In part 1 of this series, we examined the importance of the number 2 in the life of Jacob. However, in part 2, I want to explore biblical slavery as we see it practiced in the relationship between Jacob and Laban. Many people don’t stop to consider that for fourteen years, Jacob lived as a slave to Laban. And after twenty years of being there with Laban, when Jacob decides to take his wife and children back home with him, Laban and his sons chase them down, and Laban accuses Jacob of running off with “his sons and daughters” (Genesis 31:28). On what basis does he believe that Jacob’s wives and children belong to him? I believe a major cornerstone in Laban’s thinking is the fact that Jacob acquired them while he was working as a slave for Laban. Therefore, to get a better understanding of this situation, we need to gain a better understanding of slavery as it is seen and practiced in the Bible.
Now, when many people bring up the topic of slavery in the Bible, there are many believers who get really nervous about addressing it. This is usually because both of them are making the same erroneous assumption: that slavery in the Bible and slavery in the United States were practiced the same way, and that is not true at all. In fact, if people had actually followed the Bible in its teachings on slavery, most forms of slavery in the USA would not have existed.
BIBLICAL SLAVERY: THE BASICS
Now before getting into the specifics of how we see biblical slavery play out in the life of Jacob, we need to provide some biblical context for our discussion by examining what the Bible has to say about this practice during the biblical period.
In the ancient world, there were no food stamps, there were no DES or state help you could turn to if you needed financial help, and there were no credit cards, if you wanted to purchase something but didn’t have the money for it at the time. So this provokes the question: What did people do when they wanted to get something, but they didn’t have the money, or they were in debt, and they didn’t have the money to pay it off? The answer is that they would voluntarily indenture or “enslave” themselves to that person for an agreed upon time period, i.e., they would work it off.
THE WORD “SLAVE” IN THE HEBREW AND GREEK
The word translated as “servant” in the Hebrew is ‘eved (H5650), which means “a laborer; a slave, a man in bonds.” The Stone Edition of the Chumash (1994), a Mesorah Publication and one of the two editions used in mainstream Jewish synagogues, translates the term ‘eved as “bondsman” (i.e., one who is in bonds). Also, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘eved is doulos [G1401], which only had one meaning in Greek in the first century, C.E., “slave.” For example, in John MacArthur’s book Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ (2010), he writes,
Scripture’s prevailing description of the Christian’s relationship to Jesus Christ is the slave / master relationship. But do a casual read through your English New Testament and you won’t see it.
The reason for this is as simple as it is shocking: the Greek word for slave has been covered up by being mistranslated in almost every English version – going back to the King James Version and the Geneva Bible that predated it. Though the word slave (doulos in Greek) appears 124 times in the original [Greek] text, it is correctly translated only once in the King James. Most of our modern translations do only slightly better….Instead of translating doulos as “slave,” these translations consistently substitute the word servant in its place. Ironically, the Greek language has at least half a dozen words that can mean servant. The word doulos is not one of them. Whenever it is used, both in the New Testament and in secular Greek literature, it always and only means slave. (15-16)
Obviously, the image of the slave (Heb. ‘eved; Gk. doulos) then is an important image for us to understand, not only in dealing with the story of Jacob and Laban, but also in understanding our own relationship to God and the Messiah Yeshua. In fact, each of the writers of the B’rit Chadasha (New Covenant) refer to themselves as “slaves.” For example,
BIBLICAL SLAVERY VS. U.S. SLAVERY
When we compare and contrast biblical slavery with that practiced in the United States, there are some major differences between the two.
VOLUNTARILY VS. FORCED
First of all, biblical slavery was voluntary; whereas, the slavery practiced in the United States was forced or involuntary. As we know from history, African tribes would attack and enslave other African tribes, and then turn around and sell them to the European slave ships as they sailed up and down the Niger River in Africa. Although the Europeans on those ships did not physically go out, capture the surrounding people, and then make them into slaves, they did, indeed, capitalize greatly on the slaves that were brought to them to buy. The slaves were then bought and forcibly brought over to the United States, and then sold again to others. Those who were brought over as slaves did not voluntarily leave their people or their individual tribes.
FAIR TREATMENT VS. ABUSE
Another obvious difference between biblical slavery and the slavery practiced in the United States was on how the slaves were treated. There are numerous stories of slaves in the United States being whipped, physically abused, mutilated, and the women raped, but this is in direct opposition to how God says that slaves were to be treated. According to Scripture, if a slave is physically harmed, then that slave is to be set free. For example, the Bible presents two case studies to illustrate this point:
And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake. (Exodus 21:23-24)
Obviously, then, if a person wanted the individual to stay with them to work off their debt, or the amount the individual wanted to pay for something, then the owner needed to be sure to treat the slave well; otherwise, with any form of abuse, the slave could end up going free.
THE TEACHING OF THE BONDSLAVE
Another teaching that shows the difference between biblical slavery and the way slavery was practiced in the United States is God’s instructions for the bondslave.
And it shall be, if he say unto you, I will not go away from you; because he loves you and your house, because he is well with you; then you shall take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be your servant for ever. And also to your maidservant you shall do likewise. (Deuteronomy 15:16-17; see also Exodus 21:5-6).
Obviously, someone would have to be treated really well for him or her to feel that being a slave was a better option than living freely on their own. And what we don’t see in the United States are people who chose to remain slaves because of how well they were being treated, as opposed to going free.
THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE VS. FORCED TO RETURN
A third major difference is that according to Scripture, if a slave runs away from his or her owner, the slave is not to be returned to their abusive owner. This is found in the book of Deuteronomy,
You shall not deliver to his master the servant (slave) which is escaped from his mater to you: He shall dwell with you, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of your gates, where it likes him best: you shall not oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
However, there are a number of accounts where slaves who had escaped were forced to return to their master.
Obviously, then, when we consider what God has to say about how slavery is to be handled, and those who are slaves treated – and we compare this against slavery in the United States – we can see that the United States did not follow God’s commands and instructions regarding it, even though some misused the Bible to justify their own version of slavery. So now that we have a better idea of what constituted biblical slavery, and how different it was from how it was done in the U.S., let’s now examine how it was lived out in Jacob’s own life.
JACOB AND LABAN
When Jacob came to Laban in Syria, he did not have the money for the bride’s dowry. Once he had introduced himself to Rachel, she ran to tell her father Laban, who then came and greeted Jacob. Jacob stayed with them for a month (Genesis 29:10-14). However, after that first month, Laban asked him what he wanted for wages to work there with them? Jacob tells him that he wants to marry Rachel, and so Jacob agrees to serve Laban for a time period of seven years.
And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter. And Laban said, It is better that I give her to you, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me. And Jacob served seven years for Rachel: and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her. (Genesis 29:18-20)
Here we can see that Jacob voluntarily agreed to serve Laban as a slave for seven years to pay the bridal dowry for Rachel. At the end of the seven years, Jacob then came to Laban to acquire Rachel as his bride.
And Jacob said to Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her. And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. (Genesis 29:21-22)
JACOB’S MARRIAGE TO LEAH
Now at this point, I am sure Jacob is thinking everything is fine. However, when it comes time for Jacob to receive his bride, Laban switches them, and he gives him Leah instead.
And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave to his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid [female slave] for a handmaid [her own personal slave]. And it came to pass, than in the morning, behold it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Wherefore the have you deceived me? And Laban said, It must not be so done that in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. (Genesis 29:23-26)
As we can see here, Laban deceives Jacob by giving him Leah, rather than Rachel. What I find rather ironic about this is that Jacob pretended to be the firstborn, deceiving his father, to acquire Esau’s blessing, and in this turnaround, Laban deceives Jacob by giving him his firstborn daughter, Leah. Now there’s no indication here whether Leah participated in this deception willingly, or whether she was forced into the situation. All we do know is that Jacob did not realize that she was Leah until the next morning. And according to Jewish tradition, it is for this reason that Jewish men lift the veils of their brides before the marriage ceremony just to be sure they are marrying the right woman.
Also, as we can see, Laban justifies his deception by citing normal cultural practice: It is not customary for the younger daughter to be given in marriage before the firstborn. When Jacob is not content with this response, Laban says,
Fulfill her [Leah’s] week, and we will give you this [Rachel as a bride] also for the service which you shall serve with me yet another seven years. And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week:….” (Genesis 29:27-28a)
Through this deception, Laban gets Jacob to work for him as a slave for another seven years. He did this to get the woman he loved and agreed to serve for seven years, but instead, he ends up working for fourteen years for her.
JACOB’S MARRIAGE TO RACHEL
So after completing Leah’s marriage week, Laban then gives Rachel to Jacob to be his wife.
…and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also. And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid [female slave] to her her maid [slave]. And he [Jacob] went in also to Rachel, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. (Genesis 29: 28-30)
Now Jacob has to finish out the seven-day marriage feast with Leah, before Laban gives him Rachel to be his wife, and although the text does not specify this, it seems unlikely that Leah would give a seven-day feast and Rachel would not. Therefore, there had to be another seven day marriage feast for Rachel; thereby, giving everyone two weeks of marriage feasting and celebration. And then after this two-week celebration, Jacob would have served Laban for yet another seven years.
As we continue on with the story, we discover that all but Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest child, were born during this second seven year period of servitude.
These twelve children – eleven sons and one daughter – were born to Jacob during the seven years after his marriage to Leah and Rachel. Considering that Leah gave birth to seven children in seven years indicates that she must have been pregnant every year during that entire time. And then during that same time period, Zilpah gave birth to two sons, Bilhah gave birth to two sons, and Rachel was the last one to give birth to a son, Joseph.
JACOB NEGOTIATES HIS WAGES
After completing his fourteen years of slavery, Jacob negotiates with Laban for his wages, so that he may provide for his household (Genesis 31:30). Jacob told Laban,
You shall not give me any thing: if you will do this one thing for me, I will again feed and keep my flock. I will pass through all your flock today, removing from them all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire. (Genesis 30:31-32)
However, after fourteen years in servitude, where does Jacob get the idea that he can go through Laban’s flocks and herds and claim certain ones to be his? Is it possible that some version of this teaching in Deuteronomy was already being practiced during the life of Jacob?
And if your brother, an Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto you, and serve you six years; then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him out from you, you shall not let him go away empty: You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your floor, and out of your winepress: of that wherewith the LORD your God has blessed you you shall give to him. (Deuteronomy 15:12-14)
After the end of the first month after they first month, Laban calls Jacob “my brother” (Genesis 29:15), so is it possible that Jacob was expecting Laban to respect this practice that may have resembled on some level this teaching from the Torah? But instead, we learn that same day,
And he [Laban] removed that day the he goats that were ringstreaked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons. (Genesis 30:35)
God gives Jacob a plan for getting his wages, and during this process, Laban tried to cheat Jacob out of his fair share on ten different occasions. This happened over a duration of six years (Genesis 31:7). Finally, after six years has passed of this, God tells Jacob it is time for him to go back to the land of his fathers.
JACOB LEAVES AND LABAN PURSUES
After sharing with his family what God had told him, they decide to leave while Laban and his sons had gone to shear the sheep (Genesis 31:19-20). However, Jacob and his family had been gone for three days before Laban found out that they had left. But as soon as he found out, he and his sons took off after them. It took them seven days to finally catch up with them at Mt. Gilead (Genesis 31:22-23). It is at this point that we arrive at the situation I referred to at the beginning of this study: Laban accusing Jacob of running off with his sons, daughters and things.
DOES LABAN HAVE A VALID CASE?
If we only take a superficial view of the Torah, then it would appear that Laban has a valid case. For example, in the book of Exodus, after God tells Israel and the non-Jews there with them at the foot of Mt. Sinai the Ten Commandments, He then calls Moses up the mountain and gives him the following instructions:
If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. (Exodus 21:2-4)
Rather than six years, Jacob completed fourteen years (or 2 x 7 years), but then worked another six years for wages. Jacob did come in by himself, and he was married to Leah and Rachel during those fourteen years of servitude, and it was during that same time that Jacob had his eleven sons and one daughter. So was he correct in alleging that Jacob’s wives and children actually belonged to Laban?
However, for Jacob, first of all, Laban did not “give” Jacob his eyes, he had spent fourteen years working to pay their bridal dowry; therefore, they legitimately belonged to him, as well as the children he had through them. Secondly, Laban had cheated Jacob time after time after time, for a total of ten different times! And God saw this. In retelling his dream to his wives, he told them,
And the angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, Jacob: and I said, Here am I. And he said, Lift up now your eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle are ringstreaked, speckled, and grizzled: for I have seen all that Laban does to you. (Genesis 31:11-12)
However, the Torah teaches that we are not to “deal falsely,” “defraud,” or keep the wages that are entitled to a hired worker.
You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another….You shall not defraud your neighbor, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with you all night until the morning. (Leviticus 19:11, 13)
You shall not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of your brethren, or of your strangers that are in the land within your gates: At his day you shall give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it: lest he cry against you to the LORD: and it be sin to you. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
Laban defrauded Jacob in giving him Leah, instead of Rachel, and he attempted to defraud him, and even oppressed him, on a number of other times in regard to his wages.
THE FINAL VERDICT
It seems implied from the text that as a result of God telling Jacob that He had seen all that Laban had done to him, as well as God speaking to Laban and telling him in a dream, “Take heed that you speak not to Jacob either good or bad” (Genesis 31:24), that Laban does not, in fact, have a valid case against Jacob, or if he did a valid case originally, his defrauding – and attempted defrauding – of Jacob these many times invalidated that claim. Consequently, the clear right of ownership in this case belongs to Jacob.
Now let me ask the million dollar question: “What does any of this have to do with us today?” Like Jacob, we too are slaves. Except in contrast to Laban, God does not attempt to defraud or deceive us in any manner. Some may, in fact, question whether we are “slaves.” To explain this, we need to keep three things in mind:
- God is King. In the Scriptures, God is the King of all Creation. As such, He does not lead a religion, but instead, He rules and reigns over a Kingdom. Although both a President and a King may rule over their nations or domains, a King literally owns everything within His domain.
- God is Lord. And because a King owns everything in His own domain, the title “Lord” is a natural synonym for a king. In fact, the only form of government where the word “Lord” is used is in a Monarchy. The word “Lord” means “Master” or “Owner.” Therefore, if God is “Lord,” then He is the Master and Owner of all that He has created. For example, in Psalm 24:1, we read,
The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Here we can clearly see that God owns the earth and everything in it, as well as every human being on earth as well. We further see this idea developed any further in the book of Ezekiel.
Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sins shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)
If God owns all that He has created, including every human soul, then we are “slaves” in the fact that the word “slave” indicates “someone who is owned by another.” As a result, then, He has the right to decide what happens to each person, including their eternal destiny. This means that He also has the right to decide who will be allowed in His Kingdom and what needs to be done for them to “enter into the Kingdom.”
However, even though God has every right to make these decisions, He has give us the freedom of choice. From the very beginning, God has given us a choice between two options, whether it was between “the tree of life” or “the tree of the knowledge of good or evil,” or at Mt. Sinai, where He gives us the choice between “life and death, blessing or the curse,” or even in the New Testament between putting our hope and trust in the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) or in rejecting Him. We have been given the choice of willingly loving and serving Him, or in completely rejecting Him and His Kingdom.
- He purchased us with His blood. So not only are we “slaves” because God created us and, therefore, He owns us, but also because Yeshua (Jesus) purchased us the day He shed His blood on the cross. This, for me, is where things get a little confusing. If God owns us, as Psalm 24:1 and Ezekiel 18:4 indicates, then why was it necessary for Him to purchase us?
Even though Jacob legitimately married and had children with Leah and Rachel, as well as their two maids, Zilphah and Bilhah, Laban attempted to claim that they were really his due to the surrounding circumstances of the marriage and their births happening while Jacob had enslaved himself to Laban to pay for the dowry. In spite of this, both God and Jacob did not see the need to purchase them from Laban. However, in the prophets, Hosea married Gomer and had a child with her. However, she cheated on him with other men, giving birth to two other children. She then got herself into financial trouble, and she was going to be sold to pay off that debt. So even though she was legitimately Hosea’s wife, he ended up having to give all that he had to get her back.
In the same way, we all legitimately belong to God and the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). However, due to our sins, we have gotten ourselves into trouble and have been enslaved by the domain of darkness. Consequently, like Hosea, God has given His most precious possession, the life of His One and Only Son, as payment to purchase us back to Himself. For just as Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) writes in I Corinthians,
What? Know you not that your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have of God, and YOU ARE NOT YOUR OWN? For YOU WERE BOUGHT WITH A PRICE: therefore glorify God in YOUR BODY, AND IN YOUR SPIRIT, WHICH ARE GOD’S. (I Corinthians 6:19-20; emphasis added)
We have been “purchased with a price,” and God holds the receipt. If I have been bought, so that not only my spirit, but my body, now belongs to God, then this body, this life, doesn’t belong to me anymore. Every day that I wake up, I make the decision whether I am going to hand my life over to God and the Messiah, or whether I am going to take it back and live life satisfying my own selfish and sinful needs and desires. It is not a choice I make only once, but it is a choice I must make each and every day.
WE ARE ALL SLAVES
We are all slaves to something, whether we are slaves to God and Messiah, or we are slaves to our own pride, selfishness and sinful desires. If we choose to enslave ourselves to God and the Messiah Yeshua, we will inherit the Kingdom one day, but if we choose to enslave ourselves to anyone else, including ourselves, or to something else, then we will not inherit the Kingdom of God. The choice really is ourse to make. For just as Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) writes in the book of Romans:
Know you not, that to whom you yield [submit] yourselves servants [lit. “slaves”] to obey, his servants [lit. “slaves”] you are to whom you obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness. But God be thanked, that you were the servants [lit. “slaves”] of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, you became the servants [lit. “slaves”] of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)