Jacob decides to go home, so he packs up his wives (two official, two handmaids doubling as wives) and his brood of twelve boys and one girl. His father-in-law Laban discovers it later and gathers up a group to pursue his family. Why did Jacob flee? Throughout his years of service, Laban had repeatedly changed his wages in an effort to get the better of the young man. What we see is economic injustice (on a micro level) which will be a concern of Israel's prophets and the Lord Jesus as well. One of the key principles of spirituality is that we are to be just in our dealings with one another.
However, God's hand of blessing is on Jacob, so no matter what trick Laban pulls, God still prospers Jacob. This leads Laban's sons (who appear here for the first and only time) to complain that Jacob is taking away their father's wealth. Note, this parallels the complaint of Essau to Isaac. Note the difference. Jacob was deceitful with Essau, but here with Laban he is not. No doubt the Torah wants to show the moral growth of the Patriarch (even as he reaps what he has sown). This is a good reminder to us that we need to be steadfast in doing right, regardless of the consequences.
The Hebrew verb 'to steal' has more meanings than the English word. When Jacob sees the hostility of his in-laws Genesis says that Jacob "stole Laban's mind" which is translated as "kept him in the dark." The theme of stealing runs throughout the story. Rachel steals her father's household gods, Jacob is a thief (his brother's blessing) and an accused thief (of Laban's flocks, not true), Laban tried to steal from Jacob by his unjust dealings. One might say that this is a long narrative trying to draw us into reflection on the commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
In Bible study yesterday we discussed how often we "know" things that we "understand nothing about." For example, we say that one should "love" or "forgive" or, in this case, "not steal." Yet, we are uncertain of the content of the word. What does it mean to love or forgive. When is it stealing? What is it concretely? Ask that question and deer in the headlights appear.... "Well, um, it means that, um, well, I can't exactly put it into words but..."
Jacob is being reformed of his trickster ways, at great cost. His struggles are not all of his own making, yet they fit his crimes. In life God seems content to do that with people. I hasten to add that Jacob, unlike us, is a key player in salvation history. We do well not to overestimate our own significance and God's need to reorder things on our behalf. Yet, it is fair to think God has His way with us all, and seeks our good. Like Jacob, each day, we are on a journey. We have allies to travel with and adversaries who do us harm and pursue us. In some cases our conflicts are as intense as Jacob's but often times they are more mundane.
One message of Genesis seems to be that God will shape and form us by our life and choices. When we suffer and struggle it may be a blessing. It may be that today's hard times are setting the stage for tomorrow's glory. Jacob needed to move back and he was inspired to do so by Laban's mistreatment. Like the early church, it took a bad thing (persecution) to get him moving. In both cases, the end result is a huge benefit to humankind (The Jewish people and the Christian church). Family politics will result in a great nation in the Promised Land. All of us are called to be faithful in our little corner of the earth. Like Jacob, God has promised us bigger things (even if not as big as his!) and like Jacob sometimes we must flee the problem situation. However, in faith, flight is not just 'from' it is also 'to.' In the Journey of Faith we are all headed to the Promised Land. In the travel let us walk in the paths of God.