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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Genesis 31

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Jacob Flees From Laban to Canaan

A. Jacob’s disputes with Laban and his sons.

1. (Gen 31:1-2) Contention with Laban’s sons causes Laban to look differently at Jacob.

Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has acquired all this wealth.” And Jacob saw the countenance of Laban, and indeed it was not favorable toward him as before.

a. Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s: It wasn’t that Jacob had taken anything belonging to Laban. Rather, it was that his wealth was increasing in proportion to Laban’s wealth. The problem wasn’t that Jacob stole; it was that Laban’s sons were filled with envy.

i. Envy will distort the truth. Jacob had not taken anything of Laban’s, but envy will lie.

b. The countenance of Laban…was not favorable toward him: The envy of Laban’s sons poisoned Laban’s heart against Jacob. Before, he was entirely pleased with the agreement.

i. Envy is bad not only on its own, but also for the company it keeps: For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:3). For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there (James 3:16).

ii. Instead, Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy (1 Corinthians 13:4).

iii. God wants to deliver us from envy: For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another (Titus 3:3).

iv. Envy is no small sin. It put Jesus on the cross: For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy (Matthew 27:18).

2. (Gen 31:3) God tells Jacob to go back home.

Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.”

a. Return to the land of your fathers: Even if Jacob never knew it, God prepared him for this time. First, God gave him the desire to go back home (Genesis 30:25). Then his present circumstances became unbearable. Finally, the Lord gave personal direction to Jacob. God may lead one today in the same pattern.

b. And I will be with you: This was the most important aspect. If God were with Jacob, he could be at peace and confident in any difficulty — or at least had the opportunity for peace and confidence.

3. (Gen 31:4-13) Jacob explains the situation and his plan to his wives.

So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field, to his flock, and said to them, “I see your father’s countenance, that it is not favorable toward me as before; but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that with all my might I have served your father. Yet your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not allow him to hurt me. If he said thus: ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore speckled. And if he said thus: ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked. So God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. And it happened, at the time when the flocks conceived, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the rams which leaped upon the flocks were streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted. Then the Angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob.’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your family.’ “

a. But the God of my father has been with me: Even though Laban tried to cheat Jacob, God protected him all the time. God showed Jacob that He was greater and able to overcome what any man might do to Jacob.

i. This attitude was later expressed in a Psalm: The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6)

b. You know that with all my might I have served your father: This shows Jacob knew his wives were aware of his righteous conduct and Laban’s unfair treatment of him.

c. The Angel of God spoke to me in a dream: Significantly, there was much more to what the Lord said to Jacob than what was reported in Genesis 31:3. Genesis 31:3 was completely true, but there was more to it than this simple brief word from the Lord.

d. I am the God of Bethel: God told Jacob to go back to Bethel, back to the place where he first encountered the Lord in a personal way. This was Jacob’s way of returning to his first love and first works (as later described in Revelation 2:4-5).

i. I am the God of Bethel: It is good to remember times and places where the Lord did great works for us, and met us in wonderful ways. As we remember them, God reminds us He is still the same God Who met our needs then and wants to meet our needs now.

4. (Gen 31:14-16) Leah and Rachel support Jacob in his desire to move back to Canaan.

Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there still any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not considered strangers by him? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money. For all these riches which God has taken from our father are really ours and our children’s; now then, whatever God has said to you, do it.”

a. Is there still any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Rachel and Leah noted that their father Jacob had already used any potential inheritance they may have once received (also completely consumed our money). This meant they were more willing to leave their homeland with Jacob and return to Bethel and the land promised to Jacob.

b. Whatever God has said to you, do it: Their support of Jacob in a costly and perhaps dangerous move was significant. It was a huge undertaking to move such a large family so far. If not for the support of his wives, Jacob perhaps would not have done what the Lord had told him to do.

i. This may be the first time in quite a while when the sisters Leah and Rachel agreed on anything. They could agree in uniting against a common foe – their father Laban.

B. Jacob’s flight from Laban.

1. (Gen 31:17-21) Jacob leaves without saying goodbye.

Then Jacob rose and set his sons and his wives on camels. And he carried away all his livestock and all his possessions which he had gained, his acquired livestock which he had gained in Padan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s. And Jacob stole away, unknown to Laban the Syrian, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee. So he fled with all that he had. He arose and crossed the river, and headed toward the mountains of Gilead.

a. Jacob rose and set his sons and wives on camels: Jacob intended a quick departure, traveling as fast as possible. It also demonstrates his great wealth, that his entire family could travel on camels.

b. Jacob stole away, unknown to Laban the Syrian: God already told Jacob to go and promised him safe passage. Jacob’s fear and deception departure shows he lacked confidence in God and His promise, and relied more on his own wisdom and ability.

i. “He could have announced his departure and gone in the glory of an army with banners. But fear made it impossible to reap the full measure of blessing. He sneaked away into the will of God instead of departing in triumph.” (Barnhouse)

c. Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s: Rachel took her father’s household idols (teraphim). There are many potential reasons why Rachel did this.

· Perhaps she worshipped these idols and did not want to be without them. Perhaps she did not want her father to inquire of them, using them as tools of divination to catch them (as he may have previously done, Genesis 30:27).
· Perhaps it was because such idols were often used as deeds to property and she thought this she was taking whatever inheritance might be left to Laban’s children.
· Perhaps Rachel stole the teraphim simply to get back at her father, whom she felt had mistreated her, her husband, and her whole family.
· According to some Jewish traditions, Rachel took the teraphim because she wanted to keep her father Laban from idolatry.

d. Headed toward the mountains of Gilead: It was nearly 300 miles (482 kilometers) from Haran to the mountains of Gilead, but the journey was longer and tougher psychologically than physically for Jacob. He left the place of safety, where he lived in a comfortable servitude, to go to a place where God has called him, but dangerous enemies abounded (such as his brother Esau, who swore to kill him).

2. (Gen 31:22-24) Laban pursues and catches Jacob.

And Laban was told on the third day that Jacob had fled. Then he took his brethren with him and pursued him for seven days’ journey, and he overtook him in the mountains of Gilead. But God had come to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said to him, “Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.”

a. Laban was told on the third day that Jacob had fled: This shows that Jacob and his family lived some distance from Laban. He didn’t notice their departure for three days.

b. God had come to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night: The need for God’s message to Laban shows that Laban did have evil intention towards Jacob, and God protected Jacob through this dream by night.

3. (Gen 31:25-29) Laban meets and confronts Jacob.

So Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mountains, and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mountains of Gilead. And Laban said to Jacob: “What have you done, that you have stolen away unknown to me, and carried away my daughters like captives taken with the sword? Why did you flee away secretly, and steal away from me, and not tell me; for I might have sent you away with joy and songs, with timbrel and harp? And you did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters. Now you have done foolishly in so doing. It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.’ “

a. In the mountains of Gilead: At this point, Jacob was not far from the Jordan River and the promised land. This shows that he traveled quickly and that Laban was determined to pursue him this far.

b. Why did you flee away secretly: Laban first tried to shame Jacob with kindness, suggesting that they would have had a celebration at his departure. Apparently, that idea was met with an unsympathetic response, so Laban threatened Jacob (it is in my power to do you harm).

4. (Gen 31:30-35) Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his teraphim and searches for them.

“And now you have surely gone because you greatly long for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” Then Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I said, ‘Perhaps you would take your daughters from me by force.’ With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live. In the presence of our brethren, identify what I have of yours and take it with you.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. And Laban went into Jacob’s tent, into Leah’s tent, and into the two maids’ tents, but he did not find them. Then he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household idols, put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. And Laban searched all about the tent but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is with me.” And he searched but did not find the household idols.

a. Why did you steal my gods? Jacob, not knowing his beloved wife Rachel stole the household idols, proclaimed his innocence and pronounced a harsh curse on the thief, not knowing that he actually put a curse on his own wife.

b. Rachel had taken the household idols, put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them: Rachel learned the ways of deception well from her father – and perhaps also from her husband. She succeeded in deceiving her father about the idols.

i. “Amid much that is sad and even sordid in this story…amid craft, deceit, and lying on almost every side, we cannot fail to see the hand of God overruling and making even the wrath of man to praise Him.” (Griffith Thomas, cited in Barnhouse)

5. (Gen 31:36-42) Jacob rebukes his father-in-law Laban.

Then Jacob was angry and rebuked Laban, and Jacob answered and said to Laban: “What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? Although you have searched all my things, what part of your household things have you found? Set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us both! These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes. Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.”

a. Then Jacob was angry and rebuked Laban: It is likely that this anger built up in Jacob for a long time – perhaps 20 years. Perhaps in his mind he practiced this speech over and over again.

b. What is my trespass? Jacob rebuked Laban and made the case for his own innocence with several examples.

· What part of your household things have you found? After searching, Laban found no evidence of the stolen gods he accused Jacob of taking.
· These twenty years I have been with you: Jacob’s twenty years of faithful service proved his integrity.
· Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried: This demonstrated the care Jacob showed for the success of Laban’s herds.
· I have not eaten the rams of your flock: Jacob didn’t feed or enrich himself at the expense of what belonged to Laban.
· That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you: It was an ancient custom that a shepherd could bring the torn carcass of a sheep to his owner, as evidence that he was brave enough to not let the wolf devour it or take it away, and thus the shepherd would be excused. Jacob explained he didn’t follow this custom, and every animal that was attacked or stolen, he replaced out of his own herd.
· Drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed: Jacob worked hard and sacrificed for the success of Laban’s enterprise.
· You have changed my wages ten times: Jacob endured repeated unfairness from Laban as his employer.

c. Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty handed: Jacob claimed that it was God’s protection that sent him away in a way that prevented Laban from taking what belonged to Jacob.

i. It was good that Jacob saw God’s place in all this. Unfortunately, nowhere does Jacob claim God as his own; he referred to God as the God of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.

C. Laban and Jacob make a covenant.

1. (Gen 31:43-50) Jacob and Laban make a covenant.

And Laban answered and said to Jacob, “These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and this flock is my flock; all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have borne? Now therefore, come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. Then Jacob said to his brethren, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there on the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore its name was called Galeed, also Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take other wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us; see, God is witness between you and me!”

a. All that you see is mine: Laban boldly said that everything Jacob had actually belonged to him. Yet, in a supposed gesture of generosity, he said to Jacob: “It is mine, but Jacob, out of the generosity of my heart, I’ll let you have it.”

b. May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another: In this covenant, Laban expressed how suspicious he was of Jacob. The idea of Mizpah (watch) is “If you do wrong, God will see it and may He punish.”

i. “In effect, the pillar of Mizpah meant, ‘If you come over on my side of this line, the pact is void and I will kill you.’ The covenant breaker would need God to take care of him, because the other would shoot to kill.” (Barnhouse) Mizpah was never meant to be a nice sentiment – despite what a Mizpah coin shared between two people might say.

2. (Gen 31:51-55) A pillar of separation and a parting of their ways.

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Here is this heap and here is this pillar, which I have placed between you and me. This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of their father judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his brethren to eat bread. And they ate bread and stayed all night on the mountain. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place.

a. I will not pass beyond this heap to you: The best solution for Jacob’s in-law problems was for him to separate from Laban. Therefore they set up a pillar to be a barrier between them.

i. There is wisdom in having some separation from in-laws. The Bible says, therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife (Genesis 2:24). Laban and Jacob seemed to have more problems than many, so their separation was extreme.

b. Then Laban departed and returned to his place: After a proper good-bye, Laban saw his daughters and grandchildren for the last time. “This is the last we hear of Laban in the Bible, and it is good that this is the end of him. Laban is of the world, and Jacob needed to be freed from this world in order to live wholeheartedly for the God of his fathers.” (Boice)

i. Morris on Laban: “Rather than seeking to follow the truth of God’s plan as witnessed by Jacob, he merely resented and coveted the blessing of God on Jacob. He finally ended up with neither. His life constitutes a sober warning to a great host of semireligious but fundamentally self-worshipping and self-seeking men and women today.”

ii. So, Rachel and Leah were wrong to look to their father Laban for their portion or inheritance (Genesis 31:14) once they were married to Jacob. He now was their portion and inheritance. “Since you are saved and joined to Christ, appraise the world and ask, ‘Is there yet any portion for me?’ If you think there is, you are mistaken.” (Barnhouse)

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

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