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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 31

 

 

Introduction

Jacob Prospers and Decides to Return Home (Genesis 30:25 to Genesis 32:2).

This passage is centred around two theophanies and two covenants. In the first theophany Yahweh appears to Jacob and tells him to return home (Genesis 31:3). Then Jacob, describing the theophany to his wives, amplifies what God said as the God of Bethel, emphasising the command to return home (Genesis 31:11-13). And the second is when he meets the angels of God at Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2). The passage also contains details of the two covenants made between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30:31-33 and Genesis 31:44-53). Originally separate covenant records may well have been involved.


Verses 1-21

Jacob is Commanded by Yahweh to Return Home and Tries to Slip Away (31:1-21).

Genesis 31:1-2

‘And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and he has obtained his wealth from that which was our father’s.” And he beheld the face of Laban, and behold, it was not as friendly towards him as it had been before.’

The building up of wealth always provokes jealousy, especially from those who feel that they have lost by it. What had seemed a good bargain, and even rather clever, had now turned against them, and Laban’s sons were not amused. And Jacob could see that even Laban had cooled towards him. He was decidedly unpopular, which considering that he had not looked after Laban’s section of his charge very well (they were the weaker ones) was not surprising. He was beginning to feel uneasy.

Genesis 31:3

‘And Yahweh said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your near family, and I will be with you.”

Jacob must therefore have been quite relieved when Yahweh appeared to him and told him it was time to return home. That Yahweh may have said a little more possibly comes out in Genesis 31:11-13.

But he was aware that his going would not be easy. He must first win over his wives, and then he would have the problem of his position in the tribal confederacy. They would not be happy with him if he sought to diminish the confederacy. So he concocts a convenient story for his wives based loosely on the truth.

Genesis 31:4-9

‘And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the countryside, to his flock, and he said to them, “I see that your father’s face is not friendly towards me as it was before. But the God of my father has been with me, and you know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times. But God would not let him hurt me. If he said, ‘The speckled will be your wages,’ then all the flock bore speckled. And if he said thus, ‘The ringstraked shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore ringstraked. So God has taken away your father’s animals and has given them to me.” ’

“Called Rachel and Leah to the countryside.” They would come accompanied by their servants. The order of names is interesting, we would expect the elder first. But this probably arises from the fact that Rachel is Jacob’s favourite wife.

Had Jacob gone back to their permanent home at the time of shearing there would have been much comment and many questions, which is why he calls his wives to come to him. Ostensibly they are coming out to see what is happening, and to ‘pleasure’ Jacob. But they then return to their homes and secretly prepare for their journey. This is evidenced by the fact that Rachel steals her father’s gods.

Jacob’s summary of the situation which follows is rather tongue in cheek. He has, as we know, played his part in manoeuvring the situation but now he puts all his success down to God. He is trying to win his wives over. His arguments are wide ranging and extensive.

“Your father”s face is not friendly towards me as it was before.’ Things have become decidedly unpleasant.

“The God of my father has been with me.” He believes, and wants them to see, that his success has come through Yahweh.

“And you know that with all my power I have served your father.” Outwardly this appeared true. They did not know of his subtleties.

“Your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times.” He wants them to recognise that their father has not quite dealt fairly with him. This may have in mind the deceit over Leah. But it clearly also indicates that there has been some manipulation of the terms of the contracts by Laban, possibly over the meaning of some of terms such as ‘speckled’, ‘ringstraked’, and so on. ‘Ten times.’ This means ‘a number of times’.

“But God would not let him hurt me.” God has clearly come out on his side as the results prove.

So Jacob carefully puts the position to his wives without introducing any suggestion of his own manipulations. He is clearly not certain how they will feel about things. He wants them to think that all is of God and that he has had little to do with it. Then he introduces the theophany he has experienced.

Genesis 31:10-12

“And it happened at the time that the flock conceived that I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream, and see, the he-goats which leaped on the flock were speckled and grisled. And the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ And I said, ‘I’m here.’ And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the he-goats who leap on the flock are ringstraked, speckled and grisled. For I have seen all that Laban has done to you.’

This may have resulted from a genuine dream, but it is Jacob’s interpretation of the situation for his wives’ consumption. He is representing a mythical picture of he-goats acting on their own volition under God’s control, when in fact it was he and his men who carefully ensured what happened. It may well have been through a dream that he came to recognise the importance of interbreeding but he does not want his wives to realise that he has manipulated the situation with regard to their father, and therefore he ignores the human connection. He then incorporates his theophany in this mythical ‘dream’ to give the ‘dream’ a sense of validity and sacredness.

Genesis 31:13

“I am the God of Bethel where you anointed a pillar, where you vowed a vow to me. Now arise, get you out from this land and return to the land of your birth.”

He now adds strength to his supposed dream by incorporating into it the word he had received from Yahweh.

“The God of Bethel where you anointed a pillar and where you vowed a vow to me.” Not quite the simple words of verse 3. He has told his wives of his vivid experience of God at Bethel and now uses that to impress them. Whether God actually spoke these words at the recent theophany we do not know. They were for the wives’ consumption. Yet they are on the whole true nonetheless. But their importance lay in their association with the command to return home. It is that which he wishes to impress on his wives.

Genesis 31:14-15

‘And Rachel and Leah answered, and said to him, “Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not counted by him as strangers? For he has sold us and has quite devoured our marriage portion.” ’

Jacob is very conscious that his wives are part of their tribe and that they may elect to remain with them. That is where their portion is and their inheritance. But he need not have worried. It is clear that they feel that Laban has demonstrated by his actions that he sees them as no longer having a part in the tribe. Laban had behaved badly and it would now rebound on him. They felt that they owed him no loyalty.

“Counted to him as strangers.” He has demonstrated by his actions that, like Jacob, they are now ‘foreigners’ living among the tribe with no permanent rights. This bring out a rather unpleasant side to Laban’s character and behaviour, possibly resulting from the slow increase of his dissatisfaction with Jacob.

“He has sold us and quite devoured our marriage portion.” The marriage portion was for the wife’s benefit but Laban has purloined it. Thus he has in effect received a price for them and treated them as having been ‘sold’. They feel very bitter at having been so treated as chattels. Their complaint can be paralleled in other texts from the Old Babylonian period, Nuzu, and Elephantine, where on occasion a father would withhold from his daughter a part of the bride payment which was normally handed on as a dowry.

Genesis 31:16

‘”For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, they are ours and our children’s. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.”

Because of his behaviour towards them Laban has lost the loyalty and love of his daughters. They are quite content to feel that God has reimbursed them in another way and that all is therefore theirs by right to take away as they wish. Long years of mistreatment had broken down their sense of belonging permanently to the tribe.

Genesis 31:17-18

‘Then Jacob rose up and set his sons and his wives on the camels, and he carried away all his substance which he had gathered, the animals he had obtained, which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, in order to go to Isaac his father, to the land of Canaan.’

It is difficult for us to appreciate this step that Jacob was taking. He knew that while he could justify it to himself he would be seen by others as breaking the confederation and decimating the tribe, which was why he left in secret. Such behaviour would not be tolerated, for the wholeness of the tribe was a crucial element of men’s lives. On the other hand he probably did not feel bound by the tribal treaty, for he had seen himself always as there with Laban on a ‘temporary’ basis and felt he had fully earned for himself what he possessed. But it was a far cry from when he had merely obtained wives and a comparatively few animals by his working contract. What was leaving was a substantial family sub-tribe (see Genesis 30:43 - For camels see on Genesis 12:16).

Genesis 31:19-21

‘Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the teraphim which were her father’s. And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean in that he did not tell him that he fled. So he fled with all that he had, and he rose up and passed beyond the River and set his face towards the hill country of Gilead.’

Jacob chose a good time for his departure. It was the time of sheep shearing. Everyone would be busy with shearing the sheep and with the subsequent feast (see 1 Samuel 25:11; 2 Samuel 13:23 on). And he was helped by the fact that Laban with his flocks was some distance away, by Laban’s choice (Genesis 30:36). This explains how so great a move was achieved in some secrecy.

“Rachel stole the teraphim which were her father”s.’ Teraphim were linked with divination and spiritist practises (Judges 17:5; Ezekiel 21:21; 2 Kings 23:24). They were almost always condemned in Scripture (1 Samuel 15:23; 2 Kings 23:24; Judges 17:6). We do not know what form they took or what material they were made of, although they are clearly here linked with household gods (Genesis 31:30). It is probable that they took on different forms. 1 Samuel 19:13 on may suggest that they were often in human form or like a human face, possibly a mummified human head but this is uncertain. The word probably links with the Hittite ‘tarpis’, a type of spirit sometimes seen as evil and sometimes as protective. The reason that Rachel stole the teraphim may have been in order to enjoy their protection.

There is an interesting example from Nuzu of the importance attached to these household gods. There a man called Naswi adopted Wullu, because he had no sons of his own. He thus became Naswi’s heir and responsible to care for him. However it was stipulated that if a son was born to Naswi Wullu would have to share the inheritance with him and the gods which Wullu would otherwise have inherited are to belong to the real son.

So at Nuzu right to possession of the household gods belonged to the blood relation, and it may be that they were seen as conferring special status. But if Rachel stole them for this reason it was in order to pay her father back for his ill treatment of his daughters, not in order to bestow any benefit on Jacob, for there is no suggestion that that status passed with illegal possession of the gods. The theft certainly stirred Laban to his depths. They were possibly the symbols of his authority and he felt it deeply.

“And Jacob stole the heart of Laban.” A second theft, though of a different kind. He causes great distress to Laban by stealing away unawares and depriving the tribe of what it saw as part of itself, without negotiation. He was stealing what was closest to Laban’s heart, part of his tribe.

“Passed over the River.” That is, the River Euphrates.


Verse 22

‘And on the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled.’

Jacob’s initial success comes out in that Laban does not learn of his departure until ‘the third day’. The sheep shearing and what accompanied it had kept all his men busy. This may indicate a period of about one and a half days, or even longer. ‘On the third day’ may be like ‘three days journey’, not to be taken too literally but simply meaning a short period.


Verse 23

‘And he took his brethren with him and pursued after him seven days journey. And he overtook him in the hill country of Gilead.’

Jacob had been making good progress and it took Laban some time to gather his ‘brethren’, that is his fellow confederacy leaders, together. It therefore took them ‘a seven day journey’ to overtake them. A ‘seven day journey’ indicates a longish journey as opposed to the shorter ‘three day journey’. It had therefore required greater preparation. It does not mean it was literally accomplished in seven days.

It would possibly take a little more than seven days to reach the hill country of Gilead (not the same as the later Gilead) although they would be moving at forced pace. This hill country was split into two halves, north (Joshua 13:31; Deuteronomy 3:13) and south (Deuteronomy 3:12 RV Joshua 12:2; Joshua 12:5) of the Jabbok.

It is an indication of the seriousness of the situation that such a force should make such a journey. This was more than just something personal between Jacob and Laban. The whole tribal confederacy was involved. They were losing a part of themselves.

The picture is a vivid one. Jacob, aware that pursuit will come, urging his men and his flocks to ever greater efforts; Laban and his small army pounding through day and night, all the while becoming ever more determined to prevent their escape. The situation was extremely serious. They were angry at what they saw as treason. But then comes divine intervention.


Verse 24

‘And God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Take heed to yourself that you speak not to Jacob either good or bad.” ’

This is a crucial intervention. Laban is warned by God in a vivid dream, no doubt during a short period of snatched sleep, to be careful how he speaks to Jacob. That this awesome experience affects him deeply comes out in the subsequent narrative. His whole attitude is transformed. He ceases to be the powerful avenger and becomes the wary negotiator and broken-hearted parent. It changes his whole approach to the situation. Jacob is one thing, but to fight with the manifested supernatural is another.

“Either good or bad.” Compare Genesis 24:50; Numbers 24:13. He must not say what he wants to say but only what he is told. He must remember that he is speaking to one under God’s protection.


Verse 25

‘And Laban came up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in a mountain, and Laban with his brethren pitched in the hill country of Gilead.’

Aware of the approaching threat, which he had long anticipated, Jacob takes his men and his possessions into a mountainous place. He knows that there may be fighting and he wants to protect his possessions and to have the advantage of the most strategic position. So he pitches his camp ‘in the mountain’. Then he watches as the forces of Laban arrive and camp below them.


Verses 26-28

‘And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done that you have stolen my heart and carried away my daughters as captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly, and steal me, and did not tell me that I might have sent you away with mirth and with songs and with tabret and with harp, and have not allowed me to kiss my sons and daughters?” ’

Laban arrives at his camp with other confederacy leaders, mainly his sons. But Jacob must have been very surprised at the way Laban approaches the matter. These words are very different from those Laban had originally planned and are not what Jacob was expecting. The armed force makes it clear that the intention had been to force Jacob back to Paddan-aram in ignominy, and Jacob knew it. And that is what he expects. But unknown to him Laban’s awesome experience has made him wary. He no longer dares to demand that Jacob return, so instead he seeks to put Jacob in the wrong socially and personally, and to demonstrate the deep hurt that Jacob has made him suffer.

“Stolen my heart.” Probably having in mind the tribal possessions Jacob has taken with him, but possibly including his daughters and grandsons.

“Carried away my daughters as captives of the sword.” Nothing makes clearer that he sees what Jacob has done as similar to an act of war. It was, of course, untrue, for they had gone willingly, but Laban cannot bring himself to believe that. Like many powerful men he did not perceive the harm he himself had done. He is trying to demonstrate that he is in the right.

“And stole me.” He is saying that Jacob had stolen what was a part of Laban himself. The unity of the tribe and family was very heartfelt.

“And did not tell me that I might have sent you away ----.” This idea results from the change of heart brought about by his experience with God. He is now in two minds. On the one hand he wants to restore the wholeness of the tribe, but on the other he recognises that, in the light of the theophany and the divine threat, he is restricted. So he seeks to salve his pride by putting Jacob in the wrong on other counts. Thus he suggests that Jacob has behaved dishonourably by leaving without proper farewells. But both he and Jacob are aware that had Jacob approached in the way he described, his departure with all his possessions would have been prevented.

“With mirth and with songs and ----.” The picture is a brazen fiction and brings a smile to the face for its very effrontery. This was the way in which Rebekah had gone to Isaac (24:60), but the situations were very different. She was going to marry a powerful man who has paid handsomely in marriage settlements and guarantees her safety and protection. The tribe was not diminished but rather enriched. The thought of Laban and his confederates rejoicing at the departure of Jacob with all his possessions, together with his wives and children, all connections of the tribe, is ludicrous. He might have been allowed to leave, but he would have been allowed to take little with him, as both of them well knew.

“And have not suffered me to kiss ---.” Laban adds one fiction to another. The picture of him as the fond grandfather longing to kiss his grandchildren goodbye is simply a way of putting Jacob again in the wrong, and is equally ludicrous, although family ties were very strong and in its right place this would have been true.

So Laban is trying to put things in the best light for himself in view of the limitation placed on him by God. Yet we must be fair to Laban. He has much right on his side. The breaking away from the tribe was against all convention, as Jacob himself well knew. Indeed had it not been for God’s intervention there would have been no such sentimental thoughts on Laban’s part. Jacob would either have had to fight for it or have been put under arrest and brought on his way back to Paddan-aram, along with all he had, to face his punishment. But God’s intervention has made the difference.

Genesis 31:28-30 (28b-30)

“Now have you done foolishly. It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt, but the God of your father spoke to me yesternight, saying, ‘Take heed to yourself that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad. And now, though you desire to be gone because you are very homesick for your father’s house, yet why have you stolen my gods?”

Laban knows that all the right is on his side although he would no doubt have admitted, if pressed, that any attempt by Jacob to get away with his possessions openly would have been in vain. So he still takes the position of the aggrieved party, albeit warily. He now has in mind the confederacy leaders. They must have been wondering at his attitude. Why did he not just insist on the return of the miscreants? So he stresses Jacob’s homesickness. He had other tribal loyalties.

Laban is not, of course, aware that Jacob left at God’s command but he does know that Jacob had put himself in a dangerous position by deserting the tribe secretly, and that the confederacy leaders will have to be pacified. Then he explains why he is being so lenient. He has had a vivid experience of God which he must obey.

It is at this point that he mentions the stolen gods. That the gods were the last thing on Laban’s mind comes out in that he has not mentioned them until now, but they provide a further grounds for complaint, a further means of blaming Jacob, and they were unquestionably important to him. Their theft is a flouting of his authority as well as being an insult to his family. And it would be seen by the confederacy leaders as a grave offence. Thus if he could get these back it might satisfy the confederacy leaders that their journey had not been in vain. Poor Laban. He now has to pacify his own supporters because of the change of mind produced in him by his dream.


Verse 31

‘And Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I said ‘lest you should take your daughters from me by force’.” ’

This is the answer to ‘why did you flee secretly?’ (verse 27). Jacob had rightly feared that if he left openly it would have been with very little. The daughters were seen as belonging to the tribe and his service for them had clearly not been seen as sufficient to recompense the tribe for their loss. Nor was their protection sufficiently catered for outside the tribe.


Verse 32

‘ “With whoever you find your gods, he will not live. In front of our brothers discover what is yours among my possessions and take it to you.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.’

On the other hand he asserts his innocency on the charge of the theft of the gods, and gives permission for a search and agrees that any thief will suffer the death sentence. Let the confederacy leaders be witness to what happens. The hearer and reader, who are aware of what Rachel has done, now feel a mounting in tension. The death sentence has been passed on Rachel! But Jacob does not know what Rachel has done.


Verses 33-35

‘And Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two maidservants, but he did not find them. And he left Leah’s tent and went into Rachel’s tent. But Rachel had taken the teraphim and put them in the camel’s furniture and sat on them. And Laban felt all about the tent and did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot stand up before you, for the way of women is on me.” And he searched but did not find the teraphim.’

Laban is still convinced that it is Jacob who has stolen them. He searches all the tents thoroughly without exception. The teraphim were clearly too large to be hidden on the person, although not so large that they could not be hidden in the camel’s furniture. It is clear that Jacob watches the process in anger. He does not like all his personal belongings being searched (Genesis 31:37).

Entering women’s quarters was only justified in extreme circumstances and Laban does it himself. They are members of his family. But he finds nothing. Then he enters Rachel’s quarters. That he accepts his daughter’s word suggests that he cannot bring himself to believe that his own daughters would deceive him, for had he doubted it he would have been more than suspicious. But like many arrogant people he is oblivious to how badly he has treated them and never suspects for one moment that they are resentful. We must always remember that how we treat people will at some time rebound on us.

There is possibly in the description an underlying contempt for such idols. They are hidden under a woman in her uncleanness. They are a nothing, and can do nothing.

It is interesting that only the leader and his wives have tents. The servants and their wives sleep in the open for they are on a journey. (When Jacob was travelling as a single man he also only used a stone as a pillow).


Verses 36-42

‘And Jacob was extremely angry and berated Laban. And Jacob answered and said to Laban, “What have I done wrong? What is my sin that you hotly pursued after me? In your feeling about among all my things what have you found of all your household possessions? Set it here before my brothers and your brothers that they may judge between us two. This twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your she-goats have not cast their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. What was torn of beasts I did not bring to you, I bore the loss of it. You required it of my hand whether stolen by day or stolen by night. I was thus. In the day drought consumed me, and by night the frost. And my sleep fled from my eyes. I have been in your house these twenty years. I served you fourteen for your two daughters and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac had been with me surely you would have sent me away empty. God has seen my affliction and the labour of my hands and rebuked you yesternight.” ’

Having watched his possessions being mauled by Laban without result Jacob is very angry and makes clear his grievances in front of the leaders of the confederacy. Laban is necessarily on the defensive. He has been proved ‘wrong’. He has failed to justify his charge of theft.

Jacob’s arguments are:

1) Laban has failed to prove the charge of theft as the remainder have witnessed.

2) Jacob had paid well for what he has, both in wives and flocks and herds, by long and faithful service in which he endured much hardship. The hardship of the shepherd’s life is well depicted. Indeed Laban had demanded recompense for any failure to the full and constantly changed the terms of the contract, yet Jacob bore with it. Animals taken by wild beasts did not normally need to be accounted for (Exodus 22:10-14).

3) He has not taken advantage of his position. While as shepherd he had the right to eat of the flock he has not taken the fat rams. And he has tended the ewes at birth so that there was no failure in the birth process. This may suggest that not all shepherds were so fastidious.

4) Nevertheless when he left Laban would have sent him away with nothing apart from his own personal possessions and would still do so were it not for God’s intervention.

5 God has passed judgment on the situation, having seen what he has put up with and the price he paid, and has justified Jacob.

These arguments were important. The remaining confederacy leaders (mainly Laban’s sons and relatives) need to be aware of the justice of his position, for the fact was that he had still absconded from the confederation of tribes with his possessions as Laban now argues.

“The God (Elohim) of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac.” Each patriarch had his own description of Yahweh. To Abraham he was ‘the God’, the Almighty (El Shaddai), because of what he had done for him and promised to him, to Isaac he was ‘the Fear’, the One to be held in awe. Isaac never forgot his rare experiences of the manifested presence of God. (The alternative translation ‘kinsman’ has been suggested which would emphasise his close relationship with his God). To Jacob He was ‘the Mighty One’ (49:24), possibly partly because of this incident. He had protected Jacob when he was defenceless. We can compare with this how easily Abraham can see Yahweh as El Elyon (14:22) which demonstrates that Yahweh can be given different titles.


Verse 43

‘And Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters and the children are my children and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. And what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children which they have borne.” ’

Laban’s case is based on recognised tribal custom. As head over the confederacy all that is in the confederacy is ‘his’, that is, belongs to the confederacy, and he is responsible for it. This is especially true in this case when they had all been personally his. While Jacob by his service has obtained certain proprietary rights over them they are still the confederacy’s and should remain within the confederacy. Indeed Laban as the patriarch has the responsibility for their protection and must watch over them, which he cannot do if they leave the confederacy. Compare how Delilah remains in her father’s house when married to Samson (Judges 14:2 on; 15:1). But because God has spoken to him so vividly he is now prepared for these rights to be overridden.


Verse 44

“And now, come, let us make a covenant, I and you, and let it be for a witness between me and you.”

This change of heart of Laban, who had originally intended to drag Jacob and his household back to Paddan-aram, has already been explained as arising from his vivid experience of the awesome presence of God (Genesis 31:29; Genesis 31:42). Thus he does not exert his rights but ensures the safety and status of his daughters by means of covenant. Such a covenant was seen as solemnly binding in the sight of the gods of both parties (Genesis 31:53) who would exact revenge if it was broken. Its terms are found in verses Genesis 31:49-52.


Verse 45-46

‘And Jacob took a stone and set it up for a pillar, and Jacob said to his brothers, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap.’

This was clearly acceded to by Laban (Genesis 31:51). It is clear that a stone was set up for each person, one for Jacob and a heap for Laban as the leader, and for the heads of sub-tribes involved in the making of the covenant. Thus Jacob first sets up his pillar to represent his side of the covenant, then the remainder set up stones together in a heap to represent their side of the covenant. We can compare the twelve stones for the twelve tribes in Joshua 4. So there are two silent witnesses to the covenant, the pillar and the heap. As we have seen the setting up of stones was a regular method of having a physical reminder of a covenant (compare Genesis 35:14; 1 Samuel 7:12; Joshua 4:3; see also 2 Samuel 18:18).

“They ate there by the heap.” The eating was a solemn recognition of the peaceful nature of the covenant, as necessary a part of the process as the setting up of the stones. This was probably a ceremonial eating at the setting of the stones, a preliminary to the feast, although it is possible that it simply parallels the feast described later in verse 54, mentioned here as part of the ceremony.


Verse 47

‘And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha (‘heap of witness’ in Aramaic), but Jacob called it Galeed (‘heap of witness’ in Hebrew).’

This is interesting testimony to the fact that the Arameans spoke an early form of Aramaic while Abraham’s family had adopted an early form of Hebrew, which parallels Canaanite, as their mother tongue. Jacob has been using Aramaic but now resorts to Hebrew as testimony to the change that is now taking place. He is no longer an Aramean by adoption, he is an Abrahamite by birth.


Verse 48-49

‘And Laban said, “This heap is witness between me and you this day.” That is why its name was called Galeed and Mizpah (place of watching), for he said, “Yahweh watch (zapah) between me and you when we are hidden (i.e. out of sight) one from another.”

Laban, as head of the confederacy of which Jacob had been a part, takes the leading role in declaring the significance of what is happening. The heap is mentioned because that represents Laban’s part in the covenant. It is their witness to Jacob. Thus it is now given another name, ‘place of watching’, for it not just a witness to the covenant but the place from which God will observe for the fulfilment of the covenant. He will, as it were, stand on that border and guarantee the fulfilment of the covenant on both sides.

“Yahweh watch between me and you.” Laban cites Jacob’s God for it is Yahweh Who will watch for Jacob and see to the observance of the stipulations that follow.


Verse 50

“If you will afflict my daughters, and if you will take wives besides my daughters, no man is with us. See God is witness between me and you.”

Laban deals with his first concern, the security and protection of his daughters. He hands them over to God’s protection for their tribe can no longer protect them. God will see whether Jacob treats them rightly. Note especially the provision against Jacob taking other primary wives (concubines would not matter, they are of lower status and would not affect the status of the primary wives).

This can be paralleled to some extent from Nuzi where ‘Nashwi has given his daughter Nuhuya as wife to Wullu. If Wullu takes another wife he forfeits Nashwi’s land and buildings.’ The parallel is not exact, but it examples restriction being placed on further marriage with a cost involved. Laban clearly does not expect Jacob to marry a further primary wife and would consider it a breach of the covenant, theoretically at least nullifying the promise of non-interference.


Verse 51-52

‘And Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap, and see this pillar, which I have set between me and you. This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and that you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.”

Previously the guarding has been against the threat from Laban if his daughters are not rightly dealt with, thus the heap was mentioned. Now the guarding is two way and so both heap and pillar are mentioned. It is significant that Laban fears Jacob. The intervention of God on Jacob’s behalf on a dream is not something he can pass over lightly, and he knows how Yahweh has prospered Jacob in the past. Thus he himself wants some warranty that peace will be maintained both ways. The pillar is, as it were, Jacob’s signature to the covenant of peace.

“Which I have set.” This does not mean that Laban placed the pillar, only that he sees himself as having caused it to be set as part of the covenant signs. As leader of the confederation, releasing Jacob from it, it is he who sets the terms of the covenant and he sees himself as responsible for all connected with it.


Verse 53

‘ “The God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the gods of their father, judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.’

Each now swears by the God he worships. Jacob swear by Yahweh, the God of Abraham, in the title ‘the Fear’ (‘the Awesome One’) given by his father Isaac, and Laban swears by the god of Nahor. Each swears by the God of his father.


Verse 54

‘And Jacob offered a sacrifice in the mountain, and called his brothers to eat bread, and they ate bread and tarried all night in the mountain.’

The offering of sacrifice to seal a covenant is well known (see Genesis 15). Compare the words of a government official to Zimri-Lim of Mari (18th century BC) “I have killed the ass with Qarni-Lim, and thus I spoke to Qarni-Lim under the oath of the gods. ‘If you despise Zimri-Lim and his armies I will turn to the side of your adversary’.” There too a covenant of peace was involved.

This is Jacob’s response to Laban’s offer. By offering sacrifice and eating with the confederate leaders he fully accepts his part in the covenant, while their eating with him is a sign of their peaceful acceptance of the terms. All are now agreed and the deed is done. The feast goes on through the night (compare Genesis 24:54).


Verse 55

‘And early in the morning Laban rose up and kissed his sons and daughters, and blessed them. And Laban departed and returned to his own place. And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when he saw them Jacob said, “This is God’s host.” And he called the name of that place Mahanaim (‘two hosts’).

When the feasting was over Laban said farewell to his sons and daughters giving them the patriarchal blessing. All is now at peace. ‘Sons’ probably includes Jacob his son-in-law, and also his grandsons. No doubt daughters included his granddaughter Dinah. Words depicting relationship were not as specific then as now.

“Returned to his own place.” There is a contrast between this normality and the supernatural experience of Jacob (‘the angels of God met him’). For Laban it was over and he returned to normal life and to the daily grind. But for Jacob there was a new beginning. He was to find that God was truly on his side.

“The angels of God met him.” The hearer is suddenly made aware of what would have happened to Laban if he had been belligerent. Angels of God such as Jacob had seen at Bethel had been held constantly in reserve ready to act on Jacob’s behalf. But they had not been needed and Jacob is now made aware of them. God had indeed been watching over him as He had promised (Genesis 28:15; Genesis 31:3). This meeting with God’s host confirms the promises he had received at Bethel. God’s angels are still active and will bring about His purposes.

“This is God”s host.’ In contrast the ‘host’ of Laban was paltry. But Jacob’s own meagre ‘host’ had been supported by the angelic host - there had been ‘two hosts’, an earthly and a heavenly. At this revelation he named the place Mahanaim - ‘two hosts’.

We note that Jacob is still east of the Jordan.

Note. It will be noted that throughout this section the writer has in general used Elohim for God with the name Yahweh being introduced only when personal covenant matters were in mind or when Laban is referring specifically to Jacob’s God. This was partly due to the fact that Jacob has been outside the covenant community, not rejoining Isaac until much later (Genesis 35:27), although still very much part of the covenant. But it may also reflect writer preference at this period. This will on the whole apply, with notable exceptions, through the remainder of the records. It is the God of the whole earth Who is at work.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 31:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-31.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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