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B'resheet/Genesis 30:26 Give [me] my wives and my children that I served you for them and let me go; for you, you know my service that I served you.
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Rachel's first son, Yosef, has been born and Ya'akov wants to go home: back to his father and back to the land of Promise, to whichHaShem called his grandfather Avraham and his father Yitz'khak. So, as the Torah tells us, "After Rachel had borne Yosef, Ya'akov said to Laban, 'Give me leave to go back to my own homeland'" (B'resheet 30:25, NJPS). Perhaps a little abrupt, but you know Ya'akov. He knew from experience that Laban was a man who needed plain speaking and he had to start the conversation somewhere. The NJPS translation has toned down his opening words; he actually uses the same form of speech - , the Pi'el imperative of the root - that Moshe will use on multiple occasions to Pharaoh: "Thus says the L-RD, the G-d of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me" (Shemot 9:1, NJPS). His second request, our text above, is just about as blunt; the first word - is the Qal ms imperative form of the root - carries on in pretty much the same tone. Perhaps Ya'akov and his father-in-law were not on good terms? This needs a little investigation.
Just exactly what was the relationship between Ya'akov and his father-in-law, Laban? The root appears three times in our text: , the Qal 1cs affix verb, "I served"; , the fs noun with a 1cs possessive pronoun suffix, "my service"; and , the Qal 1cs affix verb again, this time with a 2ms object pronoun suffix, "I served you". Although the root may take the meanings "to work, to serve, to worship" - the last of which isn't in view here - the most common noun derived from the root, , may be either a servant or a slave depending on the context, casting overtones upon the way Ya'akov is speaking here.
We know that Ya'akov arrived in Padan Aram with just the clothes on his back and a staff in his hand, as he later reminded HaShem, "for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan" (B'resheet 32:10, NJPS). He is accepted as a kinsman by Laban, but then appears to become an indentured slave/servant for seven years to 'purchase' Laban's daughter Rachel. We can hear that in his words when he tells Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed" (29:21, NJPS). After Laban gives him the wrong daughter at the wedding, Ya'akov is told, "we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years" (v. 27, NJPS) - and has to serve a second period of indenture. Now it appears that this time too has ended, yet Ya'akov still seems to be tied to Laban. Taking a soft line,Rashi suggests that Ya'akov is simply being respectful: "I do not wish to leave except with permission." Mizrachi qualifies this by saying that "the verse does not mean to imply that Laban was holding Ya'akov's wives and children in custody. Ya'akov only meant that Laban should grant them permission to travel with him."1 The Radak is a little more blunt, putting these words in Ya'akov's mouth: "Give me my wives and children who, like everything else of mine, are in your house and under your control."
From a scholarly point of view, Gerhard von Rad proposes that "He requests a dissolution of his servant status ... to be sure, Ya'akov had not been bought by Laban, but he was still a stranger without property and therefore not a free man; not a full member of the legal community but a dependent."2 Terence Fretheim agrees; Ya'akov is pointing out that he has finished his time of service: "this constitutes a request for a separation of families."3 Offering a different explanation, Nahum Sarna reports that "Ya'akov's position in Laban's household has long been puzzling and even now it cannot be truly said that all the problems have been cleared up. However, it is widely agreed, on the basis of the Nuzi documents, that the assumption of Laban's adoption of Ya'akov provides the most plausible explanation."4 Not a servant at all, but adopted? Perhaps that might be the situation. Either way he seems dependent on Laban's good will. James McKeown sums up: "Ya'akov requires permission from Laban, who is effectively his master. Ya'akov is not a slave whom Laban purchased, but he is a hired servant and is not free to leave until Laban releases him. Furthermore, Laban must also release his daughters and their offspring into Ya'akov's care. Like early Israel in Egypt or later Israel in Babylon, Ya'akov is not free and must wait until he is released by Laban or else take an opportunity to escape."5
We can see later on in the story that this relationship remained fraught. Ya'akov will tell his wives, "You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But G-d did not permit him to harm me" (31:6-7, NJPS) and then Laban himself: "These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times" (v. 41, NJPS). Moreover, Laban's view is still that he is right and Ya'akov is wrong: "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine" (v. 43, NJPS); he denies Ya'akov's claims in their entirety. It is as if Laban is looking at the situation the Torah will later codify for a single slave at the end of his indenture: "If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone" (Shemot, 21:4, ESV).
What was it that set Ya'akov free to return to his own land and family? Two things; firstly a word of command and promise to Ya'akov himself: "Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you" (B'resheet 31:3, NJPS). HaShem tells Ya'akov to go home and promises to be with him, essentially to underwrite the expedition. Secondly, a dream given to Laban as he was about to catch up with Ya'akov: "G-d appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, 'Beware of attempting anything with Ya'akov, good or bad'" (v. 24, NJPS). G-d warns Laban not to interfere in any way with Ya'akov. It takes divine intervention to release Ya'akov from Laban's clutches and control: to enable Ya'akov to get up and start for home, and to compel Laban to allow the release.
When Yeshua tells his Jewish followers that if they obeyed His words, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32, ESV), they respond that they are sons of Avraham and have never been slaves. Why would they need to be set free? "Ah," Yeshua replies, "you have missed the point here. 'Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin' (v. 34, ESV)". Rav Sha'ul explains how easy it is to be enslaved in this way - "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another" (Titus 3:3, ESV) - including himself among those so caught. It didn't matter that Sha'ul was "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:5-6, ESV). Just like Ya'akov, he had worked hard, really hard; G-d knew how hard he had worked and served Him. Just like Laban, G-d wasn't impressed; Sha'ul was dead in the water, "dead in the trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1, ESV).
What was it that set Rav Sha'ul free to serve G-d and travel the known world sharing the good news of Yeshua? Two things; firstly a word of command and promise to Sha'ul himself: "But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do" (Acts 9:6, ESV). Yeshua calls Sha'ul to obedience to Him where he will fast and pray for three days, coming to faith and a revelation of Yeshua. Secondly, a vision given to a man called Ananias, a disciple who lives in Damascus: "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight" (vv. 11-12, ESV). Even though Ananias is distinctly reluctant, Yeshua insists. It takes divine intervention to release Sha'ul from the enemy's clutches: to enable Sha'ul to see Yeshua and get him started on the path of discipleship.
Charles Wesley, who formed a "Holy Club" during his student days in Oxford and was ordained as an Anglican cleric in 1735, was said to have written the hymn, "And Can it Be" immediately after coming to faith (May 21st, 1738), just three days before his brother John. Hear the words of the fourth verse:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No less than Ya'akov and Rav Sha'ul, Charles Wesley needed a divine intervention to free him from the bondage and slavery to sin. We too cannot escape the clutches of sin without Yeshua's touch and intervention in our lives. No matter how hard we work or the level of effort we put in, we are totally dependent on G-d for our faith and relationship with him. As Rav Sha'ul said: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
2. - Gerhard von Rad, Genesis Old Testament Library, (London, SCM Press, 1972), page 300.
3. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 194.
4. - Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis - the World of the Bible in the Light of History, (New York, NY: Shocken Books, 1966), 195.
5. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 147.
Further Study: Romans 4:16-17; Galatians 5:1
Application: Do you stand in the good of divine intervention in your life? Are you still fast bound or have your chains fallen off? Look around for Yeshua in your life today and make sure that you catch His eye.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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