Peace train

When Jacob had moved to Haran twenty years earlier, Esau had also moved away from his father’s house. He had taken his wives, children, livestock, and possessions, and settled in the hill country of Seir. Now, as Jacob and his entourage drew closer to his brother, he decided to dispatch couriers ahead of them to seek peace with Esau.

When the messengers arrived, they said to Esau, “Your servant Jacob has been living with your Uncle Laban until recently. He now has oxen, donkeys, sheep, and slaves, and he sent us in hopes that you’ll receive him on friendly terms.”

“Tell Jacob,” Esau answered, “that I’m coming to meet him with an army of four hundred.”

When they returned and told Jacob what Esau had said, Jacob was terrified. He split his camp into two companies and divided his livestock equally, so that half of his estate could still survive the wrath of Esau.

Then he prayed. “O God, O Master, you told me to go back home and said you’d be with me. I went to Haran with a shepherd’s crook and a father’s blessing, and I’m now a very rich man. I’m not worthy of your love and faithfulness, but I ask that you save me and my family from my brother. You said you’d make my offspring like the countless sands of the shore.”

Jacob continued to pray into the night until he fell asleep. The next morning, he brought out two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, gave them to a servant and said, “Deliver these goats to my brother and say, ‘These are a peace offering from your servant Jacob, and he is coming behind us.’”

Then he took two hundred ewes and twenty rams from his flock. He gave them to another servant and told him the same thing he told the first servant, adding, “Keep space between you and my servant ahead of you.”

Next, he took thirty milking camels and their young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. Again he gave each species of animal to a servant and had him form the next drove in a long line of gifts for his brother. “Tell him your servant Jacob comes behind us,” he told each one, “but keep a distance between the drove ahead of you.”

Jacob hoped that by the time he met his brother Esau, his anger would have subsided. In the meantime, he waited for each drove to take its turn toward Esau and continued to sleep unsettled for another night.

Inspiration: Genesis 32, 36

Witness pile

“Are you quite finished?” Laban asked after quite the tongue-lashing from his rogue hand. “Your wives are my daughters. Their maids are my property. Your children are my children. Everything in this camp belongs to me.”

Then Laban’s face softened. “But,” he said, giving Jacob’s shoulder a friendly tap. “What can I do? Let’s make a promise between us.”

“Gather stones,” Jacob said to his children as he removed a boulder from the side of the hill and rolled it into the middle of the camp. Reuben and his brothers brought stones and made a pile near where Jacob set the boulder.

Laban and Jacob called the place The Witness Pile, each in his own tongue. Laban called it “Jegarsahadutha” in Aramaic, and Jacob called it “Galeed” in Hebrew. They called the boulder “Mizpah,” Watchpost.

Laban said, “God’s watching you and me when we’re apart. If you hurt my daughters or take other wives, God sees what you’ve done. This pile of stones and this boulder are a boundary. Neither you nor I will cross them to do the other harm. As these stones are a witness, may God be the judge.”

Jacob swore by his father’s faith and offered a sacrifice there at the top of the hill, and everyone from both camps threw an all-night party on the hill.

In the morning, Laban got up and loaded his camels, kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and blessed them. He and his entourage left for Haran.

When Jacob and his family left to continue their journey south to Canaan, he met a company of angels on the way. He named that area “Mahanaim,” Two Camps 

Inspiration: Genesis 31, 32

Hidden idols

After giving a three-day head start, a servant broke the news to Laban that Jacob and his caravan had gone. Laban enlisted some of his close family members to help him give chase. After seven days, they caught up with them in the hills of Gilead.

The night before he was to confront Jacob, God visited Laban in a dream.

“Don’t speak good or evil to Jacob,” God said.

In the morning, Laban caught up with Jacob and his camp and said, “Why’d you steal my daughters as if they were spoils of war? Why’d you sneak away behind my back? I would have thrown you a ‘going away’ party with music and dancing. You didn’t even let me say goodbye to my daughters and sons. I came to take back what is mine and teach you a lesson you’d not soon forget, but the God of Isaac told me not to speak good or evil to you. Why’d you leave like that?”

“I was afraid,” Jacob answered. “I thought you’d keep your daughters from me, using violence if necessary.”

“That’s understandable,” Laban said. “But regardless of how badly you’re ready to go home, why’d you steal my gods?”

Jacob scratched his head. “You’re mistaken. If anyone stole anything of yours, I’ll have them put to death.”

Jacob took a couple of steps back and raised his voice so that the entire camp could hear. “In view of all these witnesses, show me what I have that belongs to you.”

Laban began a search through Jacob’s camp. He went first into Leah’s tent, turning over pillows and blankets, rummaging through baskets and satchels. Finding nothing, he searched the tents of the maids and other servants.

“Excuse me,” Laban said, as he entered Rachel’s tent.

Rachel was sitting on the saddle where the stolen gods were hidden. Laban searched the tent from top to bottom but to no avail.

Rachel said, “Forgive me for not getting up, Dad. It’s that time of the month.”

Laban left her tent and was confronted by Jacob.

“Tell me what I’ve done wrong,” Jacob scolded. “Give me some justification for coming out here to give me more trouble. You’ve searched my camp and have come up empty.”

Laban stood speechless before a livid Jacob, who continued his tirade.

“For twenty years I have served you. Your flocks and herds never miscarried. I’ve never eaten your rams. Whenever one of yours was torn to shreds by a wild animal, I took the loss from my stock. I slaved through heat and cold and sleepless nights for twenty long years, fourteen years for your daughters and six years for your livestock, and at every turn you changed the condition of payment. If God hadn’t been with me, I’d have lost everything by now. I’d take last night’s rebuke from God to heart if I were you.”

Inspiration: Genesis 31

Deceptive departure

Laban’s sons moaned incessantly about Jacob gradually taking all their dad’s property and becoming unreasonably wealthy. Jacob overheard them talking and realized why the sudden change in Laban’s usual behavior toward him.

Jacob spent time meditating on what he should do, when God showed up. “Enough of this now,” God said. “Go back to your kin, and I’ll be with you as always.”

Jacob called his wives out to the field where he was watching the flocks and said, “You both know I’ve given your dad the best years of my life. He’s tried to embezzle wages from me ten times, but the God of my dad has kept that from happening. If your dad said he’d give me the spotted sheep in the fold, every flock would bear spotted sheep. If he promised me the striped, then suddenly striped sheep would come from the offspring. Little by little, this is how God has taken your dad’s livestock away, and now it’s become clear that I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

Rachel and Leah looked at each other. “Do we have any reason to stay?” Rachel asked.

“We’re considered strangers here, since we were sold.” Leah said.

“And what inheritance comes from a man who’s lost everything,” Rachel added.

Then they turned to Jacob and spoke in unison. “Do what God says.”

Rachel returned to the main house, and while her dad was shearing sheep in the outbuilding, she went through each room and stole Laban’s household gods and wrapped them in cloth.

Without telling Laban of his plans to return to his dad’s house, Jacob packed his bags and all his belongings. In the morning, he and his family rode out on camels for the land of Canaan. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Laban’s stolen property lined the underside of Rachel’s saddle, wrapped in cheesecloth.

Inspiration: Genesis 31

Dueling tricksters

By the time Joseph was born, Jacob had had enough of the deceiver, Laban. “It’s time to free me from service and let me go to my own country,” Jacob groused. “Let me take my wives and children, whom I purchased with honest, hard work.”

“Allow me to say, if you will,” Laban answered, hoping to persuade him to stay. “You and I both know God has blessed me through you. If you agree to stay, I’ll pay you whatever wages you demand.”

“A familiar offer, Uncle,” Jacob said. “But I wonder, are you capable of a good, clean deal?”

“You have my word.”

Laban’s word was no good, but Jacob decided this might be his only opportunity to get the better of his employer.

“Do you admit that my service record is impeccable,” Jacob asked, “and that your livestock have fared well under my management?”

“Absolutely,” Laban agreed.

“Honestly, you were nothing before I came along, and now you thrive. God has blessed whatever I’ve touched.”

“Yes, nephew, yes.”

“But how do you expect me to provide for both you and my growing household?”

“Name your price,” was Laban’s eager reply.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “Pay me nothing.”

“I don’t follow.” Laban was stumped.

“If you agree to my terms, I’ll keep feeding and protecting your flocks.”

“What do you have in mind?” Laban asked, feeling suddenly uneasy.

Jacob said, “Let me take all your blemished sheep and goats, and you can keep all the pure, white sheep. Only the marked animals will be mine. Further, I’ll insist that you inspect my wages with your own eyes, so that my integrity isn’t questioned later. If you find among my flocks and herds a single animal without blemish, you can call me a thief.”

Laban was all too eager to agree to the deal, but before Jacob had a chance to sort all the animals, Laban removed every goat and lamb with the slightest mark and placed them in the care of his sons. Then he distanced those blemished flocks from the spotless flocks by a three-day journey. He put the rest in the care of Jacob.

Jacob was accustomed to Laban’s dishonesty through the long years of toil, and he assumed the man would play dirty, but Laban was no match for the cunning and imaginative trickery that Jacob had used against his brother Esau back in the day.

So during mating season, Jacob pulled out all the stops. He would attempt the ambitious feat of modify the herds in his favor, using selective breeding techniques, a little primitive magic, and a lot of prayer.

One night, Jacob dreamed that only the male goats with spots and blemishes were active in the pen. The spotless goats were lethargic and weak. Then an angel of God appeared in the dream and said, “I’ve noticed Laban’s dishonesty. Now notice all the healthy goats, leaping atop the weak, are marked as yours. I am the God of Bethel, the same God who appeared where you anointed the rock with wine and oil and made a vow to me. It’s time to go home and leave this place behind.”

For six more years, God blessed Jacob. Not only did the spotless herd gradually turn speckled, spotted, striped, and black, but soon the unblemished sheep gradually became weak and frail.

So after a total of twenty years serving Laban, Jacob grew filthy rich on flocks, herds, camels, donkeys, and slaves, and his desire to leave Laban’s household grew to a fevered pitch.

Inspiration: Genesis 30

Fourteen years

“Just because we’re family,” Laban told Jacob, “doesn’t mean you work for free. How shall I pay you?”

“Funny you should ask,” Jacob answered. Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and although Jacob was embarrassingly aware that he had come without a dowry, his heart belonged to Rachel.

Customarily, the eldest daughter would have been married off first. But in this case, the eldest’s eyes were somewhat zombie-like and unattractive, while Rachel’s sparkled. Rachel was a picture of beauty, grace, and radiance.

“I’ll work for you for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage,” Jacob said.

Laban agreed. That would surely give some other suitor ample time to come and take Leah. “It’s better for Rachel to be with you than any other man,” he said.

Jacob stayed with Laban’s household for seven years, watching over his flocks, herds, and lands. Because Jacob loved Rachel, it seemed only a few days had passed.

After completing his part of the promise, Jacob came to Laban to fetch his prize. “My time here is finished, as you know. I’m ready to make Rachel my wife.”

“Very well.” Laban invited everyone within the vicinity to celebrate at the wedding feast. After much dining, singing, and dancing on the first evening, the sun retired. Laban brought his daughter Leah to Jacob, and Jacob, being full of wine, went to bed with her.

In the morning, Jacob realized what had happened. He asked Laban, “Why did you do this to me? I became a seven-year servant for Rachel.”

“You know our custom,” Laban answered. “We give our firstborn to be married first.”

Laban had also become rich while Jacob managed his affairs, so he wasn’t in a hurry to be rid of him. “Finish this week of celebration, and I’ll give you Rachel as a wife also. The only condition is that you serve me for another seven years.”

So Jacob and Leah finished their week of celebration, and Rachel was presented to Jacob as well.

As Jacob began his second stretch of indenture, God saw that Leah was unloved. He therefore gave Leah the ability to become pregnant, while Rachel suffered barrenness. Leah had four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

After Judah, Jacob’s visits became infrequent.

Inspiration: Genesis 29

Jacob’s love

Jacob continued traveling east until he came to a field where three flocks of sheep were resting by a well. Jacob asked the shepherds, “Where are you from, brothers?”

“We’re from Haran,” one of the shepherds offered.

“Do you know Laban?” Jacob asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Look,” another shepherd pointed further east. “Here comes his daughter with Laban’s sheep.”

Jacob saw a girl approaching in the distance with a flock. He looked around at all the sheep lying around. “Why aren’t these sheep out grazing? It’s not even near nightfall. Water them quickly and get them to pasture.”

“Can’t be done,” the first shepherd said. “The stone covering the mouth of the well is too heavy. We need all the shepherds together to move it. Only then can we water the sheep.”

When Laban’s daughter Rachel was close enough for Jacob to see her beauty, he took hold of the huge boulder with both arms and rolled it away from the mouth of the well. He watered Laban’s sheep, gave Rachel a kiss, and cried in front of everyone.

“I’m your Aunt Rebekah’s son,” he said.

Rachel ran home to tell her father, and Laban ran back to meet him. They embraced, and Laban welcomed Jacob into his home.

Jacob told Laban all that had transpired over the last several days, and Laban answered, “We’re related by blood.” He thought back to a time when a servant of Jacob’s father came with riches for the hand of his sister Rebekah.

Jacob stayed with Laban for a month.

Inspiration: Genesis 29