Like Uncle, Like Nephew (Sort of)
In this week’s portion, Abraham sends his (unnamed) servant to the city of Nahor to find a bride for his son Isaac. When the servant arrives, we are introduced to two important figures: Rebekah—who, as Isaac’s wife, will ultimately give birth to two sons, Jacob and Esau—and Rebekah’s brother Laban.
Laban turns out to be a significant, if somewhat under-appreciated, figure in the book of Genesis. Years after the events recounted in this week’s reading, Laban’s nephew Jacob comes stay with him. The visit lasts for some twenty years. Before he leaves his uncle’s house, Jacob ends up marrying both of Laban’s daughters (Leah and Rachel) as well as inheriting their two maid-servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. All in all, these four women will give birth to Jacob’s twelve sons, plus one daughter, Dinah; Jacob’s sons will in turn become the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.
So, what sort of a man was this Laban? The Torah provides a few broad hints in this week’s reading. When Abraham’s servant first arrives at his destination, he encounters Rebekah and immediately realized that she is, quite literally, the answer to his prayers: here is the perfect wife for Isaac. At once, the servant takes a nose-ring and two bracelets from his saddlebags and gives them to Rebekah. She then runs back to her house to bring the news to her family: a servant of Abraham has just arrived! It is at this point that Laban appears. “When he saw the nose ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms,” Laban warmly welcomed the stranger: “Come in, O blessed of the Lord! Why should you stay outside?”
Here is Laban in a nutshell. The Torah makes a point of mentioning that he first noticed the expensive jewelry that his sister had just received. It is apparently the sight of these gifts that prompts Laban to welcome Abraham’s servant with heartfelt piety, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord!” What a hypocrite!
Later, after Abraham’s servant has told his story to Rebekah’s family, he asks for their decision: Will you agree to marry her to Abraham’s son Isaac? Normally, this ought to have been a weighty matter, discussed at some length. After all, Rebekah was still a young girl. Another suitor might appear at any time; perhaps the family should at least meet to consider things at length. But the Torah reports no hesitation. “Then Laban and Bethuel answered and they said, ‘This thing has come from the Lord; we cannot say anything good or bad about it. Here is Rebekah: take her and go.’”
“Laban and Bethuel”?! Shouldn’t that be “Bethuel and Laban”? After all, Bethuel is the father—it’s really his decision. So why should Laban’s name come first? Perhaps even more telling is the fact that the verb “answer” is in the singular, vayya‘an. It seems that it was really Laban who answered, and only after this did Bethuel join in (“and they said” vayyomeru, in the plural now). And what was that answer of Laban’s? Once again, it was colored with his characteristic false piety, “This thing has come from the Lord.” What he was really thinking was: “Looks like we’re in the money.”
Years later, when Jacob, Laban’s nephew, shows up at his doorstep, Laban has not changed. He immediately puts Jacob to work for him—for free. It is only after a month that he says (again, with characteristic hypocrisy), “You’re my relative, yet you’ve been working for me for free. Tell me, what shall I pay you?” Jacob asks for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and Laban agrees to give her to him in exchange for seven years of labor. Then, on the wedding night, Laban switches brides on Jacob, substituting Leah for Rachel. The next morning, Laban explains: “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger daughter before the older.” Oh yeah? Couldn’t he have said that seven years earlier?
This, in short, was Laban: a liar and a cheat, but overlaid with pious hypocrisy.
Yet it should be remembered that Jacob came, at least in part, from the same gene pool: his mother and Laban had the same parents. It should not be surprising, then, that in some ways Jacob resembled his uncle. When he first catches sight of Rachel at the well—the same well, presumably, where Laban had first met Abraham’s servant—Jacob reacts in a manner somewhat reminiscent of his uncle:
“When Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and when he saw the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from off the mouth of the well and watered the flock of Laban, his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen 29:10-11).
In ancient Israel, a person’s flocks were essentially his bank account, so the mention of Jacob seeing Laban’s flocks is certainly not insignificant here. To put this moment in more modern terms: “When Jacob saw Laban’s daughter drive up in that expensive little sports car that she got from her Dad as a graduation present…”
In short, Jacob was not the pious hypocrite that Laban was, but he did share some of the family interest in the material things of life. Indeed, by the end of his twenty-year stay with his uncle, Jacob walked off—by means not altogether explained—with most of Laban’s former wealth, the flocks that Jacob had been tending so faithfully for twenty years. A fitting end for Laban’s riches, and a proper outcome for a pious cheat.