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Laban: A tragedy of loss

No other father in the Bible cares about his daughters enough to take a stand to protect them, even from their husband, even as they are running away from him
'Laban is looking for idols,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, in Udine, Italy. Palazzo Patriarcale - Galleria del Tiepolo. (Wikipedia)
'Laban is looking for idols,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, in Udine, Italy. Palazzo Patriarcale - Galleria del Tiepolo. (Wikipedia)

In a previous blog post and elsewhere, I have addressed the demonization of Laban. I wrote how our tradition relates to Laban as a swindler (ramai) and villain, a play on his being an Aramean (arami). This week I want to highlight the fact that Laban is an honorable person (Gen. 31:43-52) — in contrast to the writer of this recent interpretation of the parsha, who answers “yes” to the question whether Laban was really worse than Pharaoh. For Laban looks after the interests of his daughters, even if they do not appreciate him. I construe Laban as a tragic figure, one who suffered personal loss, and who wished to keep his family together. I do not read him in the harsh light that our tradition does.

We first met Laban in last week’s parsha, when the servant came to take away his beloved sister. He tried to keep her with them for a long goodbye:

The servant … gave presents to her brother and her mother… [and] he said, “Give me leave to go to my master.” But her brother and her mother said, “Let the maiden remain with us some 10 days; then you may go.” He said to them, “Do not delay me…And they said, “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” They called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will.” So they sent off their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads…” (Genesis 24: 50-61).

Thus, Rebekah was whisked away, never to be seen again by her family. Then suddenly in this week’s parsha some 20 years later, Rebekah’s son comes to Laban’s home in Haran. He is penniless, a runaway; he doesn’t bring jewelry, he is fleeing his home. This time, Laban’s youngest daughter Rachel brings him home with stars in her eyes and a story to tell about how with one hand he lifted up the stone from the well. Jacob learns from the shepherds gathered at a well that Laban lives in the neighborhood. They point out to him Laban’s daughter:

“There is his daughter Rachel…” While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house. He told Laban all that had happened, and Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh” (Genesis 29: 1-14).

Laban is genuinely glad to see his beloved sister’s son, embraces him, kisses him, takes a good look at him and sees the family resemblance; he too falls in love with the idea of having Rebekah’s son live with him. Without DNA confirmation, he recognizes that Jacob is his mishpacha, “my bone and flesh.” The next thing, perhaps a little too fast for Laban, his youngest daughter and Jacob want to get married. This is too much for him; it’s almost incestual, and what about Leah, the older daughter? He cannot let the younger one marry before the older. So Uncle Laban does something not very nice, from the point of view of his nephew Jacob, who is besotted with Rachel and can hardly wait to get in bed with her.

 When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her… When morning came, there was Leah! (Genesis 29: 23).

Laban switches the daughters. Since in those days, daughters were veiled, Jacob could not tell the difference, and probably all women were alike to him, so even in bed, he didn’t know with whom he was sleeping. Strange, from a man who was so in love, not to know that it was not the beloved woman with whom he was sleeping. Clearly, the two sisters were in this together with their father, as a famous midrash is clear to point out:

When Laban’s associates were bringing Leah up to the wedding canopy to marry Jacob, Rachel thought: Now my sister will be humiliated when Jacob discovers that she is the one marrying him. Therefore, Rachel gave the signs to Leah. And this is as it is written: “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah” (Genesis 29:25). This verse is difficult, as by inference, should one derive that until now she was not Leah? Rather, through the signs that Jacob gave to Rachel and that she gave to Leah, he did not know it was she until that moment (BT Bava Batra 123a).

Of course, in the light of day, when Jacob sees Leah, he yells, Oy Gevalt: “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?”…. And that’s when Laban says quite clearly:

It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years (Genesis 29:26-27).

From a father’s viewpoint and protector of his elder daughter, he is in the right. Jacob, of course doesn’t see it that way. They are off on the wrong foot from the very start, and many years later, Jacob will throw this back at Laban, despite, the deal they make for Jacob to get his bride a week later: “He waited out the bridal week of the one, and then gave him his daughter Rachel as wife.” He JUST will have to work a few more years in Laban’s fields to pay the bride price.

We now skip over the part where the two sisters, daughters of Laban, and the two slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah, given to them by their father vie with each other over who gets to sleep with Jacob and the 10 sons and one daughter who are born to all three of them (Rachel being barren). Finally, Rachel has her son Joseph and Jacob suddenly remembers he has a homeland:

After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you.” But Laban said to him, “If you will indulge me, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your account.” And he continued, “Name the wages due from me, and I will pay you.” But he said, “You know well how I have served you and how your livestock has fared with me. For the little you had before I came has grown to much, since the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. And now, when shall I make provision for my own household?” (vs 25-30)

Jacob is not happy that Laban is stalling him. Is it only because Laban doesn’t want to lose the wage-earner he had, who has blessed him with possibly free labor for so many years? Or is it also that he loves his family and is appalled that Jacob wants to leave and take his daughters and grandchildren away from him? In true Middle Eastern fashion, they start bargaining. As a result of the new deal he makes, Jacob “grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and asses.”

So having made his fortune, it’s time to leave; but there is some drama beforehand:

Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.” Jacob also saw that Laban’s manner toward him was not as it had been in the past.

Of course not, Jacob wants to leave and Laban is now very nervous about the fact that Jacob now has the means to leave. Laban at this point has had it with their grumbling and the final straw that breaks the camel’s back is when Jacob figures out (with God’s help) how to build up his cattle and become independently wealthy. With God’s reassurance that He has his back, Jacob invites Rachel and Leah to discuss their sad situation. He presents his side of the story and also God’s backing. Instead of saying how sorry they are, and maybe there can be some compromise, so that they will not have to leave their elderly father, they immediately recall only the negative sides of Laban:

Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, “Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you” (vs 14-16).

They have selective memory about how Laban has treated them. Nowhere does it say that he sold them and used up their purchase price. If anything, he was generous and gave them each their own slave to do with as they pleased — and they did, forcing each one to have children with Jacob. Such a lack of gratitude! With the backing now of both his wives and his God, and without so much as a goodbye and thank you to the father-in-law who took him in twenty years ago, when he was a penniless destitute relative:

Jacob put his children and wives on camels; and he drove off all his livestock and all the wealth that he had amassed, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols. Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing, and fled with all that he had (vs 17-21).

Laban of course is upset — Jacob is going to walk off with his two daughters and the two slave women he gave them and his 11 grandchildren (12, if you count the girl). He will never see them again. And they also sneak off, without saying goodbye. So, of course, he chases them. Was he planning to do them harm? God doesn’t want to take any chances: “God appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.’” Also, all of a sudden, note that Laban is described as an Aramean. Does that mean it is justified to treat him in such a manner? And let’s not forget that Rachel and Leah are Arameans and the grandchildren (our forefathers) are half-Aramean.

Whatever God says to him works; but there is one catch. Unbeknownst to anyone, Rachel has stolen her father’s household gods (terafim) and hidden them. What follows then is a fruitless search, since Rachel is sitting on a camel seat, claiming to be menstruating and Laban who loves Rachel (and surely knows that she is a sneak; after all, he raised her) accepts her explanation and doesn’t search her. It is instructive that Rashi, basing himself on a midrash in Genesis Rabbah 74:9 writes “In consequence of this curse, Rachel died on the journey.” Thus, Rachel dies in childbirth because Jacob cursed the one who stole the terafim (not knowing of course that it was Rachel). Why does she steal these terafim? Does she believe these household Gods will protect her? Does she want some souvenir to remind her of her beloved Aramean homeland and ancestry?

When Laban catches up to them, he makes this very poignant speech: 

And Laban said to Jacob, “What did you mean by stealing my heart (tignov et levavi) and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre. You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-by! It was a foolish thing for you to do. I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.’ Very well, you had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:26-30).

He shows some understanding of Jacob’s longing for his fatherland, but points out that the sneaking out in secrecy, rather than in the open smacks of ingratitude. He would rather not believe that his daughters are complicit in this and is concerned about their welfare. They are after all, dear to Laban’s “heart.” Like any good father, he fears with good reason that they may have gone unwillingly (carried off like captives). The fact that he was not given a chance to kiss his family goodbye confirms this suspicion. He makes it clear that HE is not the one who will harm them.

There still is the one matter of the household gods that he thinks they have stolen. After Laban searches and does not find the terafim, Jacob delivers a long-impassioned speech about how badly he was ill-treated. Jacob always complains; he is never in the wrong, even when he is.

It is ironic that even though Rachel betrays her father’s trust, he still cares about her and Leah, in the very moment that they are running away from him. I do not know of any father in the Bible who cares about his daughters and says as much to their husband. If we take a quick look at other biblical fathers, including Jacob, we can see that they are indifferent to their daughters’ plights. Most biblical fathers could not care less what happens to their daughters:

  • Dinah is raped and Jacob is silent (Genesis 34).
  • Saul uses his daughters Michal and Meirav as bribes to prospective husbands, who will stand up to the Philistines (1 Samuel 18).
  • David is complicit when his son Amnon rapes his daughter/sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13).
  • And finally, Jethro, brings Tzipporah and his two grandsons back to Moses, and unceremoniously dumps them in the Israelite camp (Exodus 18).
  • And let’s not forget Lot, who has incestual relations with his daughters (Genesis 19).

Of all the fathers in the Bible, only Laban cares about his daughters and seems aware of what can potentially happen to daughters when they leave the protection of their father’s home to go off with a man. He warns Jacob that he will haunt him if he doesn’t behave properly:

Then Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” ….“May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other. If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughtersthough no one else be about, remember, God Himself will be witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:43-51).

And the next morning, Laban gets up early and kisses his grandsons and daughters and blesses them and then returns home (vs.55) presumably to weep over his losses.

Perhaps Laban’s tragedy was that he saw Jacob as a substitute for his sister; he saw him as a son, or a brother figure, but not as a son-in-law. He is after all his own flesh and blood and not merely a relationship by marriage. Only at the end is Laban described as the Aramean. When he allows his children and grandchildren to leave, he transfers his ownership of his daughters from his protective sphere as father to Jacob as husband. Laban was a good father who had his daughters’ interests in mind, hence his final words. He wanted to hold on to Jacob and his daughters. They replaced his loss of his beloved sister Rebecca. He tried, but lost and (with a little bit of nudging from God) ultimately let go with dignity.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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