Battle of wits: Laban and Jacob—Genesis 31

Jacob and his father-in-law competed in a culture that valued cunning. While Laban seemed to get the better end of the deal at the beginning, Jacob came out far ahead in the end.

Jacob and his wives believe that God has given Laban’s flocks to them (Gen 31:9, 16); Laban, by contrast, protests that all Jacob’s wealth really is Laban’s (31:43). So should we feel badly for Laban? Not really. Although Laban’s sister Rebekah had instructed her son Jacob in some deception for a good cause of sorts, Jacob had learned treachery especially from Laban himself. I’m not endorsing the treachery, but that was Jacob’s context in Mesopotamia, and he learned to play the game better than his tutor.

Remember that Laban tricked Jacob into working an extra seven years for Rachel. Afterward, Laban eagerly embraced a deal that he expects will keep himself prosperous and Jacob poor (30:32-34)—and some ten times changed Jacob’s wages in an effort to remain prosperous at Jacob’s expense (31:7, 41). Jacob worked hard for him and suffered much hardship (31:6, 38-42). God defended Jacob, specifically recognizing that Laban had been exploitively mistreating him (31:12).

But while the narrative is partly about justice and injustice, it is also about God being with Jacob. He is with Jacob not because Jacob treated Laban nobly, but because of patriarchal blessing (27:28-29; 28:3-4), because God had revealed himself to this descendant of Abraham (28:12-15), and because Jacob had vowed to him (28:16-22). God continues to convert people from unchurched, non-Christian backgrounds, including myself; we embrace a new heritage in Christ. But those who have a Christian heritage should not take this privilege lightly. Sometimes God blesses us for the sake of those who have gone before us. In the same way, we want God to bless our children on account of our prayers; we trust him to care for them because of his love for us as well as his love for them, even before some of them find their own mature walk with him.

We repeatedly learn that the Lord was with Jacob (28:15; 31:3, 5). Even Laban’s now lessened blessings had previously flourished because of Jacob (30:27, 30), just as God later blessed whatever Joseph touched (39:3, 23). Laban had multiple reasons not to want Jacob to leave! From this we may learn that what matters most in life is God’s blessing. As in Jacob’s case, this does not exempt us from hardship or from being mistreated. The blessings take different forms in our different lives. But we can be grateful for the many blessings we do experience in this life and even more fully in the promised world to come.

Meanwhile, those who live by deception also fall by deception; the deceptions that Laban has fostered now come back to haunt him. As Jacob had gotten the birthright deceptively, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, which may relate to the inheritance rights (which she seizes in place of Laban’s sons; cf. 31:1). Rachel steals the teraphim, but Jacob “steals” (the same Hebrew verb) the heart of Laban (lev Lavan) by fleeing without telling him (31:20). Why Jacob felt the need to flee secretly will be the subject of our next study.

Victory ultimately belongs not to one who outwits others, or to the strong and cunning, though they may have an advantage in the short run. In the long run, victory belongs to those to whom the Lord gives it (1 Sam 17:47; Prov 21:31).

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