Scammers and conmen. The reason hardly any of us pick up our phones anymore if we don’t recognize the number. Its the reason that a lot of us have spam folders in our email that keep growing and growing. Some of us work for people like this - bosses who change job descriptions or hours on us, or promise promotions and raises that never come. Some of us are married to them. Some of us are them.
Jacob and Laban were like two professional boxers. Heavyweights in the world of scams and cons. In this corner we have Jacob, the heel grabber, jockeying for position. Here he is scamming his brother Esau into selling his birthright for a pot of stew. Here he is posing as Esau to deceive his father and steal his blessing. He had quite a resume before he encountered Laban, but in Laban, he had met his match - his equal in equivocation, his competitor in con. Laban was no amateur. Jacob fell in love with his younger daughter and pledged to serve Laban for seven years for her. Well, Laban perceived Jacob’s infatuation with Rachel as weakness and gave him the surprise of his life by substituting his older daughter, Leah, on the wedding night. In doing so he was able to manipulate Jacob into working fro him seven more years. During which Jacob’s family has grown, with at least 12 sons and daughters born to him. And that’s where we pick up the story in Genesis 29:25: “As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.” If the wedding night switch was Round #1 between these two professional conmen, we’ve got another few rounds to go.
Round #2: Laban Tries to Swindle Jacob Again
So Jacob comes to Laban and says, “Let me go back home. Give me my wives and kids, I’m out.” In the Hebrew, It is not a question, its a command, and a very direct, even impolite one at that. So from the first verse in this chapter, we see that this is not some nice loving family, but still adversaries. Laban, of course, doesn’t want Jacob to leave. In the 14 years Jacob has tended his flocks, for nothing more than his daughters’ hands in marriage, Laban has become a rich man. And so Laban puts on the veneer of formal politeness, “If I have found favour in your sight, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you. 28 Name your wages, and I will give it.” Laban is trying to butter Jacob up - because he wants him to stay. There’s a hard to translate phrase here: “I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you”. The first part could suggest some sort of occult practice, or it simply could mean, “I’ve learned by observation and experience”. In any way, Laban goes a little too far in his flattery, he admits a little too much when he suggests that he has indeed been blessed by Jacob’s labour. And Jacob pounces on his mistake: in verse 29 Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. [you’ve admitted it yourself] 30 For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?” And so Laban is trapped. He began his negotiation by admitting Jacob’s value to him - not a good place to start. And so he allows Jacob to begin the negotiations and to propose his own wages.
And so Jacob’s proposal, as best as I can understand it, is this. Jacob will divide Laban’s flock into two. Laban’s flock will have all the pure animals - the white sheep and the black goats - and Jacob’s flock will have all the blemished animals - the speckled and spotted sheep and goats and black sheep. Sheep historians estimate Jacob is requesting about 10% of Laban’s flock. So my understanding is that Jacob is asking for his own little flock, that he can tend as he is also tending Laban’s sheep, and maybe he’ll work another year or two so his flock can get built up a little, and he’ll leave at that point. Basically, Jacob is asking for Laban to give him the speckled flocks as his wages and turning in his two-week’s notice.
Laban immediately agrees to Jacob’s proposal, but this is Laban that we are talking about, and he can’t help himself. Look at verse 35
35 But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons. 36 And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock.
Whoa. So before Jacob can take his wages, Laban goes and removes the blemished animals and had his sons hide them far away. So when Jacob goes out to the flock that day to separate Laban’s flock and take the blemished animals as his wages, behold! The entire flock was pure. the entire flock was Laban’s. Jacob has nothing for himself. Laban has swindled him again. And Laban probably thought that he had complete victory over Jacob. Because even the ancients, though they did not understand modern genetics, they knew that white sheep gave you white sheep and black sheep gave you black. So Laban probably thought that by leaving Jacob all the white sheep, he would never be able to leave. Laban wins Round #2.
Round #3 Jacob Fleeces Laban’s Sheep
But Jacob gets up and goes to work for Laban. And Jacob’s not about to let Laban win. It’s a battle of wits here, deceiver vs. deceiver, Loki vs. Loki. And so Jacob tries to manipulate the breeding practices of the flock in numerous different ways, so that in the end his flocks are not only larger than Laban’s, but are all much stronger and healthier as well. Now, none of the techniques that Jacob uses seem to be scientifically valid. Sheep don’t breed spotted sheep because they are looking at a spotted stick any more than chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows. However, if you studied genetics in high school, that just as two brown eyed parents can have a blue-eyed daughter, two white sheep can make a black. And if the sheep happened to be looking at a black stick when they were mating, it would be pretty difficult to separate correlation from causation. Also, some of Jacob’s techniques may have actually worked, just not for the reasons that he thought they were working. Jacob was in fact separating the flock and selectively breeding them. In any case, Jacob’s intent has gone beyond his original proposal to Laban. His original proposal was to separate the flocks into two and raise them side by side so both flocks prospered. But after Laban acted in bad faith, Jacob now wanted to bleed Laban dry. And that’s exactly what happened:
43 Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys. Gen. 31:1 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” 2 And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before.
Yeah - you think? Jacob has soundly taken Round #3
Round #4: Jacob Turns His Wives Against Laban
About the time Jacob notices Laban’s growing disfavour, the Lord intervenes.
3 Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”
So the Lord gives Jacob a direct command to return to Canaan. Notice that this intervention by the Lord occurs after Jacob has become rich, after all of the episodes with the flocks have finished. You’ll see why I mention that in a second.
Gen. 31:4 So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was
Again, the game is not over with Laban. Jacob calls his wives out to meet with him where Laban won’t be looking for them. And now, Jacob must convince his wives that it is time to leave. So here is what he tells them. First, he contrasts Laban’s attitude toward Jacob with God’s attitude toward him: 5 “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me.
Next, he compares his own honour in working for Laban with Laban’s dishonourable treatment of himself: 6 You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times.
It’s pretty clear that Jacob is trying to present himself in the best possible light to convince his wives what a rotten guy their father is, and how poorly he has treated Jacob, the suffering shepherd. Yet Jacob has had a defender:
But God did not permit him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. 9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10 In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’”
Now, this passage has baffled readers and scholars for literally millennia. Jacob is attributing all of his success in breeding the sheep to God’s miraculous intervention. There is a complete absence of any mention here of Jacob’s manipulations. Jacob then tells of a couple of visions that he has received in which God tells him that He is the one who is taking away the livestock of his father - the word in verse 9 is even more dramatic - “rescuing” the livestock from Laban. Now this is very suspicious, you might think. And I’d agree with you. At the beginning of the chapter Moses narrated to us that the Lord had told him to return to his home, but these other visions Jacob is speaking of are nowhere record in Scripture. I can’t think of any other time in Genesis that a person tells of visions like this, but that the narrator doesn’t confirm that the visions happened. Also, Jacob has proven himself not to be the most reliable source of information. And so I can see two options here: either, the Lord did indeed reveal to Jacob that he was the one transferring wealth from Laban to Jacob, and Jacob is reporting to his wives the actual cause, or Jacob is hiding the truth of his manipulations from his wives and inventing stories in order to persuade them to leave as soon as possible.
In any case, Jacob is convincing. Rachel and Leah are convinced.
14 Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16 All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.”
In fact they are so convinced that they leave immediately, right at that moment. Since Laban is away shearing his sheep, Rachel sneaks in and even takes the Laban’s household idols. Now we don’t exactly know why, but some think that she was trying to bring some sort of fourth harm of Laban by doing so. Take his “good-luck charm” away so to speak. And they then run away, no good-byes, gaining a three day lead on Laban, while he is still out in the fields. And Moses summary and conclusion of this round is found in verse 20:
20 And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee.
The word “tricked” is literally, “stole the heart of”, RIPPED HIS HEART OUT. Between Rachel’s theft of his idols and Jacob’s treachery, they fleeced Laban for everything he had. Jacob has prevailed. He is the arch-deceiver, and has finally gained the upper hand against Laban.
- We Are All Jacob and Laban: This world is filled with with schemers and deceivers trying to take advantage of each other and jostle for positions and possessions.
Eccles 7:29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
- We Seek Warped Justice: Our natural tendency is when we encounter a deceiver is to outwit them and not let them get the best of us. We all act like Jacob in that way.
- We Are Unreliable Narrators: also omit details and stretch the truth trying to get others to see things our way, against our adversaries.
- Winning Always Costs Something: Our deception and desire to win leads to deterioration and destruction of relationship, or worse.
- Cheaters Sometimes Win: Success is not an ultimate indicator that we have played the game fairly, or that our techniques were better than our opponents or competitors. Success is not an indicator of God’s approval of our actions.
For all Jacob did wrong, and whether he really believed it or not, he was right about one thing: God was with him. When he said to his wives, “But the God of my father has been with me.” We know, that even thought he may have been trying to manipulate them, he was in fact speaking the truth. God had been with him, and had blessed him and was actually the source of his prosperity. But we don’t know this through any of Jacob’s actions or suspect words or prosperity. We know this is true because we’ve been following the storyline of the Bible and we have been told from our first introduction to Jacob, that God has chosen this heel-grabber, to set his name upon him, and to continue in the line of the blessings of Abraham. God has made it clear that he will be with Jacob, even though Jacob is the champion deceiver.
Now why would God be with a schemer like that? That’s the question of the Bible, isn’t it? Why would God choose a liar like Jacob, or a murderer like Moses, or an adulterer like David, or a persecutor like Paul?
1Tim. 1:15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Jacob’s story is not over. God is not done with him yet.