Genesis (Part 138)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 31: 17-24

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.”


Jacob once again partakes in a deception. The text says outright in verse 20 that he “tricked” Laban.

tricked = גָּנַב gânab, gaw-nab’; a primitive root; to thieve (literally or figuratively); by implication, to deceive:—carry away, × indeed, secretly bring, steal (away), get by stealth.

How did this new deception occur? Looking at The Pulpit Commentaries and verses 17 and 18:

Genesis 31:17Genesis 31:18

Then (literally, and) Jacob rose up (expressive of the vigor and alacrity with which, having obtained the concurrence of his wives, Jacob set about fulfilling the Divine instructions), and set his sons—his children, as in Genesis 31:1Genesis 32:12, including Dinah, if by this time she had been born (vide Genesis 30:21)—and his wives upon camels. Since neither were able to undertake a journey to Canaan on foot, his oldest son being not more than thirteen years of age and his youngest not more than six. One camel, vide Genesis 12:16And he carried away—the verb נָהֵג, to pant, which is specially used of those who are exhausted by running (Gesenins, sub voce), may perhaps indicate the haste with which Jacob acted—all his cattle,—Mikneh, literally, possession, from kanah, to procure, always used of cattle, the chief wealth of a nomad (cf. Genesis 13:2Genesis 26:14)—and all his goods which he had gotten,—Recush, literally, acquisition, hence substance, wealth in general, from racash, to acquire (vide Genesis 14:11Genesis 14:16Genesis 14:21Genesis 15:14), which, however, is more specifically described as—the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten (both of the above verbs, kanah and racash, being now employed) in (i.e. during his stay in) Padan-aram, for to go to Issac his father in the land of Canaan.

We are given some impression that if Jacob had not left in the manner that he did, then Laban would have prevented him from leaving altogether. In verse 19, though, something very odd occurs – Rachel steals her father’s household gods.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary describes the verse as follows:

(19) Laban went to shear his sheep.—The sheep-shearing was a joyous time, when the hard toil of the shearers was relieved by feasting ( 1 Samuel 25:8 ). Laban’s flocks, apparently, were also at some distance from Haran, and his sons and men-servants would all be with him, busily occupied in the work. Apparently, too, Laban’s wealth was not seriously diminished, though it had not of late increased; and his repeated change of the hire proves that he was quite able to take care of himself. But why was not Jacob present, as he had chief charge of Laban’s flocks? Possibly, he was expected there, and was missed; but, more probably, as the result of the growing estrangement between them, caused by the too rapid increase of Jacob’s riches, Laban and his sons had gradually taken the management of their flocks into their own hands.

Images.—Heb., teraphim, called Laban’s gods in Genesis 31:30, and we find that their worship continued throughout the Old Testament history. Micah sets up teraphim, as well as a molten and a graven image, and an ephod (Judges 18:17). Though in 1 Samuel 15:23, where the Authorised Version has idolatry, teraphim are spoken of in strong terms of condemnation, yet Michal possessed them, and placed them in David’s bed. We gather from this that they had a head shaped like that of a man, but, probably, a dwarf trunk, as she seems to have put more than one in the bed to represent David’s body (1 Samuel 19:13). So, too, here Rachel hides them under the camel’s furniture (Genesis 31:34), which proves that they, in this case, were of no great size. In the history of the thorough reformation carried out by King Josiah we find the mention of teraphim among the things put away (2 Kings 23:24). We learn, nevertheless, from Zechariah 10:2, that they were still used for divination; and from Hosea 3:4 that both pillars and teraphim had long been objects of ordinary superstition among the ten tribes. As Nebuchadnezzar divines by them (Ezekiel 21:21) they were possibly of Chaldean origin; and, probably, were not so much worshipped as used for consultation. Women seem to have been most given to their service, and probably regarded them as charms, and told fortunes by them; and here Rachel stole them upon the supposition that they would bring prosperity to her and her husband.

The ESV translation above describes the stolen property as “gods” but other translations describe them as “idols.” As the note above correctly indicates, they are *most* accurately described as teraphim.

idols = תְּרָפִים tᵉrâphîym, ter-aw-feme’; plural from H7495; a healer; Teraphim (singular or plural) a family idol:—idols(-atry), images, teraphim.

It is interesting to me that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob marry into the same family of idol worshippers, as to avoid marrying into the Canaanite idol worshippers. Here we see the evidence of that idol worship in a patriarch’s wife overtly. Thus, when examining the brides of the patriarchs, we must consider whether there is something other than religious belief that favors them over the local Canaanite women. The obvious and not-so-obvious explanation is a bloodlines preference. Clearly this *is* the preference but the text does not tell us obviously *why* it is the answer. I thik though that we can look at the surrounding context of Genesis and find clues. As we have mentioned before, the text provides a strong correlative link between the Canaanites and a race of giants that God seems intent to eradicate. The founding patriarchs deal with giant clans in Canaan, the conquest led by Moses and Joshua subsequently deals with giants, and the establishment of the David Dynasty also deals with giants – notably the remaining giants that have settled with the Philistines.

The Pulpit Commentaries has the following to say about verse 19:

Genesis 31:19

And Laban went—or, Now Laban had gone, probably ,to the other station, which was three days journey from Jacob’s flocks (vide Genesis 30:36; and cf. Genesis 31:22)—to shear his sheep. In this work he would probably be detained several days, the time of shearing being commonly regarded as a festal season (cf. Genesis 38:121 Samuel 25:42 Samuel 13:23), at which friendly entertainments were given. Whether Jacob’s absence from the festivities is to be explained by the dissension existing between him and Laban, which either caused him to be uninvited or led him to decline the invitation (Kurtz), or by the supposition that he had first gone and subsequently left the banquet (Lange), the fact that Laban was so engaged afforded Jacob the opportunity he desired for making his escape. And Rachel had stolen (or, “and Rachel stole,” availing herself likewise of the opportunity presented by he? father’s absence) the images that were her father’s. The teraphim, from an unused root, taraph, signifying to live comfortably, like the Sanscrit trip, Greek τρέφειν, Arabic tarafa (Gesenius, Furst, sub voces), appear to have been small human figures (cf. Genesis 31:34), though the image in 1 Samuel 19:13 must have been nearly life-size, or at least a full-sized bust, sometimes made of silver (Judges 17:4), though commonly constructed of wood (1 Samuel 19:13-9.19.16); they were worshipped as gods (εἰδωλα, LXX.; vide, Vulgate, cf. Genesis 31:30), consulted for oracles (Ezekiel 21:26Zechariah 10:2), and believed to be the custodians and promoters of human happiness (Judges 18:24). Probably derived from the Aramaeans (Furst, Kurtz), or the Chaldeans (Ezekiel 21:21, Kalisch, Wordsworth), the worship of teraphim was subsequently denounced as idolatrous (1 Samuel 15:232 Kings 13:24). Cf. with Rachel’s act that ascribed to AEneas:—

Effigies sacrae divum, Phrygiique Penates,

Quos mecum a Troja, mediisque ex ignibus urbis,”


Rachel’s motive for abstracting her father’s teraphim has been variously ascribed to a desire to prevent her father from discovering, by inquiring at his gods, the direction of their flight (Aben Ezra, Rosenmüller), to protect herself, in case, of being overtaken, by an appeal to her father’s gods (Josephus), to draw her father from the practice of idolatry (Bazil, Gregory, Nazisnzen, Theodoret), to obtain children for herself through their assistance (Lengerke, Gerlach), to preserve a memorial of her ancestors, whose pictures these teraphim were (Lightfoot); but was probably due to avarice, if the images were made of precious metals (Pererius), or to a taint of superstition which still adhered to her otherwise religious nature (Chrysostom, Calvin, ‘Speaker’s Commentary ), causing her to look to these idols for protection (Kalisch, Murphy) or consultation (Wordsworth) on her journey.

We can see that the note above provides a litany of possible motivations for why Rachel stole the teraphim and also provides evidence of divided scholarship concerning her motivations. The truth is that if the text does not tell us her motives, we will never learn them to satisfaction.

Ellicott explains verse 20 in the following way:

(20) Jacob stole away unawares.Heb., stole the heart. But the heart was regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of the intellect, and so to steal a man’s understanding, like the similar phrase in Greek, means to elude his observation.

It is perhaps a surprisingly long amount of time – three days – before Laban realizes what has occurred. However, Jacob’s party is not so far ahead that Laban is not able to catch up. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 31:22Genesis 31:23

And it was told Laban on the third dayi.e. the third after Jacob’s departure, the distance between the two sheep-stations being a three days’ journey (vide Genesis 30:36)—that Jacob was fled. And he took his brethren—i.e. his kinsmen, or nearest relations (cf. Genesis 13:8Genesis 29:15)—with him, and pursued after him (Jacob) seven days’ journey (literally, a way of seven days)and they overtook him in the mount Gilead. The distance between Padan-aram and mount Gilead was a little over 300 miles, to perform which Jacob must at least have taken ten days, though Laban, who was less encumbered than his son-in-law, accomplished it in seven, which might easily be done by traveling from forty to forty-five miles a day, by no means a great feat for a camel.

Once again though, something interesting happens. God intervenes on behalf of Jacob by speaking with Laban in a dream.

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.”

From Ellicott:

(24) Either good or bad.—Heb., from good to bad: a proverbial expression, rightly translated in the Authorised Version, but conveying the idea of a more absolute prohibition than the phrase used in Genesis 24:50.

God has been overtly active in the dispute between Jacob and Laban, assisting Jacob over the last six years to grow his wealth. Now God intervenes by speaking with Laban.

Jacob and Laban are both well known for their implementation of deception against one another. Rachel and Leah are both drawn into this as well. This family conflict finally comes to a head in the next section of verses. We will look at the themes of their respective characters at that time.

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