Laban pursues Jacob and his family – covenant marks the division of Israel and East (Genesis 31:22 – 31:55)
Jacob had escaped with his wives and been gone three days when Laban was informed that he had fled. Laban gathered his family and they pursued Jacob for seven days. They caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead where Jacob and his family had pitched their tents.
Laban and his relatives camped nearby. That night, God told Laban, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” Laban asked Jacob, “What have you done? You deceived me and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why didn’t you tell me so I could send you away with joy, singing, and music? You didn’t even kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. Why did you sneak away?”
Jacob answered, “I was afraid you would take my wives away from me by force.”
Laban said, “You’ve done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you but last night God told me to be careful not to say anything to you. Why did you steal my gods?”
Jacob replied, “I did not take your gods. See for yourself. If anyone is found here with your gods, they will not live.”
Jacob did not know that Rachel had taken Laban’s gods.
Laban searched through tents in Jacob’s camp but found nothing. After searching Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Rachel had hidden the gods inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. She explained to Laban that she could not stand because she was having her monthly period. Laban searched through her tent but found nothing.
Jacob was angry now and told Laban, “What is my crime? How have I wronged you so you hunt me down? You’ve searched through all of my household. Have you found anything that belongs to you? If so, show everyone so they may judge between us. I have been with you for twenty years now. For fourteen years I worked for your two daughters and for six years I worked for your flock – and you changed my wages ten times. If God had not protected me, you surely would have sent me away empty handed. But God has protected me and last night he rebuked you.”
Laban answered, “The women are my daughters and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. But what can we do about this? Let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.”
So Jacob built a pillar from stone and placed tall stones around it where they sat. Leban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed. Leban said, “This monument of stones is a witness between you and I. May the Lord watch over us when we are apart. He pointed to the monument of stones and said, “I will not cross past this heap of stones to your side to harm you and you will not go past this heap to my side and harm me.” So Jacob took the oath and offered a sacrifice.
Jacob invited Laban’s family to a meal and they spent the night there. The next morning, Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren and blessed them all. Then he left and returned home.
What the story means to us today
A historical treaty divides the Middle East
Although this story provides a “what goes around, comes around” type of lesson, more importantly, we witness a historical treaty between Jacob and Laban. Neither Laban nor Jacob felt safe around each other so they agreed to form a treaty, a covenant which created a boundary that both consented to not cross. It is remarkable that we have a historical record of the very instant in time when this covenant was formed. The treaty marks the beginning of an important historical divide, the break between the East and Israel, and the creation of the geographic boundary between an Israelite and an Aramean (Syrian) on Mount Gilead (now the border between Israel and Jordan) – and it all began with anger, retaliation, and mistrust.
Additional thoughts and considerations
God’s influence over Laban
The scriptures tell us that God warned Laban to not harm Jacob. Had this not happened, the story would have certainly ended much differently (likely with violence and death). Had God not warned Laban, the Israelite nation could have ended on the spot. Instead, the nations were divided allowing each to survive on their own.
“What have you done?”
After catching up with Jacob and his family, Laban’s first words to Jacob were “What have you done?” The original Hebrew conveys a serious wrongdoing. Ironically, Jacob spoke these same words to Laban after he found Laban had deceived him and given him Leah for his wife instead of Rachel.
Laban dismissed God’s instructions to “not speak to Jacob from good to bad.” Instead, he chose to attempt to reacquire hid idols (an effort which appears to have been futile) and question Jacob’s integrity. The ultimate result of his disregard for God’s command was the beginning of a great divide between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.
Rachel’s theft of Laban’s property
As seen many times throughout the Bible, the scriptures provide a play-by-play narrative of the events that took place. The Bible does not condone, but merely observes Rachel’s actions and presents the events even-handed to the reader. The reader must carefully note that result of the participants’ actions and form their own conclusions.
For instance, Rachel’s actions show how small sins (theft of Laban’s forbidden idols) can cause bigger problems (Laban’s dangerous pursuit of Jacob and his family). We should also notice that when Rachel took Laban’s gods with her, she indirectly joined Jacob in the struggle against her father.
Jacob’s inadvertent death sentence
Ironically, whether uttered in the spur of the moment or not, when Jacob challenged Laban to find someone in his camp with the idols, and stated that if found they would be put to death, he unknowingly pronounced a death sentence on Rachel, his favorite wife.
Rachel sits on the idols
In ancient times, during menstruations, a woman was considered “unclean”. When Rachel sat on the idols, in addition to demonstrating shrewd cunningness, she showed a disrespect for Laban’s religion. Although Rachel was not nearly as single-minded in her dedication to God as Jacob, and almost certainly worshipped pagan entities as taught by her father, that she would “defile” Laban’s “gods” showed she had little respect for Laban’s religion and had already begun following her husband’s belief structure.
Children learn from the actions of their parents
We already know that Laban is a treacherous, deceptive person. Rachel’s actions lead us to believe she also bears some of those same qualities, almost certainly learnt from her father. Children learn from our actions, not necessarily our spoken dictates.
The “Fear of Isaac”
When Jacob explains to Laban that God’s protection has kept him safe, he describes God as “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac”. The phrase describing God as “Fear of Isaac” is the only time this expression appears in the Old Testament.
The science and history behind the story
Among Jacob’s list of reasons Laban should have treated him better, he says, “the rams of your flock I have not eaten”. Rams, or male sheep, were the choice of the flock. Fertile female sheep were typically never eaten by eastern people unless the animal was barren. Jacob was simply explaining that he had stolen none of the flock for himself.
“That which was torn by beasts I brought not unto thee”
Jacob explains that he did not bring any animals “torn by wild beasts” to Laban but instead, bore the loss himself. This was traditionally the case in the ancient east. Shepherds were solely responsible for the flock, including any losses that occurred, with one major exception – if the animal was killed by wild beasts. In such cases, the owner would not hold the shepherd accountable for the loss. In Jacob’s case, he willingly bore all losses himself.
The covenant and stone heap monument
In the ancient east, the tradition of heaping stones surrounded by a circle of stones upon which to sit, was quite common. In present day, these sorts of memorials can be found throughout the region, evidence of ancient transactions that took place at that location.
Notes on Biblical translation
The meaning of the phrase, more accurately translated as “lest you speak with Jacob from good to evil” is uncertain. It does not appear to mean Laban cannot talk to Jacob at all. Possibly it is a warning to not issue some sort of formal blessing or curse – anything that would harm Jacob or enhance his well-being.
“I was afraid because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force”
Surprisingly to some, this phrase, which came in response to several questions posed by Laban in a run-together sentence, is translated in a variety of ways. In this sentence of questions and abnegations, Leban’s last question was “Why did you steal my gods?” Jacob’s response is “because I was afraid”. It’s not patently clear that Jacob’s response was an answer to Laban’s earlier question “why did you leave” and not “why did you steal my gods”. As such, some translations add words that were not in the original Hebrew text.
For instance, in place of “I was afraid”, some translations say “I left secretly because I was afraid” or “I was afraid so I left secretly”. Others simply add “because” and tie the sentence to the original Hebrew statement to form the sentence “I was afraid because I thought you would take my daughters”.
The various translations appear to retain the true spirit of the text but serve as a good example of how Bible versions can vary according to the editors of the edition.
22 On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23 Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 24 Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
25 Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. 26 Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. 27 Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrels and harps? 28 You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and my daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. 29 I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”
31 Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. 32 But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.
33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.
35 Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So he searched but could not find the household gods.
36 Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? 37 Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us.
38 “I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 39 I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. 40 This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”
43 Laban answered Jacob, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne? 44 Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.”
45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. s
48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. 49 It was also called Mizpah, v because he said, “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50 If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.”
51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.”
So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. 54 He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there.
55 Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
22–24 Three days later, Laban got the news: “Jacob’s run off.” Laban rounded up his relatives and chased after him. Seven days later they caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. That night God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream and said, “Be careful what you do to Jacob, whether good or bad.”
25 When Laban reached him, Jacob’s tents were pitched in the Gilead mountains; Laban pitched his tents there, too.
26–30 “What do you mean,” said Laban, “by keeping me in the dark and sneaking off, hauling my daughters off like prisoners of war? Why did you run off like a thief in the night? Why didn’t you tell me? Why, I would have sent you off with a great celebration—music, timbrels, flutes! But you wouldn’t permit me so much as a kiss for my daughters and grandchildren. It was a stupid thing for you to do. If I had a mind to, I could destroy you right now, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, ‘Be careful what you do to Jacob, whether good or bad.’ I understand. You left because you were homesick. But why did you steal my household gods?”
31–32 Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid. I thought you would take your daughters away from me by brute force. But as far as your gods are concerned, if you find that anybody here has them, that person dies. With all of us watching, look around. If you find anything here that belongs to you, take it.” Jacob didn’t know that Rachel had stolen the gods.
33–35 Laban went through Jacob’s tent, Leah’s tent, and the tents of the two maids but didn’t find them. He went from Leah’s tent to Rachel’s. But Rachel had taken the household gods, put them inside a camel cushion, and was sitting on them. When Laban had gone through the tent, searching high and low without finding a thing, Rachel said to her father, “Don’t think I’m being disrespectful, my master, that I can’t stand before you, but I’m having my period.” So even though he turned the place upside down in his search, he didn’t find the household gods.
36–37 Now it was Jacob’s turn to get angry. He lit into Laban: “So what’s my crime, what wrong have I done you that you badger me like this? You’ve ransacked the place. Have you turned up a single thing that’s yours? Let’s see it—display the evidence. Our two families can be the jury and decide between us.
38–42 “In the twenty years I’ve worked for you, ewes and she-goats never miscarried. I never feasted on the rams from your flock. I never brought you a torn carcass killed by wild animals but that I paid for it out of my own pocket—actually, you made me pay whether it was my fault or not. I was out in all kinds of weather, from torrid heat to freezing cold, putting in many a sleepless night. For twenty years I’ve done this: I slaved away fourteen years for your two daughters and another six years for your flock and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not stuck with me, you would have sent me off penniless. But God saw the fix I was in and how hard I had worked and last night rendered his verdict.”
43–44 Laban defended himself: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flock is my flock—everything you see is mine. But what can I do about my daughters or for the children they’ve had? So let’s settle things between us, make a covenant—God will be the witness between us.”
45 Jacob took a stone and set it upright as a pillar.
46–47 Jacob called his family around, “Get stones!” They gathered stones and heaped them up and then ate there beside the pile of stones. Laban named it in Aramaic, Yegar-sahadutha (Witness Monument); Jacob echoed the naming in Hebrew, Galeed (Witness Monument).
48–50 Laban said, “This monument of stones will be a witness, beginning now, between you and me.” (That’s why it is called Galeed—Witness Monument.) It is also called Mizpah (Watchtower) because Laban said, “GOD keep watch between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. If you mistreat my daughters or take other wives when there’s no one around to see you, God will see you and stand witness between us.”
51–53 Laban continued to Jacob, “This monument of stones and this stone pillar that I have set up is a witness, a witness that I won’t cross this line to hurt you and you won’t cross this line to hurt me. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor (the God of their ancestor) will keep things straight between us.”
53–55 Jacob promised, swearing by the Fear, the God of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain and worshiped, calling in all his family members to the meal. They ate and slept that night on the mountain. Laban got up early the next morning, kissed his grandchildren and his daughters, blessed them, and then set off for home.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
31:22 Three days later Laban discovered Jacob had left. 31:23 So he took his relatives with him and pursued Jacob for seven days. He caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. 31:24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and warned him, “Be careful that you neither bless nor curse Jacob.”
31:25 Laban overtook Jacob, and when Jacob pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead, Laban and his relatives set up camp there too. 31:26 “What have you done?” Laban demanded of Jacob. “You’ve deceived me and carried away my daughters as if they were captives of war! 31:27 Why did you run away secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me so I could send you off with a celebration complete with singing, tambourines, and harps? 31:28 You didn’t even allow me to kiss my daughters and my grandchildren good-bye. You have acted foolishly! 31:29 I have the power to do you harm, but the God of your father told me last night, ‘Be careful that you neither bless nor curse Jacob.’ 31:30 Now I understand that you have gone away because you longed desperately for your father’s house. Yet why did you steal my gods?”
31:31 “I left secretly because I was afraid!” Jacob replied to Laban. “I thought you might take your daughters away from me by force. 31:32 Whoever has taken your gods will be put to death! In the presence of our relatives identify whatever is yours and take it.” (Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.)
31:33 So Laban entered Jacob’s tent, and Leah’s tent, and the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find the idols. Then he left Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. 31:34 (Now Rachel had taken the idols and put them inside her camel’s saddle and sat on them.) Laban searched the whole tent, but did not find them. 31:35 Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord. I cannot stand up in your presence because I am having my period.” So he searched thoroughly, but did not find the idols.
31:36 Jacob became angry and argued with Laban. “What did I do wrong?” he demanded of Laban. “What sin of mine prompted you to chase after me in hot pursuit? 31:37 When you searched through all my goods, did you find anything that belonged to you? Set it here before my relatives and yours, and let them settle the dispute between the two of us!
31:38 “I have been with you for the past twenty years. Your ewes and female goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 31:39 Animals torn by wild beasts I never brought to you; I always absorbed the loss myself. You always made me pay for every missing animal, whether it was taken by day or at night. 31:40 I was consumed by scorching heat during the day and by piercing cold at night, and I went without sleep. 31:41 This was my lot for twenty years in your house: I worked like a slave for you—fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, but you changed my wages ten times! 31:42 If the God of my father—the God of Abraham, the one whom Isaac fears—had not been with me, you would certainly have sent me away empty-handed! But God saw how I was oppressed and how hard I worked, and he rebuked you last night.”
31:43 Laban replied to Jacob, “These women are my daughters, these children are my grandchildren, and these flocks are my flocks. All that you see belongs to me. But how can I harm these daughters of mine today or the children to whom they have given birth? 31:44 So now, come, let’s make a formal agreement, you and I, and it will be proof that we have made peace.”
31:45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a memorial pillar. 31:46 Then he said to his relatives, “Gather stones.” So they brought stones and put them in a pile. They ate there by the pile of stones. 31:47 Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed.
31:48 Laban said, “This pile of stones is a witness of our agreement today.” That is why it was called Galeed. 31:49 It was also called Mizpah because he said, “May the LORD watch between us when we are out of sight of one another. 31:50 If you mistreat my daughters or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one else is with us, realize that God is witness to your actions.”
31:51 “Here is this pile of stones and this pillar I have set up between me and you,” Laban said to Jacob. 31:52 “This pile of stones and the pillar are reminders that I will not pass beyond this pile to come to harm you and that you will not pass beyond this pile and this pillar to come to harm me. 31:53 May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the gods of their father, judge between us.” Jacob took an oath by the God whom his father Isaac feared. 31:54 Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his relatives to eat the meal. They ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain.
31:55 (32:1) Early in the morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters goodbye and blessed them. Then Laban left and returned home.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
22 And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob was fled. 23 And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days’ journey; and they overtook him in the mount Gilead. 24 And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 25 Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead. 26 And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters, as captives taken with the sword? 27 Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp? 28 And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters? thou hast now done foolishly in so doing. 29 It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 30 And now, though thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father’s house, yet wherefore hast thou stolen my gods? 31 And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou wouldest take by force thy daughters from me. 32 With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them. 33 And Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the two maidservants’ tents; but he found them not. Then went he out of Leah’s tent, and entered into Rachel’s tent. 34 Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel’s furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not. 35 And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched, but found not the images. 36 And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? what is my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me? 37 Whereas thou hast searched all my stuff, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, that they may judge betwixt us both. 38 This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. 39 That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. 40 Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. 41 Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times. 42 Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight. 43 And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or unto their children which they have born? 44 Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee. 45 And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. 46 And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap. 47 And Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. 48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; 49 And ||Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. 50 If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee. 51 And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; 52 This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. 53 The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac. 54 Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount. 55 And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.