Genesis 31 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Genesis 31
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying, Jacob hath taken away all that was our father's; and of that which was our father's hath he gotten all this glory.


(1) Laban’s sons.—No mention hitherto had been made of Laban having any other children than Leah and Rachel. If his sons were by the same wife, they would be men about fifty-five or sixty years of age. In saying that Jacob had taken “all that was their father’s” they were guilty of exaggeration; for Laban was still rich, and probably, upon the whole, was a gainer by the presence of one so highly gifted as Jacob. Their word “glory” suggests that, enriched by cattle and commerce, Jacob had now become a person of great importance in the eyes of the people of Haran.

And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before.
And the LORD said unto Jacob, Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee.
(3) The Lord said unto Jacob.—This is probably the revelation, more exactly described in Genesis 31:10-13, as given to Jacob in a dream. It is there ascribed to Elohim, but here to Jehovah. The narrator’s purpose in this, probably, is to show that while Jacob regarded the providence that watched over him as the act of Elohim, it was really in His character of Jehovah, the covenant-God, that He thus guarded him. (See Note on Genesis 26:29.)

Thy kindred.—Heb., thy birthplace, as in Genesis 12:1; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 24:7, &c.

And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field unto his flock,
(4) Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah . . . —Rachel is placed first, as the chief wife. The field was probably the pasture where Laban’s flocks fed, as they were specially under Jacob’s charge; and there, in the open ground, the three would run no risk of having their conversation overheard. Jacob’s speech to his wives consists of three parts: first, he tells them of the change in Laban’s manner towards him, and his consequent fear of violence; he next justifies his own conduct towards their father, and accuses him of repeated injustice; finally, he announces to them that he had received the Divine command to return to Canaan. As regards the second point, Jacob had undoubtedly used stratagems to increase his wages, and of this his wives must have been well aware. On the other hand, we learn that Laban had openly violated the terms of the bargain; and, whereas all the parti-coloured kids and lambs were to belong to Jacob, no sooner did they increase beyond expectation, than Laban, first, would give him only the speckled, the most common kind, and finally, only the ring-straked, which were the most rare. Of course Jacob would keep all the sheep and goats which he had once made over to the charge of his sons; it would be the additions to them from Laban’s flocks which were thus diminished.

As regards the vision, it has been thought that Jacob has compressed two occurrences into one narrative; but for insufficient reasons. It was at the breeding-time (Genesis 31:10) that Jacob saw the vision, with its two-fold lesson: the first, that the multiplication of his wages had been God’s gift, and not the result of his own artifices; the second, that this bestowal of wealth was to enable him to return to Canaan. His wives heartily concurred in his purpose, but it was not till the time of sheep-shearing came (Genesis 31:19) that he effected his escape. But there is no difficulty in this delay. How large the household of Jacob had become we learn from the greatness of the present he selected for Esau (Genesis 32:13-15), and it could not be removed without preparation. The servants and camels must be gathered in from their trading expeditions, tents must be got ready, and camels’ furniture and other requisites obtained; finally, they could not start until the ewes were fit for their journey, and only at a time of year when there would be herbage for the cattle on the march. We find that when they reached the Jabbok, Jacob’s flocks and herds were “giving suck” (Genesis 33:13 in the Heb.); but it is not easy to calculate the interval between this and the time when they commenced their journey.

And said unto them, I see your father's countenance, that it is not toward me as before; but the God of my father hath been with me.
And ye know that with all my power I have served your father.
And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me.
(7) Ten times.—That is, a good many times.

If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages; then all the cattle bare speckled: and if he said thus, The ringstraked shall be thy hire; then bare all the cattle ringstraked.
Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.
And it came to pass at the time that the cattle conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the rams which leaped upon the cattle were ringstraked, speckled, and grisled.
(10) Rams.—Heb., he-goats. The Authorised Version has made the alteration, because the word rendered “cattle” is really sheep (and so in Genesis 31:8; Genesis 31:12, &c.); but, like our word flock, it also included goats.

And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, saying, Jacob: And I said, Here am I.
And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle are ringstraked, speckled, and grisled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee.
(12) Grisled.—That is, covered with spots like hailstones, the word “grisled” being derived from the French grêle, hail. Others derive the word from gris, grisaille, grey.

I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred.
(13) I am the God of Beth-el.—The angel of Elohim (Genesis 31:11) was the speaker, but the words were those of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 1:1). With this verse compare Genesis 28:13.

And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house?
Are we not counted of him strangers? for he hath sold us, and hath quite devoured also our money.
(15) He hath sold us.—There is a marked asperity towards their father in the answer of Jacob’s wives, and not only the petted Rachel but the neglected Leah joins in it. Now, though his sale of them to Jacob had been more open than Oriental good manners usually allowed, and though he seems to have acted meanly in giving no portion with them, yet these were old sores, long since healed and forgiven. Laban must have been stingy, grasping, and over-reaching in recent times, to have kept the memory of old wrongs so fresh in the minds of his daughters.

For all the riches which God hath taken from our father, that is ours, and our children's: now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.
Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels;
(17, 18) Jacob rose up.—This was the final result of Jacob’s deliberation with his wives, but it did not take place till the time of sheep-shearing. Jacob must have prepared his plans very carefully to be able to leave none of his wealth behind; but he would be greatly helped in this by the fact that his own head-quarters were thirty or forty miles distant from Haran (Genesis 30:36).

And he carried away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had gotten, the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten in Padanaram, for to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan.
And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images that were her father's.
(19) Laban went to shear his sheep.—The sheep-shearing was a joyous time, when the hard toil of the shearers was relieved by feasting ( 1 Samuel 25:8 ). Laban’s flocks, apparently, were also at some distance from Haran, and his sons and men-servants would all be with him, busily occupied in the work. Apparently, too, Laban’s wealth was not seriously diminished, though it had not of late increased; and his repeated change of the hire proves that he was quite able to take care of himself. But why was not Jacob present, as he had chief charge of Laban’s flocks? Possibly, he was expected there, and was missed; but, more probably, as the result of the growing estrangement between them, caused by the too rapid increase of Jacob’s riches, Laban and his sons had gradually taken the management of their flocks into their own hands.

Images.—Heb., teraphim, called Laban’s gods in Genesis 31:30, and we find that their worship continued throughout the Old Testament history. Micah sets up teraphim, as well as a molten and a graven image, and an ephod (Judges 18:17). Though in 1 Samuel 15:23, where the Authorised Version has idolatry, teraphim are spoken of in strong terms of condemnation, yet Michal possessed them, and placed them in David’s bed. We gather from this that they had a head shaped like that of a man, but, probably, a dwarf trunk, as she seems to have put more than one in the bed to represent David’s body (1 Samuel 19:13). So, too, here Rachel hides them under the camel’s furniture (Genesis 31:34), which proves that they, in this case, were of no great size. In the history of the thorough reformation carried out by King Josiah we find the mention of teraphim among the things put away (2 Kings 23:24). We learn, nevertheless, from Zechariah 10:2, that they were still used for divination; and from Hosea 3:4 that both pillars and teraphim had long been objects of ordinary superstition among the ten tribes. As Nebuchadnezzar divines by them (Ezekiel 21:21) they were possibly of Chaldean origin; and, probably, were not so much worshipped as used for consultation. Women seem to have been most given to their service, and probably regarded them as charms, and told fortunes by them; and here Rachel stole them upon the supposition that they would bring prosperity to her and her husband.

And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled.
(20) Jacob stole away unawares.Heb., stole the heart. But the heart was regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of the intellect, and so to steal a man’s understanding, like the similar phrase in Greek, means to elude his observation.

So he fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the river, and set his face toward the mount Gilead.
(21) The river.—The Euphrates.

Mount Gilead.—Gilead, the region of rock, was the mountainous frontier between the Aramean and Canaanite races. The form of the word is so remote from ordinary Hebrew that we have in it, probably, a very old appellation of this region; and Jacob apparently plays upon it in his name Galeed (Genesis 31:47).

And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob was fled.
And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days' journey; and they overtook him in the mount Gilead.
(23) His brethren.—As Jacob, who had no relatives with him except his sons, applies this term in Genesis 31:46 to his followers, it is, probably, an honourable way of describing retainers, who were freemen and of a higher class than men-servants.

Seven days’ journey.—The route chosen by Jacob was apparently the more easterly one, past Tadmor, and through the Hauran, leaving Damascus to the west. The hill, which subsequently was called Mount Gilead, lay to the south of the Jabbok; but asMahanaim, reached some days after the meeting with Laban, is to the north of that river, the word Gilead was evidently applied to the whole of the region of chalk cliffs on the east of the Jordan. This is made certain by the fact that Laban overtook Jacob in seven days. But as the distance from Haran to the most northerly part of this country (afterwards assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh) was fully three hundred miles, it would require hard riding on the part of Laban and his brethren to enable them to overtake Jacob, even on the borders of this region. There is no difficulty about Jacob’s movements. His flocks were pastured at so remote a distance from Haran that it would be easy for him to send them in detachments to the ford of the Euphrates, distant about sixty or seventy miles; he would make all the arrangements with his four elder sons and trusty servants, and, probably, even see them across the ford himself, and would return to Haran to fetch his wives and younger children only when all was well advanced. Finally, when Laban goes to a distance, in another direction, for his sheep-shearing, Jacob “sets his sons and his wives upon camels,” and follows with the utmost speed. They would have remained quietly at Haran to the last, to avoid suspicion, and, excepting Leah’s four elder sons, the rest would have been too young to be of much use. When Jacob, with his wives, overtook the cattle, they would, probably, not travel more than ten or twelve miles a day; but three days passed before Laban learned what had taken place, and a couple of days at least must have been spent in returning to Haran and preparing for the pursuit. Thus Jacob had reached Canaanite ground—a matter of very considerable importance—before his father-in-law overtook him.

And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.
(24) Either good or bad.—Heb., from good to bad: a proverbial expression, rightly translated in the Authorised Version, but conveying the idea of a more absolute prohibition than the phrase used in Genesis 24:50.

Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead.
And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters, as captives taken with the sword?
(26-30) Laban said . . . —Laban reproaches Jacob, first, for carrying away his daughters secretly, which was an affront to them (Genesis 31:26) and an injury to his own feelings (Genesis 31:28); secondly, he tells him that he should have punished him but for the Divine warning; lastly, he accuses him of stealing his teraphim.

Captives . . . —Heb., captives of the sword, women carried off in war as spoil.

Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp?
And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters? thou hast now done foolishly in so doing.
(28) My sons.—That is, my grandsons.

It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.
(29) It is in the power of my hand.—This is the rendering here of all the versions, and is confirmed by Deuteronomy 28:32; Nehemiah 5:5; Micah 2:1; but Keil and Knobel wish to translate, “My hand is for God.” This comes to the same thing in an impious way, as the sense would be,” My hand is an El, a god, for me,” and enables me to do what I will.

The speech of Laban is half true and half false. He would have wished not to part with Jacob at all, but to have recovered from him as much as he could of his property. But if he was to go, he would have liked outward appearances maintained; and, probably, he had an affection for his daughters and their children, though not so strong as to counterbalance his selfishness. His character, like that of all men, is a mixture of good and evil.

And now, though thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father's house, yet wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?
And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou wouldest take by force thy daughters from me.
(31, 32) Jacob answered.—Jacob gives the true reason for his flight; after which, indignant at the charge of theft, he returns, in his anger, as rash an answer about the teraphim as Joseph’s brethren subsequently did about the stolen cup (Genesis 44:9).

Let him not live.—The Rabbins regard this as a prophecy, fulfilled in Rachel’s premature death. Its more simple meaning is, I yield him up to thee even to be put to death.

With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them.
And Laban went into Jacob's tent, and into Leah's tent, and into the two maidservants' tents; but he found them not. Then went he out of Leah's tent, and entered into Rachel's tent.
Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not.
(34) The camel’s furniture.—That is, the camel’s saddle. It is now made of wicker-work, and is protected by curtains and a canopy. Probably Rachel’s was far simpler; and as the teraphim seem to have had heads shaped like those of a man, and dwarf bodies, they would easily be crammed under it.

And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched, but found not the images.
And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? what is my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me?
(36) Jacob was wroth.—Naturally he regarded the accusation about the teraphim as a mere device for searching his goods, and when nothing was found gave free vent to his indignation.

Whereas thou hast searched all my stuff, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, that they may judge betwixt us both.
This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten.
That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night.
Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes.
(40) The frost by night.—From September to May the nights in the East are usually cold, and the change from great heat by day to a freezing temperature as soon as the sun sets is very trying to health.

Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times.
(41) Thus have I been . . . —Heb., This for me twenty years in thy house, but taken in connection with the preceding this, in Genesis 31:38, the meaning is “During the one twenty years that I was with thee, thy ewes, &c.,” upon which follows “During the other twenty years that were for me in thy house, I served thee, &c.” (See Note on Genesis 29:27, and Excursus on the Chronology of Jacob’s Life.)

Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight.
(42) The fear of Isaac—That is, the object of Isaac’s worship. The reason given by the Jewish Commentators for this remarkable way of describing the Deity whom Isaac served is that, as his father was still alive, Jacob would have been wanting in reverence, if he had spoken of God as “Isaac’s God,” even though Jehovah had condescended so to call Himself (Genesis 28:13).

And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or unto their children which they have born?
(43) Laban answered . . . —Laban does not attempt any reply to Jacob’s angry invectives, but answers affectionately. Why should he wish to injure Jacob, and send him away empty? All that he had was still Laban’s in the best of senses; for were not Rachel and Leah his daughters? And were not their children his grandsons? How was it possible that he could wish to rob them? He proposes, therefore, that they should make a covenant, by which Jacob should bind himself to deal kindly with his daughters, and to take no other wife; while he promises for himself that he would do Jacob no wrong. Jacob therefore sets up a large stone, as a pillar and memorial; and Laban subsequently does the same; while, probably between the two hills on which they had severally encamped (Genesis 31:25), they collect a large mass of other stones, on which they feast together, in token of friendship (Genesis 26:30).

Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee.
And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar.
And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap.
And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.
(47) Jegar-sahadutha.—These are two Syriac words of the same meaning as Gal-’eed, Heap of Witness. A Syriac (or Aramaic) dialect was most probably the ordinary language of the people in Mesopotamia, but it seems plain that Laban and his family also spoke Hebrew, not merely from his calling the placo Mizpah, a Hebrew word, but from the names given by his daughters to their children.

And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed;
And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.
(49) Mizpah.—That is, Watchtower. There is, probably, a play in this name upon the pillar which Laban proceeds to set up, and which in Hebrew is Mazebah. In the reason given for the name Labau calls Jacob’s God Jehovah, an appellation which he must have learned from Jacob. and which proves not merely that he had some knowledge of Hebrew but that he and Jacob had talked together upon religious subjects, and that he was not a mere idolater, though he did call the teraphim his gods.

If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee.
And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee;
This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm.
The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac.
(53) Judge.—The verb is plural, “be he judges,” and as Laban thus joins the name Elohim with a verb plural, it seems as if he regarded Abraham’s Elohim as different from the Elohim of Nahor. We ought, therefore, to translate the gods of their father. Apparently, he thought that Abraham took one of Terah’s Elohim, and Nahor another. His views were thus polytheistic and so, generally, the ancients regarded the gods as local beings, with powers limited to certain districts. Jacob swears by the one Being who was the sole object of Isaac’s worship. (See Note on Genesis 20:13.)

Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount.
(54) Jacob offered sacrifice.—The meaning is, that Jacob slaughtered cattle, and made a feast: but as animals originally were killed only for sacrifice, and flesh was eaten on no other occasion, the Hebrew language has no means of distinguishing the two acts.

And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place.
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