Genesis 28–31: Schemers & Sisters

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 8: Monday

“These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the dread of Isaac, had not been for me, surely now you would have sent me away empty. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, so He rendered the decision last night.”
Genesis 31:41–42 LSB

Today’s Bible reading of Genesis 28–31 spans twenty years in the life of Jacob. Forced to flee to his mother’s brother, Laban, because his own brother, Esau, planned to kill him after Jacob cheated Esau out of the blessing of Isaac, their father, Jacob meets his match in the scheming of his uncle Laban. In love with one daughter, Rachel, but tricked into marrying the other one, Leah, he works for Laban until the hostility of Laban’s sons causes him to flee secretly for Canaan.

Genesis 28 opens with Isaac blessing Jacob and sending him away to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Kent Hughes writes that Isaac’s blessing,

“…represented a willing reversal of his pro-Esau attitude, now recognizing Jacob as the true heir of the Abrahamic covenant. In fact, the opening invocation of the blessing—”God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you (28:3)—bears the divine name first introduced in 17:1 when the covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham. And the language of the blessing here is covenantal in phraseology and scope: “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (vv. 3, 4). Isaac’s blessing recognized Jacob as the third patriarch.”1

On his journey, Jacob has his famous dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

And behold, Yahweh stood above it and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your seed. And your seed will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you back to this land; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Genesis 28:13–15 LSB

Hughes writes,

“Fellow believers, this is all grace. Jacob, the conniving believer who was outcast and alone due to his own sin, who merited nothing from God, was met by God in his misery with an unparalleled revelation of God’s care and assurance for the future. Jacob was not seeking God—he was fleeing the consequences of his deception. He was not expecting grace. But grace was unleashed upon his soul—and with not even a word of reproach. The vision and voice of God only bore assurances.”2

In Genesis 29 the first person of Laban’s household that Jacob meets is Rachel. He falls in love with her, and when Laban offers him wages for his work, Jacob asks for Rachel. After working for her seven years, on the eve of the wedding feast, Laban switches sisters. As to the sisters themselves? Hughes comments:

“As to what Laban did to restrain Rachel, we do not know. And more, Leah had to be a most willing bride. She must herself have loved Jacob and likely despised her beautiful sister.”3

The next day brought recognition of the betrayal and anger, but Laban gets another seven years of labor for Rachel.

Genesis 29–30 records the birth of eleven of Jacob’s sons and his daughter, Dinah. The jealousy and rivalry of polygamy is never ending in the ongoing competition between Rachel and Leah for Jacob’s love and Jacob’s children. The Bible does not always editorialize upon conduct; in the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason Archer addresses the problem of polygamy.

“How do we reconcile this with the monogamy that Jesus so clearly taught in Matthew 19:9 and which He asserted to have been God’s intention from the very beginning of the human race?

“Genesis 2:23–24, as Christ pointed out, teaches monogamy as God’s will for man…

“As we examine the scriptural record, we come to the realization that every case of polygamy or concubinage amounted to a failure to follow God’s original model and plan…

“In the case of Jacob, his only desire was for the one woman, Rachel, the daughter of Laban. It was only through Laban’s crafty maneuvering that Jacob was tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, as well…so far as Jacob was concerned, there was never any desire on his part to become a polygamist. All he had done was fall in love with Rachel; and after that one thing led to another, until he had four sets of children.”4

Dr. Archer goes on to quote Norman Geisler:

“There is ample evidence, even within the Old Testament, that polygamy was not God’s ideal for man. That monogamy was His ideal for man is obvious from several perspectives. (1) God made only one wife for Adam, thus setting the ideal precedent for the race. (2) Polygamy is first mentioned as part of the wicked Cainite civilization (Gen. 4:23). (3) God clearly forbade the kings of Israel (leaders were the persons who became polygamists) saying, “And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away again” (Deut. 17:17). (4) The saints who became poly­gamists paid for their sins. 1 Kings 11:1,3 says, “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…and his wives turned away his heart.”…(6) Polygamy is usually situated in the context of sin in the O.T. Abraham’s marriage of Hagar was clearly a carnal act of unbelief (Gen. 16:1f. David was not at a spiritual peak when he added Abigail and Ahinoam as his wives (1 Sam. 25:42–43), nor was Jacob when he married Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:23, 28). (7) The polygamous relation was less than ideal. It was one of jealousy among the wives. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen. 29:31)….When polygamy is referred to, the conditional, not the imperative is used. “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Exod. 21:10). Polygamy is not the moral ideal, but the polygamist must be moral.”5

The envy and rivalry of the two sisters does not end with them. In the chapters to come jealousy will break out into open enmity and murderous hatred amongst their sons.

Rachel’s first child, Joseph, is Jacob’s eleventh son. At this point, Jacob tells Laban to send him away so that he can return to Canaan. Jacob, no doubt by now having taken his father-in-law’s measure as a greedy man, proposes an elaborate plan of separating the flocks’ offspring ac­cording to their coloring. On the surface this plan appears to favor Laban. Derek Kidner writes,

“If Laban seems oddly unsuspecting over his son-in-law’s proposal, it was surely because he had seen through it and formed the swift counterplan of 35c,36. To put three days between the two flocks and his own sons in charges of the piebalds, tipped the balance neatly in his favour. Any protest would have given Jacob away.

“Jacob’s winning riposte owed more to God than he may have realized, in spite of his proper acknowledge­ment in 31:9. In displaying the striped rods at breeding time he acted on the common belief that a vivid sight during pregnancy or conception would leave its mark on the embryo; but this is apparently quite unfounded. No doubt some of his success came from selective breeding (40–42), but by itself this would have worked very slowly, as Laban reckoned it would. Clearly God intervened (see 31:9–12) to fulfil the hopes Jacob placed in the rods, using them as He used the arrows of Joash or the bones of Elisha, as the means (or the occasions) of working miraculously. It would not be the last time that His part in a success would be much greater than it seemed to the observer.”6

Not only do the rare7 piebald sheeps and goats multiply, but they are stronger than the animals born to Laban. Laban and his sons are incensed.

Then Yahweh said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kin, and I will be with you.”
Genesis 31:3 LSB

Jacob flees with his wives, children, and livestock. When Laban finds out, he goes after him, and there is a final encounter between them. After Laban’s oily greeting, followed by an accusation of theft, Jacob has had enough:

Then Jacob became angry and contended with Laban; and Jacob answered and said to Laban, “What is my transgression? What is my sin that you have hotly pursued me? Though you have felt through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Place it here before my relatives and your relatives, that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn of beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself. You required it of my hand whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: by day the heat consumed me and the frost by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten8 times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the dread of Isaac, had not been for me, surely now you would have sent me away empty. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, so He rendered the decision last night.”
Genesis 31:36–42 LSB

Kidner points out:

“The hand of God is again decisive. On the human level Laban might well have won every business deal…and the present physical encounter as well (cf. verses 23,29a). It was only be divine prospering and protection (24) that Jacob brought anything, even his life, back from exile.”9

Although he still lies, Laban finally ceases trying to profit and control Jacob. A stone pillar is built, and they cut a covenant not to go past it to harm the other. Hughes writes,

“In reality, Jacob did not need a treaty because God had already protected him from Laban. However, a treaty would officially keep them apart—and for that it was well worth it. The treaty would recognize Jacob as a sepa­rate, independent people by its dual representations…two meals, two names for the memorials, two names of deity, and the delineation of two ethnic groups…

“[Sometimes] The Mizpah benediction was ignorantly interpreted to invoke union, fellowship, and trust. But this was the declaration of two men who neither trusted nor liked each other—”Because I don’t trust you out of my sight, may God watch your every move.”…

“And for any who have eyes to see, here is the work of an awesome, sovereign God who works amidst the compost of human sin to do his will. Amidst the swirl of deception and intrigue he birthed a people who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. God took a poor man who had been repeatedly enslaved and exploited and made him rich. And now God led him in a glorious exodus as a prelude to his return to the land of promise. Such an awesome God!”10

So Laban returns to his home, and Jacob can journey on without fear of pursuit. He leaves behind an angry father-in-law, and now he travels toward the angry brother he fled twenty years earlier.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Jacob y el rebaño de Labán (Jacob and Laban’s Flock): José de Ribera. Public Domain.
1,2,3,10R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Crossway Books, Wheaton IL: 2004) 357–358, 360, 369, 394–395.
4,5Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI: 1982) 121–122, 123–124.
6,7,8,9Derek Kidner, Genesis (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1967) 162–163, 163, 165 when Jacob says ten times in Genesis 31:7 and 41, Kidner explains, “Ten is often a round number: we should probably have said ‘a dozen’ or time after time’.” 165.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2021–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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