It was a long and winding road, but Jacob finally decided to go home.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 31
Lesson Summary. After many machinations and manipulations between Jacob and Laban, God finally convinces Jacob that he needs to return to the Promised Land. Jacob gets the support of his wives, and they steal away in secret. This passage teaches us the cost of bad family relationships, and also the importance of obeying God.
“Go back to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.” (31:3)
This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Who Gets the Credit? -or- The Unappreciative Boss.
One of the most frustrating stories to read is when a business fails because people are arguing over who should get the credit for something. Credit is important—credit often leads to better compensation and future opportunities—but when people overestimate their credit, it can be a cancer in an organization. We lived in the Dallas area for 7 years, so we heard lots of stories of the feud between Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson. Jerry insisting on getting credit for Jimmy’s success is the perfect example of this icebreaker. Ask your class if they have seen this sort of struggle in a business, a church, an organization, etc. What was the result? In our Bible passage, both Laban and Jacob struggled with this, and so it should be no surprise that there was a lot of tension between them. Could it have been avoidable?
Your leader guide focuses on the idea of Jacob going home, and that’s fine. But if you want to mix things up, ask your class if any of them have ever left home. We tend to forget that both Rachel and Leah were leaving the only home they had ever known. Both Shelly and I left our homes to go to college, and neither of us ever went back for more than a visit. It gives us a different perspective on concepts like “home” and “family” and “roots” (not better or worse; just different). Ask your class for stories about leaving home. Is there anything y’all think you can keep in mind when we start talking about the dynamic between Laban, Leah, Rachel, and Jacob?
How Has Your Life Changed in 20 Years?
Being the end of another calendar year, we can all handle a little nostalgia. Ask your group members to look back 20 years. Can they begin to quantify how they have changed? They can start with the basics (marriage, kids, job, house, etc.), but I would love for them to move from there to more abstract things like how has your perspective on the world changed? What is the most important thing you’ve learned? In what ways have you changed the most dramatically? What surprises you the most about yourself after 20 years?
Here would be the point of this exercise: when we read this passage, we just sort of telescope Jacob into a static figure because we read this whole story in a few chapters, but from the time Jacob left home to find a wife to the time he returned home, it had been 20 years. If you’re at all shocked by how much you’ve changed in 20 years, realize that Jacob would be in the same situation. He’s not coming home the same man who left (and we assume his mom had died). End this icebreaker with some speculation: in what ways do you think his changes would have been good? In what ways might they have been bad?
This Week's Big Idea: Jacob's Wacky Breeding Techniques
The catalyst for the final fallout between Jacob and Laban is this extremely bizarre tale about how Jacob managed the breeding of their flocks. In 30:25, Jacob asked Laban to let him go home; Laban asked him to stay but with better compensation. Jacob agreed to stay on if he could keep all of the streaked and speckled goats/sheep, to which Laban agreed. In general, sheep were white and goats were black, and speckled animals were rare, so of course Laban approved. (We should observe that both Laban and Jacob were still trying to manipulate/take advantage of one another. This is most evident in that Laban immediately removed all of the streaked and speckled animals and moved them far away from Jacob under the care of his own sons, thinking it was all genetic and Jacob’s hard work would only benefit Laban. But on the other hand, Jacob clearly had a plan to work everything in his favor. My guess is that both men thought they had swindled the other.)
What happens next is truly bizarre. In 30:37, Jacob made striped “totems” to somehow influence the coloring of the offspring. When strong females came to drink out of his troughs while they were in heat, Jacob would put up these totems, and they would have streaked/speckled offspring. When weak females came to drink while they were in heat, he wouldn’t put the totems up, and they would have plain offspring. As a result, the speckled sheep/goats would be strong, and the plain ones would be weak, and after a few generations this meant that Jacob’s herds were great, and Laban’s were not (remember that Laban’s sons were keeping flocks that were already speckled).
So . . . is that how that works? I didn’t think that was how that worked. What’s going on here?
Frankly, this whole episode is really quite funny. There was a folk tradition that animals’ offspring could be influenced by “visual aids”. Jacob double-used this belief by (1) putting a striped thing in front of the flocks when they mated (30:39), and (2) he isolated the speckled from the plain, so that the plain animals would see the speckled ones and “take the hint”. And Jacob added his own “genius” by only using these techniques on the strongest animals. What a great plan!
There’s a great Hebrew word for the effectiveness of Jacob’s plan: baloney. To make a long story short, Jacob’s wacky breeding techniques, as clever as he thought they were, accomplished far less than he thought. Striped totems were bupkis; one cannot visually influence the appearance of offspring. Through what we’ve learned about the genetics of coloration, we know that Jacob’s breeding patterns could have been useful, and some scholars have suggested that the combination of branches Jacob used could have functioned as an aphrodisiac (some flock owners today swear that certain chemicals result in a higher rate of conception and multiple births); even if that were true, it would have been unintentional. Most importantly, we find out in 31:8 that Jacob’s breeding techniques went beyond producing certain colors to producing streaked or speckled offspring. That difference is essentially a random combination of recessive genes, and nothing Jacob would know how to control. In other words, Jacob could not take credit for his success.
So what was really going on here? I know this will seem anticlimactic to some, but God answers that question in 31:12. The short answer is this: God is the only reason Jacob’s flocks behaved the way they did. God is the only reason Jacob had success in his breeding. After God said this to Jacob, it is apparent that Jacob realized it to be so, because he confessed it to his wives in 31:8.
Here’s the point to make to your group if you do choose to talk about this whole breeding scam: both Laban and Jacob were scrambling to figure out who should get credit for Laban’s wealth. Laban thought Jacob’s success was due to his guidance. Jacob thought his success was due to his abilities and cleverness. Both were wrong. The only reason either of them was successful was due to God’s direct intervention. The only reason.
Comments on Context
You don’t need to say very much to keep your group on point. Fill them in on the sordid tale of Jacob following his marriages to Leah and Rachel. Jacob clearly favored Rachel (who was beautiful), so God had compassion on Leah by allowing her to have children. Rachel became so jealous that she gave Jacob her maidservant to have children by (Rachel seemed to be barren). Leah countered by doing the same with her own maidservant. Through a few more distasteful encounters and Jacob showing absolutely no leadership (but having all the sex he could want), we end up with the 12 sons of Jacob.
Apparently, the 11th son (Joseph) was the cue for Jacob to decide it was time to go home. That led to the negotiations described in the previous page and machinations with Laban’s flocks. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction.
Part 1: Obedience Required (Genesis 31:2-3)
And Jacob saw from Laban’s face that his attitude toward him was not the same as before. The Lord said to him, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.”
Somehow or another, you’re going to want to summarize all of the weirdness of chapter 30. The actual story is quite simple: God was blessing Jacob more than Laban, and that made Laban’s sons very jealous. There are all sorts of details behind that which make the story quite interesting, but that’s what matters. It became clear to Jacob that he could not put off leaving any longer. (Otherwise, I have to think that Jacob “the deceiver” would have stayed until he had bilked Laban of everything he had.) Once again, God used the frailties of human sinners to accomplish his purposes—Jacob now had the wealth and sons needed to start a new nation.
It’s important to point out that this is not the first time God has told Jacob to go home. He has known since at least 30:25 that he needed to go home, but he delayed. God allowed the threat to his family to grow to ensure that Jacob would not delay any longer (this is an excellent side lesson—inertia works with people: we will stay in the same situation until we realize it is more painful to stay the same than it is to change; that works for churches too). Jacob’s family was never in danger because God was protecting them, but the threat had to seem real to Jacob. This leads to an interesting discussion question: what has God had to do in your life to “get your attention” about obeying Him in some part of your life?
The statement God makes to Jacob here is both a “callback” and a “lookahead”. It certainly reminds us of God’s call to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), but what’s changed? Where God sent Abraham to a land he had never seen, God called Jacob to return home. God reiterated His promise to be with Jacob (28:15), which also points ahead to the promise Jesus made to each one of us.
Aside: Where Were Jacob's and Laban's Fields?
This is a minor detail that turns out to be rather important. When Jacob agreed to take the speckled/striped animals as his wages, Laban immediately removed all pre-existing such animals from his flocks and put them under the care of his sons on a field that was a three-day journey away from Jacob. This was a distance designed to guarantee that Jacob could not discretely manipulate those flocks (without leaving his own flocks dangerously unprotected), and also too far for an animal to wander away from one flock to another. It seems that Laban had the same folk beliefs about how to manipulate offspring that Jacob had!
We must assume that Jacob’s fields were to the south, because this is where the distance also becomes important: it gave Jacob a three-day head start over Laban’s sons when they tried to escape. They were caught at Gilead/Mizpah (on the eastern side of the Jordan River valley), but they almost made it.
Part 2: Obedience Declared (Genesis 31:4-13)
Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field where his flocks were. He said to them, “I can see from your father’s face that his attitude toward me is not the same as before, but the God of my father has been with me. You know that with all my strength I have served your father and that he has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God has not let him harm me. If he said, ‘The spotted sheep will be your wages,’ then all the sheep were born spotted. If he said, ‘The streaked sheep will be your wages,’ then all the sheep were born streaked. God has taken away your father’s herds and given them to me. “When the flocks were breeding, I saw in a dream that the streaked, spotted, and speckled males were mating with the females. In that dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Look up and see: all the males that are mating with the flocks are streaked, spotted, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you poured oil on the stone marker and made a solemn vow to me. Get up, leave this land, and return to your native land.’”
This is your obvious opportunity to go into detail about the strange things Jacob did as a breeder, but you’ll want to establish the timeline. First, point out that Jacob was pretty old by our standards when he left Canaan the first time (Isaac was so old that his eyesight and hearing were failing) and the first thing he did was work for 7 years to marry Leah. The way I read the text, Laban immediately gave Rachel in marriage, so most of the events in chapter 30 take place while Jacob is working 7 years for Rachel. We know from 31:38 that Jacob was with Laban for 20 years, which means that all of his sons (and Dinah) were born in a 13-year window. BUT I actually think it was much shorter than that (which is fine because the 4 women could have had overlapping pregnancies). Here’s why: After the birth of Joseph, Jacob asks to go home. It would make sense to me that this is not long after Jacob had finished his 7 years of service for Rachel (he was done working for someone else and ready to be his own man), and that’s when this whole breeding scheme breaks out. This scheme must have taken a number of years. Jacob essentially started from scratch, so to speak. Even with God giving him a disproportionate amount of live births, it would have taken multiple breeding cycles to give Jacob such large flocks that he could send away what he did to Esau in chapter 32 (and Jacob hints at more than a few such cycles in our verses here). All of that to say—we’re still talking about a number of years during which Jacob is still scheming.
The way I read it, Jacob really did believe (initially) that his success with his breeding techniques was due to his ingenuity. And then sometime later, I would say pretty recently before this passage, Jacob had the dream he describes here to his wives. In that dream, he realized that all of his success had been from God and not himself. And apparently that functions as the swift kick in the pants/wake-up call Jacob needed. He immediately gives full credit to God and realizes that he indeed does need to go back home. They agree, and they immediately pack up and go.
Note the importance of the location of Jacob’s fields, as well as the importance of Laban being so manipulative of Jacob that even his own daughters had turned against him. Not a good approach. Laban had clearly gotten pickier and more unreasonable of Jacob, but Jacob’s continued success was making Laban’s sons angry as they could physically watch their father’s wealth be transferred into Jacob’s flocks. Jacob’s reference to 10 wage changes could be literal, could include the Leah/Rachel thing, or could be an exaggeration. My take is it’s literal, which means Laban did even more to Jacob that we have recorded. And that’s all the more impressive that Jacob actually maintained his integrity with Laban throughout. Jacob might have been a manipulator, but he was honest in his work. There’s something to be said for that.
The point of this was to explain to his wives (who may have had loyalty to their father) that God was the one giving him the wealth; he wasn’t stealing it. It turns out that their loyalty was with him, but he needed to make sure.
Aside: How Laban Was to Blame
Laban is cast as the bad guy in this story, and for good reason—he’s the bad guy in this story. At the end of his part of the story (31:55), Laban has had his daughters turn against him, he has lost the bulk of his wealth in flocks, and he has lost the one family member who was responsible for him becoming wealthy. It’s pretty pathetic, and all of it could probably have been avoided.
From the beginning of his relationship with Jacob, Laban manipulated him. Laban saw Jacob as a tool to be used rather than a family member. Jacob reminds everyone of that on multiple occasions, so it clearly influenced him. But Laban was so bald-faced about it that even his daughters could not defend him, and so they left willingly with Jacob.
How could things have been different? The Bible is filled with stories of people who were kind of Abraham’s descendants that God blessed, so I think it’s as simple as “Laban respects Jacob; Jacob leaves Laban with God’s blessing”. In every scenario, Rachel would have gone with Jacob, but Leah would probably have stayed home. In that scenario, the bulk of Laban’s flocks would have stayed with him (and I have to think that Laban’s sons would have a better image of their dad).
That’s not how it worked out, and it was a part of God’s design that way. But this is a good character lesson for each one of us who might treat our employees, younger family members, or whoever as tools to be manipulated. Eventually, that person gets pushed too far, and it could cost us a whole lot when they decide to leave.
Part 3: Obedience Affirmed (Genesis 31:14-16)
Then Rachel and Leah answered him, “Do we have any portion or inheritance in our father’s family? Are we not regarded by him as outsiders? For he has sold us and has certainly spent our purchase price. In fact, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. So do whatever God has said to you called childless.”
Bitter obedience really isn’t what God wants from us, and that seems to be what Leah and Rachel are doing here. They’re going with Jacob because they’re fed up with their family. (That works to a point, but eventually they have to have their own come-to-Jesus moment. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t really tell us anything about their spiritual journey.) In those days, the daughters really didn’t get much compared to the sons because their husband was supposed to provide for them. And in the event that the husband died, he was supposed to have paid a “bride-price” to the father (the opposite of a dowry) to support the now-widow. Well, Leah and Rachel knew that Jacob’s bride-price (his years of labor) had already been spent, and in fact it had already come back to Jacob! So they literally had nothing coming to them from their father. They had absolutely no reason to stay. (If you want to make a point of how irresponsible spending can make family members upset, this is a good illustration.)
The long and short of this is that Jacob went to his wives with his plan to return to Canaan, not knowing if they would be willing to leave their father and home. He gave a reasonable defense of his decision, and they accepted it and chose to go with him. The cynic in me cannot help but notice that the reason they agree has little to do with God’s command and much to do with their anger towards Laban. But as I’ve said, God can turn a bad motive into a good outcome. The only person who is hurt by our bad motive is our self.
You can end with this discussion: Jacob decides that the best thing to do is run away secretly. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) How often is that the right response to a situation? Rarely (in this case, we learn that God intervened to protect Jacob, so he probably was right in his reasoning). We all can be tempted to run away from our problems. (Note the irony that often it means running away from God’s call in our lives!) Ask your group for other ways Jacob could have handled his decision. What would he have needed to do to protect himself and his family in those circumstances? When you have needed to “get out”, what have you done? How has God helped you?
Aside: The Sermon on the Mount
I’ve heard people promote the “prosperity gospel” through the Patriarchs: “look at how God provided Jacob with such large flocks—He wanted Jacob to be wealthy!” (They tend to overlook the years of hard work Jacob put in for those (under very difficult working and family conditions).) How does this line up with Jesus’ command that we should pray for “our daily bread”? Well, it’s tougher for us to see this today in our global economy, but Jacob really did need all of those flocks for survival. They lived in an unpredictable world where one bad drought could wipe them all out (and remember that famine is indeed what drove Jacob’s family to Egypt in the first place!). As far as we can tell, the only “high living” Jacob did was the fancy coat he gave to Joseph, and we all know how that turned out. Jacob may have been wealthy by that day’s standards, but it was wealth he would need to preserve his family through difficult days ahead. God gives us what we need for today, but let’s not forget that He might also be giving us what we need for tomorrow.
Closing Thoughts: How Long before Home becomes Home?
I really thought I’d be able to find some sort of study or poll on how long it took people to feel like their new home was “home”. I haven’t found that poll yet, and I think the reason is it’s a whole lot harder to determine than I realized. How does anyone “know” that where they’re living is “home”? It’s all just a state of mind/opinion.
I read through a number of house sites in which the majority of people said it took 2-3 months for a house to feel like a home. But they were really just talking about the routine of knowing where everything was in the kitchen, having personal items on the wall, etc.
I read through a number of job sites in which the majority of people said it took 2-3 years for a city to feel like home. They were talking about knowing people, knowing where things were, having a social life, understanding the local culture, etc.
But then I also read through a number of blogs in which some people said they never truly felt “home” in a place. One lady said she lived in Switzerland for 7 years without feeling like a visitor (she was from Texas). One lady said she had lived all over the country, but upon moving to Wyoming immediately felt at home unlike any other place she had lived. One person said she felt at home in London the moment she got off the plane. One person said he didn’t feel at home in New York for many years.
From reading all of that, I tend to think that “home” is really about personal relationships. When you have friends somewhere, they make a place like home. Then it’s just a matter of how long you stay. My takeaway from that? As a church, it’s very, very important for us to help new community members find friends to make Thomson like home.