31 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.
From Haran, Mesopotamia to the hills of Gilead beyond the Jordan River is 300 miles as the crow flies. But the distance Jacob has journeyed in his 20-year sojourn in the East is far greater. His was a long spiritual journey that grew out of his quiet nature, his deception of Esau and his father, his deception BY and slavery TO his uncle, his living in total poverty with four wives and (now) 12 children, and his miraculous six-year accumulation of wealth under the harshest and most unfair of circumstances. Twenty years earlier he had fled his home in Beersheba to escape his twin brother’s death threats.
Conditions in Haran had been terrible, but God had gifted Jacob with both patience and faithfulness. Even Laban’s greed and duplicity did not cause Jacob to rashly flee back to his homeland. It must have been overwhelming to even think about uprooting his large family and all his livestock for a long journey back to Canaan. But that is exactly what Jacob had to do. The time had come for him to go home. God had made it unmistakably clear that Jacob pack up his wives, his children, his slaves, his livestock, and his tents and leave the East for good. “3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.’”
Jacob’s flight from Mesopotamia to Canaan has parallels with Abram’s call from Ur to Canaan (12:1-9). God called Abram to take all his people, livestock, and possessions and leave Ur. Here in Genesis 31, Jacob is called to do the same. One major difference is that Jacob fled danger in Canaan and now he must flee back to Canaan to escape danger in Mesopotamia. Another difference is Abram was commanded to leave his family and Jacob is commanded to return to his family. But both patriarchs were obedient to God’s call. Looking forward in redemptive history, Jacob’s exodus parallels his descendants’ flight from slavery in Egypt.
In our text, Jacob’s large family flees from their slavery to Laban. In the future, a great multitude of his descendants will flee Pharaoh. Here, Jacob’s family plunders Laban. There, the Israelites plunder the Egyptians. Here, God forces Laban to let Jacob go. There, God forces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. In both of these exodus stories, there is the prophecy of the ultimate exodus that believers find in Christ who plundered the power of evil and leads his people out of bondage toward a new and eternal land where we will dwell with him.
The elevator pitch for Jacob’s exodus is this: GOD DID IT ALL. He was spiritually present with Jacob. He prospered Jacob in spite of Laban’s constant thievery. He orchestrated Jacob’s breeding program. He appeared and restated his covenant promises. He ordered Jacob to leave. He acted as Jacob’s powerful rear guard. And, he has grown Jacob’s faith throughout this 20-year period of sojourning in the East.
One of the points we see in this scene is that Jacob has matured considerably. He is now a man who is faithful to God and glorifies God. Jacob’s twenty years of trial and the obvious presence of God to prosper him during the last years have worked a transformation in him. “For the first time in this act, he emerges as a man of public faith, and he takes the leadership of his home. He acts promptly upon God’s command to return to the Promised Land (31:3–4), bears witness first to his wives of God’s presence and provisions and then finally to Laban’s whole family, and willingly undertakes the dangerous and difficult journey in obedience to God. For the first time, his wives follow his lead.”
JACOB CONSULTS HIS WIVES (1-16)
Jacob knew his brothers-in-law were grumbling. They were worried they would inherit little as long as Jacob continued to prosper. They essentially accused Jacob of stealing Laban’s wealth. Jacob noticed that their grumbling influenced Laban as well. Uncle Scrooge is annoyed by and covetous of Jacob’s prosperity. As long as Jacob was producing for him, Laban was happy. Now, Jacob is rich and powerful in his own right and poses a threat to Laban and his sons. But Jacob doesn’t flee in response to the circumstances, he leaves because God commands it. “3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
Mesopotamian law prohibited a husband from taking his wives out of their homeland without their consent. So, Jacob summoned his wives out to the field where they could observe God’s material blessings in the growing herds and where they would not be overheard by anyone loyal to Laban. There, Jacob made his case. As Bruce Waltke notes, “Jacob’s speech begins, continues, and ends with God’s victories over Laban: Laban is against him, but God is with him (31:5); Laban cheated him, but God did not allow harm (31:6–7); Laban changed wages, but God changed flocks (31:8–9).”
In verses 4 through 16, the Jacob Family mentions the name of God seven times. God and his work are the overarching concerns of all three of them. Jacob began by recalling all Laban’s unfair dealings, which God cancelled by making Laban’s monocolored flock bear multicolored offspring. Even when Laban changed the terms of his contract (“ten times” = a full number equivalent to our saying “a dozen” times, or “time after time”), God continued to increase Jacob’s wealth. He tells his wives, “9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.”
He then tells them about the night vision God gave him in which God himself set the terms of Jacob’s contract for multicolored livestock as his wages. And he tells them how God has now appeared to him again to command him to leave and promised to travel with him (as he would travel with Israel in their exodus). God concluded the vision with this statement: “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.”
Following Jacob’s speech, we see his wives in complete agreement. The two sisters, both victims and victimizers, are united by their disdain over their father’s actions and by their faith in the one true God:
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.”
It was customary for the parents of the bride to hold the bride price in trust for their daughter as insurance against the husband’s death or desertion, and as an inheritance (since only sons inherited the land and flocks). Laban should at least have been paying Jacob a wage to be held in trust as the bride price. But he has done nothing of the sort. He kept all the increase in his flocks for himself and tried to cheat Jacob out of his contracted wages by changing the terms of their contract “time after time.” Rachel and Leah are indignant and elated. God is providing a way out for their expanding family.
As long as they remain tied to their father, there is no guarantee Jacob will be able to keep any of his wealth for himself and his family. Ultimately, Laban and his sons will take by force all the Jacob Family has (as they will try to do in this story). Laban’s sons have already begun to justify the coming theft. We see here that not only has Jacob grown in trust, so have his two wives! “Do whatever God says.” No more mandrakes. No more sex contracts. No more Mesopotamian idol worship (as we’re about to see).
JACOB’S BUGOUT (17-21)
Livestock shearing was a springtime event. Large flocks required large crews to travel to the pasturing grounds and remain away from home for weeks. Laban’s presence with his flocks gave Jacob an escape window in which to put as much distance between himself and Laban as possible.
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.
There is a word play in verses 19 and 20. The word “tricked” is literally translated “stole the heart of.” So, both Jacob and Rachel steal something. Jacob “steals away” with his family by stealing Laban’s heart. Rachel steals her father’s demon idols. The word play reflects the unity of the family’s purpose and the unity of their disdain for the pagan idols. The teraphim, “household gods,” were likely small carved human-like figures. Like other biblical names for idols, teraphim could mean “impotent things” or “foul things.” They likely represented ancestors. Animism, the demonic doctrine that the spirits of the dead remain on earth, was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 18:9-14). However, possession of the family gods strengthened one’s claim to inheritance.
Rachel is taking a shot at her father’s having stolen her and her sister’s bride price. But she also showing contempt for the idols themselves. Far from seeing them as having any spiritual value, she treats them with utter contempt. This whole incident highlights the formation of two separate nations, one devoted to worship of YHWH and the other devoted to the evil one and his minions. Moses highlights this national formation in verse 20 by calling Rachel and Leah’s father, “Laban the Aramean” (contrast to 29:14). Two distinct peoples are forming during Jacob’s exodus.
LABAN’S RESPONSE (22-35)
Jacob made it to the hills at Gilead before Laban and his clan caught up with them. Gilead is a “fertile, high plateau in Transjordan… between the Yarmuk that runs into the Jordan, just south of the Sea of Galilee, and the northern shore of the Dead Sea.” Jacob has covered a great distance in seven days. It’s about 350 miles from Haran to Gilead. However, Jacob was pasturing his own flocks at Paddan-aram, several days journey south of Haran; and Laban was several days north of Haran when Jacob fled. Still, the Jacob Family has made a quick march by likely traveling day and night at double speed. Notice too that Jacob’s family are all riding the Bugatti’s of the day (camels).
“Laban’s posse thundered after Jacob with murderous intent. The verbs in verses 22-25 – ‘fled,’ ‘pursued,’ ‘overtook,’ ‘pitched tents’—are militaristic. Laban was on the warpath.” The tension which began with hurt feelings and covetousness in verse 1 has now reached its height here in Gilead. But God was with Jacob: “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.’” God comes to Laban in a dream just as he did to Pharaoh and Abimelech on Abraham’s behalf (12:17; 20:3).
Jacob’s long night awaiting Laban’s attack the next morning must have been tense, to say the least. This clash between the camps at Mizpah and Mt Gilead, on the face of it, was not likely to favor Jacob’s much smaller band. It must have been a relief when Laban only fired words. And what phony words they were:
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?”
Laban’s word salad is unappetizing to the Jacob family. Nobody is buying into it. Only the last line of Laban’s speech has any meaning for anyone. His accusation of stolen daughters, stolen grandchildren, and stolen idols may be a formal challenge for battle. This is demonic. The enemy is trying to wipe out the Promised Seed. And but for God’s intervention, he would have done so. Notice, Laban doesn’t accuse Jacob of stealing his livestock. Even so, it is an empty challenge since he has been threatened by God. Unknowingly, Jacob places the love of his life under a death sentence from which God must deliver her: “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.”
Jacob is blissfully ignorant of Rachel’s theft. He watches confidently as Laban conducts his tent to tent search of Jacob’s camp. Laban tosses his way through all the tents until he comes to Rachel’s where he meets his match:
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.
As Laban had deceived and robbed her family over the years, she now deceives him and makes him look openly foolish in a culture based on communal shame and honor. The camel saddle is an 18-by-14-inch wooden box that is strapped to the animal and serves as both a seat and a storage compartment. The contrast between YHWH and these demon-idols is laughable. Laban’s gods are hidden in a box, unable to reveal themselves or rescue themselves. Laban does not check the saddle box because he cannot imagine the sacrilege of his daughter sitting on these representations of his honored ancestral spirits (demons).
- Kent Hughes observes:
Among the ancients ‘the way of women’ was considered to be a state of impurity and thus contaminating. Rachel’s recline was therefore a calculated act of withering contempt for the gods of Mesopotamia. She treated them as worthless and unclean. In doing this, Rachel foreshadowed the despoiling of Egypt’s gods during the plagues of Egypt. This passage also announces future Israel’s contempt for pagan gods. Very likely Laban’s teraphim were among the gods that Israel would bury at Shechem (cf. 35:14).
JACOB’S DEFENSE (36-42)
Laban had ransacked Jacob’s entire camp from top to bottom in a futile search for his helpless, defiled demon-idols. From Jacob’s standpoint, Laban had used the idols as an excuse to search for other things Jacob might have stolen. This is a huge breach of Eastern cultural etiquette for which Laban offers no apology. Now Jacob explodes in defense of his righteous behavior during his 20 years of labor for Laban. Laban gets the tongue lashing of his life. According the Mesopotamian law codes, Laban’s failed search constituted presumptive proof of Jacob’s innocence. Jacob is openly and publicly vindicated and now has the upper hand to give his aggressive self-defense and prosecution of Laban.
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.
In other words, “Let’s have a trial right now and find out who the real thief is.” The romanticized idea of the cowboy (or, in this case, the sheep and goat boy) has always been a myth. Jacob’s life as a shepherd was filled with hardship and losses. He says:
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.
Jacob went far beyond the obligations later codified in the Code of Hammurabi (see also Ex. 22:10–11). A shepherd was not usually accountable for animals that were attacked. Jacob had been a good, scrupulously-honest shepherd. But Laban had been a dishonest cheater:
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.”
Jacob charges Laban with the intent to rob him and his family of all their wealth and leave them penniless, but for God’s intervention. How powerful and fearsome is the one true God? He is the God whom Abraham and Isaac feared. He is the God who has frustrated Laban’s 20 years of attempts to cheat Jacob. He is the God who, even now at the brink of war, has covered the Jacob Family with his protection. God’s power is such that Laban does not dare contest it. No ancestral spirit will fight for Laban — because all the demons must fear and submit to YHWH. Jacob gives all the glory to God and heaps all the scorn upon Laban the idolater and servant of demons.
COVENANT OF PEACE (43-55)
Openly and rightly shamed, Laban attempted to cast himself as the benevolent victim: “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?” His pretense of ownership is as hollow as his master Satan’s boast that all the kingdoms of the world are his. YHWH has claimed ownership of the Jacob family and all the enemy can do is bluster and feign benevolence through his puppet, Laban.
Laban proposes a peace covenant. Of course, it’s an unnecessary gesture since God has already claimed protection of the Jacob Family and Laban is scared of YHWH. But the treaty would officially keep them apart and set a geographic boundary between them. So, they made their own respective stone markers as boundaries and assigned their own names in their respective languages to the place. “The treaty process occurs in pairs: two witnesses to the pact (the treaty itself, 31:44; stone monuments, 31:45–48); two stone monuments (a heap of stones and a pillar, 31:51–52); two names for the stone heaps (Aramaic and Canaanite [= Hebrew], 31:47); two meals (at the beginning, 31:46; at the end, 31:54); two treaty provisions (the protection of the daughters in a foreign land, 31:50; tribal boundaries, 31:53); and two gods to monitor the treaty (the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, 31:53)” – literally, “the gods of their father (v. 53).
This covenant recognized Jacob as a separate independent people, distinct from the Arameans. “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.” This has often very mistakenly been called “The Mizpah Benediction.” Christians have put it on Christmas cards, wedding bands, and even used it as a title for an organization. But it does NOT speak of union, fellowship, and trust! It is a covenant curse, a warning, an imprecation. As Hughes writes, “this was the declaration of two men who neither trusted nor liked each other— ‘Because I don’t trust you out of my sight, may God watch your every move.’” The two war parties ate their final covenant meal and went their separate ways the next morning.
Jacob was now officially a nation. “This was not the heel-grabbing supplanter who double-dealt his brother and duped his father. Jacob was becoming a man of character who kept his word. His exodus from Mesopotamia had been characterized by his faithful obedience to God’s word. Jacob understood that his entire deliverance had been wrought by God. Repeatedly he credited God with his success. His placing a stone pillar alongside the heap of stones declared his faith in the God of Bethel and his constant provision. Though far from perfect, Jacob had grown in grace, by God’s grace.” Jacob was being conformed to the image of the Promised Seed.
And all of Jacob’s story is but a type and a shadow of what Christ has done for us. Through all the family anger, misery, intrigue, increase, and victory, God has been at work for the sake of his Promised Seed. Because Christ lived perfectly, we who trust into him are reckoned perfect. Because on the cross he descended into hell for us, we are free from God’s wrath against our sin. Because he rose from the grave, we are justified with him. Because he ascended to the throne of the universe, we shall reign with him. What we see in the history of redemption is this:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 31:1–18.
 Waltke and Fredricks, 422–423.
 Id., 424.
 Id., 427.
 Id., 428.
 Hughes, 392. Kindle Edition.
 Hughes, 393. Kindle Edition.
 Waltke and Fredricks, 432.
 Id., 433.
 Hughes, 395. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 8:28–30.