under-estimated God’s immediacy. He still thought he could manipulate events in his favor with or without God’s cooperation. He had no idea just how directly involved in events God was willing to be. Laban is interesting as an example of the kind of spirituality that is so normal in the world, believing in God but not in His presence or power. He was part of the oral tradition that had preserved the first part of Genesis, as all of Abraham’s family had been, and there is no reason to think that he was worse than the usual representative of the “seed of the woman”. Again, it is an eye-opener whom God is willing to use to carry on His work in the world.

Since God had apparently revealed to Jacob that the striped, speckled, and mottled animals were the right animals to request for his wages six years previously, God’s appearance to him at the crisis calling him to go home was the third visitation from God to Jacob. Jacob’s attitude toward God had certainly altered from Bethel. For one thing, he knew that Laban outclassed him as a crook and that he was going to need some real help to get away. He was also beginning to be worried that he and his family were in actual danger from Laban and his sons. So when God told him in a vision to get out of there, it was reassuring to him, and all the more since he had fully realized that he owed all of his prosperity to God. It is interesting that when God spoke to him and told to leave Haran that He reminded him of his promise at Bethel, that if God would provide for him that he would worship God as his own God and give Him a tithe of everything. God intended to finish His probationary period and to hold Jacob to his word.

By this time, Rachel and Leah had both grown alienated from their father, who had been willing enough to try to cheat them as well now that they belonged to Jacob. It must have been one of the few times Jacob’s whole household was united in pursuing a single task. Reuben, the eldest, would have been about twelve or thirteen, Judah would have been about ten, and Joseph only about six, so his children would not have been a great help if it came to fighting. Jacob had been an older man when he fled from Esau, and was now in his mid-nineties, and he had never been vigorous like Esau had been. Though twenty years of hard work might have made him more vigorous, this would still have been a strain for him.

The description of Jacob’s cleverness in fleeing from Laban when Laban was not looking sounds sarcastic: how clever of him to not tell Laban that he was planning an escape. Clearly, Jacob was not the great general that his grandfather was. Moreover, though Jacob had acquired servants, they would not have been trained as soldiers as Abraham’s had been. His household was not prepared for fighting; so he did the only thing he could think of, getting as large a head start as possible and putting the Euphrates River between himself and Laban. It was a desperate move, but it was also courageous. A timid man would have tried to talk his way out, counting on family ties to protect his family. Laban would probably not have actually harmed Jacob or his family, but neither would he have let Jacob leave with more than a modest portion of what he had agreed to. Laban was not ruthless, but he was greedy and manipulative and craftier than Jacob; he was not above taking Jacob’s possessions by force.

It was inevitable that Laban would catch him; Jacob’s stealth had only bought him a three-day advantage. Jacob would have had to move slowly with his children and herds, while Laban took only men who could hurry. Even so Jacob had made it to the hill country of Gilead before Laban found him. In other words, Jacob had gotten most of the way to his home – not that he had much hope of a warm welcome when he got there – and this suggests that Laban had some difficulty finding him. Verse 23 says that Laban took seven days to find Jacob searching through that sparsely inhabited land. Jacob’s household was too big to keep unnoticed, but there were a lot of out-of-the-way places to hide. He clearly didn’t take the main trade route, and he was perhaps more clever at covering his tracks than we might give him credit for. Jacob made very good time over the ten days of his flight, and Laban was not a great tracker.

What Laban intended to do when he caught Jacob is not clear. Perhaps his intent was as evil as it sounds from the text, but he still had some respect and fear of God, especially after the warning in this first vision he had ever had. So his arrival at Jacob’s camp was one of bluster rather than serious threat. Laban continued to maintain his innocence, he continued to pretend that he had meant only kindness toward Jacob. He had brought what amounted to an army; he clearly had the power to do whatever he wished and Jacob could do nothing about it and Laban made sure to point that out. His kind intentions toward Jacob might have been doubted because of the rather threatening presence of his men, but his kind intentions were evidenced by his not using force when he could have. He was determined to at least make Jacob look like the one who was in the wrong, even if he was afraid of going against God, so he seized on the one legitimate gripe that he had: he had been robbed. Rachel had stolen Laban’s household idols. Though Laban didn’t know who had done it, he wanted those idols back. It was the only legitimate excuse he had for detaining Jacob.

Idolatry was thus a commonplace, even among the people that carried the oral tradition. Laban was part of that tribe that knew about the Creation and Fall and Flood and Babel. In 35:4 we see that it was also common in Jacob’s household for individuals to have their own gods. Jacob may not have told his servants much about the Covenant, and they might not have heard very much even about the oral tradition. Rachel and Leah were heir to the oral traditions, but not to the history that God had shared with Abraham. None of them knew, not even Jacob knew, that the God of Abraham and Isaac was the only true God, that idols were nothing, and that idols were offensive to God. God had not told them any of this and still did not tell them. He simply let them keep their idols, biding His time until the right opportunity to take the revelation further. Only because the search was not conducted thoroughly, and Rachel was a quick thinker, did Rachel get away with it.

But why did Rachel take her father’s idols? It was another superstition, the idea that possessing the idols of Laban gave her some power over him, perhaps some protection from him as well. Hence, when God intervened to protect them, from her viewpoint her theft of the idols was being justified: her trick had worked and stealing the idols had indeed helped to rescue them. Laban did tell them about his vision from the night before, so on one level she knew that God Most High had intervened. And yet superstition has deeper roots than that. It is likely that she attributed their deliverance mainly to the idols, rather than the God whom she had heard of but never seen.

Furthermore, Jacob didn’t know what she had done (eventually she would tell him since the story was preserved in the oral tradition) and had offered to execute whoever was found with the idols. Rachel’s life was in danger and so God again protected the life of the guilty, an idolater and thief, without any word of rebuke or correction. Later we will see that the issue of idolatry was very important to God, that it was one of the two or three most important issues to Him; and yet He could bide His time here. God’s priority has always been to behave with integrity, according to His own gracious character, rather than to demand that His own moral standards be obeyed. He won’t clear the guilty – this is utterly true – but even more importantly He won’t violate His own nature to punish the guilty.

Thanks to God’s intervention, however, Jacob did get away from Laban and the two made peace with each other. It is not known where the spot is that they made their covenant together. One significant thing that should be noticed about their covenant is how Laban made his vow to Jacob: in the name of “the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father”. Abraham had come from a family, as already alleged, that had a strong oral tradition and allegiance to God Most High. That oral tradition would not simply have disappeared once Abraham was called; it would have continued on as long as God kept it alive. When God does something special and new it does not mean that He abandons all that He had been previously doing. On the contrary, God worked outside of the Covenant to keep alive some knowledge of Himself in the world. Laban handed down his small part of the revelation, and God continued to work outside the Covenant among Laban’s family and others that are not mentioned here.

It is worth noticing 31:47. Laban and Jacob already spoke different dialects. Abraham had left Haran one hundred and eighty years previously certainly speaking the same Aramaic that the rest of his family spoke, but after almost two centuries his grandson had already begun speaking a dialect that would become Hebrew. At this early stage, it would have been only just beginning to separate into a distinct language, and he and Laban were still mutually intelligible to each other. In subsequent centuries, after a lengthy stay in Egypt, Hebrew would become completely distinct from Aramaic. It is the natural evolution of language. There would be no further close contact between Jacob’s descendants and Laban’s, and the day would come when the Aramaeans, of which Laban was part, would do harm to Jacob’s descendants.

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