Genesis 31

After the twisting and turning of events that in the first place had Jacob flee his homeland for the region called Haran where his uncle Laban lived (running away from his brother Esau’s wrath after tricking their father Isaac into giving him the dying patriarch’s blessing; Chapter 27), the dream theophany en route (Chapter 28), being tricked by Laban into a double period of servitude in order to wed Rachel – the one whom he desired – following a rather humorous “accidental” consummation-and-hence-marriage to her elder sister Leah (Chapter 29; recalling that often in the Bible “seven” simply means large and so this story might not be communicating a straightforward fourteen years of service (seven for Leah, another seven for Rachel) but could rather only be “a long time” and “a long time”), and the winning of a large flock of livestock despite Laban’s covert efforts to prevent such (Chapter 30), here Jacob finally breaks free. This is the chapter wherein he leaves Haran and sets out to return to Canaan, to where his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham had dwelt, to the land of Promise given repeatedly to his line directly from God/“God”. The narrative is looping back, rotating full circle, transitioning as Jacob himself has done: going from a young man willing to take on his mother’s ideas and deceive both brother and father, to being deceived himself by his mother’s brother, to learning how to deal craftily but more honestly when faced with obstacles (his breeding scheme of Chapter 30 was not outright trickery after all, merely a judicious use of animal husbandry knowledge (never mind its genetic improbabilities) and what was to hand). Jacob has come into his own, and as with many a good mythological tale, the hero has finished his period of testing and is ready to return to face his “enemies” (or “destiny” or “rivals”, et cetera; the story arc is a tried and true one, and it is amazing to think how far back in human history it goes).

Once more it is Jacob’s willingness to take risks (after consulting with his wives he simply sets out) and his skill at interpersonal negotiation that wins the day for him; Laban is essentially handed a fait accompli and simply must assent. This being Laban, however, the writer(s) still have the character try to wrangle something for himself out of it. Within this sub-setting is the portion of the chapter that struck me as a reader (at least on this reading; on my next reading I cannot predict what may appeal to me: this indeed is one of the real gems of reading and re-reading texts like this), comprising verses forty-three through forty-four:

31.43-44: “Then [that is, following Jacob’s presentation of his case and why he felt it necessary to abscond] Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, ‘The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.’”

What intrigues me here are the thought processes implied by these claims to ownership and what is deduced thereby. Historico-culturally as the older male Laban would have considered himself the “master” of the entirety – even extending to his grandchildren, who could only very remotely be thought of as “gifted” to Jacob by him – yet without warning he finds himself utterly powerless. His daughters have chosen to accompany their husband to a new land, and they did not consult him. He had already made a deal in the previous chapter for the goats and the sheep – with the non-solid colored ones going to Jacob – and thus they were out of his hands by his own doing. Why anyone of any time period might presume to separate one’s grandchildren from their mother (barring cases of abuse or tragedy; the biblical details have both Leah and Rachel pictured as caring and devoted mothers) is hard to fathom. Laban had lost everything by continually trying to get one over on Jacob, and yet he still puts on a brave face and makes a last attempt to strike a deal. How very much like us, and how utterly this extremely old and if not fully fictitious then very nearly so, story speaks to the human condition. It is timeless, as are its lessons. We can find ourselves in each of these characters to one degree or another, from one day to another: the differences in detail only accentuate the similarities in the interpersonal. This is food for thought that is well worth savoring.

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