There’s a fascinating plot going on underneath Genesis 31-35. The characters in focus are Jacob, his beloved wife Rachel, and his father-in-law Laban.
It picks up in Genesis 31 when Jacob flees Laban’s household with all that he has. In the process of leaving, Rachel steals her father’s idols. She doesn’t tell Jacob.
In the mind of any thief, the central question is always, “How am I going to get away with this?” Surely the question crosses Rachel’s mind as she discreetly removes the idols from Laban’s dwelling. She knows that Laban will put two and two together; he will associate the theft with Jacob somehow (Leah is a top suspect, as her tent is among the first that Laban searches). But Rachel reasons that Laban won’t go so far as to pursue Jacob into the hills. And, even if he does, would Laban be able to find them? No, she reasons, Laban will more than likely craft or purchase replacement idols and leave the matter alone.
Why does Rachel take Laban’s idols? What is Rachel’s want?
Here are five possibilities.
1. A noble action: She takes them from Laban as a kind of rescue, to wean her father away from idol worship. “If the idols can’t save themselves, then they can’t save you, Laban. You need to wake up to the truth.”
2. A prudent action: Laban’s idols are “oracles” as Rabbi Hirsch translates the Hebrew. Rachel recognizes that behind these idols are real, supernatural dark forces. She doesn’t want these forces to tell Laban which direction Jacob departed. So, by taking the oracles, she is buying time. “I'll take the idols so that Laban can’t consult them and figure out our location.”
3. A sentimental action: She grew up with these idols and now she simply can’t let them go. Almost like a girl packing her time-raggled stuffed animal as she travels off to college. Or maybe like a Christmas nativity set from your childhood that you can’t seem to part with. “I’m taking these because I want something that reminds me of home.”
4. A business move: as revealed in Genesis 31:14, Rachel and Leah knew that their father had no intention of sharing his estate with them. It’s been pointed out that there was a tradition in ancient Mesopotamia that he who possessed the family gods possessed certain rights over the household. Rachel sees Laban’s large estate and thinks, “I’ll steal these idols so that we can return after my father’s death and claim our due inheritance.” (Proponents of this explanation reference the fact that Laban accepts the theft of his idols once he guarantees that Jacob and his family will not cross a particular boundary line. He knows then that his sons’ inheritance is protected.)
5. A simple act of spite: Rachel is so fed up with Laban that she wants to hit him where it hurts the most. “I could care less about these idols, but I’m going to steal them because I know how much they mean to my father, and he deserves to hurt after the way he’s treated me and my husband.”
These five possibilities represent potential motivations. But the narrative provides a few clues which may eliminate some of them:
Clue #1: she doesn’t tell Jacob about her actions.
Clue #2: she still has them after 10 days!
Clue #1 leads one to believe that a guilty conscience was involved, the result of self-interest. This rules out “the noble act” idea.
Clue #2 leads one to believe that “the prudent move” isn’t the answer either. Had she just been trying to prevent Laban from consulting his oracles, she could’ve buried the idols in the sand a day or two later, her goal having been accomplished. This clue also leads one to believe that “the simple act of spite” isn’t the primary motivation either. Had it been a simple act of spite, she would’ve discarded them or destroyed them soon after their departure. There’s no need to keep incriminating evidence any longer than you have to.
“The business move” isn’t compelling because she already knows that Jacob is a wealthy man. Moreover, Jacob’s fathers possess even more wealth in their homeland. Therefore, Rachel doesn’t need to claim additional riches from Laban. Besides that, this motivation doesn’t seem very true to her character.
Was her motivation sentimental in nature? Possibly. It is easy to cling to the past. The tokens of our childhood can be difficult to release, especially if we derive a level of emotional security from them. Still, I don’t find this reason compelling on its own.
There is another explanation, a sixth possibility. As Dennis Prager writes, “Rachel surely believed in the God of Jacob, but she might well have still believed in the power of idols with which she grew up. When people believe in many visible gods, it takes a very long time to get them to believe in one invisible God. Rachel’s behavior may have been similar to that of Neils Bohr, the Nobel-prize winning physicist who was said to keep a rabbit’s foot in his laboratory. When an astonished visitor asked, ‘But surely, professor, you don’t believe in a rabbit’s foot?’ Bohr responded, ‘Of course not. But they say a rabbit’s foot brings you luck whether you believe in it or not.’”
Prager points out that Rachel, who was desperately anxious to have a child (Gen. 30:1) and then desperately anxious to have a second child, might well have been open to utilizing all means toward procuring her goal, including mandrakes and, of course, Jacob’s God, and perhaps also gods from her father’s household. This, I believe, is her primary motivation to steal her father’s idols.
Ten days along in their journey toward Jacob’s homeland, the unexpected happens. Laban interrupts their progress and confronts Jacob about his stealth departure, and (with Rachel nearby) he brings up the theft of his household idols.
Instead of simply assuring Laban that he did not take them, Jacob makes an audacious pronouncement—one that must have terrified Rachel. Jacob declares, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” Dennis Prager comments, “We are all occasionally tempted to make these types of grandiose avowals, but they are risky and rarely necessary. Jacob’s statement turns out to be highly risky—and unnecessary, as it does not deter Laban from searching the tents in Jacob’s camp.” Even more than risky and unnecessary, it is harmful because, in this moment, Rachel cements the secrecy of her sin. Suddenly the theft threatens her entire life. Her husband’s condemnation is so strong that the possibility of her ever admitting the truth is now and forever smothered.
Laban goes searching the tents. Why doesn’t he believe Jacob’s categorical denial that neither he nor anyone with him had stolen the idols? “Because Laban regularly deceived people. People who lie assume everyone else does, too. This is the built-in punishment of the dishonest: they go through life convinced they are constantly being deceived” (Prager).
He starts with his top suspects: Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s tent, then the tents of the two maidservants. By process of elimination, Laban works to uncover the guilty party. One imagines that Rachel must feel like Achan in Joshua 7. Just as Achan took from Jericho “some of the devoted things,” Rachel had taken from Laban some of his devoted things. Just as Achan endured an agonizing moment before being singled out publicly, so too Rachel is enduring an agonizing moment as Laban closes in on her and the idols. And, just as Achan hid the gold and silver in the ground beneath his tent, now Rachel hides the idols in a camel’s saddle beneath her body inside her tent. Death was Achan’s sentence. If discovered, will it be hers?
As Laban enters her tent, she tells him, “Let not my lord take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.” Whether or not this is true, Laban believes her. Laban does not try to look under the cushion because it would have been inconceivable to him that Rachel would run the risk of menstruating while sitting on his gods. After searching through her other belongings, he exits the tent and Rachel breathes a long sigh of relief. She’s off the hook! Or is she?
As an aside, the word for “search” (חפּש, khaw-fas) in Genesis 31:35 is used only twice in the Torah, and those usages connect two stories in a very curious way. It’s found here, when Laban has caught up to Jacob during his homeward journey and is now searching through Rachel’s belongings, trying to find his stolen gods. It’s found later when Joseph sends a servant to catch up to Jacob’s sons during their homeward journey. The servant searches through their bags of grain and in Benjamin’s sack he finds the “stolen” cup (Gen. 44:12). Of course, Benjamin’s mother is Rachel, so when the cup is discovered in Benjamin’s bag the brothers must have groaned. “We know his mom’s the one who stole the idols and now, well, here we go again! Like mother, like son. He’s stealing an object used for divination by this Egyptian overlord” (Gen. 44:5).
Returning to the narrative at hand, we read that after Jacob’s departure from Laban, he arrives safely at the city of Shechem and buys some land outside the city (Gen. 33:18-19). Estimates vary as to how long he stays at Shechem, but a year or so would make sense. Something crazy happens (Genesis 34) and, as a result, many women and children from Shechem are brought into captivity in Jacob’s camp (34:27-29). Jacob seeks to leave the area quickly, afraid that the Canaanites might soon attack him and his household (34:30). God gives him directions to go to Bethel. He obeys, but before leaving he commands all who are with him (namely these Shechemite women who have come under his authority) to bury their foreign idols under the old oak at Shechem. He does not want any idols to join them on their journey to Bethel.
Question: is Rachel still harboring Laban’s idols? And if she is, does she bring them forward now? Because this is her opportunity! In fact, it may very well be her last call for repentance. The Bible doesn’t tell us one way or the other. But maybe what the Bible doesn’t tell us is, itself, a clue. We are never told that Rachel dispossesses the idols. For her theft, she is not given any redemption and we are not given any closure. The idols are last seen with Rachel as she hides them from the father and guards her sin from everyone around her. What happens to the idols afterward remains a mystery.
Nevertheless, here is one plausible way to tell the story: Pregnant Rachel stands alongside Jacob and watches woman after woman after woman step forward to deposit her household idol into a pit beneath the old oak at Shechem. Rachel envies their freedom to do it so honestly. She thinks of the idols of her childhood still hidden among her belongings. She resents them now even though she is very protective of the saddle they stay inside.
The caravan makes their stop in Bethel and then travels on toward Ephrath (Bethlehem). Along the way to Bethlehem, Rachel goes into labor and sadly dies during childbirth. She names the baby Benoni, meaning “son of my sorrow”. It’s a sad moment indeed, for she is a life cut short.
One might ask, is Rachel’s premature passing an outgrowth of the curse that Jacob had unknowingly spoken over her life? After all, Jacob––like his fathers Abraham and Isaac––had been vested with a tremendous power to bless and to curse. Wielding this power somewhat carelessly, he wished death upon the thief of Laban’s idols, not realizing that the curse would land upon his beloved wife Rachel. And then, with her failure to repent––her failure to bring the truth to light––she compounds the matter and seals its consequence.
Her departing words, the name her son, references her sadness as she realizes she will not live to see her son grow up. But what if the sorrow she feels is also part of something bigger? What if unresolved guilt and growing regret is intertwined with the sadness of this immediate moment?
Jacob struggles in the wake of Rachel’s death. Rabbi Hirsch translates Genesis 35:21-22 to emphasize Jacob’s withdrawal from the family during this time. Hirsch’s translation of verses 21-22 reads: “[Jacob] journeyed on and pitched his tent at some distance from the herd tower. When [Jacob] was residing in that land, Rueben went and placed his couch beside Bilhah, his father’s concubine, so that [Jacob] heard of it...” Hirsch then comments, “It is possible that the tent pitched by Jacob is the tent that Jacob formerly shared with Rachel. Thus, the meaning would be: He pitched his tent at some distance from the herd tower around which the rest of his family had encamped.” As long as Rachel was alive, Jacob resided among everyone. But in the days following her death, he withdraws and isolates himself. And in his absence, Rueben makes his move on Bilhah.
We can imagine a moment during this dark period of time. It might go like this: a servant breaks off from the camp and travels over to Jacob’s lonely tent. The servant has come to tell Jacob about the outrageous disintegration of his family ranks. But Jacob is emotionally too distant to reach. The servant cannot understand why. Jacob gestures toward a pouch that is folded up in the corner of the tent. Out of the bag, the servant pulls Laban’s unmistakable idols into the firelight. The servant instantly understands.
Following the death of Rachel, wide-eyed and white-faced Jacob had stumbled upon his wife’s long-held secret, and he couldn’t help but remember the words he had spoken to Laban.