Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5769/ December 6, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Jacob’s Treaty with Laban

Dr. David Elgavish

Department of Bible

The end of Parashat Va-Yetze (Gen.31:43-54) parallels the beginning of Parashat Va-Yishlah (Gen. 33:1-17).   Both these passages describe the last chapter in the saga of relations between Jacob and his relatives, first his uncle Laban and then his brother Esau.   These two family members, who were also Jacob’s adversaries, made their peace with him even though they did not achieve full reconciliation and co-existence.  Jacob was blessed with fulfillment of the scriptural verse, “When the Lord is pleased with a man’s conduct, He may even turn his enemies into allies” (Prov. 16:7).  Previously in this forum [the Bar Ilan Parasha Page] we dealt with the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, [1] and here we shall discuss the parallel passage in which a treaty is made between Jacob and Laban.

Treaties in the Near East

The basic method of our study here is comparative: Treaties in the Bible parallel treaties that we find in the Near East, particularly among the Hittites, the people who conquered the Babylonians in 1600 BCE. Treaties are generally placed in one of two categories according to the nature of relations between the parties:   covenants (pacts between equals) and vassal treaties. [2]   To which category does the pact between Jacob and Laban belong?  To answer this question we must first discuss the components of the pact made between the two.   In a close reading of this week’s portion we come up with seven components of the pact between Jacob and Laban:

  1. Proposal of the pact – the initiative for a pact came from Laban, who proposed to Jacob, “Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that it may be for a witness between you and me” (Gen. 31:44).  There is no grammatical agreement in the Hebrew text between the feminine noun brit (=pact) and the verb ve-hayah (=that it may be), which is in the masculine.  Therefore it is to be understood that the witness is not the pact, but rather the Lord, mentioned further on in the course of making the pact, or perhaps something else that they establish as a witness to the pact.   As we read further, it becomes clear that the reference is to Gal-ed (= “the stone-heap of witness”), also masculine.
  2. Historical prologue – in this section the senior party lists the kindness that he has bestowed on the other party as background for placing obligations on the other party, [3] as in the introduction to the Ten Commandments:   “I the Lord am your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:   You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Ex. 20:2). Indeed, Laban described Jacob’s entire camp, including his women, children, and possessions, as belonging to Laban (Gen. 31:43).   Therefore he believed that Jacob ought to be eternally grateful to him for all that he has.
  3. Terms of the pact – two agreements were made between the parties:   first, an agreement between father-in-law and son-in-law, in which Laban demanded protection of his daughters, as follows:  “If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters” (Gen. 31:50).  There is a certain irony in what Laban said, presenting himself as caring for his daughters when his daughters themselves had complained that he had acted as if he had disowned them (v. 15).  Moreover, Laban demanded that Jacob not take additional wives, but it had been Laban who caused Jacob to take another wife in addition to the only woman he originally thought to marry. [4] The second obligation, also formulated by Laban, was a non-belligerence agreement in which the two sides undertook not to cross the shared boundary between them with intention of harming the other partner to the pact. [5]
  4. Witnessing the pact – In our parasha, the partners to the pact erect to monuments in remembrance of it:   a pillar and a mound of stones, [6] both of them erected on the border between the sides. [7] The names of these monuments are wordplays associated with place-names:   Gal-ed (= “mound of witness”), because the treaty was made in Gilead; and the pillar, Hebrew matzeva, which was also called, in a pun with a one-letter difference, Mizpah (= overlook, Gen. 31:49), perhaps because it was set up on high ground. [8]   Here, too, Laban was the sole speaker.  He set the role of the monuments as witnesses and added the Lord as an additional witness (Gen. 31:49-50).
  5. The meal – as in the pact between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26:30), here, too, a ceremonial meal was eaten prior to the oath.   The purpose of eating together is to put an end to an existing conflict and to create a familial atmosphere between the two. [9]   Not only do we have the meal mentioned in verse 46, we also have verse 54, reading, “Jacob then offered up a sacrifice on the Height, and invited his kinsmen to partake of the meal.” [10]   The sacrifice adds a religious dimension to the pact. [11]   In both instances Jacob is the one who prepares the feast and offers the sacrifice, just as he is the one who carries out the rest of the actions associated with making the pact, in contrast to Laban, who only carries out the declarative parts. Jacob’s actions here can be explained by the fact that it was he who owned the flocks.
  6. The oath – the pact is confirmed when Jacob swears “by the Fear of his father Isaac” (Gen. 31:53), meaning the G-d whom his father Isaac feared (according to Onkelos and Ibn Ezra).  It does not say that Laban swore, but he utters words similar to the formulation of an oath (Gen. 31:52-53). [12]
  7. Sanctions – Laban states:  “May the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us” (Gen. 31:53).  In other words, the deities will be the ones who judge as well as punish, because they are witnesses to the pact, and confirmation of the pact by oath is made in their names.

Jacob’s Status in the Pact.  

We have seen that Laban initiated the pact, determined its historical prologue, and dictated the terms and sanctions in case of violation, whereas Jacob performed the actions relating to establishment of the pact, primarily preparing the meal, and more importantly, swearing to it – for only Jacob’s oath is explicitly mentioned.  These facts indicate that in the pact at hand Laban was the senior party, and Jacob the lesser party.  However, attention should be paid to the fact that the terms of the pact can be divided into two:  the undertakings of the son-in-law towards his father-in-law, and a non-belligerence agreement between the two.  In the part of the agreement between son-in-law and father-in-law – protecting the rights of the women (Gen. 31:50) – there is no place for a commensurate undertaking on the part of the father-in-law. [13]   In contrast, in the non-belligerence agreement the terms are mutual and balanced (Gen. 31:52).   The sacrificing is done by Jacob, not only because he owns the flocks, but also because he cannot partake of a sacrifice made by the gentile Laban, [14] therefore we cannot draw any conclusions from this regarding Jacob’s status in the pact.

In conclusion, we may say that this pact was not intended to establish coexistence, but actually to institute a separation between the two.  This was not a pact in which a lesser party was subservient to a more powerful party, rather a mutual agreement not to attack the other, made between parties of equal status.


[1] See my article, “Jacob’s Encounter with Esau:  A Lesson in Diplomatic Etiquette,” A Divinely Given Torah, Tel-Aviv 1998, pp. 91-94.

[2] Cf.   Dennis J. McCarthy, S.J., Treaty and Covenant, 2nd ed., Rome 1978, p. 44.

[3] On historical prologues in Hittite contracts see Amnon Altman, The Historical Prologue of the Hittite Vassal Treaties:   an Inquiry into the Concepts of Hittite Interstate Law, Ramat Gan 2004.  

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis (Word BiblicalCommentary), Waco 1987, II, p. 280.

[5] A parallel can be found in the treaty of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III, in which the two sides undertook not to cross the border in order to take anything from the other.  See Gary M. Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts [SBL Writings from the Ancient World Series, 7] Atlanta 1996, No. 15: §6.

[6] Verses 45-46 say that Jacob erected the pillar, and his kinsmen (Heb. ehav, lit. brothers), the mound of stones.   Ehav here apparently refers to Jacob's men, since it does not stand to reason that Jacob would order Laban's men to gather stones.   But even in this instance Laban ascribed to himself actions which he had not performed and claimed that he had erected the pillar and the mound (see verse 51).

[7] Laban and Jacob's encounter took place in the highlands of Gilead, between the Yarmuk and Jabbok rivers, in a region known as the Ajlun.

[8] Mitzpeh of Gilead, mentioned in the story of Jepthah (Judges 11:29), is identified with Hirbet Khavda, one kilometer north of Hirbet Matzavta (="ruins of the pillar"), which is 4.5 kilometers north of Gerasa.  The elevation of this region is great, so that it could easily have served as an overlook.

[9] Pierre Buis, "Les formulaires d'alliance," Vetus Testamentum 16 (1966), p. 399.

[10] In this passage Jacob addresses ehav (lit. "his brothers") a second time.  In verse 46 he addressed them regarding the task of making a mound of stones, which indicates that the use of ehav there denotes Jacob's kinsmen, or according to Rashi's commentary, his sons; in the second instance ehav denotes Laban's camp.  When it comes to eating, they are all brethren, but when it comes to working, only the sons are willing to lend a hand.

[11] Menahem-Tzvi Kaddari, Milon ha-Ivrit ha- Mikrait:  Otzar Leshon ha- Mikra me-Alef and Tav, Ramat Gan 2006, p236.

[12] Claus Westermann, Genesis:  a Commentary (Continental Commentaries), trans. by John J. Scullion, London:   SPCK 1984, p. 500, claims that both parties swore to the pact, whereas verse 53, where only Jacob's swearing is mentioned, notes that Jacob accepted the undertaking placed on him by Laban in verse 50.

[13] D. J. McCarthy, "Three Covenants in Genesis," CBQ 26 (1964), p. 182.

[14] McCarthy, ibid.