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B'resheet/Genesis 29:13b-14a And he recounted all these things to Laban. And Laban said to him, "Nevertheless, you are my bone and my flesh."
The opening word of our text (which spans two verses in the full Hebrew Bible) is the verb , the Pi'el 3ms prefix form of the root , "to number, count, recount, relate, tell" (Davidson). This is the root from which we get the noun , a scribe, and , a scroll or letter. This implies more than just a casual summary; Ya'akov had to give Laban a detailed account of exactly who he was and why he was now paying Laban and his family a visit. But how much did he tell him and what exactly did Laban's reply mean? Nahum Sarna says that, "it is hardly credible that Ya'akov reported that he had cheated his own brother and father. More likely, he told how his parents had sent him to find a wife from among his kinsfolk." Sarna then suggests that Laban accepted Ya'akov because "recognition of kinship involved formal obligations of solidarity and determined social behaviour. It meant acceptance of Ya'akov as a member of Laban's household."Targum Onkelos seems to support that idea, changing the Hebrew , my bone, to the Aramaic , my kinsman, to make the biblical metaphor explicit.
Other Jewish commentators are less charitable both to the nephew and the uncle. TheRashbam tells us that "all that had happened" meant simply that "his father and mother had sent him to his family." Ibn Ezra disagrees, preferring, "all these things, referring to the things in the blessing his father had given him." The Bekhor Shor thinks that Ya'akov decided he needed to take a calculated risk so told Laban, "how he had got the birthright and the blessing to make it appear that he deserved one of Laban's daughters." Ovadiah Sforno wants Ya'akov to assure Laban that he hadn't just come for a free holiday; "that he had not come to him for a livelihood, but to escape from his brother and live with him (Laban), at the behest of his mother." Rashi offers yet another twist on Ya'akov's words, "that he came only under duress from his brother, and that they took his money from him." Rashi's last comment leads on to another series of comments.
Noting that just before our text the Torah records that "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" (B'resheet 29:13, NJPS), the rabbis comment that Laban remembered how much wealth Avraham's servant had brought with him and given to Rivkah's family when he came to choose a bride for Yitz'khak. This is why, they say, Laban 'ran' out to meet Yitz'khak's son. Seeing no camels or travel pack in which wealth might be carried, he embraced him to see if his clothes chinked with the sound of gold coins and then kissed him to see if he had pearls in his mouth (B'resheet Rabbah 70:13).Nechama Leibowitz sums up: "Expecting wealth such as Avraham's servant brought when coming to find Rivkah, Laban took Ya'akov disappointedly into his house. Characteristic of human nature is this disappointed groan of the one who thought 'peradventure he has brought gold pieces' who finds nothing more rewarding than the good deed of hospitality, a feeling vividly expressed in the Hebrew qualifying word that slips out of Laban's mouth." Rashi doesn't want to let Laban off that lightly, commenting, "'Now, I have no reason to bring you into the house - since you have nothing in your hand. Nevertheless, because of family relationship, I will care for you a whole month.' And so he did. But even that was not without charge, for he would graze his flocks." Chizkuni is more dismissive, putting this in Laban's mouth: "I should distance myself from you, even as you distanced yourself from your relatives when you deceived your brother, but since you are my kinsman, I will not."
One last set of comments finishes our exploration of the Jewish commentators. The Rashbam ambiguously comments, "My bone and my flesh? You did right to come to me." This could still be the kindly kinsman speaking, but Gunther Plaut thinks not: "like my very self." What does this mean? Has Laban seen through Ya'akov's story to discern how badly he misbehaved, so is really saying: "you are just like me, that's the sort of thing I would have done"? Abravanel is convinced, having Laban say, "Even though you and Esau are both Rivka's sons, having heard your story I can say that you are truly my bone and flesh - not he." Even though Esau might be a bit of a boor - a few seconds short on the uptake and something of a slave to his stomach - Ya'akov's cunning and deceit are right out of Laban's mould, as the following chapters and the next twenty years make clear. Ya'akov will be palmed off with Laban's older daughter when he thinks he has married the younger one and will then work his socks off as a shepherd night and day while his wages are constantly changed.
All this discussion leads us to compare ourselves with Ya'akov and Laban. In the first place, both nephew and uncle communicate selectively. They do not say everything that could be said, but neither do they necessarily say everything that ought to be said. Ya'akov probably relates a carefully chosen subset of his story to account for his presence in Padan Aram, editing out or bowdlerising anything harmful, that might damage his reception in Laban's household or upset his prospects with Rachel, Laban's younger daughter, with whom he already seems somewhat smitten. The actual account that the text gives us of the conversation is also very likely to be quite highly abbreviated. If Laban is the character that he is portrayed to be in the coming chapters, he will be asking lots of questions to verify the consistency and truthfulness of Ya'akov's story - after all, he had only Ya'akov to work with, he couldn't just pick up the telephone and get the story from his sister: who is Ya'akov anyway and how does Laban know? - and Ya'akov will be ducking and diving to avoid anything that would cast him in a bad light or get him sent away empty handed. Similarly, Laban seems to be keeping his powder dry in this conversation, restricting himself to a single comment that could be either welcoming or cynical, depending on how Ya'akov reads it.
How selective are we when we communicate with others about our lives? Do we share everything or do we hold back material which we consider 'private'? A certain reserve is always necessary: you can't tell everyone everything - you would become hopelessly vulnerable; confidences and other people's privacy and relationships must be respected - and most of it is none of their business. But are we selective in order to be deceptive or dishonest? Do we selectively omit certain elements from our story in order to create a false impression, to mislead others, or to allow them to reach or assume an untrue picture without actually lying? In a world where words are cheap and often later disregarded or disclaimed, so that only what is committed in writing can be held as firm evidence - and even that is subject to interpretation, errors and omissions excluded - you might well feel uneasy when asked to sign a contract that opens with the chilling caveat that the sole understanding between the two parties is the words written in the contract, all previous discussions, negotiations or promises notwithstanding. Yeshua has two things to say on the subject: firstly to let our words have their own value, without adding invective or oaths to them - "Just let your 'Yes' be a simple 'Yes,' and your 'No' a simple 'No'; anything more than this has its origin in evil" (Matthew 5:37, CJB) - and secondly that everything we (or others) try to keep secret will be revealed: "For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing is covered up that will not be known and come out into the open" (Luke 8:18, CJB). When He was before the Chief Priests, He emphasised that all His ministry had been fully public: "I have spoken quite openly to everyone; I have always taught in a synagogue or in the Temple where all Jews meet together, and I have said nothing in secret" (John 18:20, CJB).
Secondly, Laban conveys an attitude of only helping Ya'akov because it is necessary, because the societal conventions of his time forced him to do so; he was obliged. As the story will go on to tell us, barely a month later, Laban seeks to move the relationship on to a commercial footing - that, according to some commentators, after extracting a month's free work as a shepherd from Ya'akov in exchange for nothing more than board and lodging. Do we only help when we have no choice, when the context or the situation make it impossible for us to avoid giving time, money or emotional support to someone in need? Look to at the way Laban communicates his disinterest and displeasure at having been obliged to help his nephew. He grunts and spits out an acknowledgement of the obligation without any softening words to make the situation any easier for Ya'akov to feel or accept. This contravenes what the Torah will later tell us about giving generously to our brother in poverty and helping them with everything they need and certainly doesn't show what Yeshua taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Messiah, we are both called and enabled to do better that Ya'akov and Laban!
Further Study: Luke 12:2-3; Ephesians 5:29-30; Colossians 4:5-6
Application: How good are you at communicating clearly and appropriately? Are you a clam or a gusher? Do you help with a smile or a reluctant grunt? Perhaps an attitude adjustment is needed.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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