Since When is Jacob Egalitarian?

Laban & Jacob make a covenant together, Genesis 31:44-54; illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries
Laban & Jacob make a covenant together, Genesis 31:44-54; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries

Why does Yaakov (Jacob) ask his wives for permission to leave the house of Lavan? Avraham brings Sarah from Charan, to Egypt, to Grar, etc. without ever asking her permission. Similarly, Yitzchak brings Rivka to Grar. Yaakov later brings his family from Canaan to Egypt without consulting his wives. Moshe leaves Midian without conferring with Tziporah? Why does Yaakov specifically ask his wives for permission now to leave the house of Lavan? And why only Leah and Rachel?

Searching for an answer to this question leaves the reader without much help from the text itself. The matrimonial dialogue (Bereshit 31:4-16) explains the dilemma but not the rationale for his remarkably egalitarian motivation. Interestingly, this question is seemingly neglected by most modern and traditional commentators. 

Modern society has a profoundly greater egalitarian foundation than was present in the ancient world. Women were a special category of property to be sold by their father and owned by their husband. Remnants of this narrative may exist in the far corners of the third world, but enlightened society is abhorred by such misogyny in even the most traditional and antiquated segments of the modern world. This explains why the question at hand would never be asked by a modern reader. Why wouldn’t Yaakov ask his wives for permission? It is only when placed in the historical context of how exceptional this request is for the time, as well as the body of literature, that it harkens the sensitive reader to the true issue. 

However, even commentaries from earlier times did not seem to be bothered by this question despite lived during times arguably far less egalitarian and closer in kind to ancient mesopotamia than the post-enlightenment West. Most commentators explain only the feelings of Leah and Rachel without answering the underlying question of why they were involved in the first place. Ohr Hachaim 31:5 interpreted Yaakov’s intention as merely to obtain an insight of Lavan’s aggressiveness since they were his daughters. Sforno 31:14 implies the permission was compelled out of concern his wives would resist leaving their family home. Something was missing from their perspective that disguised this question and obscured the answer. 

Disparity in a text often derives from an author-reader discontinuity. The reader must have the same perspective as the author for a common understanding to be reached. If the reader lacks information the author assumed, or a cultural perspective absent from the reader’s time and place, then the reader will find relevant exchanges puzzling. 

What most modern readers lack, as well as reader from earlier times, was the anthropological and legal knowledge we now possess of ancient Mesopotamia discovered over the past one hundred years that explains the terrifying reality of slaves. A reality that was keenly felt by Yaakov and his wives as they reveal in their dialogue. First Yaakov had to surreptitiously converse with his wives far off in the field away from witnesses (31:4). Rachel and Leah viewed themselves as “foreigners” to their father, having been “sold” by him; language akin to slaves (31:15). More to this point, Lavan considered Yaakov an indentured servant, similar to the later biblical concept of an eved ivri. As such, he could grant such a slave a wife and upon redemption the wife and children would remain the property of the owner (Shemot 21:4), something Lavan himself remarks noting that he owns everything in Yaakov’s possession including the people (Bereshit 31:43) . This is also why in 31:20, the text describes Yaakov’s departure with his family as ‘stealing’, since he is not simply running away with his family, rather he is taking with him the possessions of someone else. 

To properly understand Yaacov’s fear and motivation to involve his wives’ prior to embarking on this dangerous escape, one must understand ancient Mesopotamian slave law. For example, the code of Hammurabi is extremely severe in its treatment of anyone who helps a slave escape, even if that person were a high ranking citizen (code 15). Similarly, possession of a slave without the ability to prove ownership is tantamount to theft and likewise punishable (The Laws of Eshnunna – 40). 

Furthermore, there is great legal incentive for people to pursue and return runaway slaves, offering significant bounties to anyone who returns a slave to his master with bounties increasing based on the distance from the native land (code of Hammurabi 17 and Hittite Laws Tablet I 22-23). This might explain the need for a special covenant to be made between Yaakov and Lavan demarcating a specific boundary between them beyond which Lavan could no longer harm Yaakov (31:44-54). 

Additionally, if a woman of a free man marries a slave then she could lose all her possessions back to the master of her husband (code of Hammurabi 176). This is ultimately why Yaakov had to ask Rachel and Leah for their permission because should they be caught the consequences would be felt by them all, with Rachel and Leah specifically losing their legal rights to their property back to their father. This is also why only Rachel and Leah are engaged in this dialogue as Bilha and Zilpa are not daughters of freemen as they were already slaves in the house of Lavan when they were gifted to Rachel and Leah, respectively (29:24 and 29:29). 

This is not a normative family decision to be made unilaterally by a patriarch. He is asking his previously free wives to place their lives and property at risk by fleeing from his master. This also reiterates the reason why Rachel was so desperate to steal the terafim at that moment (see Why did Rachel steal the terafim?).

About the Author
Jonathan is a physician with interests in science, philosophy and religion, with special focus on skeptical thinking and critical analysis.
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