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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 31

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


In this chapter is the record of Jacob’s leaving Paddan-aram and taking the long journey back to his ancestral home at Beersheba, taking with him his wives and children and all of the wealth which he gathered “beyond the River,” i.e., the Euphrates. His increasing awareness of the increasing hostility of Laban, his enlistment of his wives as helpers in his secret departure, the actual departure, Laban’s angry pursuit, their confrontation in the hills of Gilead, and the amicable settlement of their hostilities, which was commemorated by the erection of a cairn of stones and a festive meal together — all are here interwoven to form one of the most interesting chapters in the Bible. This effective narrative is a unity, a fact attested by the skilled and brilliant manner of its presentation.

We shall pay but little attention to the fulminations of the critics who are continually preoccupied with their search for multiple sources, missing altogether the startling magnificence of this marvelous story of Jacob, the Israel of God. Critical allegations include the assertions that:

(1) Genesis 31:1-2, give “different reasons” for Jacob’s decision to leave the vicinity of Haran. As anyone may read himself, the text gives three or four reasons why Jacob decided to leave, all of which are related and presented here in a most logical and consistent fashion, all of the elements thus mentioned constituting in the aggregate the basis of Jacob’s decision.

(2) Genesis 31:17-18 and Genesis 31:21 give duplicate accounts of Jacob’s flight with all his possessions. This is simply an untruth. Genesis 31:17-18 record the patriarch’s start of the journey, and Genesis 31:21 relates the irrevocable beginning of it by his passing beyond “the River,” the purpose of it being to tell HOW he left, as plainly stated in the text: “So he fled with all that he had.”

(3) Genesis 31:23; Genesis 31:25 report twice that Laban overtook Jacob. Again, this is not a true allegation. Genesis 31:23 stated that Laban undertook to catch up with Jacob and his mission was successful. The mention that he “overtook him” is plainly proleptic, for the very next verse recounts God’s appearance to Laban, an event that occurred before he actually came near Jacob. The statement of Genesis 31:25, “that Laban came up with Jacob,” was necessary to show that, despite the warning of God, Laban went ahead and “drew alongside” of Jacob, i.e. “came up with him,” a far different thing from what was said in Genesis 31:23, not a duplication at all but an additional fact necessary to the intelligent continuity of the narrative.

(4) Genesis 31:31; Genesis 31:36 present “two different replies” of Jacob to Laban. So what? Two different replies were necessary, because they were made under widely different circumstances, and in starkly different situations. In Genesis 31:31, Jacob pleaded his fear, and responded to Laban’s allegation of the theft of his gods by offering to submit his possessions to Laban’s search. In Genesis 31:36-42, the accumulated wrath and resentment in Jacob’s heart burst out of the inhibitions which had restrained him for twenty years; and, as we would say, “he let the old hypocrite have it!” (Only a critic would find fault with this narrative).

(5) The memorial is called “a pillar” in Genesis 31:45, and “a cairn of stones” in Genesis 31:46. So what! It was both. First, Jacob erected the upright pillar, and then his retainers and sons, aided by Laban and his retainers, gathered stones and piled them around the pillar. Josephus explains this fully: “They erected a pillar in the form of an altar.”(F1)

(6) The principal objection, however, lies in what is alleged to be two different accounts in Genesis 30 and Genesis 31 of how Jacob came into possession of so many of Laban’s cattle. They do not understand that God’s revelation to Jacob of the increase of vast numbers of the parti-colored cattle came before the agreement with Laban on Jacob’s wages, and is related here retrospectively in order for Jacob’s wives to understand the providential aid he had received. Prejudice alone can account for the charge that Jacob here lied about that in order to impress his wives. See our comment on this in Genesis 30. Many scholars and all of the critics overlook this. As Morris noted:

“Jacob made no claim at all that it was by his own ability or ingenuity that he had acquired such wealth; he gave all the credit to the Lord, as indeed he should have done, because his prosperity was entirely due to the Lord.”(F2)

Kline agreed that the dream mentioned in this chapter “referred to two dreams, the earlier one (regarding the speckled cattle), and the later one (with the divine command to leave Laban).”(F3) After the Hebrew style, the dreams are not clearly distinguished here, except by the subject matter. Thomas Whitelaw also perceived that, “The dream here (Genesis 31:10) goes back to the commencement of the six years’ service.”(F4) All of the problems that critics find in this area are due solely to their failure to understand what is written.

We shall proceed no further with this brief exploration of the picayune, nit-picking, fault findings of Biblical enemies. We may well summarize their efforts, as did Aalders: “Such things provide no basis for discovering multiple sources.”(F5) It is a pleasure to turn now to a study of the Sacred Text itself.

Verses 1-3

“And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, Jacob hath taken away all that was our father’s; and, of that which was our father’s hath he gotten all this glory. And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and behold, it was not toward him as beforetime. And Jehovah said unto Jacob, Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee.”

The three-fold reason for Jacob’s forthcoming departure is here outlined:

(1) Jacob had heard the ominous and hostile words of Laban’s sons, a development rising out of Jacob’s prosperity; and

(2) the fact that trouble was brewing was confirmed by the attitude of Laban, which toward Jacob had changed to hostility from friendliness; and

(3) Jehovah commanded him to leave. All this together signaled to Jacob that the hour for leaving Paddan-aram had struck. He moved at once to procure the aid of his wives and to inform them of the basis for his decision. Jacob’s age at this time was “either ninety-seven or seventy-seven,” depending upon which method of calculating it is followed.(F6)

Verses 4-13

“And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah unto the field unto his flock, and said unto them, I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as beforetime; but the God of my father hath been with me. And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me. If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages; then all the flocks bare speckled: and if he said thus, The ringstreaked shall be thy wages; then bare all the flock ring-streaked. Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me. And it came to pass at the time the flocks conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and behold, the he-goats which leaped upon the flock were ringstreaked, speckled, and grizzled. And the angel of God said unto me in the dream, Jacob: and I said, Here am I. And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see: all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are ringstreaked, speckled, and grizzled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth to thee. I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst a pillar, where thou vowest a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out of this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity.”

Here is supplementary information to that given in Genesis 30, and it appears that the parti-colored cattle were due to a providential act of God, and not in any way connected with the peeled rods (except, possibly, by their being some kind of test of Jacob’s faith). The key thing in his enrichment was the fore-knowledge afforded by the divine dream that lay behind his choice of wages.

“And changed my wages ten times” This is said to mean, merely “numerous times,” after the customary Hebrew usage. “The number ten expresses the idea of completeness.(F7) It is used in Revelation simply to express multiplicity, as in the case of the “ten horns” (Revelation 18). No matter what Laban did, every change turned out to the benefit of Jacob.

It is significant that this dream’s connection with events that occurred at the very beginning of the six years of service is dramatically emphasized in the Samaritan version. “It gives us the whole of this dream at the end of Genesis 30:36.”(F8)

Verses 14-16

“And Rachel and Leah said unto him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as foreigners? for he hath sold us, and hath also quite devoured our money. For all the riches which God hath taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s: now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.”

“Rachel and Leah” “Rachel’s place as the favorite wife appears throughout this event, indicated by her being mentioned first, and by other clues in evidence later.

Laban had failed to keep the respect of his daughters because of the shameful way he dealt with them. “They sided with Jacob, embittered by Laban’s meanness in giving them no part of the bride-price.”(F9) This was not only a heartless deprivation of his daughters, but it was also contrary to “what was normally done in that area.”(F10)

“Is there yet any portion … for us … ?” “This is an inquiry to which a negative response is anticipated.”(F11)

“He hath sold us” “Since Jacob married in Laban’s house, Laban gave his daughters no presents. The whole dowry of Jacob’s fourteen years of hard labor went to Laban.”(F12) His daughters considered that he had simply “sold” them.

Verses 17-21

“Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon the camels; and he carried away all his cattle, and all his substance which he had gathered, the cattle of his getting, which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to Isaac his father unto the land of Canaan. Now Laban was gone to shear his sheep: and Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father’s. And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled. So he fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the River, and set his face toward the mountains of Gilead.”

See the comment in chapter introduction about this so-called report of Jacob’s departure. Jacob’s oldest son was only about thirteen years old, and his youngest was about six, and they “were unable to undertake a journey to Canaan on foot. Therefore, the children and wives were placed upon the camels.”(F13)

“Rachel stole the teraphim” These were pagan gods, small idols, prominently used by many idolatrous pagans, corresponding, as Dummelow thought, “to the `Lares and Penates,’ household gods of the Romans, which were supposed to ward off danger from the home, and bring luck.”(F14) All kinds of reasons have been supposed to lie behind Rachel’s actions here. Morris pointed out that, according to the Nuzu tablets, excavated in 1930, “The teraphim were associated with the inheritance and property rights of the owner,”(F15) and that it could have been possible that Rachel supposed her possession of these would “help to validate the legitimacy of her husband’s title to the flocks and herds he had acquired while serving Laban.”(F16) “One Jewish midrash suggested that Rachel took the idols in order to keep her father from worshipping them!”(F17) Our own view is that Rachel herself was inclined to idolatry. The fact that her posterity later led the way in the paganizing of Israel suggests that the root of that apostasy actually lay right here in the attitude of Rachel!

“The teraphim” “These objects were worshipped as gods, consulted for oracles, and believed to be the custodians and promoters of human happiness.”(F18) They were variously made of wood, precious metals, or stone, and seemed to have been of different sizes ranging from small and easily concealed objects to a figure the equivalent of a human bust. (Judges 17:4). They evidently bore some resemblance to the human figure, and some have supposed that they were carved images of the devotee’s ancestors.

“Stole away unawares” The literal words here, “stole the heart of Laban,” do not mean that Laban’s heart was focused on his daughters and that Jacob had, in taking them, stolen Laban’s heart, but, as Skinner noted, “It means he deceived the heart, i.e., the seat of his intelligence.”(F19) The colloquial American idiom, “He stole him blind,” is the equivalent!

“He passed over the River” The River here is the Euphrates, which in the Bible is called, “by preeminence, the river (1 Kings 4:21; Ezra 4:10; Ezra 4:16).”(F20)

“Set his face toward the mountains of Gilead” “These mountains lay eastward from the territories later possessed by Rueben and Gad, extending from Mount Hermon to the mountains of Moab, and called in the New Testament, Trachonitis.”(F21)

Verses 22-32

“And it was told to Laban on the third day that Jacob was fled. And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days’ journey; and he overtook him in the mountains of Gilead. And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream of the night, and said unto him, Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. And Laban came up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mountain: and Laban and his brethren encamped in the mountain of Gilead. And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters as captives of the sword? Wherefore didst thou flee secretly, and steal away from me, and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth and with songs, with tabret and with harp; and didst not suffer me to kiss my sons and my daughters? now hast thou done foolishly. It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. And now, though thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father’s house, yet wherefore hast thou stolen my gods? And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Lest thou shouldest take thy daughters from me by force. With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, he shall not live: before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them.”

“Laban’s pursuit covered about 300 miles. Jacob’s company had about ten days to cover somewhat less than that, for he would have stationed his flocks strategically for departure.”(F22) As a matter of fact, we learned in Genesis 30:36 that Jacob had stationed them “three days’ journey” from Laban; and that means Jacob traveled about 250 miles to reach the place of their confrontation. Even so, 25 miles a day with a large herd of cattle appears to be unusual, and it is not unlikely that Laban may have lost a day or two getting started. He had to gather together his forces, and make arrangements for leaving his flocks and herds safely tended, and even if he got started the very next day, which the text seems to say, it might have been quite late. We are inclined to agree with Aalders that, “Laban knew that Jacob would be compelled to move slowly, and thus he was in no hurry to gather his forces and launch his pursuit.”(F23) The text does not tell us how long it took Jacob to reach the mountains of Gilead.

“Speak not to Jacob either good or bad” This is an idiomatic expression, “a proverbial phrase for opposition or interference.”(F24)

“Wherefore hast thou stolen my gods … ?” Augustine noted that this is the first Scriptural reference to heathen gods. And significantly, it carries the condemnation of them in reference. What kind of “gods” are those which may be stolen!

“Wherefore didst thou flee secretly … ?” Laban’s pretense here, that if he had known of Jacob’s desire, he would have sent him away by the celebration of festivities would appear to have been the height of hypocrisy. The Bible does not mention it, but the Jewish tradition persisted on this to the effect that, “After twenty years, Jacob desired permission from his father-in-law to take his wives and go home, but when his father-in-law would not give him permission, he contrived to do it secretly.”(F25) It is exactly that situation which was indicated by Jacob’s statement that, “I was afraid “

This paragraph dramatically sets up the search for the stolen gods which is next related. A certain intensity rises in the reader’s mind in the contemplation of what might have happened, if Laban had found his gods. Would Jacob have actually handed the beloved Rachel over to her father to be put to death? And would Laban have executed such a penalty upon her? Again, God over-ruled what men might have done by means of a deception.

Verses 33-35

“And Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maid-servants; but he found them not. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered into Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the teraphim, and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat upon them. And Laban felt about all the tent, but found them not. And she said to her father, Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before thee; for the manner of women is upon me. And he searched, but found not the teraphim.”

This deception is a lulu! For sheer ingenuity and daring, it is the equivalent of any other related in this fantastic Book of Genesis. The claim of Rachel that, “The manner of women is upon me,” was her manner of saying that she was menstruating, a condition that, in ancient times, was believed to make women “unclean,” thus defiling anything that they touched. To Laban, this meant that it would have been unthinkable that Rachel in such a condition would have come near his sacred images, much less SIT on them! Thus, we have a double reflection on Laban’s “gods,” being both stolen and defiled by contact with Rachel!

The practical result of this futile search was that of loosing Jacob’s tongue. After twenty years of inhibited resentment, he found in this opportunity the occasion to say some things to Laban that sorely needed saying.

Verses 36-42

“And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? what is my sin, that thou hast hotly pursued after me? Whereas thou hast felt about all my stuff, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff?. Set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, that they may judge betwixt us two. These twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she-goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep fled from mine eyes. These twenty years have I been in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy flock: and thou hast changed my wages ten times. Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now hadst thou sent me away empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight.”

This response bears all the earmarks of truth, being exactly the protest against outrageous injustice that the situation demanded. Note that Jacob in no way toned down the injustices previously reported to his wives, but that he expanded and elaborated them in the presence of Laban.

“The Fear of Isaac” This is another expression that means “Jehovah,” and it is used here as a synonym for Jehovah. With this indisputable example of it before us, how can any man suppose that various names for God indicate separate authors? Much of the critical theory about the various names for God is absolutely destroyed by this glaring contradiction of it. We believe that, knowing several names for God, the ancients sometimes used such names synonymously and merely for variety.

There is absolutely no proof whatever that such was not the case, as Jacob most certainly did here.

“Of my hand didst thou require it” According to Hammurabi’s laws, a shepherd who presented the remnants (of a sheep torn by a wild beast) as evidence, was not liable for the losses that Jacob described.”(F26) The prophet Amos made mention of shepherds retrieving just such evidence in Genesis 3:12, indicating that it was a well-established custom that in such cases, the owner of the flock, not the shepherd, made good the loss. Laban had thus exceeded his lawful rights in requiring of Jacob that he bear the loss of all animals lost in such a manner. This was later incorporated into the Divine Law (Exodus 22:13).

Of this situation, McKeating wrote: “The shepherd was accountable to the owner for any animal lost, unless he could prove that it was lost owing to circumstances beyond his control.”(F27) Because of the unfairness of Laban, Jacob spent many a sleepless night protecting the flocks from predatory beasts.

“In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night” In view here are the harsh temperature changes of the Arabian deserts, where “the temperature rises to 120 degrees during the day and falls as low as 55 degrees at night.”(F28) Frost occurs occasionally even during the hottest seasons. Laban was silenced by this protest. He immediately changed the subject.

Verses 43-44

“And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, the daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that thou seest is mine: and what can I do this day unto these daughters, or unto the children whom they have borne? And now come, let us make a covenant, I and thee; and let it be for a witness between me and thee.”

Laban had probably intended violently to plunder Jacob, perhaps kill him, and return everything to Haran, but the natural concern he had for his daughters and their children, and the remembrance of the warning God had specifically given him the night before restrained him. He admitted his inability to do anything about the situation and proposed, instead, the making of a covenant.

God’s appearance to Laban was the same type as His appearance in an earlier event to Abimelech, indicating that, for special reasons, God sometimes communicated with persons outside the covenant. It is also possible that He did so in the case of Pharaoh when he had taken Sarah into his harem.

Jacob promptly agreed to the making of a covenant. It afforded a face-saving way out of the impasse for all concerned.

Verses 45-49

“And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones and made a heap: and they did eat there by the heap. And Laban called it Jegar-sathadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed, And Laban said, This heap is witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; and Mizpah, for he said, Jehovah watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.”

See the chapter introduction for a discussion of the pillar and the cairn of stones, which are here indiscriminately referred to first as one, and then as the other, indicating that they were probably combined just as were the names, one given by Laban, the other by Jacob. It is evident that the covenant meant two different things to the participants. To Jacob, it was a victory; to Laban it was a face-saving device.

What Laban meant by his statement was, “May God watch you, when I can’t! … This covenant arose out of mutual suspicion and sought protection not for the other but for themselves from the other’s malice.”(F29) Laban also added some stipulations of his own designed to protect his daughters.

Verses 50-55

“If thou shalt afflict my daughters, and if thou shalt take wives besides my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee. And Laban said unto Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have set betwixt me and thee. This heap be witness, and the pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap to me, for harm. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the Fear of his father Isaac. And Jacob offered a sacrifice in the mountain, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mountain. And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed and returned unto his place.”

One very significant revelation in this place is resident in the names for God as invoked by the participants in this covenant. Note that Laban referred to the God of Abraham, and of Nahor, and of their father, showing that Jehovah, the one true God, was known to the ancestors of Abraham. Thus, as Francisco noted:

“When Abraham was called, it was not necessary for him to leave the God of his fathers but rather to follow him, and to purify his worship.”(F30)

We have repeatedly emphasized that monotheism was widely known in the pre-Abrahamic period, as witnessed by the priesthood of Melchizedek, and other evidences, including this here. In fact, the choice of Abraham and the introduction into human history of the device known as the Chosen People, was due to God’s purpose of preventing the universal knowledge of the true God disappearing from the earth, which it was rapidly doing as a result of the proliferating paganism in the days reaching down to Abraham and afterward.

See the comment on “the Fear of Isaac” under Genesis 31:42.

The stipulations added by Laban here were readily agreed to by Jacob, who “sware to them.” As far as is known, both men forever honored the agreement made here.

Laban’s claim in Genesis 31:51 that he had set up the stone cairn-pillar does not mean that he alone had done it, but that he had called for the making of the covenant to which Jacob had assented. The text specifically says that Jacob set the pillar and ordered the gathering of the stones.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 31". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-31.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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