Jacob Returns to Canaan
After six years of working for his father-in-law for pay, things began to sour for Jacob. His brothers-in-law believed Jacob was depriving them of their inheritance by appropriating Laban's wealth. Laban was also unhappy with the outcome of his bargain with Jacob. Over the years Jacob's flocks have grown very large and Laban's flocks have not done nearly as well.
Jacob was probably willing to leave his in-laws, but he did not want to be the first to end the contract between his father-in-law and himself. Jacob was aware that Laban would not let him leave with such an abundance, even though it was fairly gained (Genesis 31:42).
While Jacob hesitated, God came to him and told him to leave. Jacob made quiet preparations to leave and then called his wives to meet him out in a field where he told them they would be leaving. He explained to them how Laban had been treating him unfairly by changing his wages ten times in these last few years. It is possible that this is the first that Leah and Rachel heard about these dealings. Jacob could have been hiding this from them out of respect for their father. Jacob also explained how God had prevented Laban from abusing Jacob and at the same time God had punished Laban. As Laban changed the terms for the animals Jacob could keep for wages, the animals would produce that particular type of animal. God had shown Jacob in a dream that God was behind the unusual births. Jacob also told his wives that God wanted him to return to the land of Canaan.
Leah and Rachel were very willing to leave. They did not expect an inheritance from their father. Even their relations were no longer treating them as members of Laban's family. They especially resented that Laban basically sold them to Jacob, using Jacob's dowry of service to build up his own personal fortune. It was right, in their view, that God prospered Jacob at the expense of their father.
At this time, Laban was away from home shearing his sheep. Jacob took advantage of Laban's absence to leave. Laban did not learn of their departure for three days. Since Laban's flocks were normally kept a 3-day's journey from Jacob's flocks, this meant Jacob had a six day head start on Laban.
Unknown to Jacob, Rachel decides to take her father's household idols with her. Tablets have been found near Nuzu which indicate that some nations connected the ownership of household idols (called teraphim) with inheritance and property rights. Some commentators speculate that Rachel took the idols to legitimize Jacob's claim to his flocks.
It took seven days for Laban and his kinsmen to catch up with Jacob and his family. They came upon Jacob in the region of Mt. Gilead. Laban probably brought his relatives with him to help bring the flocks back to Haran. However, God interrupts Laban's schemes.
God visits Laban in a dream the night before Laban meets with Jacob. God warns Laban that he must not say anything good or bad to Jacob. In other words, God is telling Laban that he is not allowed to threaten Jacob nor persuade Jacob to return to Haran.
This leaves Laban in a difficult position. When Laban meets with Jacob, he complains that Jacob has mistreated his daughters by sneaking them away as if they were prisoners of war. He laments that he, too, was abused by Jacob when he wasn't allowed to give them a going away party. Laban claimed he just wanted a chance to say good-bye to his daughters and grandchildren.
If we didn't already know the character of Laban, we could almost sympathize with the poor fellow. Still, Laban's excuses for pursuing Jacob do not explain why he brought a large number of men with him. These men, Laban explains, are there to find Laban's stolen idols.
Jacob, not knowing what Rachel had done, boldly tells Laban to look for any of his possessions among Jacob's caravan. If he could prove that someone had possession of something that belonged to Laban, that person would be sentenced to death.
Instead of backing down, Laban searches Jacob's entire camp. He was probably hopeful to find something which would give him a bargaining hold over Jacob. Despite the thorough search, Laban did not find his idols. Rachel had hid the idols under her camel's saddle in her tent. Laban did not look there because Rachel was sitting on her saddle, explaining to her father that she was going through her monthly period at the moment. In those days, women did not have pads or tampons to wear during their monthly periods. Instead, they sat on cloths to absorb the blood so their clothing would not be stained. Touching these cloths was considered "unclean," so Laban would not even think of asking his daughter to move aside.
Jacob then gives Laban a thorough tongue lashing. Nothing of Laban's was found among Jacob's possessions, yet Laban had pursued him with a large force as if Jacob was a thief. There was no just reason for this treatment. Jacob had served Laban faithfully for twenty years. The flocks in Jacob's care were so well-tended that there never was a miscarriage. Even though it was within the rights of a herdsman to use some of the animals in his care for food, Jacob never exercised that right. In fact, if any wild animal stole one of Laban's flock, Jacob replaced it at his own expense. Laban had service from Jacob better than he could have received from his own sons!
Yet, for his service, Laban had demanded unreasonable wages for Jacob and even these he changed ten times in the last six years. Both Jacob and Laban understood that Laban would not have let Jacob leave with anything if Laban had a choice in the matter.
Laban, of course, denies any intention of harming his daughters, his grandchildren, or his flocks. Notice that Jacob is right Laban still considers the flocks he paid to Jacob for wages as his own possessions.
To settle this dispute, Laban asks that they enter into a formal covenant. They erect a pillar as a witness to their agreement. The pillar is called "the heap of witness" Laban naming it in Aramaic and Jacob naming it in Hebrew.
In the terms of the covenant, Laban treats Jacob as a man who cannot be trusted. He insists that Jacob must not mistreat Laban's daughters. Jacob must not commit polygamy ignoring the fact that Laban had forced Jacob into a polygamous relationship. For Laban's part, he promises not to seek out Jacob for revenge. (God would not allow Laban to harm Jacob anyway, but it sounds noble for Laban to make the offer.) In return, Jacob was to promise not to return to Haran to seek revenge.
In addition, Laban gives the pillar a second name, "Mizpah," which means "watchtower." He is implying that God needs to keep an eye on Jacob to make sure he keeps up his end of the bargain. Notice that Laban doesn't call on his own gods to seal this covenant.
Jacob, despite the insults implied in the covenant made by Laban, swears by the Lord Almighty to uphold the covenant. A sacrifice is made to seal the covenant and the two parties sit down to a common meal to commemorate the bargain. The next morning, Laban and his kinsmen leave.
Jacob's next fear is meeting up with Esau once again. When they had last seen each other, Esau was plotting Jacob's death. To calm Jacob, God lets him see the angels God had sent to protect him. Jacob calls the place "two hosts." By this, he is referring to the two groups camped there, his own family and God's angels.
To see how things fare with his brother, Jacob sends a delegation to Esau, who is living in Seir, which is by the Dead Sea (Genesis 36:20). Later, this region is known by Esau's nickname, Edom (Red). Notice that in Jacob's message to Esau, he goes to great lengths to appease his brother, calling him lord. He emphasizes that he will not be making any claim on Esau's possessions, since God has richly blessed him in Syria. This is also a subtle reminder to Esau that God is watching over Jacob.
As soon as Esau hears of Jacob's return, he immediately heads north with 400 men. He doesn't even take the time to send a return message to Jacob. With this large of a force heading his way, Jacob assumes Esau intends to do him harm. Jacob divides his group into two parties. This way, if one is attacked, there is some hope that the other can escape. Jacob then spends the night in prayer to God asking for deliverance.
In hopes of appeasing his brother, Jacob sends a series of gifts in advance of his own group. The gift is composed of 580 animals. They are divided into five groups and sent so that Esau would run into them one after the other. Each herdsman is instructed to reply to any inquiry by Esau with a statement that the animals are a gift for Esau from Jacob.
Jacob then sends his family over the Jabbok river, while he remains behind to spend the night alone. Perhaps he planned to use this private time in further prayer to God. That night Jacob weeps and pleads with God (Hosea 12:3-5) and in response, God sends an angel to comfort Jacob. However, Jacob refuses to let the angel go, literally wrestling with the angel. Hosea compares Jacob's behavior with Jacob's holding on to his brother's heel at birth. God grants Jacob's prayer because of his persistence (Luke 18:1-8). However, to remind Jacob of the experience, the angel dislocates the ball-and-socket joint in Jacob's hip. This lets Jacob know that God allowed Jacob to prevail. Jacob's prayer was not granted because Jacob was mightier than God. In addition, Jacob's name is changed from "Supplanter" to "One who fights with God," or Israel. Jacob names the area Peniel, which means "the face of God," because Jacob had come face-to-face with God that night. The name continued to be used for that region, in a slightly modified form (Penuel), all the way through the days of the kingdom of Israel (I Kings 12:25). By the way, it should be noted, as well, that the name of the river Jabbok means "wrestler" in Hebrew.
The next day, Jacob sees Esau and his 400 men in the distance. As one last precaution, Jacob divides his family into three groups. Bilhah and Zilpah, along with their children, are placed in the leading group. Leah and her children are placed in the second group. Rachel and Joseph and placed in the last group. Notice that this gives Rachel the best chance to escape if there is any trouble.
Jacob, himself, leads the way and on meeting his brother, he bows seven times. (A tablet found in Tell el Amarna states that is proper custom to bow seven times when approaching a king.) Obviously, Jacob is doing everything possible to appease his brother. However, instead of a battle, Esau rushes forward to hug his brother! After a tender reunion, Jacob presents his family in order to their uncle.
Esau asks Jacob of the meaning of the five elaborate gifts he came across on his way to met Jacob. Jacob explains that they were to soften Esau's heart. Esau declines the gifts, stating that he has enough possessions of his own, but Jacob insists that he keep them. Both men say "I have enough," but in the Hebrew the meanings of the phrases are slightly different. Esau states he has much. Jacob says he has everything. Jacob is showing his belief that God can supply all of his needs.
Esau assumes Jacob will continue to travel south to where Isaac is living and he offers to accompany Jacob and his family in their journey. Jacob declines the generous offer, pointing out that Esau's own family would be anxious for him to return and Jacob would have to travel slowly with all his herds. Esau then offers to leave some men behind to serve as guards for Jacob, but Jacob again declines, stating there is no need. Perhaps after living for twenty years with Laban, Jacob has become distrustful of generous offers from others.
Jacob heads west, but he stays for a time in one spot long enough to build a house and pens (booths) for his animals. The Hebrew word for booths is "Succoth" and this name becomes permanently associated with the area (Joshua 13:27; Judges 8:5-16). Later, Jacob moves on to Shechem. He even purchases land in the area and builds an altar to God, which he called "God is the God of Israel". A well in the region of Shechem is attributed to Jacob (John 4:6). Much later, Joseph, Jacob's son, is buried in this same spot (Joshua 24:32).