17 So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18 He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19 Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21 He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead.
22 When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23 he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
25 And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29 It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?” 31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. – Genesis 31:17-32 ESV
Having convinced his two wives that it was in their best interest to leave their father’s household and return with him to Canaan, Jacob loaded his family on camels and surreptitiously snuck out of Haran. Due to the large size of his herds and flocks, and the number of servants he possessed, it would have been quite a challenge for Jacob to leave without being noticed. Yet Moses indicates that it took Laban three days before he realized that Jacob had departed.
It appears that Laban had been busy sheering sheep, but when he returned home he discovered that he was missing far more than just his daughters and grandsons. Someone had stolen one of his household gods. This would seem to indicate that Laban was not a Yahweh worshiper.
Moses uses a clever play on words when he describes Rachel’s crime and Jacob’s actions. He writes that Rachel “stole” Laban’s household god. The Hebrew word is גָּנַב (gānaḇ) and it can mean “to steal” or “to steal away, as by stealth.” That is why he uses the same word to describe Jacob’s deception of Laban. It could be translated, “Jacob stole the heart from Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing” (Genesis 31:20 TLV).
Jacob took what was near and dear to Laban, his daughters, and grandsons. But it seems that Laban was more upset about his missing idol. Angered by this injustice, Laban formed a posse and set out to rescue his stolen god.
…he gathered a group of his relatives and set out in hot pursuit. He caught up with Jacob seven days later in the hill country of Gilead. – Genesis 31:23 NLT
But before he could begin his journey, Laban had a surprise visit from the one true God, Yahweh. While Laban’s idol was mute and had proven to be incapable of protecting himself from Rachel’s greedy hands, the God of Jacob was quite vocal and very clear in his warning to Laban.
“Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” – Genesis 31:24 ESV
God knew Laban’s heart and was fully aware that he intended to do Jacob harm. But essentially, God warned Laban not to touch Jacob. More importantly, Laban was not to threaten Jacob or pronounce a curse on him. But this didn’t keep Laban from speaking his mind when he finally caught up to Jacob. He confronted his son-in-law, demanding to know why he had chosen to slip away in secret.
“You’ve deceived me and carried away my daughters as if they were captives of war! Why did you run away secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me so I could send you off with a celebration complete with singing, tambourines, and harps? You didn’t even allow me to kiss my daughters and my grandchildren goodbye. You have acted foolishly!” – Genesis 31:26-28 NET
Laban used the same word, גָּנַב (gānaḇ), to describe Jacob’s actions. By stealing away in the dead of night with his father-in-law’s daughter and grandchildren, Jacob had effectively “stolen” Laban’s heart. According to Laban, Jacob had deliberately and maliciously deceived him and, in so doing, had broken his heart.
It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Laban because he has proven himself to be just as untrustworthy and manipulative. This is a man who had deliberately taken advantage of Jacob on multiple occasions. But now that he was on the receiving end of the deception, he didn’t like it. And he let Jacob know that the only thing preventing him from getting even was the warning he had received from Yahweh. If Jacob’s God had not stepped in, Laban would be meting out vigilante justice.
But the real motivation behind Laban’s anger was not his heart for his family, but his passion for his false god. The confiscation of his household idol had been the deal-breaker. And Laban clearly believed that Jacob was the guilty party.
“I can understand your feeling that you must go, and your intense longing for your father’s home. But why have you stolen my gods?” – Genesis 31:30 NLT
But Jacob declared his innocence. He admitted that his secretive departure had been because he had feared what would happen if Laban discovered his plans to return to Canaan. Jacob knew his father-in-law well and assumed that he would do anything to prevent his daughters and grandchildren from leaving. But as far as the missing idol was concerned, Jacob knew nothing about it. And he challenged Laban to instigate a search to see if anyone had the idol in their possession. If the missing idol was found, Jacob agreed to have the guilty party executed. But little did he know that he was sentencing his own wife to death.
This entire scene provides a fitting summary of this portion of Jacob’s life. For nearly 20 years, he has lived with his uncle, Laban. During that time he had found the wife he had set out to find and had also ended up with an unexpected second wife and two concubines. The two decades had been filled with deceit and trickery as the various parties manipulated and defrauded one another in an effort to get their own ways. No one in this story comes out as squeaky clean and free from blame. They each bear responsibility for their particular sins and stand before God as guilty and deserving of His judgment.
But despite all the subterfuge and selfish scheming, God has been at work. And as Jacob faces off with Laban in the hill country of Gilead, God is preparing to end this phase of Jacob’s life of exile. He is on his way back to Canaan, the land that God had promised to give to his grandfather, Abraham. It is his divinely ordained inheritance. The days of exile are over. It is time to go home, but God wants Jacob to leave behind everything associated with his stay in Haran. From this point forward, Jacob will be expected to separate himself from his father-in-law and his false gods. He will be required to leave behind his dependence upon trickery and deceit to get ahead. From this point forward, God will be leading Jacob back to Canaan and into a deeper and fully sold-out relationship with Him. This current crisis will come to an end. But the days ahead will not be easy. Leaving behind his old ways will prove to be far more difficult for Jacob than leaving Haran. But God is preparing Jacob for another exile that will last far longer than his stay in Mesopotamia. And it will be in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham.
“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth.” – Genesis 14:13-14 NLT
Jacob was returning to Canaan with 11 sons. And one of those sons, Joseph, would play an integral part in the fulfillment of God’s promise. What Jacob did not realize was that his entire life was to be a foreshadowing of the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob had fled to a foreign land to escape certain death, so too the people of Israel would flee to Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And like Jacob, their forefather, the people of Israel would find themselves living as little more than captives in their new homeland. But God would eventually redeem them, just as He was doing for Jacob. He would faithfully fulfill His covenant commitment and return His exiled sons and daughters to the land of promise.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.