In this chapter, Jacob decides that he wants to go back to his family in Canaan, but not before robbing Laban blind.
In the last chapter, Jacob used his superior understanding of how biology/breeding works to scam Laban out of his best livestock. While he hasn’t quite realized that this was, at best, morally ambiguous, he does seem to realize that it was likely to piss some people off. More specifically, it pissed off Laban and his family.
When Jacob overheard Laban’s sons saying that “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth” (Gen. 31:1) and realized that “Laban did not regard him with favor as before” (Gen. 31:2), he decided to high tail it out of Dodge.
So he calls Rachel and Leah over to him and explains the situation. He makes quite the case for himself, almost as if he’s trying to convince him. I was thinking this was pretty decent of him. Even though he’d already made his mind up to leave, he’s at least discussing his reasons with his wives. It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.
But once again, my study bible ruined it for me. Here’s what it has to say: “Jacob discusses the situation with his wives because legally they belong to their father’s house (v.14), and are part of the property.” I don’t really understand why this means that he has to discuss it with them, since I don’t really sit down and have a chat with my furniture before I move, but I figure that the scholars who added the notations to my study bible are far more knowledgeable about these things than I am.
Stealing from the in-laws
So Jacob got his wealth by tricking his father-in-law, which kinda straddles the thievery line. But Jacob doesn’t settle for such ambiguousness. Oh no!
In the morning, he wakes up early and packs up all his stuff to leave (cattle and wives included). Laban happens to be away sheering his sheep, so Rachel steals his household gods. This, according to my study bible, is a huge diss because the household gods “insured a man’s leadership of the family and his claim on the property.”
After three days, someone tells Laban that Jacob ran away, so he goes after him. The pursuit lasts for seven days until both Jacob and Laban end up in the hill country of Gilead.
At this point, God appears to Laban in a dream and tells him not to say a word to Jacob, “either good or bad” (Gen. 31:24).
The horrors of menstruation
Laban overtakes Jacob and confronts him. Like Abimelech before him, Laban points out how utterly ridiculous the patriarchs’ behaviour is. “What have you done, that you have cheated me. and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly, and cheat me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and sons, with tambourine and lyre? And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farwell? Now you have done foolishly” (Gen. 31:26-2).
At this point, my study bible (which I’m relying on far too much this chapter!) says that Laban’s argument “presupposes the legality of a type of marriage in which the wife stays in her father’s household and the husband must leave his family.”
Anyways, he continues by asking: “why did you steal my gods?” (Gen. 31-30). Jacob responds that it’s “because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force” (Gen. 31:31).
I’d just like to point out that this is the same excuse Abraham and Isaac each gave when they royally screwed someone over. In all three cases, the patriarchs justify their immorality by saying that they assumed everyone else was going to be immoral as well. More importantly, in all three cases, only the patriarchs behave immorally. And yet, God is on their side – not Abimelech’s, not Laban’s, not Pharaoh’s. God sides with his chosen people no matter what, never with the victim.
Moving on, Jacob invites Laban to search for his gods. Laban checks all the tents, all the camels, etc. Meanwhile, Rachel is sitting on them. When Laban comes to her, she says “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me” (Gen. 31:35).
Now, I’ve had cramps before, and they do get pretty bad sometimes. But I’ve never been unable to stand because of them.
Of course, we all know that that isn’t the issue here. It’s because menstruating women are so unclean. Just like my High School gym teacher, Laban wants absolutely nothing to do with menstruation. And like my gym teacher let all the girls skip his class at the mere mention of menstruation, Laban doesn’t search under Rachel and he never finds his gods.
There’s also the not-so-subtle “my gods are better than yours because, ha ha, yours have menstruation on them!” dig.
“You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine”
Jacob gets angry, complaining that he took good care of Laban’s livestock for twenty years, and paid out of pocket for all the sheep stolen by wild beasts and such. Therefore, it’s not really stealing if he takes them now. He’s totally just taking his due.
Jacob doesn’t seem to understand that the time for negotiating pay is before you do the work, not after.
Jacob also accuses Laban of changing his wages ten times (Gen. 31:41). This is the first I hear of it. The only thing Laban did that was pretty underhanded was switching Leah for Rachel, but that’s changing Jacob’s wages once, not ten times. So if this happened, it was all behind the scenes.
They accuse each other some more, and then Laban suggests a covenant. They decide to gather stones and make a little pillar (Laban calls it Jegarsahadutha, but Jacob calls it Galeed for some reason), and Jacob is never to step on Laban’s side of the pillar and Laban is never to step on Jacob’s. In addition, Laban makes Jacob swear that he will treat Rachel and Leah well and never take any other wives (in addition to Bilhah and Zilpah?). They both swear.
In the morning, Laban kisses his daughters and his grandchildren, blesses them, and then goes home.
All in all, Laban is a pretty decent guy. I find it interesting that I always seem to like the baddies more in these stories…