The Difference Between Legality and Morality (Genesis 31:17-55)
I have a friend who has a wise word on most any subject. One day someone asked me for a good definition of ethics. I could not think of one so I called my friend. “I have just been thinking about that subject,” he replied when I asked him. “Ethics is the difference between morality and legality. Ethics is the difference between what I ought to do and what the law demands I must do.” I have never heard a better explanation of ethics, and so I share it with you.
As I do this I realize that Jacob totally lacked any ethical system at this point in his life. For Jacob, legality was equated with morality. That is, anything which was not contrary to the law was no problem for his conscience. The purchase of the birthright from Esau was meticulously legal (cf. Genesis 25:31-33) but unethical. So, too, the deception of Isaac in order to obtain the blessing was legal. In fact, it even brought about what God had promised would happen but in a way that was displeasing to God (Genesis 27). Jacob’s proposal to work seven years for Rachel, the younger daughter, was legal, but it was not really acceptable to Laban (Genesis 29:18-19, 26). Finally, Jacob’s contract with Laban and his manipulation of the flocks in order to prosper at Laban’s expense was hardly ethical, but it was strictly legal—so much so, in fact, that he could later challenge Laban to accuse him of any infractions of their agreement (31:36-42).
It was Jacob’s lack of any ethical framework to guide and govern his conduct which resulted in a very painful parting when it came time to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of promise. The consequences of questionable ethics are clearly seen in this final encounter between Jacob and his uncle Laban. We shall find, I believe, that things have changed little from the life and times of Jacob, for ethics are few and far between in our day as well. It is my intention to consider the basis for ethical conduct and the consequences of their absence as we study the events in the life of Jacob as he makes his exodus from Paddan-aram.
Then Jacob arose and put his children and his wives upon camels; and he drove away all his livestock and all his property which he had gathered, his acquired livestock which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. When Laban had gone to shear his flock, then Rachel stole the household idols that were her father’s. And Jacob deceived Laban the Syrian, by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he fled with all that he had; and he arose and crossed the Euphrates River, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead (Genesis 31:17-21).
Circumstances strongly suggested that it was time for Jacob to return to the land of promise (31:1-2), and by divine revelation God commanded Jacob to do just that (31:3). Having received the assurance that his wives were in support of this move (31:14-16), Jacob hastily packed up all of their goods and left for home. It does not appear to be accidental that he departed at a time when Laban was busily occupied in shearing his flock. Leaving without any warning, Jacob reasoned, was the way to depart without any resistance from Laban, who might have refused to release Jacob’s wives or his flocks.
What Jacob did not know was that Rachel had stolen Laban’s gods just before they departed. Many speculations are made concerning Rachel’s motives, but the reason best supported by the text and by archaeology is that Rachel stole the household gods in order to establish a future claim on Laban’s family inheritance. The household gods were a token of rightful claim to the possessions and the headship of the family.255 Rachel must have felt justified in stealing these gods and in expecting to share in the family inheritance. After all, this is what she and Leah had just affirmed to Jacob:
Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you (Genesis 31:14b-16).
In Rachel’s mind getting Laban’s wealth was God’s will. If that were so with the matter of the flocks which Jacob had been tending, why should it not be true of the estate at Laban’s death? I believe that Rachel felt entirely justified in stealing the family gods for this reason. It is interesting, however, that she did not tell Jacob of her theft.
Two wrongs are thus committed in the departure of Jacob and his family from Paddan-aram. First, Jacob has left without telling Laban about it and at a time when it would have been inconvenient for him to prevent it. Second, Rachel had stolen Laban’s family gods, which were the token of the right to claim a portion of Laban’s inheritance and the headship of the family. Jacob was doing the will of God in returning to the land of promise, but he was not doing so in God’s way.
When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, then he took his kinsmen with him, and pursued him a distance of seven days’ journey; and he overtook him in the hill country of Gilead. And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad.” And Laban caught up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen camped in the hill country of Gilead. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done by deceiving me and carrying away my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre; and did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly. It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to speak either good or bad to Jacob.’ And now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:22-30)
What Jacob could not know was the impact his stealthy retreat would have upon Laban when combined with the theft of his gods. If you were Laban you would have come to the same conclusion. His gods were gone, and so was Jacob, hastily and secretly. Surely this must have been because Jacob had stolen his gods. What other conclusion could Laban have come to? While Laban attempts to throw a smoke screen by playing the part of the offended father and grandfather (verses 26-28), his real interest was in regaining possession of his gods (verses 30).
Catching up with Jacob was no easy matter, for he had gained three days’ lead time. By the time Laban had rushed home, discovered the loss of his gods, and gathered the relatives (who, I would gather, were armed for battle), a fourth day must have been lost. After seven days Laban caught up with Jacob, but his intentions were certainly altered by the divine warning contained in the dream he had the night before the two men met face to face. The message Laban received was a simple one: “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad” (verse 24). From a similar expression in 24:50 we must understand God to be warning Laban not to attempt to change Jacob’s course of action, let alone to bring harm to him in any way.
When Laban confronted Jacob the following day, God’s warning did not prevent him from rebuking him for his hasty departure, which deprived him from any kind of farewell. It was not the departure that Laban protested, for Jacob’s desire to return home was understandable (cf. verse 30). What troubled Laban was the way in which Jacob left. Jacob had “stolen away” (literally “stolen the heart of Laban,” verse 20, also verses 26-27), while at the same time Rachel had stolen his gods.
Laban works very hard at playing the part of the offended father and grandfather whose deep affection for his daughters and grandchildren caused him much agony when he found they had secretly left without any good-bye’s. Most of his protest is voiced on this note, but there seems to be a considerable lack of sincerity here. Had not Rachel and Leah indicated that he showed little concern for them any longer (verses 14-16)? The real bone of contention was the stolen gods: “… but why did you steal my gods?” (verse 30). This was the bottom line. This was the reason for the hot pursuit accompanied by other relatives who were probably prepared to fight. This explains why God warned Laban not to do anything harmful to Jacob. If Jacob got away with his gods, he could someday return and make a claim to his estate. This could not be tolerated.
Jacob’s response was not made from a position of strength. His first words are a rather weak defense of his stealthy escape, while his remaining words are in response to the matter of the stolen gods, of which he had no personal knowledge:
Then Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I said, ‘Lest you would take your daughters from me by force.’ The one with whom you find your gods shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen point out what is yours among my belongings and take it for yourself.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them (Genesis 31:31-32).
Jacob’s conduct was the result of fear just as the deception of his father Isaac (26:7,9) and his grandfather Abraham (12:11-13; 20:11) had been. Jacob did not have sufficient faith that God would deliver him from the hand of his own father-in-law. In his fear he had to question the truthfulness of the words which God had spoken to him at Bethel:
And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:15).
Jacob had not yet come to the place where he could trust God to accomplish His word without some back-up system which included Jacob’s manipulation or deception. Having gotten the upper hand over Laban in the last six years, Jacob was not certain that Laban would let him go without a fight. Perhaps he would not let his daughters go either.
This was not a discussion that Jacob was eager to prolong, for he had very little reasoning that could justify his recent actions. Feeling certain that he was innocent of the charge of stealing Laban’s gods, Jacob turned the conversation to this issue. Laban was urged to make a diligent search of Jacob’s goods to try and find his gods. Whoever was caught with them would die. Jacob obviously had no idea that his favorite, his beloved Rachel, was the culprit. That Laban was most interested in his gods, not in good-bye’s, is seen by his subsequent actions:
So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. Then he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household idols and put them in the camel’s saddle, and she sat on them. And Laban felt through all the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is upon me.” So he searched, but did not find the household idols (Genesis 31:33-35)
Obviously Laban did not suspect Rachel either. He first searched Jacob’s tent. Who would be more likely to have stolen his gods than Jacob? Was he not the one who had come to Paddan-aram because of his desire to inherit the headship of Isaac’s family and to have the rights of the first-born? The theft of the family gods would give Jacob preeminence over Laban’s household just as his deception had gained it over Isaac’s household.
Having searched carefully in Jacob’s tent, Laban went on to Leah’s tent and then to the two maids. Only last did he come to the tent of Rachel. She was the least suspect of all, and yet she was the guilty party. She successfully concealed her theft by a clever distraction. She sat on the very saddle which hid the gods of Laban. When he had searched every other part of the tent, she explained that she must remain seated because of her monthly infirmity, common to women. Laban did not wish to press that matter any further, and so Rachel’s theft was not discovered. I do not know when nor if Rachel told Jacob of her theft, but I can well imagine what his response must have been.
Had Rachel’s deed been discovered, a very different sequence of events would have followed. As it was, Jacob’s sheepishness over his secret escape was overshadowed by his righteous indignation. He reveled in his innocence in addition to the assurance he gained from Laban’s report that God had spoken to him in the night, preventing harm to Jacob. In the light of these events Jacob now seemed to have the upper hand; he held the winning cards, and he planned to use them to greatest advantage. The years of friction between these two men now boiled over as Jacob scalded Laban with “holy” anger.
Then Jacob became angry and contended with Laban; and Jacob answered and said to Laban, “What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? Though you have felt through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn of beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself. You required it of my hand whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 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 changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had not been for me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, so he rendered judgment last night” (Genesis 31:36-42).
Jacob recognized Laban’s “hurt feelings” as a mere facade. The real reason for his hot pursuit was the thought of being wronged by Jacob. Laban concluded that Jacob had finally stepped over the line. Up till this point he had always managed to stay one step within the law. While he had bent the rules mercilessly, he had not yet broken them. With the disappearance of the family gods from his household, Laban thought Jacob had finally gone one step too far in his greed. But now Laban was caught empty-handed. His charges could not be justified. The evidence was lacking. Jacob, in ancient fashion, demanded a writ of habeas corpus. Laban was forced to produce the evidence. He must put up or shut up, and Jacob was the one who delighted to tell him which of the two he must do.
Not only was there no evidence found in his search, but Laban had been consistently wrong in many other areas. These Jacob was eager to elaborate upon. Never had Laban’s herds suffered from Jacob’s neglect, nor had he even eaten at Laban’s expense. The animals that were lost to natural causes Jacob replaced, even though he was not responsible. Laban insisted upon this, and Jacob did so without protest—until now. Jacob worked hard, suffering the hardships of a shepherd’s life, and all this while Laban continued to change his wages repeatedly.
Having gotten his years of frustration off his chest, Jacob used his trump card, triumphantly capping off his defense by asserting that God was on his side (verse 42). Had God not been looking out for him, Laban might have gotten away with his double dealing. All his prosperity, Jacob maintained, was God’s blessing on his life. God had seen his affliction, it was true (cf. verse 12), but Jacob went too far when he added “and the toil of my hands” (verse 42). Nowhere had God ever indicated to Jacob that His blessing was in any way related to Jacob’s works. In fact, God had revealed to Jacob that just the opposite was the case (verses 10-13). The warning which God had issued to Laban on the previous night was proof to Jacob that God was on his side. God had rendered judgment, and Jacob maintained that he had been proven innocent.
The Covenant of Peace
I come away from Jacob’s defense with the uneasy feeling that he has grossly overstated his case. God did see all that Laban had done to Jacob. Jacob’s prosperity was from God’s hand, but it had little or nothing to do with Jacob’s piety or productive genius. God had been blessing him on the basis of grace, but Jacob had used God’s intervention as the basis for his self-defense. Jacob maintained that he had prevailed and that God had intervened because he was spiritual, while Laban was carnal. I find myself unconvinced by Jacob’s best efforts. Laban does not appear to be overly impressed either. While he has not been able to prove Jacob’s dishonesty, he still is convinced of it. Thus, he initiates the covenant that is made:
Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have borne? So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Now Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore it was named Galeed; and Mizpah, for he said, “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold this heap and behold the pillar which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place (Genesis 31:43-55).
All that Jacob took with him was really Laban’s, he insisted—his wives, his children, and his herds (verse 43)—but what could he do to resist? If he could not retrieve his household gods, the least Laban can do is to make a covenant with Jacob which would guarantee that he will never make use of those gods to further encroach upon his possessions in the future. Notice that the treaty is initiated by Laban and that its terms are spelled out by him. Since Laban has not succeeded in holding Jacob in check, Laban now calls upon Jacob’s God to do so.
A stone was set up as a pillar (verse 45), and a pile of stones was erected as a monument (verse 46). Also, a covenant meal was shared by Jacob and Laban and the other relatives (verse 54). Laban managed to get Jacob to swear before his God to several particulars. First, Jacob promised never to mistreat Laban’s daughters and never to take any other wives in addition to them (verse 50). Second, each covenanted that they would not pass that point to harm the other (verse 52). Having agreed to these matters, Laban said a last farewell to his daughters and their children. Blessing them, he returned to his home (verse 55). The long and often stormy relationship between Laban and Jacob had come to an end.
Jacob seems to have come away from this encounter with Laban as the unchallenged winner, but did he really? While Jacob may have convinced himself and his wives of his innocence, he has not convinced us, nor has he changed the mind of Laban. Laban was still certain that Jacob was a crook, but being warned by God, he could do little to stop him. The treaty which he initiated was his only hope. And that treaty was no tribute to Jacob’s character.
Now stop and think about it for a moment. Laban had lived in close association with Jacob for twenty years, and he was convinced of his lack of integrity. He believed that Jacob stole his gods. He believed that Jacob had underhandedly gotten possession of his flocks. He felt compelled to get Jacob to swear a holy oath that he would not mistreat his wives or someday return to Laban with hostile intent. Does this sound like a man who was convinced that Jacob was a godly man? Just as the covenants between Abimelech and Abraham (21:22-24), and later Abimelech and Isaac (26:26-31), were evidence of the carnal state of these patriarchs, so this treaty with Laban reveals the character flaws of Jacob. He was a man who could not be trusted. He would, at least, keep the letter of the law, and thus Laban spelled out assurances which he felt were needed. What a poor testimony to the character of Jacob.
And yet Jacob seems to be convinced of his integrity. He is certain that God is on his side because of his uprightness. How could Jacob have been so mistaken? I have come to believe that the answer is to be found in the fact that Jacob was a legalist. Jacob prided himself on being a man who kept the letter of the law. Never, to his knowledge at least, had he ever broken his word. He had made a deal with Laban, and he had always lived up to it. Oh, he had peeled those poles all right, but that was not a breach of their agreement.
Jacob, I believe, had no real system of ethics. He equated morality with legality. Whatever was within the law was morally right so far as he was concerned. Thus, he could stand before Laban with justified righteous indignation and demand that any evidence of wrongdoing on his part be put forth. He could claim with great assurance that God was on his side. How could this not be true when Jacob had always lived within the law?
But here is the heart of the error of legalism, for legalism equates morality with legality. It believes that righteousness and the keeping of the law are one and the same thing. A man may have no system of ethics whatever, but so long as he does not break the law he feels morally pure. He feels confident of the approval and blessing of God.
With this mentality Jacob was hardly different from the Jews of Jesus’ day. They felt that being a descendant of Abraham assured them of God’s favor (cf. John 8:39). They were confident that a meticulous keeping of the law made them acceptable to God. This puts the Sermon on the Mount in an entirely different light for me. Jesus spoke these words to Jews who were legalists. They felt that a mere living within the law was sufficient to merit them a righteousness acceptable to God. Our Lord went on to show them that a much greater righteousness was necessary (cf. Matthew 5:20). A genuine faith was not so much a matter of form as of faith. Those who were genuinely members of the kingdom were those whose hearts were pure before God. Thus our Lord dealt more with motives than with methods. He dealt more with function than mere forms.
The law was only a minimum standard; it was not intended to make men feel righteous but to demonstrate to men how far from God’s holiness they fell. The New Testament does not tell us that the standards set by the Old are no longer valid (Matthew 5:17), for those who walk in the Spirit will fulfill the requirement (singular) of the law (Romans 8:4). Legalism is sinful because men love to set human standards which, if they are kept, produce a man’s righteousness. Christian liberty views the standard for our thoughts and actions to be our Lord Himself, for it is to His image that we are being conformed (Romans 8:29).
Jacob may have felt self-righteous, but Laban was totally unconvinced. He resorted to legalism (that is, a legal covenant) because that was all he could trust Jacob to do—keep a few rules. Many Christians today are no different than Jacob. They (we?), too, are legalists. We think that we are pious and holy because we do not smoke or chew or curse. But ask those who have to work for us or those who have to employ us, and they will do just as Laban did—get it all down in writing. You see, even with all our pious talk the world knows better, for they have to live with us too. While we may keep a certain list of do’s and don’t’s, we may undermine and manipulate; we may deceive and destroy; we may seek our success at the expense of others. True righteousness, I believe, involves much more than keeping a few rules to the letter. It is a matter of the heart. No wonder so many unbelievers (and Christians) are reluctant to do business with Christians. They know that while God may be with us, we do not always act in a godly way.
Ethics, as I have said, is the difference between legality and morality. We live in a day when Christians and non-Christians alike think that whatever is legal is legitimate Christian activity. We, like Jacob, have our own pole-peeling and wheeling and dealing, which we think God is obliged to bless. No wonder the world is trying to legalize homosexuality and abortion and the like. To them, legality is morality. If it isn’t illegal, it is moral, they suppose.
The Bible does draw lines, clear lines at times. There are absolutes, and there are rules. But in addition to these, perhaps I should say above all these, is another standard of conduct which we shall call ethics or convictions. Many Christians seem to have too few of these, and yet this is what sets a true Christian apart in the eyes of the world. How many of us are viewed by the world as Jacob was by Laban? How many of us have convictions that cause us to avoid certain practices, even if they are legal? Christian ethics should be so high that legalistic rules are never necessary, at least for those who are righteous (I Timothy 1:9-10).
The bottom line for Jacob was that of faith. He tried to sneak off without telling Laban because he was afraid (verse 31). He trusted God but not enough to do that which was honorable in the sight of all men. He did not think that God could spare him and his family if he acted honorably before Laban. His God, in the words of J. B. Phillips, was “too small.” Isn’t that the case for most of us? The reason why we are reluctant to live by firm convictions is that we do not trust God to be able to bless us under these added restrictions. Have we forgotten how Elijah had barrels of water poured on his sacrifice so that those who watched could only give God the glory (cf. I Kings 18, especially verses 33-35)? Is this not the reason why we desperately try to dispensationalize the Sermon on the Mount, so that we do not have to try to live by its teachings? A faith that is firm does not fear to live in such a way that only God can be given the glory.
What a lesson this must have been to the ancient Israelites who received the law of God from the author of Genesis. While God gave Israel the law, He did not do so to provide a standard of righteousness which would convince men of their sinfulness, of their need of a sacrifice, and their need of a Savior Who would pay the penalty for their sins and provide the righteousness they could not produce for themselves by the work of their hands.
Jacob’s actions were wrong for another reason, I believe. While Jacob was willing to keep his deception within the law, his actions taught others to try to get ahead by stepping outside the law. This is what happened, I believe, to Rachel. She had learned well from her husband. She stole Laban’s household gods (verse 19), but in the very next verse we are told that “Jacob stole the heart of Laban …” (verse 20, margin, NASV). The same Hebrew word is employed for the acts of Rachel and Jacob. Do you think this is a coincidence? I do not. Jacob stole the heart of Laban but barely within the letter of the law. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, just outside the law. She did not see the fine distinctions of her husband. Our deception, even if within the law, leads others to go beyond us.
Finally, Jacob’s actions here remind me that one may be doing the will of God but in a way that is offensive to the character of God. God had commanded Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of promise (verse 3). In this sense Jacob was doing God’s will for his life. But he was not doing the will of God in God’s way. Sometimes we get so caught up in the fact that what we are doing is right that we forget to ask if how we are doing God’s will is right. Our methods must always be consistent with our Master if our actions will be honoring to Him.
255 “. . . Rachel may well have had a partly religious motive (cf. 35:2,4), but the fact that possession of them could strengthen one’s claim to the inheritance (as the Nusi tablets disclose)+ gives the most likely clue to her action.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 165. +Kidner here refers to Biblical Archaeologist, 1940, p. 5.
Stigers goes into more detail, saying, “According to the Nuzu tablets, a natural son is to take the gods, the teraphim: ‘If Nashwi has a son of his own, he shall divide the estate equally with Wullu, but the son of Nashwi shall take the gods of Nashwi.’*
“Another text, a new will of Hashwi, indicates that Wullu has died and Wullu’s oldest son is to receive the household gods.** In yet another text a reassignment of shares of the estate is made, but the oldest son alone is given possession of the household gods.***” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 242. (It should be added that Stigers does not agree with my conclusion that Rachel’s primary motivation for stealing Laban’s gods was to secure an inheritance for Jacob after Laban’s death. Cf. Stigers, p. 242.) *Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 219-220, **Anne E. Draffkorn, “Ilani-Elohim,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXVI (1957), p. 220. Cf. O. J. Gadd, “Tablets from Kirkuk,” Review d’Assyriologie et d’Archaeologie Orientale, XXII (1926), Text #5; ***L. L. Lachemann, Excavations at Nuzu, “Miscellaneous Texts, Part 2: The Palace and Temple Archives” (HSS XIV: 1950), para. 2, p. 108.
Related Topics: Ethics