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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Genesis 31

 

 

Introduction

CHAP. XXXI.

Jacob, having communicated his design to his wives, departs secretly from Laban with his family and flocks. Laban pursues, and overtakes him at Gilead. After mutual recriminations, they make a covenant together.


Verse 1

Genesis 31:1. And he heard, &c.— i.e.. Jacob heard: another proof of the bad divisions of the chapters. Three things concurred to determine him in his departure from Laban: the first, the envy and jealousy of Laban's sons; the second, the chagrin and ill behaviour of Laban, Genesis 31:2.; and the third, the direction of God himself, Genesis 31:3. By all this glory all these riches are meant; for the Scripture often calls riches by the name of glory, as they are the great means of procuring worldly honour and glory.


Verse 4

Genesis 31:4. Jacob sent and called Rachel, &c.— Determined to depart secretly from Laban, he appointed his wives to meet him in the field, that he might communicate his design more unreservedly to them. Rachel is named first, as being, properly speaking, his first, and certainly his best-loved wife. He calls God the God of his father, Genesis 31:5 to remind them of God's goodness and promises to Abraham and his family. When he says, Genesis 31:7 your father hath changed my wages ten times, this is to be understood indefinitely for many times, as the phrase is frequently used in Scripture, prophane authors, and common conversation. See the references in the margin of our Bibles. It is very evident that the hand of God was in this transaction; because, how frequently soever Laban changed the terms of agreement, they always turned out advantageously to Jacob. No art could effect this; therefore true is Jacob's assertion: God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me, Genesis 31:9.

To illustrate this subject we may still further observe, that, besides those who live wholly in tents, numbers of the eastern people spend part of the year in them, particularly in Mesopotamia. "In that country," Dr. Pococke tells us, vol. 2: p. 158. "he fell in with a summer-village of country people, whose huts were made of loose stones, covered with reeds and boughs; their winter-village being on the side of a hill at some distance, consisting of very low houses; and that they chose this place for the convenience of being with their cattle, and out of the high road." Five pages after he observes, that many of the Curdeens live honestly in Mesopotamia as well as Syria, removing in summer to some places at a distance from their village, where they live under tents, generally in places retired from the road, to avoid the injuries of the soldiery and of the people of the Pasha.

May not this circumstance serve to explain the passage in question, where it is said, that Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to his flock; that he there told them of his design of returning from Mesopotamia to his native country; and that, upon their consenting to go with him, he set out upon this journey so silently, that Laban had no notice of it until the third day after? Yet it appears that he had all his effects with him, and tents for the accommodation of his family; and that Laban, who pursued him, had tents also for his company.

Here one is surprized to find both parties so suddenly equipped with tents for their accommodation in travelling, and is naturally led to inquire why Jacob sent for his wives to his flock? Bishop Patrick's account of the last circumstance, that it was for greater secrecy, and perhaps on account of the danger of being seized upon by Laban and his sons, will hardly be thought satisfactory. Could not the husband speak to his wives with sufficient privacy in Laban's house? Were matters come to such an extremity that Jacob durst not venture himself within the doors of his uncle's house, for fear of being seized upon and made a prisoner? And, in fact, Jacob seems actually to have communicated his intention to Rachel in her father's house; for, when he sent for his wives, she brought her father's teraphim with her, which she would by no means have done, had she been unapprised of the design.

The case seems to have been thus: While Laban and his daughters dwelt in a house, they who tended the flocks had tents for their accommodation. Laban's flocks were in two parcels; one under the care of Jacob, the other committed to the care of his sons, three days journey off. At the time of shearing sheep it is reasonable to suppose more and better tents were erected for the reception and entertainment of their friends, that being a time of great feasting among them, see 1 Samuel 8:22 to which they were wont to invite their friends, 2 Samuel 13:24.; and the feasts being held at a distance from their own houses, in the places where the sheep were fed, as appears from the passage last cited, and also from Genesis 38:12.—Laban then went with his relations, at the time of sheep-shearing, to his flocks; see Genesis 38:19. Jacob, at the same time, shore his own sheep, and sent to his wives to come to the entertainment, with all those utensils of his which they had with them which would be wanted, having before communicated his intention to Rachel his beloved wife. This was a fair pretence for the having all his household stuff brought to him, which (if we may judge from the present eastern mode) we may believe was very portable, beds not excepted; and having then told Leah his views, in the company of Rachel, and both assenting to go with him, he had every thing ready for his journey, and decamped immediately, taking his flocks and herds along with him. Somebody, upon this, immediately went to inform Laban of Jacob's having withdrawn himself; but Laban, being at considerable distance, did not receive the news till the third day.

This accounts, at once, in the most simple and natural way, for Jacob's sending for his wives to his flock; for his being able to get his goods together without jealousy; and for his and his father-in-law's being furnished with tents for the journey.


Verse 11

Genesis 31:11. And the angel of God, &c.— See notes on ch. Genesis 30:32. Jacob seems to unite, in this account to his wives, two visions; the first, wherein God represented to him his attention to his interest with regard to the flocks; the second, Genesis 30:13 wherein he exhorts him to fly from Laban; though perhaps we may well reconcile the whole, and understand it as one vision, which is certainly most consonant with the passage, by rendering the particle עתה atah, (which in our version is translated now,) either, in a short time, or hereafter, at length; a sense in which it is frequently used, as the learned reader will see by referring to Noldius. I am the God of Beth-el, &c. Within a short period arise, or thou shalt shortly arise, and return unto the land of thy kindred, after I have blessed thee, by giving thee Laban's cattle. Be that however as it may, it appears evidently that the angel mentioned, Genesis 30:11 and the God of Beth-el, Genesis 30:13 are one and the same person, that is, the second Divine Person in the Godhead.


Verse 16

Genesis 31:16. For all the riches, &c.— Another reason here offers itself to justify Jacob. The daughters of Laban justly complain of their father's treatment, who had behaved to them as if they had been slaves, not daughters; and assert, that the gracious God who had so blessed their husband, herein had only caused Laban to do that involuntarily which he ought to have done freely; had only administered to them that justice, and given to them those riches, which their father had withheld: consequently he could not be wronged by the divine consignment of them to the proper owners.

REFLECTIONS.—Jacob's great increase becomes now a dangerous snare; but God makes it the means of hastening him home the sooner. So easily can his providence change our dangers into blessings.

1. Laban's sons beheld with indignation the flocks of Jacob, and talked as if they only wanted occasion to take back the fruit of his bargain. They counted his share all, and saw his sheep magnified with the eyes of covetousness; while Laban himself, though he said nothing, betrayed in his countenance the same sentiments. Note; (1.) Envious minds cannot bear that others should prosper more than themselves, especially in their own profession. (2.) The things of this world appear glorious to those who place their happiness in them; but they are little in the eyes of him who hath seen by faith the glories of a better.

2. Jacob hereupon resolves to decamp, under the divine guidance and direction. The God of Beth-el, to whom he owed all his success, who directed him by a vision how to act, now bids him be gone, and will protect him in his return. Note; (1.) When worldly prosperity increases, we are most tempted to take up our rest here; it is well then to think of our home in heaven. (2.) While our worldly blessings come as covenant-blessings, they are doubly sweet. (3.) When we have gone out under God's guidance, we need not fear returning safe.

3. He acquaints his wives with his resolution, but privately, for fear of Laban, and gives them his reasons. Note; The husband, in matters of importance to his family, should consult his wife, who, as the partner of his fortune, should be the partner of his heart. They readily consent, conscious of the truth of his complaints and the justice of his arguments. What Jacob had got was not only his wages, but their just portion; they prefer therefore their husband, as bounden, to their father's house, and are ready to go wherever or to whatever God is pleased to call him.


Verse 17

Genesis 31:17. Then Jacob arose, &c.— Finding his wives agreeable to his proposal, Jacob resolved to put it into execution; he accordingly seized the proper opportunity, when Laban was absent from home, employed in the fields in shearing his sheep, and consequently much engaged, as it was a time of great festivity. The 19th verse would be much better rendered, Now, or For Laban had departed, or was gone to shear his sheep, when Rachel stole the images, &c. Iverat tum Laban, is Houbigant's version; the French is, Or, comme Laban etoit alle tondre ses brebis, Rachel deroba les marmousets, &c. What we render images, is in the Hebrew teraphim. Laban calls them his gods, אלהי elohai. They were a kind of Penates, or houshold gods, says Shuckford, to which they directed their worship as symbols of the Divinity, and which they consulted as oracles. That they were used as instruments of divination in after-times, appears from Ezekiel 21:21. Thus they somewhat resembled the Arabian talismans, which being made under such or such constellations, were supposed to receive the influences of those constellations, and served as oracles. Some think they were of a human shape, because we read, 1 Samuel 19:13 that Michal put one of these teraphim into David's bed, that it might pass for him. But Laban's teraphim must have been of a very small size, since Rachel hid them under the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. Some think they were representations of angelical powers, (teraphim and seraphim being the same, only with the change of a letter,) who were imagined to declare the mind of God; and that they were made in imitation of the Shechinah or Divine Presence which appeared to Abraham's family. See Spencer, Dissert. Urim et Thummim, c. iii. sect. 7, 8. Rachel stole them either for their curiosity, or for their intrinsic worth, as being of gold or silver, or some precious material; or, which is most probable, she still retained a tincture of her father's superstition or idolatry, and carried them with her, lest her father, inquiring after them, should know which way they were gone; or perhaps she hoped, by their means, to be prospered in her journey, and designed to make them the objects of her worship in Canaan; for it appears from ch. Genesis 35:4. that soon after this, idol-worship was introduced into Jacob's family. Her view could not be what some alledge, to reclaim her father from idolatry; for then she would hardly have exposed herself to danger by keeping them, and to the necessity of telling a lie to conceal them, but would rather have thrown them away. The learned Mede observes as above, that these teraphim were small images made under a certain constellation, and usually consulted both in things doubtful and future. Teraphim, among the idolaters, says he, answered the Urim and Thummim of the patriarchs.


Verse 20

Genesis 31:20. Stole away unawares Heb. stole the heart of Laban. In Scripture-language the heart frequently signifies the knowledge, the understanding. Ecclesiastes 7:25 compared with Proverbs 7:7. The meaning is, that Jacob stole, secreted from Laban the knowledge of his design. The river, Proverbs 7:21 is the Euphrates, frequently called the River in Scripture, by way of eminence. Gilead was so called, from Jacob and Laban's covenant, Genesis 31:48. It joined to Mount Libanus, and included the mountainous region, called in the New Testament, Trachonitis.


Verse 27

Genesis 31:27. With mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp The Easterns in general set out, at least in their longer journies, with music; for, when the Prefetto of AEgypt, whose journal the late Bishop of Clogher published, was preparing for his journey, he complains of his being incommoded by the songs of his eastern friends, who took leave in this manner of their relations and acquaintance before their setting out. This illustrates the complaint of Laban in this verse: Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me, and didst not tell me, that I might, &c.

But the Prefetto takes no notice of a circumstance which frequently attends these travelling eastern songs, though it illustrates another passage of Scripture; and that is, the extemporaneousness of them. A guard of Arab horsemen escorted the gentlemen who visited Palmyra in the year 1751. When the business of the day was over, coffee and a pipe of tobacco, as the ingenious editor of those ruins tells us, p. 33. was their highest luxury; and when they indulged in this, sitting in a circle, one of the company entertained the rest with a song or an anecdote, and the compositions were sometimes extemporary. The extemporary devotional songs then, mentioned by the Apostle, 1 Corinthians 14:26 were by no means contrary to the turn of mind of the eastern people. The songs of the Israelitish women, when they came to meet king Saul, after the slaughter of the Philistine by David, seem to have been of the same kind; for they answered one another, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. 1 Samuel 18:7.

These valedictory songs, however, which the Prefetto takes notice of, are not to be supposed to be a constant prelude to their journies, but only to those of the most solemn kind; there is, therefore, an energy in the words of Laban which ought to be remarked: Why didst thou not tell me, that I might have sent thee away, and taken my leave of my daughters, going such a journey with all due solemnity, according to the custom of my country?


Verse 29

Genesis 31:29. It is in the power of my hand, &c.— And it appears very plainly, that it was as much in the inclination of his heart to do him hurt, had not God interposed, as indeed he himself confesses. Nothing can be more strongly marked than the hypocrisy of Laban, Genesis 31:27 after he found that the Almighty restrained him from doing any harm to Jacob: Speak neither good nor bad; i.e.. attempt neither to threaten nor persuade, Genesis 31:24. From Haran to Mount Gilead was above two hundred and fifty miles, so that both Jacob and Laban must have travelled expeditiously.


Verse 31

Genesis 31:31. Because I was afraid, &c.— To the first part of Laban's charge Jacob answers, that he fled privately, because he feared him; to the latter part he answers, by giving him free leave to search for his goods, and exposing to death whoever should be found guilty of the theft; whence it seems to follow, that theft in those days was frequently punished with death; see ch. Genesis 44:9.


Verse 33

Genesis 31:33. And Laban went, &c.— The LXX here add, and searched; Laban went and searched into Jacob's tent, &c. which Dr. Kennicott defends by a reading from the Samaritan; but the matter is of no consequence, since the passage is perfectly well understood in the Hebrew without this addition; and the conciseness of the Hebrew idiom does not always admit of every explanatory word. Who does not well know, from the context, for what purpose Laban entered into Jacob's, Leah's, and the other tents? not to say that the words at the end of Genesis 31:34 are sufficient for the whole.

REFLECTIONS.—We have here,

1. Laban's pursuit. He raises all his family, and pursues the fugitive seven days, and overtakes him at Mount Gilead. Note; When anger and covetousness are roused, what will not men do to gratify them? Even his own flesh and blood are now likely to rue his vengeance.

2. That night God stops his career, forbids him to interpose, and restrains him from offering Jacob the least injury. Note; (1.) God hath in his hands the hearts of all men. He saith to the fury of man as to the raging sea, Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further. (2.) He hath rescued, and will continue to rescue his people, when they seem upon the brink of ruin. Let us in every circumstance trust, and not be afraid. But though Laban is restrained from hurting Jacob, he is not from upbraiding him. Here is,

1. His charge against him, of great unkindness. He pretends wondrous affection to his children, nothing of which he had ever shown. Observe, When a man is disappointed of a mischievous design, he would fain have it thought he never intended it. He suggests also, as if it were a force upon his daughters, though they were first consulted. Learn, A bad heart is ingenious in inventing evil surmises. He vaunts his power to hurt him, but owns himself under a divine restraint, from God's appearing to him the past night. Note; It were well if men attended more to the secret notices (sleeping or waking) given to their consciences from God. However, one charge at least with some colour he can maintain: his gods are stolen, and Jacob the thief. Sad gods indeed that cannot preserve themselves!

2. Jacob maintains his innocence. If he were to depart at all from Haran, he had reason from Laban's past conduct to fear injustice. As to his gods, he denies the charge, and denounces vengeance on the thief. Had he known her, he had spoken more warily. Note; Evil wishes cannot be too sparingly dispersed; they may light on those we least suspect.

3. Laban's search for his gods in vain. Rachel by an artifice conceals them. Note; They who steal will never want a lie or excuse.


Verse 36

Genesis 31:36. And Jacob was wroth, &c.— Nothing can be imagined more exquisite than this apology of Jacob to Laban; nothing more descriptive of the painful and careful life of a shepherd, Luke 2:8.; and nothing, one would imagine, could be more affecting to the heart of Laban, than truths thus ardently and pathetically delivered. Honesty, fidelity, and unwearied assiduity, may be discountenanced by barbarous churls like Laban; but God, who seeth, i.e.. regards and relieves the affliction of those who trust in him, will sooner or later reward them. See ch. Genesis 16:13. Exodus 3:7; Exodus 3:9.


Verse 40

Genesis 31:40. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night Thus Jacob complains of the weather in Mesopotamia. Accordingly Rawwolff, speaking of his going down the Euphrates, gives us to understand that he was wont to wrap himself up in a frize coat in the night-time to keep himself from the frost and dews, which are very frequent and violent there. See Ray's Travels, p. 155, 156. The heat or drought of the day might well be equally complained of by Jacob; for Thevenot tells us, par. 2: p. 52. that when he travelled in this country of Mesopotamia the heat was so excessive, that though he wore upon his head a great black handkerchief, which he could see through, after the manner of the eastern people when they travel, yet he had many times his forehead so scorched as to swell exceedingly, and so as to have even the skin come off; and that his hands also were continually parched.

REFLECTIONS.—It is now Jacob's turn to chide, when Laban cannot make good the least of his accusations, nor find a thread which he can justly claim. Note; Though he had reason to expostulate, he did wrong to be angry: no provocation can excuse that. He could appeal to Laban for his honesty, carefulness, and fidelity; and every instance he produces of the uprightness of his service, reflects upon Laban as an unjust and unreasonable master. Note; Though it be one's unhappy case to have such a master as Laban, a good servant, like Jacob, will not be less faithful and industrious. We must leave the matter with God, and then we shall have Jacob's blessing.


Verse 44

Genesis 31:44. Now therefore come, &c.— Finding it impossible to do Jacob any injury, Laban assumes the language of tenderness and affection; and, like a true worldly man, carefully provides against receiving any injury from Jacob, whom his conscience assured him he had great cause to fear: he therefore proposes the solemn engagement of a mutual covenant, which was accordingly ratified between them by all the usual ceremonies of sacrifice, Genesis 31:54 feasting and erecting heaps of stone in memorial. Jacob said to his brethren, Genesis 31:46. (where, as well as in Genesis 31:23 we have further instances of the general sense given to the word brethren,) gather stones, &c.; and they did EAT there the feast upon the sacrifice. Laban gave the pillar, or heap of stones; a Syrian name, Jegar—sahadutha, and Jacob a Hebrew one, Galeed, each importing the same thing, namely, the heap of witness, as Laban explains in Genesis 31:48. And for another purpose it was also called Mizpah, Genesis 31:49 that is, a beacon, or watch-tower, for the reasons immediately assigned. Laban uses the word Jehovah in that verse; whence it seems to follow, that Jehovah was known to him, the God of Jacob, as indeed there can be no doubt but he was, considering the time Jacob had sojourned with him.


Verse 46

Genesis 31:46. Made an heap, &c.— This monument, says Parker, Jacob seems to have erected after the same manner as he did that of Beth-el. It must not be supposed to have been a heap of loose stones; for then it could not have continued long in the same position, nor given a name to the country round it. It was, doubtless, a regular and permanent building; but then what the form and figure of it was, is not so easy to determine. Had it been only for a memorial to posterity, and not for some present transaction also, the figure either of a column or a pyramid would have been very proper. But we find that the present use of it was to eat and sacrifice upon; and therefore we may imagine that it was made in the figure of a table, and have some authority to think, of a round table; because the name which Jacob calls it by, is taken from a verb, which signifies to turn round, as the word gilal is properly the circumference of a circle.


Verse 51

Genesis 31:51. Which I have cast Laban neither erected the pillar nor made the heap, Genesis 31:45-46. as Houbigant remarks; therefore he renders the word in the second person, which thou hast ereated, erexisti; though the Samaritan, he thinks, reads best in the second person, not יריתי irithi, but יראת irath, thou seest, this pillar which thou seest, &c.


Verse 53

Genesis 31:53. The God of Abraham, &c.— It seems very plain that Laban, by these expressions, means to refer to that true God, who was peculiarly the God of their fathers and family. And when Jacob swears by the fear of his father Isaac, that is, by the God who was the object of his father's religious veneration and regard, he insinuates that the same God still protected the family, and was no less the God of Isaac than of Terah, Abraham, and Nahor; a God always the same, and therefore the proper witness and avenger of those who swore by him, and covenanted in his name.

REFLECTIONS.—Laban could not gainsay Jacob's expostulation; truth and conscience confirmed it. But when he dares not do evil, he pretends kindness, and would fain make a merit of that affection which he had never shewn, and bestow as a gift what was Jacob's by hard service. Hereupon,

1. He proposes a covenant of friendship, and Jacob readily consents. Observe, We must follow peace with all men, especially with those of our own house and family. The terms are, That Jacob shall take no other wife, and that no injuries should be offered on either side. Jacob never designed the one, nor intended the other. Note; They who behave ill are most apt to suspect others to be like themselves. Hereupon a pillar is erected of stones, a sacrifice is offered, the oath is taken, they eat and drink before the Lord, and call the place the Heap of Witness and the Watch-tower. Learn, (1.) To forgive and forget all injuries is Christian-like. (2.) When friends are parted, it is their comfort that God sees and watches between them. (3.) Those who take the seals of the covenant, should look well that they be faithful to the engagements that are upon them, for God is not to be mocked.

2. They part in peace. The storm is blown over; anger subsides into paternal benediction, and threatening into kisses and love. Note; (1.) Strange alterations are brought about by God's providence. (2.) Near relations are doubly bound mutually to forgive and live in peace.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Genesis 31:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/genesis-31.html. 1801-1803.

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