Jacob came to know that Laban’s sons complained that he had taken everything from their father and thus had become wealthy. He also saw that Laban’s face or countenance had ceased to be what it had been toward him formerly. Jacob apparently perceived Laban’s growing hostility. The Genesis account does not reveal how Jacob later received a message from YHWH, telling him to return to the land of his “fathers” (Abraham and Isaac) and to his relatives and assuring him that he would be with him. From the field where he (doubtless with his servants and possibly also his older sons) shepherded his animals, Jacob sent a message to Rachel and Leah, requesting that they meet him there. The message may have been conveyed by one of Jacob’s servants. (31:1-4) According to Targum Jonathan, Jacob sent Naphtali, the son of Rachel’s maid Bilhah, because he was a “swift messenger” or an excellent runner. This is questionable, for Naphtali may not have been more than eight years old. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 9), Jacob decided to make his departure secretly when Laban would not permit him to leave, but he first wanted to know what his wives thought about it.
Jacob explained to his wives that their father’s face or countenance had changed toward him in an unfavorable way and that, nevertheless, the God of his “father” (Isaac) had been with him. He reminded them that they knew of his serving their father with all his strength. Yet Laban had not dealt honestly with him. He had changed Jacob’s wages “ten times,” apparently with the intent of profiting much more than Jacob would have from his labors. The reference to “ten times” may not necessarily designate ten actual times the wages were changed but may denote repeated changes in the wages. A number of modern translations make this explicit in their renderings. “Your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “He keeps cheating me by changing my wages time after time.” (CEV) To God, Jacob attributed the failure of Laban’s efforts to take advantage of him. Whenever Laban changed which animals should become Jacob’s wages, the flock produced such offspring. Based on what had happened, Jacob said to his wives that God took away from their father the animals that he gave to him. (31:5-9; regarding verse 7, see the Notes section.)
Jacob told his wives about a divinely sent dream he had in the mating season of the flock. An angel of God appeared to him, informing him that the he-goats were streaked, spotted, and mottled (not a solid color as they appeared to be). The Septuagint refers to he-goats and rams as being white-speckled and mixed-colored and ashen-colored speckled. Speaking as the direct representative of God, the angel said to Jacob, “I have seen everything Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, depart from this land, and return to the land of your birth.” The Septuagint adds, “and I will be with you.” (31:10-13)
Rachel and Leah were in full agreement with Jacob’s decision to leave. In the Genesis account, both wives are represented as replying to what Jacob said, but Rachel is named first. This may explain why Targum Jonathan indicates that Rachel did the actual speaking with the consent of Leah. The quoted reply of the women reveals that, in their estimation, nothing existed for them in the household of their father. He regarded them as strangers and had used up the “silver” for which he had sold them. The “silver” or money for which he had “sold” his daughters was what he had accumulated from the fourteen years of service that Jacob had performed to have them as his wives. As far as Rachel and Leah were concerned, everything that God had taken away from their father belonged to them and to their children. (31:14-16)
With the complete support of his wives, Jacob set out for the land of Canaan to go to his father Isaac. He had his wives and his children ride on camels and, in front of him, he drove all the domestic animals he had acquired in Paddan-aram (northern Mesopotamia). At the time of the departure, Laban was away to shear his sheep. Taking advantage of his absence, Rachel stole the teraphim (“the idols” or the images of the deities [LXX]) that belonged to her father. (31:17-19) Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 9) wrote that Jacob had taught her to despise the worship of such deities but that her reason for stealing them was that, if her father pursued the household and seized everyone, “she might have recourse to these images in order to obtain his pardon.” A comparatively modern conjecture regarding Rachel’s theft is based on archaeological findings at Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia, indicating that owning the household idols or gods served as a legal title to the family inheritance. It could be that Rachel reasoned that, by being in possession of the idols, Jacob could claim that he had a right to a share in the inheritance of her father’s property or that he could prevent Laban from claiming that he had a right to the property Jacob had acquired for his services.
By not telling Laban what he intended to do and seizing the opportunity to depart while Laban was away, Jacob “stole the heart” of his father-in-law the “Aramean” or “Syrian” (LXX) or outwitted him (robbing him of the mental capacity to act). He made his escape with his entire household and all his property, crossed the Euphrates (literally, “the river”), and headed for the mountainous region or hill country of Gilead (literally, “the mountain of Gilead”). (31:20, 21)
On the third day after Jacob had fled, Laban came to know about it. He, accompanied by his kinsmen, went in pursuit of Jacob. For “seven” days, they pursued Jacob and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Before the actual encounter with Jacob, Laban received a warning from God in a dream, telling him to be on guard not to say a “word to Jacob, either good or bad.” This warning indicated that he was to restrain himself from doing anything to Jacob. (31:22-24; see the Notes section on verse 23 regarding “seven” days.)
When he faced Jacob in the hill country of Gilead, Laban chided him for having blindsided him (literally, “stolen [his] heart” [robbed him of the mental capacity to act]) and taken away his daughters like captives of war (literally, “captives of the sword”). He claimed that, if Jacob had told him that he planned to leave, he could have arranged for a joyous celebration, sending him away with singing accompanied by tambourine and harp or lyre. Laban raised the question as to why Jacob had not permitted him to kiss his sons (grandchildren) and daughters. He maintained that Jacob had acted foolishly by departing secretly. Laban made Jacob aware that he was in a position to do him harm but was restrained from doing so because of the dream in which God warned him not to do anything to Jacob. Though acknowledging that Jacob may have been justified in wanting to leave because of longing for his “father’s house,” Laban challengingly asked, “Why did you steal my gods?” (31:23-30; see the Notes section regarding verses 28 and 29.)
Jacob replied that he feared Laban would take away his daughters (and everything belonging to him [LXX adds]) from him by force. Confident that no one had taken the household gods, Jacob said that anyone with whom Laban happened to find them should not live. Additionally, Laban should take anything that belonged to him. At the time, Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. Laban began his search, going to Jacob’s tent, Leah’s tent, the tent of the two maidservants, but he did not find the idols. Finally, he entered Rachel’s tent. In the meantime, she had hidden the household gods in the camel’s saddle bag and seated herself on the bag. Laban searched everywhere in the tent but found nothing. Rachel asked her father’s pardon for not standing up because she was experiencing her period. (31:31-35)
After Laban had completed his search of everything, Jacob, in indignation, expressed his complaint against him. “What is my offense? What is my sin that you have chased after me?” Respecting anything Laban may have found that belonged to him, Jacob said, “Before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, set it here before them that they may decide between us two.” Continuing, Jacob defended his record of service to Laban and reproached him for having dealt deceptively with him. “These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats did not miscarry, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. I did not bring to you whatever had been torn by wild beasts. I bore the loss myself. Whether [an animal] was stolen by day or by night, you required it from my hand. … By day, the heat consumed me and the cold by night. My sleep fled from my eyes.” Fourteen years Jacob had served Laban for his two daughters and six years for his flock. While serving for the flock, Laban changed his wages “ten times” or repeatedly. Jacob concluded with the words, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac [the God whom Isaac feared] had not been on my side, you indeed would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my distress and the labor of my hands, and he rebuked you last night.” (31:36-42; regarding verse 41, see the Notes section.)
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 10) worded Jacob’s grievance in even stronger terms. “Although I was your sister’s son and you had given your daughters in marriage to me, you have worn me out with your harsh commands and detained me twenty years under them. That, indeed, which was required in order to marry your daughters, hard as it was, I acknowledge to have been tolerable. But as to those [commands] that were imposed on me after these marriages, they were worse.”
Laban was unable to counter Jacob’s complaint and acknowledged his personal relationship to his daughters, their children, the flocks, and everything that Jacob had. Then he said, “What can I do this day to my daughters or to their children whom they have borne?” Laban recognized that he would have been acting against his very own if he were to harm them. Therefore, Laban wanted to conclude a covenant or make an agreement with Jacob that neither party would harm the other. (31:43, 44)
Apparently to serve as a tangible sign of the covenant they would conclude, Jacob set up a stone as a pillar and asked his kinsmen to collect stones to form a mound. This mound may have been somewhat in the form of a table that Jacob and Laban later used to eat the ceremonial meal associated with the covenant. Eating the meal signified that there would be peace between both parties. Laban called the mound or heap of stones Jegar-sahadutha (“witness mound” or “witness heap”), and Jacob named it Galeed (“witness mound” or “witness heap”). The two designations indicate that regional differences existed in the language the descendants of Abraham’s father spoke. (31:45-47)
Laban expressed himself to the effect that the mound or heap served as a witness between him and Jacob. It may be that Laban used the name Mizpah (meaning “watchtower”) for the stone Jacob had set up as a pillar. Mizpah is linked to the verb yitseph in the words attributed to Laban. “May YHWH watch (yitseph) between you and me when we are hidden from one another.” Were Jacob to mistreat Laban’s daughters or to take wives besides them (although no man was there to see it), Laban reminded him that God would be a witness between both of them. Laban then set forth the covenant obligations by which he and Jacob were to abide. “This mound [or heap] is a witness and the pillar is a witness that I will not pass over by this mound to you [to harm you], and you will not pass over by this mound and this pillar to me [to harm me]. May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the gods of their father.” In the Hebrew text, the verb for “judge” is plural. This indicates that Laban differentiated between the God whom Abraham worshiped and the god whom his own grandfather Nahor worshiped. Jacob, however, swore by the “Fear of his father Isaac” (or the God whom his father Isaac revered), for Isaac had always worshiped YHWH exclusively. (31:48-53)
Jacob offered a sacrifice there on the elevated location were the stone had been erected as a pillar and the mound had been formed with collected stones. He invited his kinsmen to eat “bread” or to partake of the ceremonial meal associated with the covenant he and Laban had concluded. The meal doubtless included meat from the sacrifice. After the ceremonial meal, everyone remained at the location for the night. (31:54)
For the phrase that includes the expression “ten times,” the Septuagint conveys a meaning that may be variously understood and differs from the wording of the extant Hebrew text. In verse 7, the meaning could be that Laban changed Jacob’s wages “for ten lambs,” “by ten lambs,” or “of ten lambs.” Verse 41 could be understood as indicating that Laban falsified Jacob’s wages by ten lambs or that Laban had falsely set the wages respecting ten lambs.
The distance from the region in the vicinity of Haran to Gilead is too great for Jacob with his household and domestic animals to have completed it in ten days (three days’ head start on Laban and seven days for Laban to reach Jacob’s encampment). It would only have been possible for Jacob to have reached Gilead if Laban did not immediately leave after he learned about Jacob’s departure. If Laban and the men accompanying him rode on camels, they would have been able to catch up with Jacob in seven days. Without camels, however, it would not have been possible for them to do so at the rate of an average day’s journey of about 20 miles (c. 32 kilometers). Therefore, the literal Hebrew expression a “way of seven days” (in verse 23) possibly may be understood to be representative of a long journey (not necessarily one that can be completed in seven 24-hour days).
According to the Septuagint rendering of verse 28, Laban complained that Jacob did not consider him worthy of kissing his children (grandchildren) and his daughters.
The Septuagint (in verse 29) represents Laban as saying to Jacob, “And now my hand is strong [enough] to harm you.”