Why did Rachel steal her father's household idols in Genesis 31? I had someone ask me today and I wasn't sure how best to answer them.
I’m self consciously tying these recent messages to the later experience of Israel, because the Exodus generation was the first to benefit from Moses’ inspired retelling of their history. These episodes were preserved by him, in this form, for the purpose of teaching God’s people the spiritual nature of their own deliverance. In much the same way, the Israelite’s deliverance serves the same background function, as a prequel, for the deliverance wrought by Christ.
The finished work of Christ helps us to interpret this history as predictive of Christ, and this history, in turn, helps us understand the fullness of New Testament revelation. Likewise, the Israelites’ Exodus-experience helped them interpret this history as predictive of their own salvation-history moment, and this history, in turn, helped them understand the fullness of Moses’ revelation.
What connection might they make (these Israelites coming out into the wilderness) as they listen to this story-moment? Consider: just days before the Exodus, Moses commanded them to purge their dwellings of all the leaven of Egypt. Leaven is an “influencing” agent, starter-dough that ordinarily is carried over from one baking to the next. By commanding his people to get rid of all their old leaven before the first Passover, and immediate flight thereafter, God illustrated to them the complete and clean-break ideally they should be making from Egypt. Leaven stood for all the old, past, and evil influences of the world they were abandoning. What have they brought with them out of Egypt that should have stayed behind?
I titled this message, “Failure to Purge,” having in mind the pivotal tension, drama, or suspense in this morning’s episode. We have known since v19 that certain of Laban’s idols have, in fact, accompanied the holy family during this flight. The strength of God’s elect is his confidence in his uprightness; but the strength of Laban is his confidence that someone has hidden Haran away in his heart. Not purging the leaven of idolatry may be enough to force a return of the whole company to Padan Aram.
See, the devil doesn’t need for you to hold tight to every possible lust for sin there is. Sure, the more you desire, the easier it is to imprison you. But all he truly needs is for there to be one, uncrucified passion, and he will drop his fishhook in that one spot, and reel you in. My theme this morning is: Don’t risk the price of not-accompanying your Beloved to his promised land, by secretly preserving a love for this world.
I. We saw last time that the family core, set on his swiftest and most enduring mounts (the camels), had traveled with urgency, averaging about thirty miles a day for ten days. These were mostly women and small children, the oldest son being around 13yrs old. The grace of God had brought them above half-way home before (v25) Laban overtook Jacob, pitched in the mountains which are called Gilead.
Picture these two camps. Jacob’s band is small, the children and their mothers; maybe an unnamed servant or two? Call them twenty. Laban’s party are all men, “brethren,” who had set off with full intent of recovering… everything. There’s probably far more than twenty. If we think again like military men, they would probably have been spread out, perhaps even by several miles parallel to Jacob’s basic line of march, so as not to miss him if he changed direction or sought to hide, and let Laban pass him by.
Finally, Jacob’s tents are spotted, and the gap is closed. We might recall, Laban is not only the general of the troops, he is an older man. He probably was not doing the scouting, so he must be informed, and the rest of the troops called in to this location. Meanwhile, a bivouac is begun. My point is: Laban’s camp is a military staging area, and the troops are pouring in.
It appears to be a clear situation of strong vs. weak, as Laban (with an army at his back) approaches his son-in-law to parley. We can only imagine the conflict within, as he measures his words. No one knows better than he does that the appearances do not tell the whole story. Is it now possible to leverage this situation, so that Jacob voluntarily (if reluctantly) might return?
His speech (vv26-30) is a completely self-serving version of events, and one that stands in a certain contrast to his company. He seeks answers, affecting how cruelly Jacob has treated him, stealing away unknown. On top of that offense, he claims it felt like Jacob had taken his daughters (as though Jacob had not purchased them, nor provided for them) like a bandit, like a raider with a sword. He protests further, he felt deprived of his right to a merrymaking moment, to ease the pain of kissing his loved ones goodbye. He’s trying to shame Jacob, or put the blame on him for causing this chase, needlessly. He proposes that Jacob’s act contradicts his faith in his God, “you have done foolishly.”
Inasmuch as this word of rebuke pushes the bounds that God imposed on his speech, Laban seems compelled to mention the dream saying, “Your father’s God spoke to me,” so this unbelieving man becomes an unwilling witness to Jacob of the protection of the Lord. And still the conflict boils inside Laban, for in the same breath he witnesses of his power to harm Jacob.
In Laban, we are given a very clear picture, stripped away of all illusions, of the world’s beck and call. It appears as an irresistible force. It approaches us cajoling, shaming, threatening. But mark this, it does all this for one reason: it cannot have its way with us, or else it would. There would have been no discussions with Jacob, if Laban had any power. So, if we have escaped the world, how is it that we are too easily convinced of its power over us? Could it be because wittingly or unwittingly, we have taken something with us, that should have been left?
II. Laban addresses the matter of his true property claim. He sets the charge up (v30) with a pretended admiration of the strong impulse that compelled this rash departure. But though this act has an excuse, still there can be no excuse for stealing Laban’s gods.
Laban (I suspect) was hoping for some kind of reaction as he got from Jacob. Jacob’s response to the first charge is simply to answer very straightly and honestly, and thereby disarms whatever power to shame it had. From the earthly standpoint, the fears (v31) are substantiated by simply looking over at Laban’s camp. But it is the response to the second charge that has the greatest potential to ruin this day for God’s elect. For Jacob offers the life of the offender to Laban. He speaks this word “before our brethren,” that is, in the presence of the witnesses from Laban’s camp, mainly. Jacob’s confidence is boundless, but premature (as we are reminded).
The commentators seem to think that the offer of a death-sentence is a most-literal thing, and exceedingly rash. And I agree—it is literal—although, we know that not all sentences are carried out in the most extreme form. The point is that Jacob sets no limits on the vengeance he will permit Laban to take; and in this I am hesitant to affirm that Jacob is so rash. Because the lesson taught is this: that life is only to be found in accompanying the Blessed One to the promised land.
And if any were to be found with idols in his bosom, can such a one inherit eternal life? The answer is clearly “No.” Jesus taught that the one sitting at the feast without a wedding garment would be cast into the outer darkness, in which is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt.22:11-13). Jacob is but a man, and clearly does not have all knowledge, or else he would not have ventured on his loved ones’ lives. But his statement is nothing but what we should expect from our Lord, who is THE Elect One, THE Blessed One, of whom Jacob is a type.
Here, then, is the threat spelled out. If Jacob had been guilty, his shame would have led the family back to Haran forever. And if some one of the family had been found guilty (a son, a concubine even), we can suppose Jacob would have offered his life a ransom for that one (as sometime later, Judah offers his life for Benjamin’s); and again, in all likelihood, the whole family (being left without protection) would have been led back to Haran.
What comes to light by this is that our protection is entirely in Jesus Christ. We, as God’s elect people, are elect in him; and our eternal security is bound up in his freedom. Our little bosom sins, the little idols that we have taken along with us out of the world, the things that we cannot do without (so we sneak them into our saddles)—these things are a death-sentence to us! The devil would like nothing better than to arrest us by finding what is his in our possession. For then, he would claim both it and us.
Suppose the evil one could claim you? Well, someone left to that fate learns too late that was a pretended marriage. The true Husband lays down his life for his true Bride. Suppose the evil one accuses you? The Husband pays your ransom; or in your case he points to his cross and he testifies that the ransom has been paid. Ah, but if it is paid in blood and in death, then there is no Protector, and you are led away anyway by your captor. Nay, but his resurrection is the assurance that you have a Protector still, one who has paid the forfeit, and has recovered his coin.
Now, in our text, the best way I can think of to describe the lesson is thus: that the world does its best to find some reason to claim its property and us along with it. And we (for our part) are terribly guilty (and unclean, which was Rachel’s lame pretext for not budging from her saddle). We, the well-beloved wife, have been led out of bondage to the world, but still we cling to our idols. But for all his searching for our guilt, he cannot find it.
Our actions have brought accusations down upon our Head, upon ourselves; and we have risked our wellbeing, and his. We deserve nothing better than to be shipped back to Haran, as an unfaithful harlot. But, in his grace, God blinds our accuser. Those idols are here, he is SURE of it! And we know it. But, because we are united to our Beloved, to the Beloved Son, there is no way the enemy is going to even get the chance to threaten the bride’s status. It certainly isn’t due to our cleverness that we get away with this nonsense. Rather, the kind intention of the Father.
Where is Rachel’s confidence? In a sense, her confidence is in her husband—in his manifest strength, in his ability to provide for her and her son, in his subtlety. She is willing to escape when he says: “Let’s go.” But she is not really showing much faith in the God of the Promise. In other words, Rachel tries to “steal Jehovah’s heart” by “stealing Jacob’s heart” by camouflaging these idols away in her saddle, where no one sees, no one knows but her. (v.32) “Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.”
Laban’s confidence is shattered. His gods, that couldn't protect themselves, can’t make themselves found. Jacob had faith in God Almighty, while Laban, and Rachel, were trusting in powerless idols. They couldn’t help, but they could hurt. Moses seems to say, “Don’t be like your mother, Rachel. Purge yourselves of idols!”
Likewise, Joshua preaches (24:14), “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” Apparently some idols even survived 40 years in the wilderness! Rachel had some spiritual children among those in the greater Exodus.
As you are being delivered, as you are professing faith in the God of Promise, hoping to be sanctified unto a final, complete glorification—don’t be packing along idols from Haran, from Egypt. If they are in your saddle today, identify them and throw them overboard. Do not delay. Don’t risk the price of not-accompanying your Beloved to his promised land, by secretly preserving a love for this world.
At the risk of causing thread drift, some of the "harmless relics" of today are the idolatrous pretended holidays which many churches still acknowledge. This coming Lord's Day is usually the occasion of one, where God's glory is given to another.I concur with @Jonathan95. I think Albert Barnes' comments give us a sober answer to the question . . .
It is not the business of Scripture to acquaint us with the kinds and characteristics of false worship. Hence, we know little of the teraphim, except that they were employed by those who professed to worship the true God. Rachel had a lingering attachment to these objects of her family's superstitious reverence, and secretly carried them away as relics of a home she was to visit no more, and as sources of safety to herself against the perils of her flight.
In short, Rachel was superstitious. It serves to warn us against the same sin. How many things might we as believers imagine are harmless relics from our past which in truth, are monuments to present idolatry? May God give us more light to see our "household gods;" and more grace to dash them to pieces.