Jacob in the Dark – 40 Days of Exoduses (12)

Laban Overtakes Jacob

Our previous study took us up to the point of Jacob’s flight from Laban. Jacob has secretly taken his family, livestock, and possessions and fled across the river, towards the mountain, all unbeknownst to Laban, who was in the middle of the sheep-shearing. Within this post we will conclude our study of this exodus pattern in Jacob’s life.

On the third day, Laban is informed that Jacob has fled (31:22). He then probably has to return to his home and spend a few days gathering a group to pursue Jacob. By this stage, even though Jacob had young children and flocks with him, he had quite a head start on Laban. It took Laban seven days to catch up with Jacob, which he finally did in Mount Gilead. The third and the seventh days already have significance in Genesis, a significance that will develop as we move through Scripture. While there are presumably several days intervening between Laban’s reception of the news and the beginning of his pursuit of Jacob, the fact that these numbers are given to us is most likely not accidental. Three days’ journey into the wilderness for worship is mentioned at various points in the Exodus narrative as the initial request made by Moses to Pharaoh (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; 8:27).

The seventh day is also given importance within the Exodus, as the day of Sabbath and judgment (Exodus 16:23-30; 20:8-11). This significance can also be seen in the book of Genesis (2:1-3; 7:4). The seventh day is the day of judgment and Laban’s overtaking of Jacob on the seventh day sets things up for a judgment scene.

God had appeared to Laban in a dream, warning him to speak to Jacob neither good nor bad (v.24). While Laban was free to engage in conversation with Jacob, he was not permitted to cast judgment or carry out any sentence upon him. God coming to the wicked ruler in a dream, warning against judgment upon the righteous is a theme that one finds on some occasions in exodus patterns. For instance, God appears to Abimelech in 20:3-7, warning him about his actions. In Matthew 27:19, Pilate’s wife also has a dream in which she is warned about the danger of Pilate judging Christ.

Laban, true to type, accuses Jacob of wrongly treating him, suggesting that Jacob has treated his daughters ‘like captives taken with the sword’ (v.26). He claims that he would have sent Jacob away with ‘joy and songs, with timbrel and harp’ (v.27). Of course, we shouldn’t believe any of this for a moment. All of Laban’s treatment of Jacob to this point argues against the truthfulness of these words. As we observed in a previous study, the unrighteous ruler’s accusation of the righteous is a consistent theme in exodus narratives: the unrighteous ruler always casts himself as the innocent party, unfairly treated by the righteous. We shouldn’t give credence to such claims for a moment. Jacob was quite justified in fearing that, if he had revealed that he planned to depart, Laban would have taken his daughters from him by force (v.31)

Laban’s Household Gods

Laban accuses Jacob of having taken his household gods. Jacob was unaware of the fact that Rachel had stolen the gods (vv.19, 32). There is a contrast set up in the passage between the God of Jacob’s father (cf. vv.5, 29, 42) and the gods of Rachel and Leah’s father. The God of Jacob’s father proves his power throughout, protecting Jacob from Laban’s injustice and seeing his oppression, appearing both to Jacob and to Laban in dreams. In stark contrast, the gods of Rachel and Leah’s father are powerless captives and require a rescue party to come after them. The God of Jacob’s father takes away the possessions of Laban and gives them to Jacob (v.9); the gods of Rachel and Leah’s father are stolen away themselves.

Laban searches all of the tents. Whether there is any significance to the order in which he searches the tents, I am unsure. The fact that we are given such inessential detail suggests that there may be. Perhaps it relates to the order in which the wives bore children in chapter 30. The account might also follow the oldest to the youngest pattern of the strikingly similar story of 44:9-13.

There are a number of things taking place in this narrative. The parallels with chapter 27, where the younger child deceives the father who had unjustly favoured their older sibling over them (Laban giving Jacob Leah on the night of his marriage rather than Rachel, whom he had chosen) are clearly present. Laban ‘feels’ about in the tent (v.34), just as Isaac ‘felt’ Jacob (27:21-22). The description of Laban’s actions in terms of ‘feeling’ might suggest a recurrence of the darkness/blindness motif. He had used the darkness of the wedding night to cheat Jacob and Rachel out of their rightful marriage. Now Laban receives poetic justice at Rachel’s hand, as he gropes in vain for his idols. The woman the tyrant had tricked now tricks him. As we have seen, the deception of tyrants is a key exodus motif, and also, as this deception typically occurs through the actions of a woman (e.g. the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh, Rahab and the men of Jericho, Jael and Sisera, Michal and Saul, Esther and Haman), a reversal of the Fall. The father who is deceived by the daughters that he treated shamefully recalls the story of Lot.

Rachel is sitting on the household idols, which are hidden in the camel’s saddle. She requests her father’s pardon for not rising before him, as she was having her period. Later on in Leviticus 15:20 we are told that, under the purity regulations, anything a menstruating woman sat upon during her period was unclean. Whether or not such a law or custom was seen to be in effect at the time of Genesis 31 is unclear, but most readers would be expected to make the connection. By sitting upon the household gods during her period, Rachel was humiliating them.

The humiliation of false gods is, once again, something closely related to the Exodus. The Exodus was a judgment upon the false gods and idols of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:12; 18:11; Numbers 33:4). YHWH judges and humiliates the gods of Laban like the gods of Pharaoh, taking them captive (cf. Jeremiah 43:12) and rendering them unclean. This action of Rachel’s also relates to the later spoiling of the Egyptians.

Jacob responds to all of Laban’s accusations in verses 36-42, rebuking him for his actions and his ill-treatment of Jacob over the years of his service. He emphasizes his faithfulness and honesty in his service of Laban and brings his actions forward as witnesses to his fair dealing with his unjust father-in-law. Despite his fair treatment of Laban, he points out that throughout Laban acted unfaithfully towards him

David Daube suggests the possibility of a relationship between the six year period of Jacob’s service following the fourteen years of service for Rachel and Leah and the law of Deuteronomy 15:12-18. The Hebrew man who served a master for six years should be allowed to go free in the seventh and should be given gifts liberally. Laban, as a wicked master to Jacob, however, would have sent him away empty-handed (v.42). As the release of slaves is an absolutely central theme of the Exodus (about which I will have much more to say in future posts), the presence of the theme in this context is noteworthy.

The Covenant between Laban and Jacob

Despite Jacob’s spirited defence of his actions, Laban continues to accuse him of being a thief and a false dealer. He suggests a covenant with Jacob. Jacob erects a stone as a pillar, much as he had done in Bethel (v.45; cf. 28:18) and then gathered stones with his men to form a heap, upon which they ate a covenant meal. This heap and pillar were signs of divine witnessing of the covenant between Jacob and Laban, assuring Laban that, among other things, Jacob wouldn’t take a wife besides his daughters.

The divine arbitration between two parties in a dispute is a theme that this passages shares in common with the later Exodus, where the pillar of fire and cloud stands between the children of Israel and the Egyptians and judgment is made between the two parties in the crossing of the Red Sea.

The witnessing pillar and heap also form a boundary between two realms. As we shall see, within these narratives we see the delineation of territories through narrative itineraries and representative characters. Crossings, boundary markers, covenant locations, sites of altars, locations of significant occurrences: all of these possess a significance exceeding the events of the particular narratives in which they appear. They are the ways in which YHWH first inscribes Israel’s identity onto the land, marrying people with place, providing Israel with the geographical and symbolic coordinates of its national existence. We will return to this theme presently.

They swear an oath by the God of their fathers, calling him to judge between them. Laban swears by the God of Abraham, Nahor, and Terah. What conception Laban had of this God was unclear. Perhaps he regarded him as a sort of tribal deity, rather than the God of the whole earth. After a sacrifice and a shared meal, Laban stayed the night with Jacob and his people on the mountain, departing in the morning after kissing and blessing his daughters and grandchildren.

Preparing to Meet with Esau

Jacob goes on his way and encounters the angels of God. Together with the encounter with the angels at Bethel, this account serves as a bookend of Jacob’s dealings with Laban in Haran. Jacob sends messengers ahead of himself to Esau, explaining where he has been, and seeking his favour. The messengers return to Jacob declaring that Esau is coming to meet him, with four hundred armed men. This action of Esau’s anticipates Edom’s refusal to grant Israel passage through their land during the Exodus in Numbers 20:14-21, and their coming out to attack Israel. Jacob divides his people and flocks and herds into two companies (v.7), hoping that at least some will be able to be saved if Esau attacks.

Jacob then begins wrestling with God in prayer that night. He identifies God as the God of his fathers, as YHWH who told him to return to his country and kindred and assured him of his protection and help (v.9). He recalls the many ways in which God had blessed him up until that point and prays for protection from the hand of Esau, once again reminding God of the promise that he had made that Jacob would have descendants as numerous as the sand of the sea (v.12).

Jacob then prepares a huge series of gifts for Esau his brother, dividing them into a number of droves, which he sent on ahead of himself to Esau, in hopes that this would appease him. We encounter a similar story to this in 1 Samuel 25, where an Esau-like David prepares to attack the foolish Nabal with four hundred men, but his ungodly lust for vengeance is appeased by the shrewd Abigail and her lavish gifts. After having sent on the gifts, Jacob lodges in the camp that night.

That night Jacob crosses over the ford of the Jabbok that night with his wives, maidservants, and his eleven sons. The Jabbok is an important location in a number of respects (the word may be a play on the verb for wrestling, and perhaps also even a confusion of Jacob’s name). The Jabbok is a tributary of the Jordan (v.10). To cross the Jabbok is to cross the Jordan and symbolically to re-enter the land. It serves as the symbolic threshold of the Promised Land (although most of its course lay within Israel), a boundary between Ammon and Israel (Numbers 21:24; Deuteronomy 2:37) and between Gad and Manasseh (Deuteronomy 3:16). As such, this water crossing was similar to the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua (note the occurrence of two water crossings in Jacob’s exodus – cf. 31:21, much as Israel crossed both the Red Sea and the Jordan).

Wrestling with God

Jacob is then left alone and a man wrestles with him until the breaking of day (v.24). Finally, not prevailing against Jacob, the man touches the socket of Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint. Jacob refuses to let the man go until he blesses him, even as the day is breaking. The man asks Jacob’s name, but then gives him a new name, Israel (‘God contends’), because Jacob has struggled with God and men and prevailed. Jacob asks the man’s name, but the man doesn’t give it (v.29; cf. Judges 13:17-18), although he blesses him. Jacob names the place Peniel, because he saw God face to face, but his life was preserved. The sun then rises upon him and he limps on his hip (v.31). The passage then goes on to explain that the children of Israel don’t eat a particular part of the sacrifice on account of this.

There are several things to notice here. We should pick up on all of the references to passing over in the context. The crossing of the Jabbok is a Passover event, happening in the climate of threat and trust. It is an event that occurs at night. The frequent references to events occurring during the night in the passage and the heightened anticipation of the coming of the dawn during the wrestling scene should remind us of the account of the Red Sea crossing, where there the previous events are dominated by the night and the dawn brings the deliverance and the new state (Exodus 14:20-21, 24, 27).

The coming of the dawn also marks the end of the symbolic darkness period that began in 28:11. Jacob entered the darkness at Bethel and was brought back up as a new man, the victor limping into the sunset. The intervening period is a deep sleep period of dreams and events of the night, of marital relations, of groping and blindness, of stealing and slipping away, of the fears and shadows of the night, and of wrestling in the dark. This period is very similar to that of the Exodus.

Like the Exodus and its connection with the Passover sacrifice and also the Aqedah, there are sacrificial themes at work here. Jacob is divided in two (v.7) and stripped of his glory as he is left alone. The reference to the sacrifices in verse 32 suggests that, since God had touched that part of Jacob’s anatomy, it was now considered holy. Jacob’s wound was most likely near the genitals, possibly connecting it with circumcision (see Joshua 5, where after the crossing of the Jordan, there is circumcision, a celebration of the Passover, and an encounter with the Angel of YHWH). The attention drawn to the sacrifices in this context suggests that we are to see Jacob himself as a sacrifice. This whole period with Laban has been one of preparing Jacob, who gives up a lot of his possessions and his physical capacity in this passage, but is transformed through the process.

The reference to wrestling with God is important. Jacob’s entire life has been characterized by wrestling with God and man, with Esau, Isaac, and Laban. By connecting Jacob’s wrestling with these figures with Jacob’s wrestling with God, Jacob learns that all of the time God has been wrestling with him through these persons. Wrestling with the unknown person in the dark, Jacob may have wondered whether it was Laban or Esau, but it turned out to be God. Later on he will make the significant statement that seeing Esau’s face is like seeing the ‘face of God’ (33:10; cf. 32:30 – ‘Peniel’). Perhaps this is a reference to the fact that Jacob now recognized that it had been God wrestling with him all of the time. While Abraham was marked out by patience, Jacob was a man marked out by patience and wrestling, a man who struggled with God and man to receive that which was promised.

The water crossing and the movement from darkness to light represent key transitions in the state of affairs and in the identity of the actors. The land of Israel possessed a symbolic geography, its boundaries marking out transitions and the nature of Israel’s religious identity. The Euphrates was the boundary between former idolatry in Ur and Abram and his faith. The Jabbok/Jordan was the point where Israel’s identity was first forged and given and later the place where the wilderness wanderings ended and the conquest began. The Red Sea was the boundary between slavery and freedom. Each of these boundary markers represented existential moments and movements in the life of the nation. This is another exodus theme.

Peace with Esau

After wrestling with God, Jacob’s eyes are opened to the fact that God has been dealing with him throughout, that all of the things that had befallen him had been used by God as means of preparing him as a champion and a sacrifice. We see a similar realization in the story of Joseph (45:7-8). The Angel on the banks of the Jabbok is like the ‘boss’ at the end of the game. Having wrestled with the Angel and prevailed, Jacob’s life as a wrestler largely comes to an end. He is given a new name as a mark of his success.

The way that Esau greets Jacob should be related to the wrestling of the previous chapter, both the wrestling in prayer and the wrestling with the Angel. Once this great transition has been made, Esau meets him in peace, as God will no longer wrestle with Jacob through him. This sort of wrestling with relentless opposition and radical dispossession, followed by the revelation that God was behind things throughout and the doubling of former blessings and the enjoyment of peace is essentially the story of the book of Job. Just as Job is full of sacrificial themes, as Job is prepared for a greater status through his sufferings, so Jacob returns from his exodus a very different man from when he departed (cf. 32:10). He has undergone a sacrificial movement and is now raised up. A clear line is drawn at this point, much as occurred at the Red Sea, where a definitive break was made with a former period of activity.

Jacob gives Esau a blessing, giving him many of his possessions, but refusing to receive gifts in return. Jacob is thus giving the older son that he replaced the younger son’s portion of the blessing, playing the role of Isaac. He doesn’t take up Esau on his offer to journey together to Seir, where Jacob would have dwelt under the terms of his older brother. Rather Jacob recognizes that, as the bearer of the covenant birthright and blessing, he must be independent of Esau at this point.


Within this passage we see a host of exodus themes. The false gods are humiliated and taken captive. The woman deceives the oppressor, who is also despoiled. There are themes of poetic justice and the release of slaves. There is divine arbitration between two camps, with mention of heaps and pillars. There is the fear of death and a crossing of water by night. There is struggle or battle leading to victory as the dawn comes. There is the end of the night period and a transition in identity.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Genesis, Lent, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Jacob in the Dark – 40 Days of Exoduses (12)

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  8. toddott says:

    Laban is Joseph
    Jacob is Judah
    Rachel is Benjamin
    Jacob is being tested by Laban just as Judah is being tested by Joseph.
    The rods that are stripped and set up in watering troughs could represent phalluses that are circumcised and baptized. Through this symbolic circumcision and baptism, Jacob’s flocks become fruitful.
    Jacob’s sheep shearing of Laban’s flocks is related to Judah’s sheep shearing, when he becomes fruitful, giving birth to Zerah and Perez through Tamar the Canaanite.
    The rods that are stripped and placed in the watering troughs represent circumcised Israel baptized in the waters of the Red Sea, and the flocks represent the Gentile nations. (Moses’ rod split the sea, giving birth to a great multitude of Israelites and Egyptians.) The flocks of the nations come to the watering troughs of Israel, which is like the well where Jacob waters Rachel’s flocks. They are the grove of Palm Trees (Tamar) fed by the twelve springs. There are the Great Multitude from every nation who are fed by the 144,000 Firstfruits of Israel.
    Rachel sitting on the camel saddle with the idols (teraphiym used for divination) underneath parallel benjamin sitting on his donkey saddle with Joseph’s cup of divination. Whereas, Rachel stole the idols, Joseph plants them, and both Jacob and Judah in the respective stories are unaware.
    Jacob tells Laban that he may search his household and curse the person with whom they are found. Jacob didn’t know that Rachel had taken them, so he was cursing his own daughter in much the same way that Jephthah brings a curse on his daughter, having to sacrifice her to fulfill an oath. Although the idols are not found, Rachel still suffers a curse by dying two years later giving birth to Benjamin. Jephthah’s daughter goes into the mountains for two months to mourn her virginity. The word “mourn” means to “weep,” which I’m sure has a connection with “a voice heard in Raham…Rachel weeping for her children…for they are no more.”
    Through Joseph’s testing, Judah is redeemed and whereas he had previously sold his brother into slavery, he now offers himself in place of his brother Benjamin. Through Laban’s testing, Jacob is redeemed and whereas he had once stolen the birthright from his brother Esau, he now offers him gifts. In each of the stories, there is a birth order and the youngest is cursed and then blessed. Rachel is cursed for stealing the idols and Benjamin is blessed by being given to freely. A picture of Israel who tried to steal the kingdom from Christ, through testing and repentance, will then be given the kingdom by Him.
    Rachel is like the withered fig tree and Benjamin, the sprouting forth of leaves in summer.

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