Monday, December 30, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 7)

While the deal that he has struck with Jacob, together with his actions, take on the appearance of a desire on Laban’s behalf to keep Jacob working for him indefinitely, it could also be understood as an effort by Laban to cause Jacob to rebel and leave.  Understood from this angle, one could consider the possibility that Laban is striking a deal with Jacob that will theoretically enable him to fund the acquisition of his wives and children, while Laban takes steps to ensure that Jacob, while attempting to do so under the terms that he himself has proposed, will be unable to accomplish this goal.  It is conceivable that in Laban’s mind, this will cause Jacob to take an extreme action.  Jacob will either come to realize that his efforts will be encumbered in futility, and will take it upon himself to leave---leaving his wives and children behind.  Alternately, Jacob will attempt to leave, taking with him wives and children that still, financially, belong to Laban. 

If the first option is chosen, then Laban will have gained himself women and children (which will result in greater wealth and honor).  If the second option is chosen, then Laban will have a basis upon which to take Jacob’s wives and children by force, especially if it is understood that Jacob, by leaving with his wives and children while his debt is still unpaid, has presented a grave challenge to Laban’s honor---a challenge that would be begging to be met by force. 

Something like this can be seen in the thirty-first chapter of Genesis.  When Jacob does indeed leave, he is pursued by Laban.  When Laban questions Jacob about his abrupt departure, Jacob responds by saying “I left secretly because I was afraid!  I thought you might take your daughters away from me by force” (31:31).  Either way, with his actions it seems clear that Laban actually desires to rid himself of Jacob.  With Jacob’s sons coming of age, Jacob, in Laban’s eyes, has outlived his usefulness.  Jacob’s sons can now do the work that their father had performed, and do so on a more grand scale.  If Laban can successfully remove Jacob from the picture, and because it appears that they are still his property, then they can do that work for Laban, rather than for Jacob. 

Additionally and importantly, Jacob’s continued presence with Laban constitutes a threat to Laban’s authority and his honor.  If one understands that honor is a limited good, and that a rise in the honor possessed by one individual would automatically mean the diminishing of the honor that is possessed by another individual, then at least part of Laban’s motivations can be easily comprehended.  Jacob however, in spite of all of these machinations, is undeterred.  He does not acquiesce to the poor treatment and depart.  He effectively counters Laban’s plans.  Through careful breeding practices, Jacob accomplishes what it is that he set out to accomplish, becoming “extremely prosperous.  He owned large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys” (30:43). 

To make this point, chapter thirty-one opens with a report on the disposition of Laban’s sons towards Jacob.  There it is reported that “Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were complaining, ‘Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father!  He has gotten rich at our father’s expense!” (31:1).  Bear in mind that the honor competition is also at play here.  Jacob’s obtaining of riches is owing to the fact that, in line with the interesting breeding practices that were employed by Jacob even after Laban had attempted to undermine he and Jacob’s arrangement, “the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob” (30:42b).  Clearly, Laban was well aware what had happened.  Though he had attempted to force Jacob to depart, Jacob had gotten the upper hand.  Now, with the words that were on the lips of his sons, it is clear that Laban’s honor had been diminished.  Little wonder then, that “When Jacob saw Laban’s face, he could tell his attitude toward him had changed” (31:2). 

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