Genesis 30-31: Jacob’s Dealings with Laban

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After the birth of Joseph, Jacob is ready to return to his homeland and, presumably, to resolve things with his brother, Esau. He asks Laban for permission to leave with his wives and his children, reminding him over and over that he has served him faithfully all these years. Laban is very aware of Jacob’s service and admits that his good fortune has come from God because of Jacob. But because of this, he isn’t very anxious for Jacob to leave. Jacob makes an offer regarding his wages. He will work for the “odd and speckled” sheep and goats. Normally, most sheep were white, and the goats were black. So, Jacob is asking for the abnormal ones, the irregular ones. Laban immediately accepts Jacob’s offer.

It is unclear how much knowledge they have about crossbreeding, but Jacob has worked with the flocks faithfully, so he certainly has some understanding of it. For his part, Laban has relied upon Jacob’s expertise for all the day-to-day management. It is widely believed that at that time, the speckled and spotted would have amounted to a very small percentage of his flock. Laban agrees to the proposal, thinking he is getting a good deal. Jacob agrees to keep tending Laban’s flocks for a period of time. So they separate out the “abnormal” ones, and Laban puts his own sons in charge of caring for them. Jacob continues to care for Laban’s flock. Laban, obviously, thinks he’s put another one over on Jacob.

Jacob, meanwhile, takes shoots of trees and arranges them near the drinking troughs. When the sheep come to drink, they also mate. Lo and behold, many bring forth spotted offspring. These are then paired with the monochrome sheep, and it isn’t long at all before the majority of the sheep are spotted. Needless to say, this does not go unnoticed. Laban’s attitude toward Jacob sours. Then, God instructs Jacob to return to his homeland, promising to be with him.

Jacob calls Rachel and Leah into the field where he is stationed and explains the situation to them, reminding them how he has dealt fairly with Laban. His speech suggests that he thinks he will have to convince his wives to leave with him. That is not the case. Both women speak with one voice and are ready to go immediately because of the way Laban has treated them. He has not dealt fairly with them either. Jacob has never been paid a dowry for either of them, despite working for Laban for years. It is apparent from Rachel and Leah’s outburst that they feel they have been treated shamefully, not according to the traditions of their time. Laban’s increase has come about because of Jacob’s labor, which, in their opinion, is their bride price. It seems, however, that it is Laban’s sons who stand to benefit. This means the daughters have nothing from their dowry.

The wives speak with one voice, bitterly accusing their father of not only treating them like foreigners, but also of selling them and devouring the money. The words are strong and deeply angry. The best thing about this response, however, is that it states, “Rachel and Leah said.” Whatever differences they have previously had with each other -- and they are considerable -- the wives are united on this issue. They speak with one voice and the message is clear: “We are ready to follow you.” They agree that Jacob should do whatever God has instructed, which is, in essence, to return to his homeland.

But, the logistics of moving flocks, cattle, wives, and children is not to be underestimated. The text reiterates that Jacob takes only that which he has “acquired.” He does not take anything that might belong to Laban. However, when Laban goes out to shear his sheep, Rachel steals his household gods.

And they are off. Several days go by before Laban even finds out about this. It takes him a whole week to catch up. The night before he arrives at Jacob’s camp, God appears to Laban in a dream and warns him not to harm Jacob. This certainly takes a lot of the steam out of Laban’s sails. It means he is not to prosecute him in any way; he can still be upset, but he is limited in his response. Nonetheless, he accuses Jacob of duplicity and of carrying off his daughters like captives in a war. His charges are quite serious; he claims to have the ability to “harm” Jacob. It is not clear what he intends to do. He comes out with his kinsmen, but then relates the dream that he has had and says that he will abide by God’s commands.

He says he can understand Jacob’s desire to return home. After all, it has been twenty years. But Laban angrily accuses Jacob of stealing his household gods, “his teraphim.” Jacob, of course, does not know that Rachel has the gods in her possession, so he answers in all innocence.

First, Jacob defends his actions. He has taken leave without saying goodbye because he thought Laban might have tried to prevent his daughters from going with him. As for the teraphim, he takes an oath saying, “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.” Some scholars take this literally, claiming that Jacob has unwittingly condemned Rachel to die. Her untimely death on the journey is then seen as fulfillment of this oath. Others disagree, saying that more than likely it has to do with patriarchal justice. Had the teraphim been found in someone’s possession, Laban would have had the right to kill that person on the spot with no retribution from Jacob. Be that as it may, Jacob has placed Rachel in jeopardy. Jacob tells Laban to search wherever he wants. Needless to say, Laban wastes no time in searching each tent.

When he comes to Rachel’s tent, she politely invites him to search wherever he wants. She, however, is sweetly sitting, and chooses not to arise as would be expected. She explains, “The way of women is upon me.” This evidently means she is menstruating and doesn’t feel well enough to get up. Laban is supposed to understand this and foregoes the requirement that she should rise in his presence. He leaves her tent without comment -- and without his household gods.

The question remains, however, why does Rachel steal those gods and what kind of gods are they? Several options have been put forth. The word is teraphim, which is sometimes translated as “image.” Most scholars think they are small icons having to do with family heirlooms, with rights of inheritance. If this is true, then by stealing the teraphim, she is ensuring the legitimacy of Jacob’s claim to that which he has earned, i.e., possession of the household gods is like having legal title to the estate. Or perhaps it is an attempt to legitimize his position as head of the family unit. For his part, Jacob does not seem to be concerned about any of these issues; his only thought is to get as far away from Laban, in as short a time as possible.

There is another possibility to consider. Rachel, as we know, is furious with her father. She has had good reason to be upset with him for the past twenty years. In a way then, stealing the family’s teraphim is akin to settling Laban’s debt to her. She can never confront her father. She cannot express her years of outrage at being dispossessed. She will never have her proverbial “day in court.” But she can settle her account with her father in more devious ways. So she steals the teraphim. And though she is angry, she demurely states, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you for the way of women is upon me.” Her use of “rise before you” is a phrase commonly found in confrontational settings, where major grievances are aired and presented. The fact that she uses this phrase to indicate she cannot rise is an acknowledgment that she can’t get justice from him.

Rachel, then, has accomplished several things. She has used the purity laws against her father and has successfully deceived him. There is no way of knowing whether she really is having her period, or if the whole notion is a ruse. But because she is female, she does not have the traditional avenues of legal recourse against her father. So she has chosen the “way of women” to extract justice from him. Last and not to be overlooked is the fact that she is sitting on her inheritance. It is in her possession, and Laban can’t touch it. Given her social position and her muted voice throughout the text, this is one example where the story about Rachel tells a lot about her. We already know she is a shepherdess; at a very young age she is out and about among other shepherds. Surely, she has a tender, caring heart, but also a sense of responsibility and independence. Her ambitions and concern for her family, both for Jacob and his entourage, impel her to take what belongs to her. She does it in a way that renders Laban powerless.

Interestingly, after Laban turns up empty-handed, Jacob explodes in anger and Laban backs down further. The two men resolve their differences, strike a covenant, and part amicably. The teraphim story disappears. They continue on their journey.