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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 31

 

 

Verses 1-55

JACOB'S SECRET DEPARTURE

The prosperity of Jacob could not but awaken the envy of Laban's sons. Jacob had gained all of this through his caring for their father's sheep: now the majority of the sheep and the stronger sheep belonged to Jacob. But Laban had agreed to the arrangement, and they could do nothing about it. Before this Laban had recognized that it was Jacob's presence with him that caused Laban to prosper greatly; so he appreciated Jacob. Now Jacob prospers and Laban's attitude toward him changes to that of resentment (v 2).

We must not excuse Jacob's manipulating as he did. But on the other hand, Laban had been taking unfair advantage of Jacob all the way through. Jacob did the hard work of caring for Laban's flocks for twenty years. Laban had sons who could have helped with this work, but they evidently left the work to one who could do it well. Were Laban and his sons all partaking of the benefits of Jacob's work without having to work themselves? It seemed this was the case. Management commonly considers it has the right to reap all the benefits that labor produces, because management has provided the original capital. But God takes account of the guilt of management in the oppression of its employees (James 5:4).

The time has come when the Lord tells Jacob to return to the land of his fathers (v.3). There is no reason for him to continue with Laban when there is serious friction in their relationship While scripture has plainly exposed what Jacob was doing, yet the Lord does not reprove him for this: Jacob knew that his actions were wrong, being not the fruit of faith. The Lord therefore left him to fight that matter out with his own conscience. But God repeats His promise to Jacob, that He will be with him. Such is the sovereign goodness of God toward His servants in spite of their failing ways.

Jacob therefore sent for Rachel and Leah to come to him where he was with the flock, and set before them the facts as to Laban's changed attitude (v.5). He does defend himself in the whole matter: it would have been better if he had not done so. However, it was true that he had served Laban with great diligence. Here we learn that Laban had changed Jacob's wages ten times. When we saw that Jacob was gaining greatly by one bargain, he would change the terms of his wages. Then the sheep would bear in another way to Jacob's advantage (vs.7-8). Thus he says that God had taken Laban's flocks and given them to Jacob. He does not tell them of his own trickery in the matter: evidently he had been able to hide this from everyone except the Lord.

He speaks of a dream in which he saw the goats mating in the way that would benefit him, and of the angel of God speaking to indicate that it was God who had caused the animals to bear in such a way as to be to Jacob's advantage. This is no doubt true, but it shows us that there was no need for Jacob to resort to his deceitful actions. God would bless him apart from this. He tells him that He has seen all that Laban was doing to him. It may be true that Jacob's descendants, like Jacob, have often been guilty of deceit, and Gentiles make a great deal of this, but Gentiles, like Laban, have been guilty of treating Israel shamefully, and God takes full account of this also. Gentiles can be just as deceitful as Jews: there is no difference (Romans 3:22-23).

Jacob reports further to Leah and Rachel that God told him, "I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me" (v.13). This designation, the God of Bethel is of very real importance, for it means "God of the house of God." Jacob had been concerned about his own house (ch.30:30), allowing the claims of God's house to wait. But the increase of Jacob's house had not produced peace and happiness in all his relationships. It was time that he learned that true contentment is only found in connection with God's house, where God's interests are paramount. God also remembered Jacob's vow (ch.28:20-22), though He only mentions it without comment. But he tells Jacob to return to the land of his family.

Rachel and Leah were fully prepared to move immediately. They realized that there was nothing to tie them to their father. One thing they remembered, that their father had sold his daughters, enriching himself through their sale, so that they became virtually strangers to their own father. We may say that, spiritually speaking, Laban had chosen to sell all spiritual exercise as to [1] what he is (Leah) and [2] what he ought to be (Rachel) in favor of base gain. Far too many professing Christians do the same thing today, rather than go through the exercise of soul that would lead them to find in Christ the one real answer to their need. But Rachel and Leah have good advice for Jacob: "Do whatever God has said to you" (v.16).

Jacob did not delay his departure. This time he does not consult with Laban, as he had before (ch.30:25-26). In fact, he does not even inform him that he is leaving. His sons and his wives ride on camels (v.17). Of course he had servants also who would be caring for the sheep. He was able to organize all his possessions to put everything in motion three days before Laban even heard of his leaving. Since Jacob had such large possessions now, there was of course some distance between him and Laban. Also the time was opportune for Jacob since Laban was occupied with the shearing of his sheep.

Only four times in scripture do we read of sheep shearing. First, on this occasion (v.19); second in Genesis 38:13 (Judah); third in 1 Samuel 25:4 (Nabal); and fourth in 2 Samuel 13:23 (Absalom). In each case, something unpleasantly selfish is involved. Peter was not told by the Lord to "shear My sheep," but "shepherd My sheep" and "feed My sheep" (John 21:16-17).

Another sad complication takes place also. Rachel had stolen the teraphim (household images) that belonged to her father (v.19). She had not learned to walk by faith in the living God, but like her father, she needed to depend on what she could see. Though she was a beautiful woman, yet her desire for a religious atmosphere allowed her to indulge in stealing, idolatry and deceit (vs.34-35). This is common with all human religion: it is only the true knowledge of the Lord Jesus that will preserve us from such things.

The journey was long, but Jacob ought to have realized that Laban would pursue him. Though he had three days start before Laban learned of his leaving (v.22), Laban did not then delay in taking others with him and pursuing Jacob. After seven days he caught up with him.

Before their confrontation, however, God spoke to Laban in a dream, charging him that he must not speak to Jacob "either good or bad" (v.24). Of course, he was most likely to speak bad to Jacob, for he was angry with him, and God made it clear that Laban was not Jacob's judge. It is interesting, however, that Laban must not speak good to Jacob. Why is this? It is because God was dealing with Jacob, and Laban must not interfere. This is a needed lesson for all Gentile nations. They must not either defend the Jewish nation, nor oppose them. At the time of the end, some nations will take sides with Israel while others fight against them. But Israel must not be supported in their wrong doing (idolatry), nor does anyone have the right to condemn Israel, for they are God's people and He will deal with them. In fact, He will in sovereign wisdom send the Assyrians against Israel because of their idolatry (Isaiah 10:5-6), and when the Roman beast and his armies try to interfere to defend Israel, God will judge them first (Revelation 11:1-19; Revelation 12:1-17; Revelation 13:1-18; Revelation 14:1-20; Revelation 15:1-8; Revelation 16:1-21; Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24; Revelation 19:1-21; Revelation 20:1-15; Revelation 21:1-27). Afterward He will judge Assyria also because their intentions against Israel exceed the reasons for God's sending them (Isaiah 10:12).

But Jacob must face Laban, unpleasant as the experience must be. Though Laban was angry, God's words to him kept him from going too far in what he said. He asks why Jacob had sneaked away in an underhand manner, as though he was carrying Laban's daughters away as captives (v.26). Why did he act in such secrecy without even a word to Laban, thus giving Laban no opportunity for giving them a pleasant send-off, including being able to kiss his daughters and their children? He does not hesitate to tell Jacob that he had done foolishly in this manner.

Having spoken of Jacob's foolishness in secretly leaving Haran, Laban tells him that he had the power to do harm to Jacob, yet admits that his desire for revenge was arrested by God's warning him to speak neither good or bad to Jacob. Still, he says, though Jacob was anxious to get back to his father's house, why had he stolen Laban's gods?

Jacob answers his first question first, excusing himself for his secret departure on the ground of his being afraid that Laban might take Leah and Rachel from him by force. This was not sensible, for it is not likely that Laban would want two daughters back under his roof to care for, with their children, without any prospect of their having husbands. Besides, Laban had sold his daughters at a high monetary price.

Jacob however did not at all suspect any of his company of having stolen Laban's idols, probably least of all Rachel. He invites Laban to search through the goods of everyone with him, and to put the thief to death (v.32). What a shock it would have been to him if Rachel had been discovered! but Rachel was like most of us. We know too well how to hide our idols and to deceive even our own loved ones! In fact, Rachel was the last in Laban's search, evidently the least suspected. She was sitting on the images and had a good excuse for not standing (vs.34-35).

Then Jacob's self-righteous anger begins to boil (v.36). If only Laban had discovered the idols, how different this would have been! "What is my trespass? what is my sin," Jacob asks, "that you have so hotly pursued me"? Of course, if there had not been the sin of stealing, there was still the fact of Jacob's having kept his departure a secret from possessions, to set before everybody anything he has found that belonged to him (Laban). Of course he knew that Laban had found nothing.

Then he strongly speaks of the way Laban had treated him. For twenty years, he says, he has served Laban. He had so cared for the females of Laban's flock that they had not miscarried, nor had he taken any of Laban's sheep, even to eat. Any animal that was lost, whether killed by wild animals or whether stolen, Laban held Jacob accountable for: He had to pay for the loss (v.54). He found himself suffering often by the heat of the day and shivering at night because of the cold, being unable to sleep. He stresses that he had served Laban fourteen years for his two daughters. Of course he had willingly offered to work seven years for Rachel, but had been deceived. Then he had worked six years in order to gain the large number of sheep he now had. But more: he affirms that Laban had changed his wages ten times (v.41). This must have been true, or Laban would have denied it. It does show the manipulating character of Laban. He was not at all behind Jacob in this artifice.

What Jacob says in verse 42 is also very likely true. It was only the intervention of God that enabled Jacob to accumulate the wealth he had. Laban was so greedy of gain that he would have been content to leave Jacob without any accumulation whatever for his twenty years of labor. He says that God had observed how he had labored and suffered, and therefore had rebuked Laban the previous night.

Laban had little that he could say in defence of himself in answer to Jacob's tirade, but he does use the one argument that he considered valid, "These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and this flock is my flock" (v.43). Leah and Rachel had been his daughters, but Laban had sold them. The children were actually Jacob's children, though grandchildren of Laban (at least those from Leah and Rachel). As to the flocks, while they had been bred from Laban's flocks, yet they were the wages Laban had agreed to give Jacob for his labor.

Since Leah and Rachel were his daughters, he thought (wrongly) that they were his possession and he had the right to sell them. They were not his own to begin with, let alone after he had sold them. But this verse loudly proclaims the fact that a merely possessive character loses what he tenaciously seeks to hold. Laban found that he was left poorer in various respects when Jacob left him. But he asks, "What can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have borne?" He feels himself virtually bereaved of his family. May we well learn the lesson that this history teaches: what we own is not ours, but the Lord's, and what we selfishly hold we will lose. On the other hand, what we unselfishly give up for the Lord's sake we shall find that we gain in the end. Consider Abraham's willingly offering Isaac (Genesis 22:10-13).

However, Laban was subdued enough that, instead of continuing the argument, he suggested that he and Jacob make a covenant between them (v.44). It is sad to think that he considered this necessary between relatives, for it is again a legal arrangement rather than a trusting relationship characterized by grace, as every family relationship should be. There is still here the evidence of mere confidence in the flesh, rather than the faith that trusts in the living God.

A COVENANT BETWEEN JACOB AND LABAN

Jacob sets up his second pillar. His first was in chapter 28:18, where he made his fleshly vow, therefore the pillar of confidence in the flesh. This time his pillar is a memorial to the fact of broken confidence between relatives, a contrast to the first pillar, for it tells us that the flesh has proven it cannot be trusted. A heap of stones further emphasizes this, both Laban and Jacob calling it a "heap of witness," Laban using the Chaldee language and Jacob the Hebrew (v.46). They eat upon the heap, not the most comfortable dining room!

It is Laban who pronounces the terms of their covenant, saying that the heap was a witness to it. He introduces the Lord's name here, expecting Him to watch between himself and Jacob when they are absent from one another (v.49). He is really telling Jacob, "I cannot trust you out of my sight, so I want the Lord to watch." Of course it was true the other way also. Jacob had learned not to trust Laban. So that this pillar is the milestone in Jacob's life that proclaims clearly the untrustworthiness of the flesh. Very often it takes two parties to expose it to one another!

We may wonder if Laban suspected that Jacob might try to take some revenge against Laban by mistreating Leah and Rachel (v.50). There is no indication that Jacob had done this before. But as we have seen, Laban was still possessive of his daughters, and felt that he was caring for them better than he expected Jacob would care for them. He was even fearful that Jacob might take other wives as well as Leah and Rachel. After all, he himself had initiated the project of Jacob's having two wives: why did he have a right to complain if Jacob took another also? But his fears were groundless. Jacob never did show any inclination to have another wife, or more.

Then Laban speaks of the heap and the pillar as a separating point between him and Jacob, a witness of the agreement of each not to pass that point in order to do harm to the other (v.52). The whole covenant might seem rather superfluous to us, for it is not likely that either of them had any intention of passing that point for any purpose: they would be happier living well apart from each other.

While Laban has emphasized the covenant, Jacob offered a sacrifice (v.54), which was far better. Then he invited the whole company to eat a meal with him. At least the sacrifice was reminder that God had rights far more important than those of either Jacob or Laban. Eating together served as an easing of the tension between them. So that they could part on comparatively friendly terms. The next morning, before their parting, Laban kissed his daughters and their children, but there is no mention of his kissing Jacob, as he had done at the time of their first meeting (ch.29:13).

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Genesis 31:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/genesis-31.html. 1897-1910.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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