Read Genesis 31:1–55
Jacob has been disadvantaged by Uncle Laban on several counts: he tricked Jacob at the time of the marriage so that Laban is able to get both daughters married to Jacob, and he gets fourteen years of work from a willing Jacob. Not bad for Laban! But God’s “hidden hand” is also working out a great plan for this patriarch so that God’s promises can be realized. Jacob is blessed with children in his tents and with increased livestock in his fields. In sum, God has kept His word to Jacob. The evidence is clear for all to see.
Restless relatives (31:1–3)
Jacob detects that a different atmosphere has developed in the household of Laban. Even his cousins, Laban’s sons, grumble against him as they see God blessing Jacob’s flocks. Uncle Laban also appeared to become more and more alienated from Jacob. There is something of irony here: blessings from the LORD toward Jacob do not awaken rejoicing in Laban’s household. Instead, bitter muttering begins to brew.
We are reminded of something similar (not precisely the same, however) had happened between the herdsmen of Abram and the herdsmen of Lot in Genesis 13. While the situation with Jacob and Laban is not exactly like that of Abram and Lot earlier, one point of similarity between the two stories is that the divine blessing that is so clearly present with Jacob causes feelings of jealousy and suspicion in Laban’s family.
“Jacob has taken all that our father owned,” say Laban’s sons. This is no longer “one big happy family.” So there are human factors that are certainly at play in Jacob’s decision to leave Laban. But more importantly, it is the LORD Himself who tells Jacob to leave. Mother Rebekah had told him that she would send word to him when it was safe to return home. But that word never comes. Therefore, it is the covenant God who will now move His son Jacob back to the Promised Land. Notice how the LORD describes Canaan: it is the land of your fathers (verse 3). Whereas Abram had come from Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia, and this uncle with his family still live in Haran, Canaan is now viewed as the land of the ancestors. Even in the words that God uses, Canaan is home, the center, the place where Jacob really belongs.
Jacob rallies his wives
Rather than go back to his home to speak with his two wives, Jacob summons them to the field where the flocks are (does he fear that someone—maybe a relative— might steal from him?). Leaving Laban and his family is no small matter. After all, Rachel and Leah are the daughters of Laban. Thus Jacob must persuade them that this separation is necessary. Jacob’s speech is interesting in that he mentions some of the sore points in his relationship with his wives’ father, Laban. But he also acknowledges that it was God who was the ultimate source of his prosperity. We further learn that Jacob has had another dream: an angel of God has told him to leave Paddan-Aram. The “God of Bethel” is now directing him to leave and return to his “native land” (verse 13). His speech points out human factors (father Laban has cheated him) and the decisive divine factor in his decision. “God told me to leave here and go back home.”
The wives ‘stand by their man’ (31:14–16)
It is important that Jacob have his wives on his side in this struggle with Laban. We readers may wonder how Rachel and Leah will respond. After all, Jacob has not spoken too favorably about their father. Whose side will they be on? But in their response it becomes clear that they are loyal to Jacob, no longer tied to their own father Laban.
Their comments reveal to us that not only has Laban tried to use Jacob for his own purposes, but he has also taken advantage of his own daughters. “Our father has treated us as foreigners, and he has certainly eaten up our inheritance!” they say. They even say that he has “sold” them. So they urge Jacob to obey God.
Jacob and his household make their exodus (31:17–21)
Jacob had, by the grace and favor of God, become a wealthy man. He has many children, servants, and livestock. Anyone who has had to move from one home to another home can begin to appreciate something of the preparations and detail that go into the act of moving. Jacob is running away; he is fleeing (verses 20,21). Therefore, he must move quickly, lest his preparations for moving become known to someone from Laban’s household. Even then, once Jacob and his large household actually leave, they must move quickly. Travel on camel can go relatively quickly, but to move livestock ahead quickly, is another matter all together. This flight is filled with danger, real danger and not imagined.
The remarkable thing here is that Rachel steals the teraphim, while Jacob deceives Laban by leaving without telling Laban. What were these teraphim? Check one or two Bible dictionaries. Laban later on calls them “gods” (verse 30). They could be small or large, and most scholars think of them as images of household gods. They are referred to in Judges 17:5; 18:14–20; 1 Samuel 19:13–16; 2 Kings 23:23–24; Ezekiel 21:21; Hosea 3:4; and Zechariah 10:2. Prophets denounced their use. The passage in 1 Samuel 19:13–16 is a rather humorous incident in which Michal, Saul’s daughter and wife of David, uses these teraphim to trick her father’s own messengers who have come to arrest David. Apparently they may have been large enough to be placed in a bed to suggest that a human being was under the bed covers! These teraphim may have identified who had inheritance rights to property. They may have functioned as a kind of deed to the property: the holder of the images is the owner of the property. If that is the case, then this is why Laban is so upset that they were missing. But what does that say about the religious practices in Laban’s family? Or, is this “pay back time” for Rachel against her father, since Rachel and her sister Leah believe that they have been cheated out of property inheritance by their father (see verses 15,16)? Rachel’s motives may not be completely clear to us. Still, what were idolatrous images doing in this home in the first place?
Laban in hot pursuit (31:22–35)
Laban had been involved in sheep-shearing, and therefore he is not in the immediate area when Jacob flees. To move such a large household could not have been a quick affair, and yet it takes Laban and his force seven days to catch up with him, and by then Jacob and his family are in Gilead (about 350 miles distant). This is a great deal of distance made in a week’s time!
But God is still in charge. By means of a dream He puts Laban on stern notice that he must not do anything to harm Jacob. “Watch your words, Laban!” And yet when Laban speaks, he pours forth words in questions that are angry and insistent? “What’s this? Why…?” It reminds us of similar questions in Genesis 3.13; 4:10; and 29.25. Laban, the uncle who has manipulated many things to his own advantage stands before God’s chosen one, and he sputters out charges against Jacob, as if Laban is a prosecuting attorney.
Laban knows that he cannot do anything against Jacob, but he demands to search for his precious “gods,” the teraphim. The readers can tense a bit, since we readers know something that Jacob does not know: the idols are in Rachel’s saddle bag. But the readers’ tension switches to a smile when we picture Rachel, claiming to be in her period of monthly impurity, sitting on the “gods”! To think that people actually believe that a creature could have divine powers! See Romans 1:18ff.
Jacob’s angry response (31:36–42)
Laban has treated Jacob as a common thief, with accusations and property searches. Once it is clear that Laban’s precious idols (the teraphim) are not found, Jacob then responds with great anger. We sense that much frustration has been building up over all these years. It is clear that God has kept His word to be with Jacob. He has thrown His protecting shield around him. Laban has enough fear of God that he takes seriously God’s warning. Laban may use talk tough, but in the end he takes no hostile action against Jacob.
Covenant made to keep the peace (31:43–55)
Laban answers Jacob with words that sound like he must “get the last word in.” He basically says, “I really don’t care what you say or think, Jacob. This is my family, and these are my animals. All you see is mine” (verse 43). These are remarkable words: brazen, possessive, proud. Yet Laban is also realistic now, knowing that God has thrown a shield around Jacob and his household. Laban can protest all he wants, and he can demand all he likes, but he will not get this family and these animals back under his control. God is in control! No doubt Laban has in his mind the stern warning that the LORD gave him in the dream. Laban then retreats to the next best thing: let’s make a covenant. The terms of the covenant focus on the following things: 1) protection of Laban’s daughters, lest Jacob prove unfaithful, and 2) prevention of hostility between Laban and Jacob. Laban still seems so self-centered (“Mine!”), and yet he makes a very interesting statement about God in terms of this situation. God is witness to all this, including the marriage of Jacob with Rachel and Leah. God will be the “unseen Seer” in all these events.
Take notice of the components of this personal covenant: there is a sacrifice, coupled with a vow, witnesses are present (God, first of all, and then a heap of stones), and then a concluding meal. In a far grander way, God binds Himself to His elect with the sacrifice of His Son, His Word (of promise), the witnesses of Himself and all creation, and meal of bread and wine to confirm in believers the truth that is placed before us in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Genesis 31 marks the conclusion of an important chapter that was written by God in the history of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Sad events caused Jacob to flee from family in Canaan (Gen. 28), and now a sad situation causes Jacob to flee from his extended family in Paddan-Aram.
Jacob, now in his 90s, seems to be a “man on the run.” He has been blessed by the LORD, but God’s blessings have provoked in Laban less than pure desires. Jacob’s future and that of his family are not in this area. God’s plan for His people at this point includes location in the Promised Land, and that is where God’s Word and human events now direct Jacob. S.G. De Graaf (Promise and Deliverance, vol. 1, p. 207) says this,
By His Word the Lord had separated Jacob and Laban, so that Jacob would live only for the Word of the Lord and await the fulfillment of the promise in Canaan. Events had to take this course for the sake of Christ, who is completely removed from the sinful life of the world. Since Jacob’s separation was not complete, the cleansing of his house would have to continue later.
Lesson 9: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Rachel and Leah seem bitter toward their father (verses 14–16). Can this be a proper motive
for encouraging Jacob to leave Laban? What should be the believer’s motivation when doing
the will of God?
2. God is pleased to work His covenant plan through believing households, through families
where He is believed and honored. Yet human families are not the ultimate since the
Kingdom of God can “set father against son and mother against daughter.” Rachel and Leah
choose for Jacob (albeit with less than pure reasons; question #1 above). Believers’ heart
loyalty is to God and His Son Jesus Christ. How can such loyalty to God today affect
families? At what point does a person make a break with his or her own family members
because of the Christian faith? And, if a break must be made, what then could and should
be our attitude toward non-Christian family members?
3. What parallels do you see between the flight of Jacob and his household from Laban, and
that of the Israelites later from Egypt? What kind of situation are both groups leaving? What
does God say and do that enables both groups to leave, even to escaping real dangers?
4. Rachel wants to keep the teraphim. What does the presence of these idols and their use
suggest about the level of spirituality in Laban’s family? Is Rachel spiritually like Lot’s wife
who “looked back” when she should have spiritually “cleaned house” in the move away from
5. God is a Witness, the unseen audience of One to all that is said and done. How should that
reality control what is said at a profession of faith, at a wedding, in business dealings, and
in courtroom trials? Read Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 37, Q/A 102.