Monday, November 09, 2009

Jacob Leaves Laban -- Genesis 31:17-21

Then Jacob arose and put his children and his wives upon camels; and he drove away all his livestock and all his property which he had gathered, his acquired livestock which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. When Laban had gone to shear his flock, then Rachel stole the household idols that were her father's. And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he fled with all that he had; and he arose and crossed the Euphrates River, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.

With the full support of both of his wives, Jacob packs up the family on camels, takes all his livestock and other possessions he had acquired while working for Laban in preparation for the trip to the land of Canaan from whence he had come many years ago.

To a certain extent this was reminiscent of the trip that Abraham his grandfather (called Abram at the time) took as recorded in Genesis 12. It too was at God’s command. He took his family and all his possessions. But Abram also took Lot, his nephew, along although God had specifically told him to go alone with only his own family. Still God blessed him.

In one verse we have Rachel telling Jacob that he needs to obey God and in the next, she steals the household idols (or teraphim) that were her father’s. The Bible does not tell us why she does that. Many have offered different reasons including: the possibility that she worshipped them herself; she wanted to prevent her father Laban from using them to divine where Jacob had taken the family and come after them (you will remember there is reference to divination in Genesis 30:27); because such items were used as deeds to property and somehow Rachel wanted to cause difficulty in this regard later on; or simply because she wanted to get back at her father for the way he treated his daughters and son-in-law all these years.

It’s interesting to note that as small statutes, some think they were representations of ancestors of the family whom Rachel was very fond of and she simply wanted something of her history with her. Recently, I remember helping my son-in-law and eldest daughter place an old travel trunk on a huge front hall shelf in their home. It was one my father built in 1950 to store his carpentry tools as he crossed the Atlantic by boat the next year to start a new life in North America. Besides being a fan of antiques, my daughter wanted to keep a bit of her history close by.

Finally, others think that by taking the ‘gods’ she could convince her father that worshipping idols that cannot protect themselves was indeed folly. Jewish tradition supports this option, indicating Rachel wanted to keep her father from idolatry. Given her response to Jacob when he told his wives about his plans, I doubt this to be a plausible conclusion. Simply put, we can only assume, but not know, why Rachel took the seraphim.

Meanwhile Jacob, like his grandfather and father before him, now employs his own version of deception. He flees from his employer without any notice when Laban is absent shearing his flock.

Here is Jacob, his two wives Rachel and Leah, their children, servants, livestock, and earthly possessions fleeing from the only home they knew together, across the Euphrates River and on towards the hills of Gilead, heading for the home of Jacob’s people where he left his father, mother, and brother’s family many years previously. He does not leave well, but perhaps he had no choice. One of his wives, the chosen one, Rachel, has also stolen from her father as they fled. Certainly, there would not be much chance of a family reconciliation in the future under these conditions. Yet, Jacob himself must have been very excited about the prospect of seeing his mother and father again.

This is also the first mention of “Gilead” in the text. The area is a rocky, mountainous region bounded on the west by the Jordan river, on the north by Bashan, on the east by the Arabian plateau, and on the south by Moab and Ammon. We will be reading more of Gilead as a place or people later as it is used 132 times in the NASB version of scripture.

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