Resolving Family Conflict. Genesis 31:17-31
Genesis 31:17, "Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels." The backdrop to this in the first part of the chapter is that his in-laws were now very angry with him because they had lost their flocks and herds which had all been diminished, and they were blaming him. From verses 17-21 explains the circumstances of the flight and there is a certain amount of repetition here so that we get the point.
Genesis 31:18, "And he carried away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had gotten, the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten in Paddan-aram, for to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan." Jacob had legitimately acquired these possessions through the blessing of God.
Verses 17 & 18 summarize the events of the flight. Jacob is focusing on his family. This is his priority, and he sets his sons and wives on camels, the rapid transit system of the ancient world.
Genesis 31:19, "And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images [household idols] that were her father's." There is a play on words here throughout the text with the Hebrew verb ganab, the word for theft. And Jacob "stole away"—verse 20. The same word is used in both places but with a different connotation. The negative side of this episode is while he is doing this Rachel goes in and steals the teraphim which is not part of Jacob's plan. Jacob is handling everything correctly. What we see here is that in the midst of this problem, in the midst of the adversity of trying to deal with the problem with Laban, Jacob has a divine mandate: to get back home to the land. How he is supposed to execute that is left up to him. God doesn't tell him how to do it. This is much the same way that many of the mandates in Scripture that are for us in the church age are given as general principles but the specifics are left up to us. God expects us as the Holy Spirit has taught us, and as we have a reservoir of doctrine in our soul, to take that doctrine and to apply it in a wise and skillful way. What we see in this episode is that Jacob is using wisdom in the process. Some commentators look at this and say that Jacob is really a coward, stealing away in the dead of night and doesn't want to honestly face up to Laban. No, he is honest and has a realistic picture of the situation. He knows what his father-in-law and brothers-in-law are like and so he is going to deal with the situation in a realistic manner. There is nothing wrong in the way he leaves. But there is a subtle contrast made between his departure and what Rachel is doing. Jacob is clearly obedient to the divine command.
The phrase "Jacob rose" is the counterpart to a phrase we see back in Genesis 31:13 where God appeared to him: "Now arise." That is the command. In verse 17 we see the counterpart response: "Then Jacob rose up." This is the same verb and we see that he is being obedient to God. He makes a wise decision regarding the timing and the way in which he is leaving. He shows wisdom, discernment, planning and foresight. That is all part of it. To leave the way he left demanded that he plan it all out. He has to move all his possessions 400 miles in as rapid a fashion as he can in order to put as much distance between him and what he expects will be the pursuit of Laban. He knows perfectly well what Laban's character is. He knows that he is dealing with somebody who can't be trusted and who will use every trick in the book that he can come up with in order to try to get the upper hand on Jacob. In the process of the departure we see another principle, and that is the way in which the command of God is applied. There is nothing wrong with Jacob's leadership in this situation in the way in which he leaves.
Rachel, on the other hand, is going to do a right thing in a wrong way. She is going to leave, following the leadership of her husband, but without his permission or discussion she has decided she is going to get one last little jab in to dear old father Laban. She goes back in and steals the household idols, teraphim. The word teraphim is a broad word, it generally refers to idols. There are a couple of passages that use this term: Cf. 1 Samuel 13:19. They were used in the worship of idolatry. They were prohibited and removed from the land in 2 Kings 23:24 in the reign of Josiah. These are very important to Laban. He thinks that this is where blessing comes from for him, he is devoted to these idols, and if her doesn't have his good-luck charm then he is not going to have much blessing. Rachel steals them because she is, as it were, going to steal the source of her father's blessing. She knows that as long as she has those idols and he doesn't have them any more he will be extremely distraught and unhappy. So she is just taking a little vindictive swipe at her father in order to get back at him for all the mischief and misery that he has brought into their lives over the past twenty years or more.
Genesis 31:20, 21, "And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled. So he fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the river [Euphrates], and set his face toward the mount Gilead."
Another thing we ought to think about in terms of our mindset while we read this. Think of yourself as a Jew and you are in the conquest generation sitting on the plains of Moab getting ready to go into the land under the leadership of Joshua. And as you are reading this you will be reminded of the fact that for several generations the Jews had been out of the land, just as Jacob was out of the land, and just as God was faithful to Jacob and protected him and prospered him when he was out of the land, God has been faithful to the Jews while they were in Egypt. He has protected them and prospered them even though they were in slavery. Now God has brought them back to the land. So the return of Jacob to the land is a reminder of the fact that God has also protected them. It is a continuous reminder that God is the one who protects us and watches over us.
Starting in verse 22 we are going to see the family conflict come to a head and see how the conflict resolves itself. When we get to this and read it we see that it is not a very satisfactory resolution. That is the reality we often see in Scripture. Frequently in conflicts that we experience in life, even with believers, there is not a satisfactory resolution because the person we are in conflict with is in carnality. They are operating in arrogance or self-centered motivation, on anger, bitterness, or whatever the cause may be, and just like Jacob and Laban we may be in the right, they are in the wrong and are going to say everything they can to justify their position and belittle us and make it look like we are in the wrong, and sometimes we just have to come to a peaceable accord and there will never be real resolution. We need to make sure it is not because of anything in our mental attitude but that it is always the result of the other person's failure.
So we see the setting of the confrontation in vv. 22-25 as Laban catches up with Jacob down in the region of Gilead. Genesis 31:22, 23, "And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled. And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days' journey; and they overtook him in the mount Gilead." So ten days have transpired between the time that they left and the time that Laban finally catches up with them. But just before Laban gets there we see the intervention of God.
Genesis 31:24, "And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that you speak not to Jacob either good or bad." God had not intervened up to this point, He had operated in a covert manner in blessing Jacob and in transferring the ownership of most of the sheep and goats from Laban to Jacob, but not in an overt manner. The only time in this whole episode from chapter 28 on that we see God appear to anybody. Once He appeared to Jacob on his way out of the land, at Bethel where He renews the Abrahamic covenant with Jacob, and promises to take care of him while he is out of the land and to bring him back to the land, and then He appeared to Jacob 20 years later in chapter 31:13 to remind him of that promise and say it was time to go home. Now Laban clearly violates God's warning because he accuses Jacob of having stolen everything, but he is restrained because God has appeared to him.
Genesis 31:25, "Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead." This is the setting for the situation. God has been protecting Jacob all through this, and what we see again and again throughout the Scriptures is that God is the one who protects His people. This is just one more example of that. God is the protector of Jacob specifically because Jacob is the recipient of the Abrahamic covenant in his generation, and God hads promised Abraham that He would provide world-wide blessing through his seed, and then God had renewed that promise to Jacob specifically at Bethel. And just as Jacob handles all of this testing now through his trust in that promise, just as we do with the faith-rest drill. We recognize that God is the one who is always our protection.
These are just some of the promises that we should commit to memory for those tough times in life. Genesis 15:1 shows that this was a promise that was near and dear to the patriarchs: "Fear not, Abram: I am a shield to you, your reward shall be very great." God is the one who provides that protection; He is a shield.
So many of these metaphors are repeated again and again in the Psalms. Psalm 3:3, "But you, O LORD, are a shield about me; my glory, and the one who lifts my head."
Psalm 18:2, "The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn [power] of my salvation, and my high tower."
Psalm 18:30, "As for God, his way is blameless: the word of the LORD is tried: he is a shield to all that take refuge in him."
Psalm 28:7, "The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart exults; and with my song will I thank him."
Psalm 33:20, "Our soul waits for the LORD: he is our help and our shield."
Psalm 35:2, "Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up for my help."
Psalm 91:4, "He shall cover you with his pinions, and under his wings shall you trust: his faithfulness shall be your shield and buckler."
God is faithful in every test and every encounter and that is what Jacob has been learning, and that is the center of this whole piece. Again and again Jacob comes back to this principle that God is the one who blessed and prospered him, the one who provided his wealth. He didn't steal it from Laban, God provided it in a just and fair manner. He honestly acquired it and because of God's blessing in his life he is now able to return to the land.
Genesis 31:26, And Laban said to Jacob, What have you done, that you have stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters, as captives taken with the sword?" Laban wrongfully accuses Jacob of stealing away in the middle of the night, stealing all of his possessions, and kidnapping his daughters, all of which is completely fraudulent. Laban is not someone who is rational or honest, he is only in it to keep what he has.
Genesis 31:27, "Why did you flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and not tell me, that I might have sent you away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp?" The wisdom that doctrine gave to Jacob: Because Laban was a dishonest cheat and Jacob wasn't going to trust himself to him.
Genesis 31:30, "And now, you are surely gone, because you greatly longed for your father's house, but why did you steal my gods?" So he accuses Jacob of stealing the teraphim.
Genesis 30:31, "And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou would take by force your daughters from me."
But then Jacob in his integrity says he didn't take Laban's gods. Genesis 31"32, "With whomever you find your gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern you what is yours with me, and take it to you. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them." He thinks he is completely innocent. Here we see how God protects Rachel and the seed, even though she is wrong.
Laban goes looking for his gods and three times the text indicates that he can't find them.
Genesis 31:34, 35, "Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not. And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched, but found not the images." She lies about it, but notice how God is sort of hands-off on this whole thing. He just left it to work itself out. There is no justification of her, but what we are seeing is this contrast between Jacob and his uprightness and the craftiness of Rachel. The Holy Spirit emphasizes how Jacob has matured during this time and he is totally without guile in this situation.
Now Jacob in true righteous indignation finally lets all that pent-up anger and resentment for the way he has been maltreated over the years just come forth, and he sets forth his legal case against Laban. This is a legal situation.
Genesis 31:36, "And Jacob was angry, and chided [rib, a word that is used in legal context to indicate bringing a law suit against somebody] with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? what is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued after me?" This episode ends with a contract that is signed between Laban and Jacob, and it is a legal reconciliation even though there is not a real reconciliation between the two of them. So Jacob is angry and he legally challenges Laban. He has a very rational organized case that he presents against Laban, so he is not irrationally angry at this point. But his sense of justice has been violated and he presents a logical case against Laban.
Genesis 31:37, "Although you have searched all my stuff, what have you found of all thy household stuff? set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us both." So he calls upon everybody there to act as a jury. Laban can't produce any evidence; they are just false charges. Then Jacob goes on to spell out how he has been maltreated and abused by Laban for the last twenty years. He points out that during those twenty years Laban was blessed because of his presence. He goes on to point out that he did not benefit from the flocks. He didn't personally benefit form anything that was owned by Laban.
Genesis 31:39, "That which was torn of beasts I did not bring to you; I bare the loss of it; of my hand did you require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night." Jacob bore the losses. Laban required the posses of Jacob, which indicates he was a harsh taskmaster. Jacob had done his job, he was faithful and had a good work ethic. He took care of everything, and he was honest and upright in the way he dealt with Laban, but Laban mistreated him throughout this time.
Genesis 31:42, we see the foundational principle once again: "Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me" – God's faithfulness is the whole point – "surely you had sent me away now empty. God hath seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night." It is the supreme court of heaven ultimately that justifies us, it is not up to us to justify ourselves. The "fear" of Isaac is the Hebrew word which has more to do with dread or terror and it indicates that God strikes terror in the hearts of those who are opposed to His plan.
The principle that we see here for application is that when we are carrying out God's will in the church age at any time—that means to live our life with divine priorities, learning the Word. It doesn't mean that there won't be adversity in our life, that there won't be difficulties and opposition—God is always going to be faithful to us and He will always provide what we need to accomplish His plan for our life. God's will done God's way will never suffer for God's resources. That is a key principle for anything in life. When the we are doing what the Lord wants us to do then He will always provide us with the means to do it. If the means aren't there, then God is not in it.
Laban's reply is disingenuous at best. He doesn't buy it and there is no genuine reconciliation. Genesis 31:43, "And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that you see is mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or to their children which they have born?" Laban wants to make it look like everything is okay but nobody buys it. He is superficial, he goes through this legal enactment, but that is all it is: a legal, superficial reconciliation with no reality.
Genesis 31:44, 45, "Now therefore come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be for a witness between me and you. And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar." So they establish this contract together, and as a sign of the contract of peace they build a stone pillar. Genesis 31:47, "And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed." Both of those terms mean the same thing, that is, just a heap of stone. It is also called Mizpah, which means a tower, v. 49, and it is a watchtower because it is a sign that they have entered into this contract before God and God is going to watch over and hold them each accountable for the provisions of this contract. He even goes so far as to give it a cloak of religious sincerity in v. 53, "The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us. And Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac."
There is a passage in Joshua that talks about the fact Abraham's ancestors worshiped the pantheon, the polytheistic gods of Babylon. This verse suggests that Nahor and their family clearly understood who El Elyon, the God that is mentioned by Melchizedek, is. So Abraham isn't coming to salvation in a complete vacuum. There is still evidence from the Noahic tradition in Ur of the Chaldees that El Elyon is the true God. So there is still a gospel witness even in Ur when Abraham was a young man. He doesn't get saved in Genesis chapter twelve, that is when God calls him to a new role in history, but he is already saved and he heard the gospel somewhere.
Genesis 31:54, the contract is sealed, Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount." They eat a meal together. This is typical of a contract, that a contract is sealed and signified by a fellowship meal in reconciliation. That reminds us of the Lord's table.
Genesis 31:55, "And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place." This is the end of the conflict but there has been a resolution though not a reconciliation because Laban hasn't recognized any of his faults, he hasn't changed any of his self-centered cheating ways, but he has been forced to a legal position where they are going to agree not to cheat each other any more. What as sustained Jacob through this is the faithfulness of God, and that is the same thing that sustains us. Whatever the test is, whatever the trial, we have to go back to the faithfulness of God to His Word, to His promises, and cling to that no matter what happens.