Jacob and Laban
by Wayne Blank
Laban was the son of Bethuel, the son of Nahor, who was Abraham's brother. He lived in Haran, a city in Mesopotamia which is today part of Syria. Laban's sister was Rebekah, who married Isaac; Laban was therefore Jacob's uncle.
The struggle between Jacob and his fraternal-twin brother Esau (they were very different in both disposition, and appearance) began literally from before their birth (Genesis 25:22-23). Esau, the firstborn by a few minutes, later foolishly sold his birthright to Jacob for that now-famous bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34).
Then, Jacob, at the instigation of, and with the assistance of, his mother Rebekah, deceived the then-blind Isaac into also giving Jacob the blessing that would otherwise have gone to Esau (Genesis 27:1-40). That was the final straw for Esau, who vowed to kill Jacob, but when Rebekah heard of the threat, she sent Jacob to far away Haran to live with her brother Laban. It was apparently intended only as a short-term absence, but it lasted twenty years. It was while on that journey from Beersheba to Haran that Jacob had his Stairway To Heaven dream at Bethel.
Jacob's family struggle didn't end when he arrived in Haran however. It wasn't long before he and his uncle Laban began looking to get the best of each other. First, Jacob agreed to work seven years to be able to marry Laban's daughter Rachel, but when the time was completed, Laban pulled a honeymoon-night switch of Leah for Rachel (Genesis 29:16-30). When Jacob protested, Laban offered Rachel also - for another seven years of work, to which Jacob agreed.
After the fourteen years of service were completed, during which the Children of Jacob were born (see also The Tribes Of Israel), Jacob wanted to take his two wives and return home, but Laban got him to remain for six more years tending his flocks - a very costly mistake for Laban. Although during that time Laban treated Jacob quite badly, including changing his wages ten times (Genesis 31:41), Jacob's rather strange, but extremely effective management of the flocks, to which he got Laban to agree, resulted in Jacob becoming far more wealthy than Laban, all at the expense of his uncle (Genesis 30:42-43). In effect, the end result was that Jacob bankrupted Laban (Genesis 31:14-16).
The parting of Jacob and Laban came after Laban's sons began saying that, "Jacob has taken all that was our father's; and from what was our father's he has gained all this wealth." (Genesis 31:1). Apparently fearing that some sort of hostile action was about to be taken against him by his cousins and uncle, while Laban was away shearing sheep Jacob fled suddenly back toward the home of his parents with all of his acquired family and wealth: "So Jacob arose, and set his sons and his wives on camels; and he drove away all his cattle, all his livestock which he had gained, the cattle in his possession which he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac." (Genesis 31:17-18 RSV).
Three days later, Laban discovered that Jacob had fled, and because Jacob had to move slowly with all of the family and flocks, Laban caught up to him. Although Laban may have originally planned to harm Jacob and take back all of his daughters, grandchildren and flocks, God intervened and warned Laban not to do anything to Jacob: "But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night, and said to him, "Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad." (Genesis 31:24 RSV). Although Laban was an idol worshipper (Genesis 31:19,30), he seems also to have known better than to disobey a direct command from The Lord (see Rock Of Ages).
With God watching, Jacob and Laban's final parting was therefore, although not all that friendly, at least peaceful. Then, "Early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home." (Genesis 31:55 RSV)
Fact Finder: Why did God rename Jacob as Israel?