Bible Commentary: Genesis 31

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Genesis 31

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Jacob Departs from Laban

Jacob prospered with God’s blessing and his own clever management of the flocks. But as Jacob increased, Laban decreased. This irritated Laban, especially since he thought his deal with Jacob to be overwhelmingly to his advantage. It also appears that Laban had gotten into the habit of living high while God blessed him because of Jacob, and the decrease in revenue meant an uncomfortable tightening of the belt. Indeed, Laban had wasted the bridal price of 14 years’ labor Jacob had paid for his two wives (verses 15-16). In those days the bridal price was kept by the father in behalf of the daughters as a trust, but Laban had improperly consumed the money. Finally, seeing their father’s fortune decline, Laban’s sons became concerned that they would inherit nothing if something was not done soon.

With increasing hostility between Laban and Jacob and the possibility that Laban’s sons might take some action against Jacob and his family, it was time to leave. Jacob’s speech to his wives prior to departure reveals the duplicity of Laban, the faith of Jacob and the providence of God. During the six years that Jacob tended Laban’s flocks (verse 41), Laban changed the terms of the deal between himself and Jacob many times. But with each change Jacob faithfully relied on God for continued blessing. And with each change, God provided that blessing. Finally, God commanded Jacob to leave. So Jacob left, but without telling Laban, attempting to avoid a confrontation.

Before he left, though, Rachel stole Laban’s household idols. It is possible that she took the idols because it was commonly believed that the possessor of the idols would enjoy the blessing of the gods; Rachel, according to the paganism in which she was raised, may have attempted to “secure” her husband’s good fortune. Yet she and Leah had apparently both come to worship the true God, seeing Him as the one who had blessed them with children and wealth and the one from whom to seek direction (see Genesis 29:32 Genesis 29:32And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the LORD has looked on my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me.
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; Genesis 30:22-23 Genesis 30:22-23 [22] And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. [23] And she conceived, and bore a son; and said, God has taken away my reproach:
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; Genesis 31:16 Genesis 31:16For all the riches which God has taken from our father, that is ours, and our children's: now then, whatever God has said to you, do.
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). Why, then, did Rachel take the idols? A number of commentators point out that the most likely explanation is that she stole them because they represented ownership of Laban’s possessions. The one who had the idols could thereby prove himself or herself to be the legitimate owner or heir to the property. For instance, the Broadman Bible Commentary states: “The possession of household gods was legal proof of the right to inheritance. Since Rachel believed that the property should be theirs, she ‘appropriated’ what she considered to be hers by right. This did not make the act any less wrong” (vol. 1, p. 220).

Laban, of course, pursued, angered not only by Jacob’s fortune, but also Jacob’s sudden departure and the disappearance of Laban’s household idols. However, God warned him in a dream not to speak “good or bad” to Jacob. Nevertheless, Laban upbraided Jacob for leaving, feigning that he would have sent them away with a great feast. Since he could not compel Jacob’s return, Laban turned his attention to the household idols. After an unsuccessful search of Jacob’s goods—Rachel having hidden the idols—Jacob upbraided Laban. Take note of how Jacob attributes his success to God and portrays God as having judged Jacob’s cause as righteous. Again, this is more evidence of the character development of Jacob.

In parting, Jacob and Laban erected a pillar stone. This stone, however, was different from the stone that Jacob erected in Bethel. This stone was not a sacred stone, but a memorial stone. It stood in that place as a reminder to all who passed by of the covenant made there between Laban and Jacob.

It should perhaps be mentioned that in spite of Laban’s chicanery and double-dealing, he may have been expressing genuine fatherly concern in the end (see Genesis 31:49-50 Genesis 31:49-50 [49] And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and you, when we are absent one from another. [50] If you shall afflict my daughters, or if you shall take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness between me and you.
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, Genesis 31:53 Genesis 31:53The 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.
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, Genesis 31:55 Genesis 31:55And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned to his place.
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). He didn’t have to make it part of the agreement that Jacob take no other wives. (It is interesting in verse 50 that Laban does not regard the maidservants as wives, as these concubines were looked upon as “surrogate mothers” for his daughters). And it is interesting to note his repeated references to the true God. While he was shaken by his dream to be sure, there would seem to be more to it than that. God had used Laban to bring about a dramatic change in Jacob’s character over the course of 20 years. Yet in all that time, Jacob had in turn served as quite a witness to Laban—there were certainly lessons in it for him too. Perhaps here at the end—broke, losing his family and seeing everything he had plotted and schemed after for so long now slipping away—Laban had finally gotten the point.