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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 31

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Laban’s sons.—No mention hitherto had been made of Laban having any other children than Leah and Rachel. If his sons were by the same wife, they would be men about fifty-five or sixty years of age. In saying that Jacob had taken “all that was their father’s” they were guilty of exaggeration; for Laban was still rich, and probably, upon the whole, was a gainer by the presence of one so highly gifted as Jacob. Their word “glory” suggests that, enriched by cattle and commerce, Jacob had now become a person of great importance in the eyes of the people of Haran.

Verses 1-55

THE TÔLDÔTH ISAAC (Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 35:29).


Abraham begat Isaac—The Tôldôth in its original form gave probably a complete genealogy of Isaac, tracing up his descent to Shem, and showing thereby that the right of primogeniture belonged to him; but the inspired historian uses only so much of this as is necessary for tracing the development of the Divine plan of human redemption.

The Syrian.—Really, the Aramean, or descendant of Aram. (See Genesis 10:22-23.) The name of the district also correctly is “Paddan-Ararn,” and so far from being identical with Aram-Naharaim, in Genesis 24:10, it is strictly the designation of the region immediately in the neighbourhood of Charran. The assertion of Gesenius that it meant “Mesopotamia, with the desert to the west of the Euphrates, in opposition to the mountainous district towards the Mediterranean,” is devoid of proof. (See Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1, p. 304.) In Syriac, the language of Charran, padana means a plough (1 Samuel 13:20), or a yoke of oxen ( 1 Samuel 11:7); and this also suggests that it was the cultivated district close to the town. In Hosea 12:12 it is said that “Jacob fled to the field of Aram;” but this is a very general description of the country in which he found refuge, and affords no basis for the assertion that Padan-aram was the level region. Finally, the assertion that it is an ancient name used by the Jehovist is an assertion only. It is the name of a special district, and the knowledge of it was the result of Jacob’s long-continued stay there. Chwolsohn says that traces of the name still remain in Faddân and Tel Faddân, two places close to Charran, mentioned by Yacut, the Arabian geographer, who flourished in the thirteenth century.

Isaac intreated the Lord.—This barrenness lasted twenty years (Genesis 25:26), and must have greatly troubled Isaac; but it would also compel him to dwell much in thought upon the purpose for which he had been given to Abraham, and afterwards rescued from death upon the mount Jehovah-Jireh. And when offspring came, in answer to his earnest pleading of the promise, the delay would serve to impress upon both parents the religious significance of their existence as a separate race and family, and the necessity of training their children worthily. The derivation of the verb to intreat, from a noun signifying incense, is uncertain, but rendered probable by the natural connection of the idea of the ascending fragrance, and that of the prayer mounting heavenward (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4).

The children struggled together.—Two dissimilar nations sprang from Abraham, but from mothers totally unlike; so, too, from the peaceful Isaac two distinct races of men were to take their origin, but from the same mother, and the contest began while they were yet unborn. And Rebekah, apparently unaware that she was pregnant with twins, but harassed with the pain of strange jostlings and thrusts, grew despondent, and exclaimed—

If it be so, why am I thus?—Literally, If so, why am I this? Some explain this as meaning “Why do I still live?” but more probably she meant, If I have thus conceived, in answer to my husband’s prayers, why do I suffer in this strange manner? It thus prepares for what follows, namely, that Rebekah wished to have her condition explained to her, and therefore went to inquire of Jehovah.

She went to enquire of the Lord.—Not to Shem, nor Melchizedek, as many think, nor even to Abraham, who was still alive, but, as Theodoret suggests, to the family altar. Isaac had several homes, but probably the altar at Bethel, erected when Abraham first took possession of the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7), and therefore especially holy, was the place signified; and if Abraham were there, he would doubtless join his prayers to those of Rebekah.

Verse 3

(3) The Lord said unto Jacob.—This is probably the revelation, more exactly described in Genesis 31:10-13, as given to Jacob in a dream. It is there ascribed to Elohim, but here to Jehovah. The narrator’s purpose in this, probably, is to show that while Jacob regarded the providence that watched over him as the act of Elohim, it was really in His character of Jehovah, the covenant-God, that He thus guarded him. (See Note on Genesis 26:29.)

Thy kindred.—Heb., thy birthplace, as in Genesis 12:1; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 24:7, &c.

Verse 4

(4) Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah . . . —Rachel is placed first, as the chief wife. The field was probably the pasture where Laban’s flocks fed, as they were specially under Jacob’s charge; and there, in the open ground, the three would run no risk of having their conversation overheard. Jacob’s speech to his wives consists of three parts: first, he tells them of the change in Laban’s manner towards him, and his consequent fear of violence; he next justifies his own conduct towards their father, and accuses him of repeated injustice; finally, he announces to them that he had received the Divine command to return to Canaan. As regards the second point, Jacob had undoubtedly used stratagems to increase his wages, and of this his wives must have been well aware. On the other hand, we learn that Laban had openly violated the terms of the bargain; and, whereas all the parti-coloured kids and lambs were to belong to Jacob, no sooner did they increase beyond expectation, than Laban, first, would give him only the speckled, the most common kind, and finally, only the ring-straked, which were the most rare. Of course Jacob would keep all the sheep and goats which he had once made over to the charge of his sons; it would be the additions to them from Laban’s flocks which were thus diminished.

As regards the vision, it has been thought that Jacob has compressed two occurrences into one narrative; but for insufficient reasons. It was at the breeding-time (Genesis 31:10) that Jacob saw the vision, with its two-fold lesson: the first, that the multiplication of his wages had been God’s gift, and not the result of his own artifices; the second, that this bestowal of wealth was to enable him to return to Canaan. His wives heartily concurred in his purpose, but it was not till the time of sheep-shearing came (Genesis 31:19) that he effected his escape. But there is no difficulty in this delay. How large the household of Jacob had become we learn from the greatness of the present he selected for Esau (Genesis 32:13-15), and it could not be removed without preparation. The servants and camels must be gathered in from their trading expeditions, tents must be got ready, and camels’ furniture and other requisites obtained; finally, they could not start until the ewes were fit for their journey, and only at a time of year when there would be herbage for the cattle on the march. We find that when they reached the Jabbok, Jacob’s flocks and herds were “giving suck” (Genesis 33:13 in the Heb.); but it is not easy to calculate the interval between this and the time when they commenced their journey.

Verse 7

(7) Ten times.—That is, a good many times.

Verse 10

(10) Rams.—Heb., he-goats. The Authorised Version has made the alteration, because the word rendered “cattle” is really sheep (and so in Genesis 31:8; Genesis 31:12, &c.); but, like our word flock, it also included goats.

Verse 12

(12) Grisled.—That is, covered with spots like hailstones, the word “grisled” being derived from the French grêle, hail. Others derive the word from gris, grisaille, grey.

Verse 13

(13) I am the God of Beth-el.—The angel of Elohim (Genesis 31:11) was the speaker, but the words were those of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 1:1). With this verse compare Genesis 28:13.

Verse 15

(15) He hath sold us.—There is a marked asperity towards their father in the answer of Jacob’s wives, and not only the petted Rachel but the neglected Leah joins in it. Now, though his sale of them to Jacob had been more open than Oriental good manners usually allowed, and though he seems to have acted meanly in giving no portion with them, yet these were old sores, long since healed and forgiven. Laban must have been stingy, grasping, and over-reaching in recent times, to have kept the memory of old wrongs so fresh in the minds of his daughters.

Verses 17-18

(17, 18) Jacob rose up.—This was the final result of Jacob’s deliberation with his wives, but it did not take place till the time of sheep-shearing. Jacob must have prepared his plans very carefully to be able to leave none of his wealth behind; but he would be greatly helped in this by the fact that his own head-quarters were thirty or forty miles distant from Haran (Genesis 30:36).

Verse 19

(19) Laban went to shear his sheep.—The sheep-shearing was a joyous time, when the hard toil of the shearers was relieved by feasting ( 1 Samuel 25:8 ). Laban’s flocks, apparently, were also at some distance from Haran, and his sons and men-servants would all be with him, busily occupied in the work. Apparently, too, Laban’s wealth was not seriously diminished, though it had not of late increased; and his repeated change of the hire proves that he was quite able to take care of himself. But why was not Jacob present, as he had chief charge of Laban’s flocks? Possibly, he was expected there, and was missed; but, more probably, as the result of the growing estrangement between them, caused by the too rapid increase of Jacob’s riches, Laban and his sons had gradually taken the management of their flocks into their own hands.

Images.—Heb., teraphim, called Laban’s gods in Genesis 31:30, and we find that their worship continued throughout the Old Testament history. Micah sets up teraphim, as well as a molten and a graven image, and an ephod (Judges 18:17). Though in 1 Samuel 15:23, where the Authorised Version has idolatry, teraphim are spoken of in strong terms of condemnation, yet Michal possessed them, and placed them in David’s bed. We gather from this that they had a head shaped like that of a man, but, probably, a dwarf trunk, as she seems to have put more than one in the bed to represent David’s body (1 Samuel 19:13). So, too, here Rachel hides them under the camel’s furniture (Genesis 31:34), which proves that they, in this case, were of no great size. In the history of the thorough reformation carried out by King Josiah we find the mention of teraphim among the things put away (2 Kings 23:24). We learn, nevertheless, from Zechariah 10:2, that they were still used for divination; and from Hosea 3:4 that both pillars and teraphim had long been objects of ordinary superstition among the ten tribes. As Nebuchadnezzar divines by them (Ezekiel 21:21) they were possibly of Chaldean origin; and, probably, were not so much worshipped as used for consultation. Women seem to have been most given to their service, and probably regarded them as charms, and told fortunes by them; and here Rachel stole them upon the supposition that they would bring prosperity to her and her husband.

Verse 20

(20) Jacob stole away unawares.Heb., stole the heart. But the heart was regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of the intellect, and so to steal a man’s understanding, like the similar phrase in Greek, means to elude his observation.

Verse 21

(21) The river.—The Euphrates.

Mount Gilead.—Gilead, the region of rock, was the mountainous frontier between the Aramean and Canaanite races. The form of the word is so remote from ordinary Hebrew that we have in it, probably, a very old appellation of this region; and Jacob apparently plays upon it in his name Galeed (Genesis 31:47).

Verse 23

(23) His brethren.—As Jacob, who had no relatives with him except his sons, applies this term in Genesis 31:46 to his followers, it is, probably, an honourable way of describing retainers, who were freemen and of a higher class than men-servants.

Seven days’ journey.—The route chosen by Jacob was apparently the more easterly one, past Tadmor, and through the Hauran, leaving Damascus to the west. The hill, which subsequently was called Mount Gilead, lay to the south of the Jabbok; but asMahanaim, reached some days after the meeting with Laban, is to the north of that river, the word Gilead was evidently applied to the whole of the region of chalk cliffs on the east of the Jordan. This is made certain by the fact that Laban overtook Jacob in seven days. But as the distance from Haran to the most northerly part of this country (afterwards assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh) was fully three hundred miles, it would require hard riding on the part of Laban and his brethren to enable them to overtake Jacob, even on the borders of this region. There is no difficulty about Jacob’s movements. His flocks were pastured at so remote a distance from Haran that it would be easy for him to send them in detachments to the ford of the Euphrates, distant about sixty or seventy miles; he would make all the arrangements with his four elder sons and trusty servants, and, probably, even see them across the ford himself, and would return to Haran to fetch his wives and younger children only when all was well advanced. Finally, when Laban goes to a distance, in another direction, for his sheep-shearing, Jacob “sets his sons and his wives upon camels,” and follows with the utmost speed. They would have remained quietly at Haran to the last, to avoid suspicion, and, excepting Leah’s four elder sons, the rest would have been too young to be of much use. When Jacob, with his wives, overtook the cattle, they would, probably, not travel more than ten or twelve miles a day; but three days passed before Laban learned what had taken place, and a couple of days at least must have been spent in returning to Haran and preparing for the pursuit. Thus Jacob had reached Canaanite ground—a matter of very considerable importance—before his father-in-law overtook him.

Verse 24

(24) Either good or bad.—Heb., from good to bad: a proverbial expression, rightly translated in the Authorised Version, but conveying the idea of a more absolute prohibition than the phrase used in Genesis 24:50.

Verses 26-30

(26-30) Laban said . . . —Laban reproaches Jacob, first, for carrying away his daughters secretly, which was an affront to them (Genesis 31:26) and an injury to his own feelings (Genesis 31:28); secondly, he tells him that he should have punished him but for the Divine warning; lastly, he accuses him of stealing his teraphim.

Captives . . . —Heb., captives of the sword, women carried off in war as spoil.

Verse 28

(28) My sons.—That is, my grandsons.

Verse 29

(29) It is in the power of my hand.—This is the rendering here of all the versions, and is confirmed by Deuteronomy 28:32; Nehemiah 5:5; Micah 2:1; but Keil and Knobel wish to translate, “My hand is for God.” This comes to the same thing in an impious way, as the sense would be,” My hand is an El, a god, for me,” and enables me to do what I will.

The speech of Laban is half true and half false. He would have wished not to part with Jacob at all, but to have recovered from him as much as he could of his property. But if he was to go, he would have liked outward appearances maintained; and, probably, he had an affection for his daughters and their children, though not so strong as to counterbalance his selfishness. His character, like that of all men, is a mixture of good and evil.

Verses 31-32

(31, 32) Jacob answered.—Jacob gives the true reason for his flight; after which, indignant at the charge of theft, he returns, in his anger, as rash an answer about the teraphim as Joseph’s brethren subsequently did about the stolen cup (Genesis 44:9).

Let him not live.—The Rabbins regard this as a prophecy, fulfilled in Rachel’s premature death. Its more simple meaning is, I yield him up to thee even to be put to death.

Verse 34

(34) The camel’s furniture.—That is, the camel’s saddle. It is now made of wicker-work, and is protected by curtains and a canopy. Probably Rachel’s was far simpler; and as the teraphim seem to have had heads shaped like those of a man, and dwarf bodies, they would easily be crammed under it.

Verse 36

(36) Jacob was wroth.—Naturally he regarded the accusation about the teraphim as a mere device for searching his goods, and when nothing was found gave free vent to his indignation.

Verse 40

(40) The frost by night.—From September to May the nights in the East are usually cold, and the change from great heat by day to a freezing temperature as soon as the sun sets is very trying to health.

Verse 41

(41) Thus have I been . . . —Heb., This for me twenty years in thy house, but taken in connection with the preceding this, in Genesis 31:38, the meaning is “During the one twenty years that I was with thee, thy ewes, &c.,” upon which follows “During the other twenty years that were for me in thy house, I served thee, &c.” (See Note on Genesis 29:27, and Excursus on the Chronology of Jacob’s Life.)

Verse 42

(42) The fear of Isaac—That is, the object of Isaac’s worship. The reason given by the Jewish Commentators for this remarkable way of describing the Deity whom Isaac served is that, as his father was still alive, Jacob would have been wanting in reverence, if he had spoken of God as “Isaac’s God,” even though Jehovah had condescended so to call Himself (Genesis 28:13).

Verse 43

(43) Laban answered . . . —Laban does not attempt any reply to Jacob’s angry invectives, but answers affectionately. Why should he wish to injure Jacob, and send him away empty? All that he had was still Laban’s in the best of senses; for were not Rachel and Leah his daughters? And were not their children his grandsons? How was it possible that he could wish to rob them? He proposes, therefore, that they should make a covenant, by which Jacob should bind himself to deal kindly with his daughters, and to take no other wife; while he promises for himself that he would do Jacob no wrong. Jacob therefore sets up a large stone, as a pillar and memorial; and Laban subsequently does the same; while, probably between the two hills on which they had severally encamped (Genesis 31:25), they collect a large mass of other stones, on which they feast together, in token of friendship (Genesis 26:30).

Verse 47

(47) Jegar-sahadutha.—These are two Syriac words of the same meaning as Gal-’eed, Heap of Witness. A Syriac (or Aramaic) dialect was most probably the ordinary language of the people in Mesopotamia, but it seems plain that Laban and his family also spoke Hebrew, not merely from his calling the placo Mizpah, a Hebrew word, but from the names given by his daughters to their children.

Verse 49

(49) Mizpah.—That is, Watchtower. There is, probably, a play in this name upon the pillar which Laban proceeds to set up, and which in Hebrew is Mazebah. In the reason given for the name Labau calls Jacob’s God Jehovah, an appellation which he must have learned from Jacob. and which proves not merely that he had some knowledge of Hebrew but that he and Jacob had talked together upon religious subjects, and that he was not a mere idolater, though he did call the teraphim his gods.

Verse 53

(53) Judge.—The verb is plural, “be he judges,” and as Laban thus joins the name Elohim with a verb plural, it seems as if he regarded Abraham’s Elohim as different from the Elohim of Nahor. We ought, therefore, to translate the gods of their father. Apparently, he thought that Abraham took one of Terah’s Elohim, and Nahor another. His views were thus polytheistic and so, generally, the ancients regarded the gods as local beings, with powers limited to certain districts. Jacob swears by the one Being who was the sole object of Isaac’s worship. (See Note on Genesis 20:13.)

Verse 54

(54) Jacob offered sacrifice.—The meaning is, that Jacob slaughtered cattle, and made a feast: but as animals originally were killed only for sacrifice, and flesh was eaten on no other occasion, the Hebrew language has no means of distinguishing the two acts.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 31". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-31.html. 1905.
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