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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Genesis 31

 

 

Verses 1-16

The increasing antagonism of Laban"s household encouraged Jacob to obey God"s command to return to the Promised Land ( Genesis 31:1-2).

"The true character of Laban is clearly seen from the fact that his daughters entirely sided with Jacob against their own father .... They too had experienced their father"s selfishness and greed, and were ready to approve of their husband"s project and to go with him." [Note: Thomas, p285.]


Verses 1-21

Jacob"s departure for Canaan31:1-21

God had been faithful in blessing Jacob, as He had promised Abraham and Isaac. Moses recorded the testimony to that fact in this section. Jacob acknowledged that God was responsible for his prosperity. God"s goodness and His command to return to the Promised Land ( Genesis 31:3), as well as Laban"s growing hostility ( Genesis 31:5), motivated Jacob to leave Paddan-aram.

It is unclear from what Jacob reported to his wives when the Angel of God appeared to him in the dream ( Genesis 31:10-13). This may have occurred before or at the same time as the revelation referred to earlier in this passage. It seems likely, however, that this was the same Revelation , God"s second to Jacob.

In this revelation Jacob learned that God had been responsible for his becoming richer ( Genesis 31:12). Jacob credited God with this and with his own survival ( Genesis 31:5; Genesis 31:7). This is the first time in the narrative that Jacob emerges as a man of public faith. He finally takes the leadership in his home, and his wives, for the first time, follow his lead.

"This is another case of the "Ruth effect," where the foreign wife commits herself and future to the God of her adopted family." [Note: Ibid, p510.]


Verses 17-21

"Rachel"s theft of her father"s idols [teraphim] ... reflects the Hurrian custom of keeping household gods.... Nevertheless, the real significance of what she did, and perhaps the reason for the theft, lies in the fact that according to the Nuzi tablets he who possessed the household gods was the legitimate heir." [Note: West, p70.]

Other writers, however, dispute this significance of the household gods at this time, as well as Rachel"s motivation.

"The supposed role of the teraphim . . . as constituting the title-deeds to inheritances ... seems also to be fallacious; .... Rachel simply took them for her own protection and blessing." [Note: Kitchen, The Bible . . ., p70. Cf. Barker, p135.]

These gods were usually small figurines (two to three inches long), sometimes carried on the body as charms, many of which archaeologists have discovered. They may have represented departed ancestors or gods that their makers venerated. [Note: See Wenham, Genesis 16-50 , p273.] Rachel may also have hoped they would make her a fruitful mother. [Note: See M. Greenberg, "Another Look at Rachel"s Theft of the Teraphim," Journal of Biblical Literature81 (1962):247; Harry A. Hoffner Jeremiah , "The Linguistic Origins of Teraphim," Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September1967):230-38; Gerhard Mehlman, " Genesis 31:19-39: An Interpretation," Journal of Reform Judaism29:3 (Summer1982):33-36; and Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 , pp518-19.]

"It is curious that Rachel, and not Leah should have almost always turned out to be Jacob"s greatest hindrance in life." [Note: Thomas, p285.]

The writer identified Jacob"s deception as such when he fled from Paddan-aram ( Genesis 31:20).


Verses 22-42

God revealed Himself to people other than the patriarchs in these days ( Genesis 31:29; cf. Abimelech in Genesis 20:3). Many scholars believe that Job also lived in the patriarchal period.

"Jacob and Rachel are again two of a kind. This time both almost bring ruin on the family by their risk taking: she by her rash theft, he by his rash vow ([ Genesis 31:32] cf. his sons" rash vow in Genesis 44:6-12)." [Note: Waltke, Genesis , p430.]

The teraphim were already "nothing gods," but they became unclean and suffered humiliation when Rachel, who claimed to be unclean, sat on them while menstruating ( Genesis 31:34-35; cf. Leviticus 15:20).

Under traditional ancient Near Eastern law, a shepherd was not held responsible for losses to his master"s flocks due to attacking wild beasts and, in some cases, thieves. [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50 , p277.] Yet Jacob had borne these losses ( Genesis 31:39). Laban had cheated Jacob.

"God has corked the bottle of his [Laban"s] aggressiveness." [Note: Fokkelman, p166.]

"Each of the three patriarchs had to be ingloriously extricated from some adventure." [Note: Kidner, p165.]

Note the similarity between Jacob"s escape from Laban and his descendants" escape from Egypt in the Exodus.

Jacob believed that he was innocent until proved guilty, but Laban felt he was guilty until proved innocent. "The fear of Isaac" ( Genesis 31:42; Genesis 31:53) is the God whom Isaac feared. Jacob"s words in Genesis 31:42 summarize his whole life in Harran.


Verses 22-55

Laban"s confrontation with Jacob31:22-55

God had promised to be with Jacob and to return him to Canaan ( Genesis 28:15). We see God doing this, in spite of Laban"s opposition, in this section.

"It was only by divine prospering and protection (24) that Jacob brought anything, even his life, back from exile." [Note: Kidner, p165.]

"Whatever wealth Abraham may have forfeited upon leaving the family unit of Terah in Haran comes to his heirs in this most unimaginable way." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 , p517.]


Verses 43-55

Jacob and Laban made a parity covenant, set up a stone pillar (Heb. misbah, standing stone) to mark the spot, and ate a meal together as part of the rite involved in establishing a covenant ( Genesis 31:44-48). They may have erected the heap of stones (Heb. gal, cairn, Genesis 31:46) both as a table for the meal and as a memorial of the event. Standing stones sometimes marked supposed dwelling places of the gods (cf. Genesis 28:17-18), and cairns often marked graves (cf. Joshua 7:26; Joshua 8:29; 2 Samuel 18:17).

Galeed ("witness heap," Genesis 31:47) is the name from which Gilead came. Gilead became a common name for this mountainous area east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee (Cinnereth, Hebrew for "lyre" denoting the shape of the lake) and the Dead (Salt) Sea (cf. Genesis 31:21; Genesis 31:23; Genesis 31:25).

The Song of Solomon -called "Mizpah [lit. watchtower] blessing" was not really a promise between friends but a warning between antagonists who did not trust each other ( Genesis 31:49). They called on God to keep each other true to the terms of the covenant they had just made. They could not check on each other themselves.

"This covenant also might be called a nonaggression pact." [Note: H. Vos, p122.]

"It is impossible to avoid noticing the curious misconception of the term "mizpah" which characterizes its use today. As used for a motto on rings, Christmas cards, and even as the title of an organization, it is interpreted to mean union, trust, fellowship; while its original meaning was that of separation, distrust, and warning. Two men, neither of whom trusted the other, said in effect: "I cannot trust you out of my sight. The Lord must be the watchman between us if we and our goods are to be kept safe from each other."" [Note: Thomas, p287.]

Laban had two deities in mind when he said "The God of Abraham and the god of Nahor" ( Genesis 31:53), as the Hebrew plural verb translated "judge" indicates. Jacob swore by the "Awesome One of Isaac," which indicates that he was worshipping the God of his fathers. Laban also swore by the pagan god his fathers worshipped.

Those who are obediently following God"s call and are experiencing His blessing can be confident that He will protect them.

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 31:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/genesis-31.html. 2012.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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