Jacob & Laban

We like to believe that in life people get what they deserve and that good or evil will be repaid in time.  This is the case with the story of Jacob.  Even though God has promised to be with him and bless him, Jacob still acts deceitfully in his dealings with other people.  He meets his match with his uncle Laban and the tables are turned on him.  The entire story of Jacob and Laban is a power struggle between two men who constantly fight for the upper hand and have no trouble deceiving each other to get it.

The story starts with Jacob’s marriage.  We looked at the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel earlier but just as a recap, let’s read the conclusion of the story.

Genesis 29:18-29

18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”

19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her.”

22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. 24 And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.

25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”

26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”

28 And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. 30 Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.

This is an obvious act of deception on Laban’s part as he wants free labor from Jacob.  In the seven years that he worked for Rachel, there was obviously enough time to mention that it was the custom for the older daughter to be married first.  Because of the way that Laban operates, I question whether this was even a custom of the family or if it was a convenient excuse to force Jacob to work for another seven years.

Nevertheless, Jacob agrees to the terms and works another seven years for Rachel.  This sets the stage for another round of deception.

Gen 30:25-26

25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.”

We don’t know precisely how long Jacob has served Laban but it appears as though he has served his seven years for Rachel and quite possibly several more.  Joseph is the eleventh son born to Jacob, plus a daughter Dinah.  While they come from two wives and two maidservants, it is still reasonable to assume that at least twelve years have passed since Jacob was married.

Vs 27-30

27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you.” 28 He added, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.”

29 Jacob said to him, “You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30 The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my own household?”

Laban is not a follower of the Lord but it is obvious to him that he has been blessed because of Jacob.  He does not want Jacob to leave because he doesn’t want to lose out on the blessing that Jacob brings.

Jacob wants to break out on his own however.  This is no different from a high school or college graduate who wants to go out into the world and establish themself.  The difference is that Jacob is at least in his fifties at this time and more likely in his sixties.  While Jacob is doing alright for himself, he has not accumulated much in the way of wealth to pass on to his children.  He has the status of a servant rather than one who is blessed by God and would become a great nation.

Vs 31-33

31 “What shall I give you?” he asked.
“Don’t give me anything,” Jacob replied. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33 And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-colored, will be considered stolen.”

Jacob asks for a small wage.  During this era a shepherd was typically paid 10-20% of the livestock of which they tended.  Speckled, spotted, or dark colored lambs were considered rare, so what Jacob asks for is less than what even a shepherd would typically be paid.

Vs 34-36

34 “Agreed,” said Laban. “Let it be as you have said.” 35 That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36 Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.

Even though Laban has been offered a great deal to keep Jacob with him and to have his flocks tended to, he still goes and attempts to short change his son-in-law.  He goes and removes all of the speckled, spotted, and dark colored lambs from his flocks and gives them to his son.  This means that Jacob will start with virtually nothing in the way of wages.

Vs 37-43

37 Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. 41 Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42 but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. 43 In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.

Jacob has a plan to increase his flocks even though Laban has not given him much to start out with.  What he does has no scientific basis as far as I know.  It seems to be an old wives’ tale.  Nevertheless, he does understand something about breeding and what he does is attempt to make the offspring of the strongest animals spotted while leaving the weaker offspring white.

Those of you who have worked with livestock probably understand this much better than I do.  What I do know is that a prized steer to be used for breeding is worth thousands and thousands of dollars today.  In a few years Jacob will have a flock full of strong and healthy animals while Laban’s flocks become weak and scrawny.

Laban deceitfully stole from Jacob and Jacob did his best to take advantage of Laban through his breeding practices.  Truthfully though, what Jacob did likely had no bearing on whether the animals gave birth to speckled offspring or not.  In the end it was God who blessed Jacob.

Gen 31:1-3

1 Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were saying, “Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father.” 2 And Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been.

3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

Finally, Jacob knows that it is time to move on.  He knows that Laban’s children are not happy with him and that even Laban has been treating him poorly.  More importantly God has instructed him that it is time to move on and return to the land of his fathers.  So he calls his wives together to explain the situation.

Vs 4-13

4 So Jacob sent word to Rachel and Leah to come out to the fields where his flocks were. 5 He said to them, “I see that your father’s attitude toward me is not what it was before, but the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I’ve worked for your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. 9 So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.

10 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’ ”

Even though Jacob had schemed to have strong livestock give birth to speckled offspring, he knows that it was not his doing but God’s who blessed him.  Jacob also notes that Laban has changed his wages ten times in an attempt to take advantage of him but God has protected him from Laban’s deviousness.

Vs 17-21

17 Then Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, 18 and he drove all his livestock ahead of him, along with all the goods he had accumulated in Paddan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

19 When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 Moreover, Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was running away. 21 So he fled with all he had, and crossing the River, he headed for the hill country of Gilead.

Jacob must be the deceiver one more time as he flees from Laban.  Of all the deceptions that Jacob does, this one seems at least to me to be the most understandable.  Laban is the type of man who will not take no for an answer.  Jacob has tried to part ways with him before only to be given excuses or agreements that are later backed out on.

It is easiest for Jacob to run off with his possessions and not give word to Laban that he is doing it.  Afterwards Laban will pursue Jacob and catch up with him.  He will accuse Jacob of stealing although it was Rachel who stole the household gods.

Ultimately the situation is so tense between the two deceivers that they must sign a treaty.  They set up a pillar and both sides agree not to cross it.  Laban will not pursue Jacob and Jacob will not return to the land that Laban calls home.

As Jacob leaves Laban, he also leaves behind with deceitful ways.  Certainly the tendencies are still there but Jacob becomes the man who is considered a patriarch and no longer a deceiver.  Shortly after this Jacob’s name would be changed from “deceiver” to Israel which means he who struggles with God.  He doesn’t become perfect but at least God is a big part of his life finally.

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