Genesis 31:1-55 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” 2 And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before. 3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
4 So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was 5 and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. 9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10 In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’ ” 14 Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16 All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.”
17 So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18 He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19 Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21 He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.
22 When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23 he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
25 And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29 It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.
33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. 35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods.
36 Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37 For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. 38 These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39 What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41 These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.”
43 Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day for these my daughters or for their children whom they have borne? 44 Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me.” 45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. 48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he named it Galeed, 49 and Mizpah, for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. 50 If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”
51 Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53 The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54 and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.
55 Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.
Welcome back to the story of the chosen family of God. We’re picking up in Genesis 31 where Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and the current heir of God’s covenant promises, finds himself in a bit of hot water again. Even though Jacob engaged in some questionable tactics, God blessed him. And even though his in-laws fared better than they had apart from Jacob, it was also clear that Jacob was getting the better end of the deal. For that reason, combined with their own selfishness, Jacob’s father and brothers-in-law grew increasingly frustrated with him.
With that backdrop God commanded Jacob to return to the Promised Land, promised to be with him, and followed through on His promise even through his wife’s foolishness and his father-in-law’s opposition.
In all of that, there is much for us to see concerning God’s nature—especially as it plays out in our hardships. Let’s pray that God would help us see these things as the story of the chosen people of God moves along through Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob, on the way to the Lord Jesus Christ. Above all, let’s pray that God would help us see from this passage that because of the greatness of God, to willingly walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open.
LABAN BECOMES JEALOUS (1-16)
Genesis 31 is neatly broken up into six parts: 1) Laban’s jealousy, 2) Jacob’s flight, 3) Laban’s pursuit, 4) Laban’s confrontation, 5) Jacob’s “vindication”, and 6) the covenant between Jacob and Laban. As I hope to help you see, each of these six parts help us to see something significant about God’s relationship to our struggles and what it means to live by faith in light of it.
The first thing for us to see, then, is that God blessed Jacob. Jacob prospered everywhere he went, even when he shouldn’t have. What’s more, this blessing extended from God, through Jacob, even to those associated with him. These things happened, once again, not because Jacob was particularly impressive, but exclusively because God had chosen to set His favor upon him. What an awesome gift.
This ought to have been cause for celebration for Jacob and everyone around him. On the contrary, though, the drama of this passage comes from the fact that what ought to have been celebrated, was despised instead. Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, was not happy about the way things were going down. Rather than rejoice with Jacob at the LORD’s blessing, Laban and his sons grew frustrated. Thus, most of follows in chapter 31 stems from Laban’s discontentment and selfish ambitions.
Jacob was made aware (somehow, he “heard” according to v.1) of the fact that Laban “did not regard him with favor as before” (2). Certainly, he had to wonder what he should do in light of this. Isn’t that one of the most common experiences that we face as the people of God; something changes in our circumstances and we’re left wondering how we might honor God in this new situation?
Well, by God’s grace Jacob didn’t have to wonder for long. The LORD spoke directly to him saying, “Return to the land of your fathers and your kindred…” (3). That by itself had to be comforting. Jacob knew exactly what God wanted from him. How many times have you prayed for that kind of clarity? I think I’ve prayed for that more in the past 18 months than ever before in my entire life.
As gracious as that was, though, God had more grace still for Jacob. In possession of God’s will, Jacob now faced another challenge. God’s will would put him directly in conflict with his shrewd and duplicitous father-in-law. Laban had figured out how to exploit two decades—twenty years—worth of labor and divine blessing out of Jacob. Surely he wouldn’t just let him go, would he? And so, God sent more grace. This grace came in the form of a promise (the most comforting promise possible), “And I will be with you” as you obey (3). Laban was no longer “with” Jacob, but God was!
Grace, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of this promise. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again in Genesis. More importantly, we see it in fullness at Pentecost (Acts 2) where God came to permanently be with His people. God’s promise to continually help, strengthen, bless, and guide us is the greatest thing we could ever hope for. No matter who is against us (as Laban was against Jacob), knowing that God is for us in this way is more than enough. In fact, it does not get better than that. If that’s not your greatest desire and the most precious promise for you, then you are missing out on God’s highest blessing. This passage urges you to turn from your lesser desires and to God in faith.
Knowing what he needed to do, then, and knowing that God would be with him as he did, Jacob turned his attention to convincing his wives that it was time to go (4, 13). His argument was pretty simple. He made note of the following five pieces of evidence:
- Your father’s favor is no longer upon me. On the contrary, he is now displeased with me (5).
- But God’s favor is upon me and what I am about to share with you is His will (5).
- I have acted with integrity and dedication throughout my entire time with your dad (6).
- But your dad has not acted with integrity. He’s deceived me, cheated me, and changed my wages ten times (7).
- The fact that his evil intentions were not able to “harm me” is even more evidence that I am on God’s side (7-12). God even came to me in a dream and confirmed all of this (11).
Therefore, let us flea from your father and go back to the land God has promised to me and my sons and their sons forever.
In their response, both Rachel and Leah agreed with Jacob’s assessment of the relationship between their father and Jacob, and the rightness of their leaving. Essentially, they said “God has given our father’s stuff to you and he isn’t happy with us anymore either. Therefore, let’s do “whatever God has said to you” (16).
There are four things I’d like to point out to you from this. First, don’t be like Laban. Don’t be so focused on your own selfish plans that you miss the blessing of God. In particular, don’t be so focused on what you’d like God to do for you that you miss the opportunity to celebrate what He’s doing in others (and perhaps for you through them).
Second, don’t be like Rachel and Leah. In this scene they are pictured as faithless opportunists. Their choices are in accord with under-the-sun cost-benefit analyses. There isn’t even a hint of the fear of the LORD or the desire to honor Him as God. Their willingness to go along with what God commanded their husband is portrayed as purely practical. They’d learned this well from their father.
Third, look for God’s kindness in hardship. To that end, consider the fact that while Laban and his sons acted wrongly, and inevitably made Jacob’s life harder because of it, God used their wrong response to rightly turn Jacob’s heart back to the Promised Land. Therefore, when the LORD commanded Jacob to go (3), Jacob was eager (4), and so were his wives (16).
I’ve noticed that God often pairs His kindnesses like this to grease the path of obedience. That is, He often combines blessings to make it easier for His people to obey. Here He gave a clear command, a promise to be with Jacob throughout his obedience to it, and circumstances that made it easier for Jacob to obey.
I can think of plenty of examples of that in my own life. As we contemplated adoption, for instance, God granted us a church that promotes it, uninterrupted financial help, godly authors making the biblical case for adoption, a wife who is an administrative ninja, and a specific, special child. Without any of those blessings, I’m not sure we’d (that is, I’d) have had the faith to proceed. We need to be careful not to trust our own reading of the cosmic tea leaves more than God’s Word, but again, God often does lay out a path of blessing on the path of obedience even through trial.
Finally, obeying God is always right. We ought to do whatever God says, because God is so great that to walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open.
JACOB FLEES (17-21)
With God’s command, God’s blessing, and his wives’ consent, but without Laban’s knowledge or approval, Jacob gathered his family, camels, livestock, and property, and headed back to Canaan and his family (17-18).
It’s hard to tell what to make of this. Was tricking Laban (20) part of God’s plan (even though the text doesn’t mention it)? Was it not a part of God’s communicated plan, but pleasing to God nevertheless (like Rahab hiding the Israelite spies)? Or was this a subtle expression of doubt within a larger act of obedience (which v.31 seems to imply)? Again, we don’t know for sure because the text doesn’t tell us.
And that is a subtle reminder that while God’s Word is entirely sufficient for us, the way of wisdom can often be difficult to find in this fallen world. Let us be a people, therefore, who give ourselves to reading and studying the Bible and to prayer. Let us be a people who seeks wisdom from godly people. And let us be a people who remember constantly that because of the greatness of God, to walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open.
Well, in one more pre-flight curious move, Rachel decided to steal her father’s “household gods” (19). The text doesn’t say what these “gods” were or why Rachel would want them, only that she took them while her father was out shearing sheep. As strange as it seems, this will become a key aspect of the story shortly.
Jacob and his clan, after twenty years in his mother’s homeland, fled from his father-in-law in obedience to God. And that leads to the third part of the story, Laban’s pursuit.
LABAN PURSUES JACOB (22-24)
In what we have to assume is an ironic display of providence, it took Laban three days to realize that Jacob had fled (ironic since Laban had previously put three days distance between Jacob’s flock and his own in an attempt to maximize his profits and minimize Jacob’s). Once Laban was told of Jacob’s trickery, Laban set off with his “kinsmen” in hot pursuit (22-23).
With a three-day head start, it took Laban seven days to catch up (23). Just before overtaking Jacob’s caravan, however, God visited Laban. We don’t know exactly what Laban’s motives were up to this point, but from God’s command we have a good guess. “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (24).
It’s not hard to picture the scene. For seven days we can only imagine the type of anger-fueled bravado that was coming out of Laban and his kinsmen. “We’re going to get them.” “We’ll show them.” “Who does Jacob think he is sneaking off like that and taking our sisters, stuff, and gods?” “I can’t wait to catch them.” And then, after a week of chase, they caught a view of their quarry in the far-off horizon. Eager to overtake them on the following day they made camp, only to have God interrupt their dreams of vengeance with a dream of stern warning.
Of course, we don’t know that it went down exactly like that, but given what we do know about Laban and his sons, it was probably pretty close. Grace, let us learn humility from this. How often do we charge out, Laban-style, certain of our rightness and certain that we have things figured out, only to be shown the fool like Laban? God’s Word and God’s Spirit mean that we can know true things, and that we can have a measure of certainty about certain things. But our knowledge of the lingering effects of sin ought to make us humble, careful, sober people. We ought to be earnest in prayer, quick to seek council from godly people, careful in thought, slow to make decisions when emotions are high, and of course, eager to seek forgiveness if we are shown to be in the wrong.
Again, one of the most helpful aspects of the narrative passages of the bible is how clearly they show the wisdom and folly of choices. What can be harder to see in our own life is typically easy to see in the lives of others. In particular, it is easy to see in the choices of both Jacob and Laban that because God is so great, to walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open.
LABAN CONFRONTS JACOB (25-35)
In the fourth part of the story, restrained by God’s warning, Laban nevertheless overtook (25) and interrogated (26) Jacob. Understandably, Laban wondered what Jacob was thinking in leaving as he did (26). Wrongly, he accused Jacob of compelling his daughters and grandkids against their will (26). Antagonistically, Laban’s accusations were couched in battle language (“tricked,” “driven away,” “captives of the sword,” “flee secretly”). Curiously, he suggested that had Jacob simply made his intentions clear, Laban would have sent him off with a big party (even though every time Jacob did just that, Laban schemed to keep and exploit him longer) (27-28). And naively, Laban suggested that he could harm Jacob for his trickery (even though Jacob was God’s chosen servant and God had warned him otherwise) (29).
Laban’s speech was filled with ridiculous accusations, alternating between portraying himself as a victim of war crimes and as a pitiable father. It’s hard to see the speech as not saying anything good or bad (and therein contrary to God’s charge), but the text seems to suggest that he didn’t. Laban then concluded his confrontation with the one thing that seemed clearly outstanding—his ace in the hole—the theft of his “household gods” (30).
Concerning his choice to leave without telling Laban, Jacob honestly shared his rationale. In spite of God’s command and promise, Jacob said he fled, “Because I was afraid, for I thought you would take your daughters from me by force” (31). And concerning the theft of the household gods, the text tells us that Jacob had no idea what Laban was talking about (32), for he replied (sincerely), “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live” (32).
With that, Jacob turned Laban lose, giving him free reign to search anywhere and everywhere, anyone and everyone, including his own person, possessions, and tents; which Laban did (33-35). With every other search turning up empty, Laban entered Rachel’s tent, the one who had in fact taken his gods. As her father searched her tent, Rachel sat passively on her camel’s saddle (with the gods hidden underneath). She excused her failure to rise by claiming that it was her “time of the woman” (which was quite possibly a lie). If she was telling the truth it was both clever (what father would press further?) and diabolical (to disrespect her father’s gods like that). If it was a lie, it was merely clever. Either way, Laban believed her and therein refrained from looking further (35).
There’s so much in this section. Laban came in hot even though God warned him of the consequences of stepping over the line. Laban showed pride in his assessment of his ability to do as he pleased. We find idolatry in Laban and possibly Rachel. We find faithless, even if realistic, fear in Jacob. And in Rachel we find another example of godless opportunism. Above all, though, we find in the fact that God’s plan continued on successfully through all of these shenanigans, that God is so great that to walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open. And in that we see that Jacob was safe and Laban was in danger.
JACOB IS “VINDICATED” BEFORE LABAN (36-42)
Prior to Laban’s search, it is possible that Jacob expected the gods to turn up among the possessions of one in his caravan. Once Laban’s search came up empty, however, Jacob’s tone turned from what I would describe as cautiously curious to indignant. He turned from “That kind of thing won’t be tolerated among my people” (maybe to cover himself) to “How dare you accuse me of such a thing”. In fact, the text tells us that “Jacob became angry and berated Laban” (36). He mocked Laban saying, “You have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two” (37). That’s harsh.
But Jacob didn’t stop there. He went on to share his resume again (just as he had with his wives in his attempt to convince them to leave with him), citing his faithful service, the growth of Laban’s flocks under his care, his willingness to assume any losses for himself, Laban’s shrewdness, Laban’s inconsistency, the harsh conditions under which he toiled over the course of 20 years, and God’s clear protection, declaring, “If the god of my father…had not been on my side, surely know you would have sent me away empty-handed” (38-42).
What’s more, even though Laban tried to pass himself off as a well-meaning, self-restrained guy, Jacob knew the truth; somehow, he knew that God had visited Laban and restrained him or else Laban would have sought to conquer, not bless Jacob and his kinsmen (42).
Again, there is so much folly is on display. Grace, let us learn from this. Jacob’s prideful response to Laban was wrong in that pride is always wrong, but it was even more so in that it was based on a mistaken understanding (someone in his caravan had taken the gods). While there was certainly some righteous indignation on Jacob’s part, the righteous response to being publically shamed is never public shaming. The narrator of this passage makes it easy to see—this time in Jacob’s folly—that God is so great that to walk blindly into God’s plans is infinitely safer than walking into our own plans with eyes wide open.
THE COVENANT BETWEEN JACOB AND LABAN (43-55)
Finally, with all the cards on the table, and with God’s reign over all clear for all to see, Laban reluctantly, albeit merely as a temporary expression of prudence (opportunism), accepted the reality that had been in his face for 20 years: to oppose Jacob was to oppose God. His choice was clear, then: execute vengeance on Jacob and face the discipline of the LORD, or swallow his pride and make a deal with Jacob in order that he might gain something.
Before we find out his choice Laban gives a bit of insight into his mindset. “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day…?” (43). Even though Jacob had faithfully worked for them and even though God had clearly ordained the transaction, Laban still believed Jacob’s family and animals belonged to him. Jacob knew better (11-12) and his wives knew better (16), but Laban still didn’t seem to have figured out how everything fit together.
Having gotten that out of his system, wisely, though not very humbly, Laban shrewdly chose to stuff his perspective down and attempt to make peace with Jacob. “Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I” (44). Jacob agreed, corporately commemorating the agreement with a “heap” of stones and a meal (45-46). Both Laban (Jegar-sahadutha; “heap of witness” in Aramaic) and Jacob (Galeed; “heap of witness” in Hebrew) gave a name to the place of their covenant and then the terms were revealed by Laban, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness to you and me” (49-50). They further agreed to stick to their own side of the “heap,” crossing only in peace (51-53). Jacob promised by the name of his God to keep the terms, offered a sacrifice, and ate (53-54). The next morning, the two men separated in blessing and peace (55).
In this passage we find the story of two men, and in them even more concerning God’s nature and our hope. Both men experienced the presence and heard the voice of God, both obeyed on the outside, and both revealed some heart issues. But we see over and over in the text that there was a critical difference between them as well: Only one was the chosen of God. Therefore, while neither man deserved the blessing of God, according to God’s sovereign will alone, we find a picture of one who was carried along by the favor of God (Jacob) and another who was carried along by worldly cleverness (Laban). And so, in spite of Laban’s shrewdness and anger, and in spite of Rachel’s theft, and in spite of Jacob’s fear, God kept His promise to Jacob that He would be with him and deliver him to the Promised Land. With God’s help, nothing was able to harm Jacob as he sought to obey God.
Grace, believe it or not, this passage is an arrow pointing to Jesus in that He is the answer to the question of how God could choose and bless a man like Jacob even though he didn’t deserve it. And, therefore, this passage is a passage of hope for all of us who, like Jacob, do not deserve God’s kindness and blessing. It is ours by grace, through faith; not because we deserve it, but because God freely chooses to bestow it upon all who seek it in Christ. Let us praise God, then, for giving us His Word, for revealing to us the safe path of faith, and above all, for offering His favor and blessing in Jesus. Amen.