Jacob has a history of running instead of sorting things out. Remember how he ran from Esau? Well, it’s happening again. It tends to do that when you don’t resolve things.
Jacob knows Laban will never let him leave with everything he’s acquired: the herds that were his wages for the last six years, and Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. Jacob packs everything while Laban is distracted with the shearing and makes a run for it.
Laban pursues. He’s convinced Jacob has stolen things. His household gods are missing. Laban believes Jacob is now trying to take everything from him, just as he did to Esau.
Jacob is incensed at Laban’s accusation, promising death to anyone who did such a thing. He doesn’t realize his beloved Rachel is the culprit. Now it’s Rachel’s turn to play the deception game. And she’s good at it (31:32-35).
The Israelite audience listening to the story is shocked. It’s not just that their matriarch is a thief; she’s been unmasked as an idolater. Jacob has married within the Abrahamic family, but she’s an Aramean and she comes with her gods. It’s a story that will plague Israel throughout their history.
Laban probably intended to tear Jacob apart, but he was blocked by divine proclamation (31:24, 29). So Laban seeks to make peace with Jacob. He asks for a covenant (31:44). They don’t trust each other, so they raise a cairn of stones and call on their gods to act as guardians of the treaty. Laban calls on his family gods, whereas Jacob invokes the one his Father feared (31:53). The so-called Mizpah benediction is not a friendly greeting: it’s an expression of deep mistrust. “May YHWH keep watch between us tricksters while we’re out of each other’s sight” (31:49 paraphrased).
And yet, with all their caginess, Laban is teaching Jacob an important lesson. Don’t run! Do what you can to set things right. Jacob is learning. He wants to leave on good terms, and so he does something very significant. He initiates a zě·ḇǎḥ, a communal sacrifice meal to repair their damaged relationship:
Genesis 31:54–55 (ESV)
54 Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country. 55 Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.
We’ve seen the ʿō·lā(h) (burnt offering) in Genesis 8:20-21 and 22:2-13, but this is the first zě·ḇǎḥ. In the Torah, the ʿō·lā(h) was completely burnt so the barbecue aroma rose into the heavens as a sign of on-going devotion to the heavenly sovereign. The zě·ḇǎḥ was different: part of it was burnt, but part was eaten. It was effectively a meal with God. It enacted their fellowship with him, celebrating their place at his table. Here Jacob is offering an animal to the God who will oversee their covenant, and inviting Laban and family to join him in this fellowship meal in God’s presence. The meal enacted their reconciliation.
Christian readers often misunderstand how sacrifices worked in the Old Testament. It would be wrong to imagine individual Israelites rushing off to Jerusalem to appease their guilt each time they felt they had done something bad. There is much more going on than individual forgiveness. The sacrifices were primarily about providing the daily meals for God (ʿō·lā(h), and enacting the nation’s fellowship with him by eating at his table (zě·ḇǎḥ). Atonement was about maintaining the national relationship between the heavenly sovereign and his people.
Here’s the primary definition of zě·ḇǎḥ in The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 262:
Communal sacrifice = sacrifice of slaughtered sheep, goat or cattle to create communion between the god to whom the sacrifice is made and the partners of the sacrifice, and communion between the partners themselves.
But what a wonderful outcome! At last, Jacob has stopped running. He’s learning to reconcile. And he learned this by responding to someone he couldn’t trust. Wow!
Jacob has learned just in time. He needs this skill so he can reconcile with his brother.
Reconciliation isn’t always possible, since it depends on how the other person responds (compare Romans 12:18). Nevertheless, reconciliation is a central marker of the people who represent the heavenly sovereign’s work among the people who are estranged from his kingship. It is reconciliation — not running — that keeps a community healthy.
What others are saying
William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Genesis, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1998), 744:
Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain: this is the first use of the word for sacrifice in Genesis. In 8:20; 22:2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 13, we encountered the expression “burnt offering,” which referred to animals that were killed and burned up completely. In this verse the animal is killed and burned, but some of the meat is kept for eating. The sacrifice and the eating of the meat from the sacrificial animal unites Jacob and Laban, as well as their kinsmen, with God in a ritual act and so affirms and seals the agreement.
Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 15:
Although in practice a biblical zevaḥ consisted of slaughtered animals, it is more accurate to explain this term as “food offering” and to understand the verb z-v-ḥ as “to celebrate a sacred meal.” …
The most detailed description of the zevaḥ sacrifice, apart from the priestly legislation in the Book of Leviticus, is found in 1 Samuel 9:12, 14, 19, 22–25. There participants are referred to as keruʾim, “invited guests.”
Read Genesis 31.