Genesis (Part 142)

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

Genesis 31: 51-55

51 Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53 The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54 and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.

55  Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.

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After their confrontation, and after a heap of stones is constructed to symbolize their covenant, Jacob’s group and Laban’s group finally part ways. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 31:51-1.31.53

And Laban said to Jacob,—according to Ewald the last narrator has transposed the names of Laban and Jacob—Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast (same word as in Genesis 31:45. The Arabic version and Samaritan text read yaritha, thou hast erected, instead of yarithi, I have erected or cast up) betwixt me and thee; this heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that (literally, if, here = that) I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar (Laban bound himself never to pass over the heap which he had erected as his witness; whereas Jacob was required to swear that he would never cross the pillar and the pile, both of which were witnesses for him) unto me, for harm. The emphatic word closes the sentence. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge—the verb is plural, either because Laban regarded the Elohim of Nahor as different from the Elohim of Abraham (Rosenmüller, Keil, Kalisch, Wordsworth, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’), or because, though acknowledging only one Elohim, he viewed him as maintaining several and distinct relations to the persons named—betwixt us. Laban here invokes his own hereditary Elohim, the Elohim of Abraham’s father, to guard his rights and interests under the newly-formed covenant; while Jacob in his adjuration appeals to the Elohim of Abraham’s son. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac (vide supraGenesis 31:42).

The commentary above is an example of a long history of confusion among scholars surrounding the word “Elohim.” The word is plural, however, it is sometimes also used as a singular when referring to the Hebrew “God.” Other times though the word is used to describe angels and disembodied human spirits. The word is used and interpreted based on its context. For a good summary of that discussion, I invite you to watch the video below:

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Returning to the text, Ellicott’s Bible Commentary offers the following on verse 53:

(53) Judge.—The verb is plural, “be he judges,” and as Laban thus joins the name Elohim with a verb plural, it seems as if he regarded Abraham’s Elohim as different from the Elohim of Nahor. We ought, therefore, to translate the gods of their father. Apparently, he thought that Abraham took one of Terah’s Elohim, and Nahor another. His views were thus polytheistic and so, generally, the ancients regarded the gods as local beings, with powers limited to certain districts. Jacob swears by the one Being who was the sole object of Isaac’s worship. (See Note on Genesis 20:13.)

You see here another example of “Elohim confusion.”

Continuing on at verse 54, Jacob offers a sacrifice. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 31:54

Then Jacob offered sacrifice—literally, slew a slaying, in ratification of the covenant—upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread. The sacrificial meal afterwards became an integral part of the Hebrew ritual (Exodus 14:3-2.14.8Exodus 29:27, Exodus 29:28; Le Exodus 10:14Exodus 10:15). And they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount.

The same verse’s note from Ellicott:

(54) Jacob offered sacrifice.—The meaning is, that Jacob slaughtered cattle, and made a feast: but as animals originally were killed only for sacrifice, and flesh was eaten on no other occasion, the Hebrew language has no means of distinguishing the two acts.

The note here from Ellicott is interesting – but as it contains no citations or explanation, the rabbit trail of what he means is hard to follow. We know that once sin occurred, God made skins for Adam and the woman to wear as clothing. We know later that animals – and grain – were both offered as sacrifices. The animal sacrifices occurred within the text *prior* to Genesis 9:

Genesis 9:3 – Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

It is not entirely clear that men did not eat animals prior to this. However, we know that men did eat animals after. There is a lengthy discussion of Genesis 9:3 from The Pulpit Commentaries that I will include below:

Genesis 9:3

Every—obviously admitting of “exceptions to be gathered both from the nature of the case and from the distinction of clean and unclean beasts mentioned before and afterwards” (Poole)—moving thing that liveth—clearly excluding such as had died of themselves or been slain by other beasts (cf. Exodus 22:31; Le Exodus 22:8)—shall be meat for you. Literally, to you it shall be for meat. Though the distinction between unclean and clean animals as to food, afterwards laid clown in the Mosaic code (Le Genesis 11:1-1.11.31), is not mentioned here, it does not follow that it was either unknown to the writer or unpracticed by the men before the Flood. Even as the green herb have I given you all things. An allusion to Genesis 1:29 (Rosenmüller, Bush); but vide infra. The relation of this verse to the former has been understood as signifying—

1. That animal food was expressly prohibited before the Flood, and now for the first time permitted (Mercerus, Rosenmüller, Candlish, Clarke, Murphy, Jamieson, Wordsworth, Kalisch)—the ground being that such appears the obvious import of the sacred writer’s language.

2. That, though permitted from the first, it was not used till postdiluvian times, when men were explicitly directed to partake of it by God (Theodoret, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, Pererius)—the reason being that prior to the Flood the fruits of the earth were more nutritious and better adapted for the sustenance of man’s physical frame, propter excellentem terrae bonitatem praestantemque vim alimenti quod fructus terrae suppeditabant homini, while after it such a change passed upon the vegetable productions of the ground as to render them less capable of supporting the growing feebleness of the body, invalidam ad bene alendum hominem (Petetins).

3. That whether permitted or not prior to the Flood, it was used, and is here for the first time formally allowed (Keil, Alford, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’); in support of which opinion it may be urged that the general tendency of subsequent Divine legislation, until the fullness of the times, was ever in the direction of concession to the infirmities or necessities of human nature (cf. Matthew 19:8). The opinion, however, which appears to be the best supported is—

4. That animal food was permitted before the fall, and that the grant is h ere expressly renewed. The grounds for this opinion are—

(1) That the language of Genesis 1:29 does not explicitly forbid the use of animal food.

(2) That science demonstrates the existence of carnivorous animals prior to the appearance of man, and yet vegetable products alone were assigned for their food.’

(3) That shortly after the fall animals were slain by Divine direction for sacrifice, and probably also for food—at least this latter supposition is by no means an unwarrantable inference from Genesis 4:4 (q.v.).

(4) That the words, “as the green herb,” even if they implied the existence of a previous restriction, do not refer to Genesis 1:29, but to Genesis 1:30, the green herb in the latter verse being contrasted with the food of man in Genesis 1:29. Solomon Glass thus correctly indicates the connection and the sense: “ut viridem herbam (illis), sic illa omnia dedi vobis” (‘Sacr. Phil,’ lib. 3. tr. 2, c. Genesis 22:2).

(5) That a sufficient reason for mentioning the grant of animal food in this connection may be found in the subjoined restriction, without assuming the existence of any previous limitation.

We can conclude the parting of ways from Laban with The Pulpit Commentaries note of verse 55:

Genesis 31:55

And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters,—i.e. Rachel and Leah and their children. It does not appear that Laban kissed Jacob on taking final leave of him as he did on first meeting him (Gen 29:1-35 :39)—and blessed them (cf. Genesis 14:1-1.24.60Genesis 28:1): and Laban departed, and returned unto his place—Padan-aram (cf. Genesis 18:33Genesis 30:25).

As with the previous post, I will refer you again to the article at TheTorah.com by Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber, titled Laban and Jacob’s Covenant at Gal-ed and include a relevant excerpt below. You should follow the link and read the entire article as it is quite interesting.


Other variants likely derive from theological considerations, as in v. 53. The main problem with the verse is that Laban seems to be invoking multiple gods, the gods of Abraham and Nahor, in an oath with the founding father of Israel.

Septuagint
(LXX)
Masoretic Text
(MT)
Samaritan Pentateuch
(SP)
May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor”—the gods of their fathers—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the god of Abraham—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.
אלהי אברהם ואלהי נחור ישפטובינינו. וישבע יעקב בפחד אביו יצחק.[15]אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּבֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק:אלהי אברהם ואלהי נחור ישפט ביננואלהי אברהם, וישבע יעקב בפחד אביו יצחק.

Stage One – The LXX

From a text critical perspective, the oldest extant version of the text appears to be that found in the LXX, since, in general, scribes add glosses to texts but they rarely subtract them. According to this text, Laban is invoking a god or set of gods on each side of the covenant—the god(s) of Abraham for Jacob and the god(s) of Nahor for Laban—to ensure that each side keeps his side of the bargain.

In this oldest form of the text, the Torah avoids the problem of Jacob swearing by multiple gods by having Jacob swear instead in the name of his father’s God and not the gods to whom Laban refers. Nevertheless, from the fact that the gloss was added, we can see that the later scribes of the MT and the SP felt this was insufficient.

Stage Two – The MT

The earliest form of the gloss would seem to be that found in the MT. This gloss clarifies that the gods to whom Laban refer are the ancestral gods of the family, the gods of Laban’s and Jacob’s family. It is unclear what the scribe who added this gloss was trying to accomplish, since it seems to state the obvious, though perhaps he wanted to emphasize that Laban was trying to find common ground with Jacob. In other words, Laban is not invoking one god for each—Abraham’s god for Jacob and Nahor’s god for Laban—but their common ancestral gods.

Although this would not remove the problem of Laban referring to multiple gods, it makes Laban’s reason for suggesting this formula more palatable. Nevertheless, Jacob has no choice but to “politely decline” Laban’s suggestion, and swear in the name of his father’s God.

Stage Three – The SP

As the MT’s gloss does little to solve the problem of Jacob’s participation in an oath where one side swears in the name of multiple gods, the editors of the SP further revised the text to ensure that any possible connection between Jacob and a polytheistic oath would be erased. Thus, they made two slight adjustments in the text.

  • They changed the word “their fathers (אביהם)” to “Abraham (אברהם)”—a switch of one letter only in the Hebrew.[16]
  • They changed the word “judge” from plural (ישפטו) to singular (ישפט)—also a change of only one letter.

With these adjustments, the meaning of the verse becomes completely different. In the SP, Laban is stating that both Nahor and Abraham worshiped the same God—the one God—and that he (Laban) suggests that the two of them swear by this one God who will judge them if either break the treaty. Thus, Laban’s oath is monotheistic and poses no theological problem. Ironically, the difficulty with the SP text is that Laban’s suggestion is now so acceptable that it is hard to understand why Jacob rejects it!


We see here again that a proper understanding of the text requires an understanding of *which* version of it you are reading.

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