Parashat Vayeitzei (Bereishit 28:10-32:3) is one Masoretic parashah, one single story that traces Yaakov’s years in exile. This story has two central characters—Yaakov and Lavan. Important as Rachel and Leah may be, they play secondary roles throughout much of the narrative. From Yaakov’s first moments in Haran he is associated with Lavan, and their immediate relationship only concludes in the last verses of the parashah. His relationship with Lavan, more than with anyone else, defines Yaakov’s time in Haran. Consider his words to Esav—im Lavan garti… “I have sojourned with Lavan” (Bereishit 32:5).
The Midrash has trained generations of Jews, from their first Passover Seders, to look at Lavan with a jaundiced eye, and as the “bad guy” in his relationship with Yaakov; he was, after all, “worse than Pharaoh.” Not knowing of the moon-cult prevalent in those days in Haran (so that we could make the Lavan-Levana connection—see Loewenstamm in Encylopedia Mikrait 4:421), sharper ears have noted the irony of such a deceptive man being named “white.” The Midrash picks up on this irony and, already at the point of Lavan’s first mention in the text, suggests an interpretation of his name as an adjective. R. Yitzchak reads “Lavan” as an adjective describing his physical beauty—“paradoxus”—a splendidly white man. Dissenting is R. Berekhya, who sees it as a description of his inner character: He was meluban b’resha, meaning that his evil was transparent and obvious (Bereishit R. 60:7).
As a result of how Lavan is developed Midrashically, making him the “Aramean who tried to destroy my father” (but see Rashbam and ibn Ezra at Devarim 26:5 for the “Peshat” reading), even his earliest actions are eisegetically viewed with cynicism. For example, when we first meet him, Lavan runs to greet Avraham’s slave and we read this action as driven by his greed and venal interest rather than hospitality (cf. Rashi at Bereishit 24:29). Similarly, when Yaakov first arrives in Haran, Lavan’s warm greeting and embrace is read as a surreptitious search for hidden gold and jewels (cf. Rashi at Bereishit 29:13, following Bereishit R. 70:13). We are, therefore, not surprised to find him turning on Yaakov at the end of their relationship, treating him as an arch-enemy.
However, if we take a straightforward look at the story as it unfolds, reading the text on its own terms (with a bit of help from period texts), a different picture may emerge—one that does not alter our final assessment of Lavan, but which may illuminate how his relationship with Yaakov unfolded. Although I have no interest in rehabilitating Lavan’s reputation, we may be able to see his actions in a more favorable light and more clearly understand his motivations.
I. Yaakov’s Arrival
When Yaakov first arrives in Haran, the first member of his extended family that he meets is Rachel, who is tending her father’s flock (29:6). Rachel is, at the time, a young girl; we could safely assume that she is seven years younger than marriageable age. After all, her father Lavan agrees to give her hand in betrothal to Yaakov, who would only marry her seven years later, having worked off this debt. That means that for the next seven years, Rachel would be unavailable to any other man, yet not married to Yaakov and unable to begin bearing children.
It is important to note that in the ancient world—and, in some parts of our world today—girls were married close to or at the onset of puberty. This is for several reasons, including the need to have as many children as possible to help with the household estate, as well as the relatively high mortality rate of both young children and mothers during childbirth. There was no good reason to “waste” childbearing years; perhaps, as a result, there was no place in society for a woman over the age of 12-13 outside of the context of her marriage. Adolescence was not recognized as a legitimate period of transition, and pursuit of both education and vocation were limited, for the most part, to the first few years of one’s life (if at all, in the case of education).
According to the social norms of the time, it stands to reason that Lavan would not enter his daughter into a relationship in which she would be unable to contribute to the family for seven potentially productive years. It therefore seems that Rachel is, indeed, a young girl when Yaakov arrives in Haran and meets her. This is significant chiefly because it demonstrates that Lavan has neither sons nor wealth—each of which will change dramatically over the years in which Yaakov works with him. These changes will subsequently affect the relationship between Lavan and Yaakov.
Why is this young girl herding the flock? In Tanakh narratives, we are accustomed to seeing young girls as water-drawers (e.g. Bereishit 24, 1 Shmuel 9:11-13). They only appear as herders in a circumstance in which there are no boys in the family (e.g. Shemot 2). The reasonable conclusion is that Lavan has no sons at this point, so his daughter is tending his flock. In addition, we may conclude with fair certainty that Lavan’s estate is not large and that the family is not wealthy. Living in a herding environment, if they were indeed wealthy they would have a large flock, with more sheep than one young girl could handle. It is also reasonable to posit that if they were of means the family would be able to hire herders to control the grazing, rather than use their own children for that task.
The picture of Lavan’s household, as we see it now, is that of a man with two young daughters, living on a relatively small estate. From all appearances, it seems that at the time when Yaakov first arrives, there is no wife/mother in the family. When Yaakov’s first meeting with Rachel ends (with that famous kiss), she runs to her father’s house to report what happened. In contrast, in the parallel story one generation earlier, Rivkah ran to her mother’s house to report about the wealthy, thirsty stranger with gold jewels. We never do hear about Lavan’s spouse—but this appears to change at some later point, as we will see further on.
When Yaakov first arrives at the house, Lavan acts hospitably towards him, taking him in (Bereishit 29:14); it seems from Lavan’s words to Yaakov that the latter immediately went to work herding Lavan’s flock. (We would assume that, at this point, Rachel is relieved of these duties.) After the first month, Lavan says: “Indeed, you are my brother—shall you work for me for nothing? State your fee!” (v. 15). In other words, Yaakov has been working for Lavan without recompense (except for room and board). As stated above, a straightforward read of the verses (without prejudice regarding Lavan) presents him in a positive and somewhat charitable light. Yaakov’s answer shifts the conversation from straight wages to marriage—”I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter” (v. 18). Lavan is agreeable and Yaakov goes back to work, and the seven years go by quickly—”they were as a few days in [Yaakov’s] eyes, due to his love for her” (v. 20).
II. The Marriages
Even if we were ready to view Lavan with equanimity until this point, it is usually the marriage scene that sets our blood boiling against him. Yet again, however, a careful reading of the text presents Lavan in a positive light. In this case, it may even mar our view of Yaakov.
When the time is up, Yaakov approaches Lavan and says: “Give me my wife that I may come unto her (i.e. have relations with her)” (v. 21 – see Beresihit R. 70:18 re: this coarse wording). At no point in this brief demand (!) does Yaakov mention Rachel by name. Lavan gathers the people of the area and makes a feast. He gives Leah (with Zilpah as a handmaid) to Yaakov, who doesn’t realize until morning!
Before going further, two points about that night must be explained. First of all, Yaakov’s inability to recognize that he married Leah and not Rachel, in spite of the already noted physical differences between the sisters, tells us something about Yaakov’s behavior during the intervening seven years. Evidently, Yaakov had little to do with either Leah or Rachel during that time, and wasn’t familiar enough with Rachel to be able to tell that he married another woman. This seems a bit odd on the face of it, as seven years is a long time and, on a small estate, we would think that the people would see each other often. We will address this further on.
The second point is that the irony of Yaakov being fooled about a younger/older child in the dark was not lost on the baalei ha-nidrash. In Bereishit Rabbah (70:19), a long Midrashic passage telling the details of that fateful night concludes with a stinging statement: “Behold, she was Leah!: [Yaakov] said to her: ‘Deceptive one, daughter of a deceptive one—all night, I called out “Rachel” and you responded to me!’ [Leah] answered back: ‘Is there a barber without students? Wasn’t your father calling out “Esav,” and you responded to him?’”
This last question drives home a point which is a variation on the subtle rebuke Lavan delivers to Yaakov when he complains about the switched bride: “Such is not done in our place, to give the younger one before the older” (v. 26). On an overt level, Lavan is reprimanding Yaakov for not having paid attention to—or, perhaps, deliberately ignoring—the customs of a region where he has lived for seven years: younger daughters are not married off before their older sisters.
Parenthetically, this point can teach us a bit more about the family. Leah was not much older than Rachel, such that when Yaakov first arrived, they were both pre-marital age, and it was assumed that by the time the seven years were complete, Leah would have been married. Lavan is excoriating Yaakov for his insensitivity to local custom and, perhaps, to Leah herself. Underneath this rebuke is another, delivered through this pointed Midrash. “Perhaps in your place, you substitute the younger for the older and steal their rightful place in the family, but we don’t do that here!” Note that Yaakov has no comeback to this rebuke. One way or the other, he accepts it.
Lavan’s subsequent agreement, allowing Yaakov to marry Rachel after the seven-day celebration with Leah, seems a bit odd. Why would he want both of his daughters to be married to the same man? This is putting all of his eggs in one basket. What if something happens to that one son-in-law or if he proves to be less than trustworthy? In addition, as the story bears out, having two sisters married to the same man is a recipe for disharmony. We will revisit this issue below.
The text is silent about Yaakov’s relationship with Lavan throughout the childbearing narratives until the birth of Yosef. At that point, Yaakov approaches Lavan and asks permission to return to his home, a strange request indeed. Why does Yaakov need Lavan’s permission to leave at all? The result of this request is an interim agreement for Yaakov and Lavan to split the flock and to have all sheep born with specific markings go to Yaakov. The agreement is struck and Yaakov is successful in getting his spotted flock to out-reproduce Lavan’s flock, and Yaakov becomes wealthy—all of which should be good news for Lavan, as this wealth will be enjoyed by his daughters and grandchildren.
The beginning of chapter 31 introduces heretofore unheard-from characters into our narrative—and that is the catalyst for the sea change in the relationship between Yaakov and Lavan.
And [Yaakov] heard the words of Lavan’s sons saying: ‘Yaakov has taken all that belongs to our father, and from our father’s possessions has created all of this wealth. [Immediately:] And Yaakov saw that the face of Lavan was no longer with him as it was in the days before. (31:1-2)
This verse is enough, on its own, to support our basic thesis: the relationship between Yaakov and Lavan was a good one until now. But what changed things?
The answer is straightforward: the appearance of “bnei Lavan.” In the intervening years, while Yaakov was becoming a mighty herder and father of a dozen children, Lavan was also blessed with sons (perhaps with a new wife). These sons had grown up and are now agitated that this outsider stands to inherit their estate. (I am working under the assumption that Yaakov spent significantly more than 20 years in Haran and that these boys were born after he married Leah and Rachel. See Between The Lines of the Bible, vol. 1 chapter 16.) Blood being thicker than water, Lavan favors their position and no longer looks at Yaakov with a friendly eye. This leads to Yaakov, with God’s explicit command (v. 3) and his wives’ reluctant agreement (v. 16), to sneak his family out of Lavan’s home and to head south to the Gilead mountains and to his own home.
Importantly, one odd event occurs just before the family sneaks away. Rachel steals her father’s household gods (teraphim) (v. 19) and then hides them when her father catches up with Yaakov and inspects all of the tents to find these idols (v. 34). What motivates Rachel to steal them, and why is Lavan so angry about that theft that it becomes the focal point of his riv (dispute) with Yaakov?
One final point: During that dispute at Gilead, Lavan utters a seemingly odd declaration—”The girls are my daughters, the boys are my sons…” (v. 43). What is he claiming here about his daughters and grandsons? In addition, when he and Yaakov make their separation agreement, Lavan makes Yaakov swear that he will not marry any other women “in addition to my daughters” (v. 50). We understand his interest, but by what right does he make this demand?
IV. From The Archives
Over the past two centuries, numerous archives have been unearthed from ancient libraries and royal courts throughout the Middle East, chiefly in Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Egypt. These documents have revealed countless details about marriage and divorce, religious practices inheritance—every area of life as it was lived then. These archives, which famously include the Code of Hammurabi, the Sennacherib Prism and other “famous” finds, are of great interest to the student of Tanakh, as they have the potential to illuminate much about both narrative as well as legal texts in the canon.
In 1926, Professor Cyril John Gadd published a text found in the archives of Nuzi, an ancient city near Kirkuk, in modern-day Iraq (Revue d’ Assyriologie XXIII, 1926, pp. 126-127). It is a contract in which a man with no sons adopted another man as his heir. The contract stipulated that the new “heir” was to care for his new “father” for the duration of his life. If the “father” subsequently had sons, then they would divide the estate equally with the adopted heir—but only the natural son would inherit the father’s household gods. One of the conditions of the “adoption” was that the heir was to marry the paterfamilias’ daughter, and was forbidden from marrying any other woman; if he did so, he would forfeit the “father’s” property. (see Prof. Cyrus Gordon’s application of this find to our story in BASOR [the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research] #66, April 1937, pp. 25-27).
Taking this contract in hand and reading the story in a straightforward manner, the relationship takes on a very different hue and, perhaps, the Biblical Lavan (as opposed to the Midrashic Lavan) can be better understood. Let’s trace the relationship through again, keeping the contractual background in mind:
When the two first meet, Lavan has no sons and sees Yaakov as his adopted “heir.” Yaakov’s desire to marry one of the daughters only makes that all the more convenient. When, seven years later, the older daughter remains unmarried, Lavan brings her to Yaakov and they are married. Yaakov’s insistence on marrying Rachel may have been a request on his part to be able to divorce Leah, but from Lavan’s perspective, this is a perfect solution. Both of his daughters – his only children – will marry his heir who will inherit the estate, which continues to grow through Yaakov’s diligent work.
Although it may be Yaakov’s desire to return to Canaan and rejoin his parents (and claim his Divinely promised land), that catalyzes a subtle change in the relationship (we might posit that, at this point in time, Lavan’s sons have already been born and that Yaakov realizes that the terms of the contract will soon change). The full-blown conflict that comes to a head at the standoff at Gilead only comes when Lavan’s sons come of age. In the meantime, Yaakov is still able to remain there comfortably. That all changes when Lavan’s sons grow up and begin agitating for their portion in a future inheritance and complaining about Yaakov’s portion. Lavan’s claims, “the daughters are my daughters etc.,” are actually anchored in Mesopotamian contracts, as we see from the Nuzi archives.
We can also understand Rachel’s theft of the teraphim in this light and Lavan’s great agitation about it; she was taking a token which served as a claim on the estate—a title deed, as it were. Perhaps she had hopes that the family or the next generation would return and be able to stake a claim to the now successful estate and wrest it from her younger brothers.
V. Back To Lavan
The ba’alei ha-midrash taught deep and enduring lessons, many of them by presenting Biblical characters in “caricature light,” as completely pure and noble or completely devious and evil. A careful read of the Midrashic corpus reveals that nearly all Biblical characters are presented with greater nuance and shading than commonly thought. To bring two examples, Esav’s honor for his father, expanded and detailed in the Midrashim, as well as rabbinic rebukes of Yaakov beyond what the text states, demonstrate that even the Aggadic tradition presents textured characters, heroes with flaws and fallen sons with redeeming and even exemplary qualities.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming approach of a traditional student is to read the stories with the caricature in mind. To paraphrase Rashbam (at Bereishit 37:2), we are so accustomed to reading text through the lens of the Midrashim, which teach the most important and enduring lessons, that we overlook “Peshat,” the straightforward read of the text.
Stripping away the Midrashic overlay of Lavan’s demonic personality and reading the story on its own terms, against a 2nd millenium BCE Near Eastern background, we see that the “good/evil” divide that is usually assigned to Yaakov and Lavan, respectively, may have to be reassessed. Is every move that Lavan makes clearly driven by greed and murderous intent? Hardly. Is every step that Yaakov takes motivated by altruism and honor? Perhaps, and perhaps not. As we watch our Bereishit heroes grow, we also see them adjusting after their errors and learning from their mistakes. And as we see our Midrashic villains develop, we have to be cognizant that the story that the Tanakh tells about them is far more nuanced and shaded.