Saturday, October 03, 2009

Jacob Enquires About Laban -- Genesis 29:1-8

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the sons of the east. He looked, and saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for from that well they watered the flocks. Now the stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, they would then roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well. Jacob said to them, "My brothers, where are you from?" And they said, "We are from Haran." He said to them, "Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?" And they said, "We know him." And he said to them, "Is it well with him?" And they said, "It is well, and here is Rachel his daughter coming with the sheep." He said, "Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them."But they said, "We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered, and they roll the stone from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep."

He meets God, makes a vow concerning his relationship to God, and then continues on his way. We have no record of how God reacted to Jacob’s vow. Eventually and presumably because God did bless him, Jacob does get to Haran, the land of both his mother and grandfather’s families. He sees a well in one of the fields and three flocks of sheep near it. The herdsmen used that well to water the flocks they were tending. Just like today, wells had to be protected or covered somehow. A large stone blocking the mouth of the well had to be rolled aside so that the sheep could drink and then rolled back when they were finished. That may well have taken more than one person to accomplish. And as he approaches, Jacob decides to address the shepherds, calling them his ‘brothers’. Given these are not his physiological brothers, this reference is very similar to the term made well-known by many blacks and employed by others today to refer to people with a common interest or background. Today we sometimes use the term in full as ‘brother’ or in its shortened form, ‘bro’. In fact, some have even provided an explanatory exclamation for the term. When asked why they are calling someone ‘brother’, they explain, “he’s a brother from a different mother”. In Jacob’s case, they were no doubt very distant relatives.

Jacob asks them where they’re from and they respond, “Haran.” The next logical question, “do you know Laban?” A logical question, the kind we would ask if we met someone from a place where we already knew someone else. Man has this built in urge to be connected with others through known relationships. A study many years back showed that the probability is very high a person on one side of the earth could connect with someone on the other side he has never met through a series of five other strategic inter-relationships. John Guare’s play and later movie, Six Degrees of Separation, attempted to get that message across. The concept is also referred to as the Human Web and certainly Internet networking is making it all very real these days. Plainly put, if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then each one of us is, at most, six steps away from any other person on Earth.

As you would expect, they responded, “Yes, we know Laban.” Although they did not say how they knew him, Jacob pursues with another question as to “how Laban is” or more literally “how things were going with him”. Again Jacob’s newfound contacts reported that all was well and in fact, “Laban’s daughter Rachel was just coming to the well with, presumably, her family’s, sheep.”

Now the text takes an interesting path. Here is the stranger Jacob telling these shepherds that it is not yet time to gather the sheep for the sun is still high in the sky or perhaps to have them just sitting around the well. Instead they should be watered and taken to pasture. But rather than telling him to mind his own business, the shepherds replied kindly, given him the reason for their waiting. They could water their own sheep until all the flocks got there (presumably Rachel’s as well). But they replied they could not because the stone in front or above the well could be rolled away until all the flock had arrived. Some commentators refer to the fact that since water was scarce the stone could only be rolled away by all the neighboring shepherds in the presence of the well’s owner or one of his representatives. This was likely Laban’s well and thus all those present had to wait for Rachel’s arrival. Again the text does not say this, but it is a possibility.

Was it also possible that Jacob wanted to get rid of the shepherds so that he could be alone with Rachel? That’s a possibility but not necessarily probable. Protocol may not have allowed that in those days. On the other hand, he knew his mission for coming to Haran was to marry one of Laban’s daughters.

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