Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 31

In this chapter, Jacob deceptively departs from Haran, Laban chases him, and they make a covenant of peace at Mizpah.

This chapter begins with a more detailed discussion of Jacob's business arrangement with Laban.  We see a couple things happening here.  First is the deterioration of their relationship.  Laban (who is now described as having sons, who would have a competitive interest with Jacob) used to view Jacob as strongly beneficial.  We saw how Laban's flocks multiplied under Jacob, and Laban insisted that Jacob stay after the full 14 years of service (half of that earned through Laban's deception of Jacob).  However, now Jacob's pagan manipulation of the flock's birth to his favor has worn away Laban's wealth, and Laban is increasingly hostile to Jacob.  God sees this and "speaks" to Jacob, telling him to return to Canaan.

Second, we finally see Laban's manipulation of Jacob's wages, and the corresponding changes in the animals to ensure that Jacob continues to be paid.  Further, Jacob relates a dream where the angel of God confirms Laban's unfaithfulness and shows that the ultimate influence behind Jacob's successful manipulation with the striped sticks was God.

Third, we also see that Laban's daughters are increasingly alienated from him, possibly because of their allegiance to their husband, and also possibly because Laban now has sons and as I've already said, daughters do not pass on the bloodline of a family; sons do.

Even after all this, I'm not entirely sure I would say Jacob is in the right, but I will say that it paints a pretty bad picture of Laban.  But Jacob continues the pattern of deception by not telling Laban that he was leaving.  Throughout all of the events of Jacob's life, he still has not completely dealt with the deception and manipulation sin patterns in his life.

Even so, Jacob's deception proves meaningless because Laban pursues him.  Jacob has a three day lead, but he also has large flocks and herds including young animals, while Laban travels with a group of armed men, so Laban will clearly be moving faster than the heavily burdened Jacob.  It's reasonable to suspect that Laban would have harmed Jacob both because he already disliked Jacob and then because Jacob left without telling him.

Rachel's theft of the household gods is peculiar.  For one, notice the continued influence of paganism even amongst the family of Abraham.  This is something I've noted before but here we can clearly see their adoption of household idols, which is a violation of the Mosaic Law (that has not been given yet).  While it might be unreasonable to think that they would adopt a law not yet given, remember that these are the forebears of the Israelite people, so there is in some respects an implied presumption that if they worship the Lord, they would follow his commands even if they had not heard them.  I find it even more striking that God never directly addresses their usage of household idols.  This seems to me another instance of God working in the given culture, since he operates in this family and in Jacob even though they continue to use household idols that are opposed to God's ways.  God does address other aspects of their character, but what I draw from this is that God is willing to work through people who have unresolved issues.

Also, Rachel's deception of Laban shows the influence that Jacob and Laban have on her, basically as their repeated deceptions of each other form a pattern for her own deception.  It's sad, really.

After that, Jacob and Laban yell at each other a bit, then they make a covenant of peace and eat together.  Eating together, as I think I previously stated regarding Abraham and Abimelech, is an act of agreement and mutual friendship in the Bible.  When you eat with someone, you identify with that person.

I think at the end of the day, when I see Jacob and Laban, I see two people who both employ deceptive means against each other to acquire as much wealth as possible.  Both of them make a number of moral mistakes, and both of them profess a sense of personal injury from the deception of the other.  I do think the bible paints a more favorable picture of Jacob though, for a couple reasons.  First, Jacob repeatedly expresses the protection of the Lord as being the reason that Laban had not robbed him completely of his wages.  This is fairly accurate because Laban did repeatedly change his wages to avoid whatever defect the flocks were currently producing.  We see this in the statements God makes to Jacob.

Second, we see God's warning to Laban not to harm Jacob.  This again shows Laban as more of an aggressor towards Jacob, since it is only God's protection that keeps Jacob from possible death.

Third, we see that God did actually change the flocks so as to give them to Jacob.  While I do not entirely condone Jacob's actions, and I don't believe God entirely condones them either, God is even less in favor of Laban's deception and seems to judge in favor of Jacob, and Jacob receives wealth in accordance with that judgment.

In conclusion, I think it's pretty clear that Jacob is still struggling with using deceptive means to protect himself from perceived threats, but he's also clearly beginning to depend on the Lord for protection, as we see in his statements to his wives and to Laban regarding the Lord.  This shows the impact of God's redemptive process in his life as he moves away from human means of protection and towards God's protection.


Anna Tan said...

I'm curious to know why you describe Jacob's manipulation of the flocks as "pagan".
I'm not sure if the dream he had (vs 10-12) is a sort of directive/inspiration from God? Or an after the fact statement from God that He was the one who grew the flock...

Daniel S. said...

I don't remember exactly. I might have read it in a commentary somewhere. But in principle, it's because he is depending on totems. It seems to me that it is far more likely to be some sort of superstition than based on faith in God, and every kind of magical manipulation in this era is essentially pagan.

V. 10-12 presents a moral justification, but without telling him that he should do this particular thing with striped sticks.

Allison Wonderland said...

Concerning Rachel stealing the small idols: the excavated Nuzi tablets indicated that in the region where Laban was living, a son-in-law who possessed the family images had the right to appear in court and claim the father-in-law's estate.

Daniel S. said...

Interesting, I'd never heard that before. It seems like quite an obscure little detail, and hard to find more information about it. So, I'd be reluctant to make any strong statements about this without understanding it more, but that does sound like a plausible explanation about why Rachel would steal the idols. Thanks for sharing!