Bereshit Thirty-One: Dealing with the In-Laws

Picking up where we left off, Jacob has left with his wives, children, and possessions. Laban’s sons tell their father, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s; and of that which was our father’s he has gotten all this wealth (Genesis 31:1).” We are told that Laban’s attitude towards Jacob has now changed, and is no longer like it was before. God has commanded Jacob to return to the land of his fathers, and Jacob tells his wives, Leah and Rachel, of the situation: their father has changed in his attitude, and has been dishonest in paying Jacob his wages for his years of labor.

They respond, “Is there not any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God has said to you, do (Genesis 31:14-16).” Rachel and Leah make a choice to pledge their loyalty to their shared husband, rather than to their father. They ally themselves with Jacob, and leave with him. As an act of defiance before leaving, Rachel also takes her father’s household gods [teraphim] before they flee. They leave in secret, without telling Laban, and it’s only on the third day that he finds out, and begins to pursue them.

Laban confronts Jacob, saying “What have you done, that you have outwitted me, and carried away my daughters as though captives of the sword? Where did you flee secretly, and outwit me; and did not tell me, that I might have sent you away with joy and songs, with tabret and with harp; and did not suffer me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly (Genesis 31:26-28).” The final part of the confrontation is Laban accusing Jacob of stealing the household gods. However, Jacob didn’t know that Rachel had taken the gods, and tells Laban that they aren’t there, but he can search for them as proof. Laban begins to search the camp.

“Now Rachel had taken the teraphim, and put them in the saddle of the camel, and sat upon them. And Laban felt about all the tent, but found them not. And she said to her father ‘Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise up before you; for the manner of women is upon me.’ And he searched, but found not the teraphim (Genesis 31:34-35).”

This is a very weird exchange, to say the least. Why did Rachel take the teraphim? Is it possible that while Jacob had accepted the God of Abraham, Rachel was still a polytheist? Was it to spite her father, who hadn’t given her and her son their fair share of an inheritance? In The Red Tent, the daughters of Laban continue to practice Near Eastern folk religion throughout their lives, leaving the God of Tanakh largely up to Jacob and their sons. There is a beauty in the feminine rituals that Anita Diamant describes in her midrash, including this scene, but without those interpretations, this story alone is disconnected from our understanding of the matriarchs.

Eventually, Jacob and Laban appear to reconcile, and build an altar to mark the occasion. Once again, Jacob seems to be continuing forward on his journey towards becoming a patriarch in his own right, leaving both his father and his father-in-law behind and moving towards a future as his own man.

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