Jacob and his family flee from Laban to the Land of Canaan (Genesis 31:1 – 31:21)
Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were complaining, saying “Jacob is taking all of our father’s wealth from us.” Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him had changed too. Then God told Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers. Go to your relatives. I will be with you.”
Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah, “Come to the fields where the flocks are.” When they arrived, Jacob told them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me has changed. You know that I have worked hard for your father and yet, he still cheated me, changing my wages over and over again. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. If Laban told me “the speckled ones of the flock will be your wages” then by God’s grace the flocks began giving birth to speckled young. If Laban said “the striped ones will be your wages” then all the flocks bore striped young. Thus, God has taken your father’s livestock and given them to me.”
“I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw the male goats mating with the streaked, speckled, or spotted females in the flock. The angel of God said to me, “Jacob.” I answered, “Here I am.” The angel said, “Look up and see that all the male goats are mating with the flock that are streaked, speckled, or spotted for I have seen what Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.”
Rachel and Leah asked, “Do we still have a share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Doesn’t he now regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took from our father belongs to us and our children so do whatever God has told you.”
Jacob put his wives and children along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan-Aram on camels and drove his livestock ahead of him to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. When Laban left to shear his sheep, Rachel went into his home and stole her father’s household idols. Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban by not telling him he was running away.
Jacob fled with all that he had and crossed the Euphrates River, headed for the hill country of Gilead.
What the story means to us today
No doubt Jacob had found himself in a dangerous situation. He had accumulated wealth at Laban’s expense and recognized that Laban’s (and his sons’) attitude toward him had changed (likely they were jealous). As a result, we see that God not only commanded Jacob to leave at once, but we learn that it was God who helped Jacob obtain his riches in the first place by increasing the size and success of his flocks.
That God protects Jacob is clear. The same covenant applies to us today. We must recognize (and appreciate) that God takes care of his children.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Were Jacob and Rachel’s actions unchristian-like?
While Jacob and Laban’s rocky story continues to play out, some may puzzle over Jacob and Rachel’s actions. First, recognize that God instructed Jacob to leave quickly – but he did not instruct Jacob to deceive Laban or tell Rachel to steal from him.
Jacob and Rachel’s actions were choices that each made on their own. At the very least, some of their actions were sinful and likely gave Laban reason to pursue them, endangering Jacob, his family, and his herds. It is important to remember that just because it is written in the Bible, does not mean the Bible condones it. The Bible truly is an accurate account of what happened. Good or bad, it leaves nothing out.
The Bible’s approach to storytelling sometimes requires deeper inspection or a more rounded understanding of the scriptures to glean the additional lessons hidden between the lines. For instance, although it is not mentioned specifically in these verses, it is again interesting to see that Jacob learned deception from his parents. The same goes for Rachel who seems to have taken after her father, a man who obviously has no qualms about taking advantage of another person. Although these observations are not specifically pointed out to us in the scripture, it is easy to see that the narrative portrays the realities of family life and teaches us to be careful of our actions because our children watch and learn from their parents’ behavior.
Regarding Jacob’s quick departure, the translation clearly shows there was urgency in God’s command, “Leave – immediately!” It is possible that Jacob was in imminent danger and thus, must leave quickly, without informing Laban he was going. Again, the Bible does not instruct us to deceive others but rather, is a retelling of a series of events as they happened. The verses do not tell us why Jacob left quietly nor if it were wrong to do so. These are points that will be clearer as our understanding of the Bible’s message grows.
It should also be recognized that the verses tell us Jacob drove all “his livestock” ahead of him. This could easily be translated as “the cattle of his getting” implying that Jacob took only the cattle that belonged to him and nothing more. Jacob did not take it upon himself to even the score by taking Laban’s property, no matter how convenient the opportunity may have been.
Rachel and Leah’s comments – we were sold by Laban and he “used up” what was paid for us
Rachel and Leah comment that their father, Laban, “not only sold us, but used up what he paid for us.” The exact meaning of their statement is unclear. Jacob did indeed provide work to Laban in order to gain their hand in marriage. Perhaps they meant their father had used Jacob and thus, had used them as well.
Laban’s “household gods” – what they are and why Rachel took them
While Laban was shearing his sheep, Rachel stole his “household gods”. The objects referred to here were likely Teraphim or penates – small humanoid-shaped statues. It is unclear why Rachel did this. The historian Josephus wrote about the custom of carrying “housegods” on journeys. Laban’s household gods were likely idols representing gods or possibly models of mere men with which the owner would converse (i.e. ask questions, receive answers). They may have been made of valuable metals. Some have suggested that possession of the idols dictated a right of inheritance (the Nuzi tablets from 1600 BC seem to confirm this). Or possibly she recognized the importance of the idols to Laban and took them out of spite.
It is unlikely however, that Rachel took them as decoration for her new home or for divine protection during their trip to Canaan.
Jacob reveals that God told him how to mate the streaked, speckled, and spotted sheep
In previous chapters, we witnessed Jacob employing unusual methods to ensure his sheep propagated effectively. Now we learn what really happened when Jacob tells Rachel and Leah of a dream he had where God revealed that he was the reason for Jacob’s successful breeding campaign.
Rachel and Leah side with Jacob – and go against their father
Rachel and Leah’s reaction may be surprising to some – they agree wholeheartedly with Jacob’s decision to leave their home even though it meant going against their father’s will. Relationships and marriage are discussed often in the Bible. Even though we cannot know whether Rachel and Leah go against their father out of anger, it is clear that no matter how difficult the circumstances, the partnership between a man and a woman is strong and supersedes any prior or existing relationship.
Man as the “master of the house”
Some believe the Bible portrays the family structure as being led by a heavy-handed male; that given the male’s physical strength, he should dominate over the family, particularly the wife. Most people today recognize that the male’s physical strength should be used to protect and provide for the family, not bully them.
Notice that Jacob seeks agreement from his wives. He does not command them to leave the camp, but truly seeks their opinion as equal partners in the marital relationship. In a healthy relationship, a husband will consult and trust is wife.
Some may argue (splitting hairs), that Jacob called his wives to him rather than going to them. It is likely all involved recognized that Jacob must stay with the flocks (or possibly the fields were the best place to guarantee privacy).
Jacob’s obedience to God
It feels good to see Jacob grow (spiritually), obeying God’s command, without question, to leave Laban and return to Canaan. Remember, this was Jacob’s home and leaving was likely difficult (however, as the Bible scholar Matthew Henry once said, “When the world begins to smile upon us, we must remember it is not our home.”)
Notes on Biblical translation
Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated as “gotten rich” emphasizes weight, not quantity. In modern times, we think of wealth as a quantity of dollars, a more value-oriented measurement. In ancient times, wealth was considered more by weight, as if you were “heavy with possessions”.
“He changed my wages 10 times”
Although the text typically specifies the exact number of times Laban changed Jacob’s wages (typically ten), it is likely a rhetorical statement akin to saying “time and time again”. It would be similar to a modern-day phrase such as “I’ve told you a dozen times already” meaning “I’ve told you time and time again”.
Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” 2 And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.
3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”
4 So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. 5 He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. 9 So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.
10 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’ ”
14 Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? 15 Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. 16 Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you.”
17 Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, 18 and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan-Aram, z to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.
19 When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. 21 So he fled with all he had, crossed the Euphrates River, and headed for the hill country of Gilead.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Jacob learned that Laban’s sons were talking behind his back: “Jacob has used our father’s wealth to make himself rich at our father’s expense.” At the same time, Jacob noticed that Laban had changed toward him. He wasn’t treating him the same.
3 That’s when GOD said to Jacob, “Go back home where you were born. I’ll go with you.”
4–9 So Jacob sent word for Rachel and Leah to meet him out in the field where his flocks were. He said, “I notice that your father has changed toward me; he doesn’t treat me the same as before. But the God of my father hasn’t changed; he’s still with me. You know how hard I’ve worked for your father. Still, your father has cheated me over and over, changing my wages time and again. But God never let him really hurt me. If he said, ‘Your wages will consist of speckled animals’ the whole flock would start having speckled lambs and kids. And if he said, ‘From now on your wages will be streaked animals’ the whole flock would have streaked ones. Over and over God used your father’s livestock to reward me.
10–11 “Once, while the flocks were mating, I had a dream and saw the billy goats, all of them streaked, speckled, and mottled, mounting their mates. In the dream an angel of God called out to me, ‘Jacob!’
“I said, ‘Yes?’
12–13 “He said, ‘Watch closely. Notice that all the goats in the flock that are mating are streaked, speckled, and mottled. I know what Laban’s been doing to you. I’m the God of Bethel where you consecrated a pillar and made a vow to me. Now be on your way, get out of this place, go home to your birthplace.’ ”
14–16 Rachel and Leah said, “Has he treated us any better? Aren’t we treated worse than outsiders? All he wanted was the money he got from selling us, and he’s spent all that. Any wealth that God has seen fit to return to us from our father is justly ours and our children’s. Go ahead. Do what God told you.”
17–18 Jacob did it. He put his children and his wives on camels and gathered all his livestock and everything he had gotten, everything acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go back home to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.
19–21 Laban was off shearing sheep. Rachel stole her father’s household gods. And Jacob had concealed his plans so well that Laban the Aramean had no idea what was going on—he was totally in the dark. Jacob got away with everything he had and was soon across the Euphrates headed for the hill country of Gilead.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
31:1 Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were complaining, “Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father! He has gotten rich at our father’s expense!” 31:2 When Jacob saw the look on Laban’s face, he could tell his attitude toward him had changed.
31:3 The LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives. I will be with you.” 31:4 So Jacob sent a message for Rachel and Leah to come to the field where his flocks were. 31:5 There he said to them, “I can tell that your father’s attitude toward me has changed, but the God of my father has been with me. 31:6 You know that I’ve worked for your father as hard as I could, 31:7 but your father has humiliated me and changed my wages ten times. But God has not permitted him to do me any harm. 31:8 If he said, ‘The speckled animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to speckled offspring. But if he said, ‘The streaked animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to streaked offspring. 31:9 In this way God has snatched away your father’s livestock and given them to me.
31:10 “Once during breeding season I saw in a dream that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and spotted. 31:11 In the dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here I am!’ I replied. 31:12 Then he said, ‘Observe that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have observed all that Laban has done to you. 31:13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the sacred stone and made a vow to me. Now leave this land immediately and return to your native land.’ ”
31:14 Then Rachel and Leah replied to him, “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? 31:15 Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners? He not only sold us, but completely wasted the money paid for us! 31:16 Surely all the wealth that God snatched away from our father belongs to us and to our children. So now do everything God has told you.”
31:17 So Jacob immediately put his children and his wives on the camels. 31:18 He took away all the livestock he had acquired in Paddan-Aram and all his moveable property that he had accumulated. Then he set out toward the land of Canaan to return to his father Isaac.
31:19 While Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole the household idols that belonged to her father. 31:20 Jacob also deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was leaving. 31:21 He left with all he owned. He quickly crossed the Euphrates River and headed for the hill country of Gilead.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, Jacob hath taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s hath he gotten all this glory. 2 And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before. 3 And the LORD said unto Jacob, Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee. 4 And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field unto his flock, 5 And said unto them, I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as before; but the God of my father hath been with me. 6 And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. 7 And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me. 8 If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages; then all the cattle bare speckled: and if he said thus, The ringstraked shall be thy hire; then bare all the cattle ringstraked. 9 Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me. 10 And it came to pass at the time that the cattle conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the rams which leaped upon the cattle were ringstraked, speckled, and grisled. 11 And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, saying, Jacob: And I said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle are ringstraked, speckled, and grisled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. 13 I am the God of Beth-el, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred. 14 And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not counted of him strangers? for he hath sold us, and hath quite devoured also our money. 16 For all the riches which God hath taken from our father, that is ours, and our children’s: now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.
17 Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels; 18 And he carried away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had gotten, the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten in Padan-aram, for to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan. 19 And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s. 20 And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled. 21 So he fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the river, and set his face toward the mount Gilead.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.