Laban

LABAN (lā'băn, Heb. lāvān, white). 1. The nephew of Abraham who lived in Haran on a tributary of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. He belonged to that branch of the family of Terah (Abraham’s father) that came from Abraham’s brother Nahor and his niece Milcah (Gen.22.22-Gen.22.24), and is first mentioned as Rebekah’s brother when she is introduced (Gen.24.29). In ancient Semitic custom, the brother was the guardian of the sister, and thus Laban takes a prominent place in the account of Rebekah’s leaving for Canaan to be Isaac’s bride. His grasping nature is hinted at in Gen.24.30-Gen.24.31, where his invitation to Abraham’s servant follows immediately after his appraisal of the servant’s expensively equipped party.

Laban’s later history is interwoven with Jacob’s. When Jacob fled from the anger of his brother Esau, he settled in his uncle Laban’s house in Haran and stayed there twenty years. The relationship between Laban and his nephew is an interesting one. Both appear to be resourceful, often grasping men, each eager to best the other in every transaction. Even in the circumstances surrounding the marriage of Jacob to Laban’s daughters Rachel and Leah (Gen.29.1-Gen.29.35), this competition is evident. After Jacob had served fourteen years for his brides, there followed six more years in Haran during which, according to Jacob’s testimony, Laban changed his wages ten times (Gen.31.41). The famous contract involving the speckled and spotted sheep (Gen.30.31-Gen.30.43) was evidently one of the ten.

At the end of the twenty years, Jacob quietly stole away from Laban, taking his now-large family with him to Canaan (Gen.31.1-Gen.31.55). Pursuing him, Laban overtook him in Gilead. After mutual protestations and incriminations, uncle and nephew parted, after erecting a “witness heap”—a kind of dividing line—between them. Laban is here called “the Aramean” (Gen.31.24), and he gives the heap an Aramaic name (“Jegar Sahadutha”), while Jacob calls it by its Hebrew equivalent “Galeed” (Gen.31.47-Gen.31.48), both meaning “witness heap.”

These Aramaic references are interesting guides in the quest for better understanding of the origins of the patriarchs. In an old confession the Hebrews were taught to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut.26.5). It seems likely that the patriarchal ancestors of the Hebrews sprang from a mixed Semitic stock in NE Mesopotamia, among which the Aramean was a prominent strain.

2. Laban is also the name of an unidentified place in the Plains of Moab, or perhaps in the Sinai peninsula (Deut.1.1).——JBG


LABAN lā’ bən (לָבָ֧ן, white). The name of a person and a place in the OT. 1. The brother of Rebekah and son of Bethuel and grandson of Nahor, the brother of Abraham (Gen 24:15, 29). The family is described as from Padanaram and of Aramean nationality (25:20). It also is to be noted that Laban and his father were worshipers of the Lord (24:50).

Laban is first mentioned in connection with the arrival of Abraham’s servant at the home of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. Although Bethuel was still living at the time of the servant’s arrival, Laban was apparently the spokesman for the household (24:29ff.). In his meeting with Abraham’s servant, Laban shows the oriental politeness of that day (24:31ff.) and a certain shrewdness which is more apparent later in dealing with his sister’s son Jacob (24:30, cf. 29:15ff.).

Some years later, when Rebekah’s son Jacob was forced to leave his home, he was sent to his uncle Laban’s home to escape Esau’s wrath (27:42ff.). Here Laban is described as a resident of Haran (27:43) where Terah had lived and died (11:32). Haran was the chief city of the region of Padan-aram (Field of Aram).

Laban was undoubtedly well-known there as is evidenced by his large holdings and the immediate recognition of his name by the strangers whom Jacob met at the shepherd’s well (29:5).

Jacob soon discovered that Laban had a beautiful daughter, Rachel, and he immediately fell in love with her (29:6, 9ff.).

Oriental politeness was once again shown by Laban toward Jacob as it had been earlier toward Abraham’s servant (29:13).

After a month had passed, Laban offered to hire Jacob to work for him. Jacob willingly agreed to work for the privilege of marrying Rachel. After seven years’ labor, Jacob asked for his wife. Laban’s shrewdness became evident, as he substituted Leah, before unmentioned, for Rachel. Leah was both older and less attractive than Rachel (29:20-23). He pleaded the custom of the country in his duplicity (29:26), but agreed that Jacob could have Rachel also after a week, if Jacob would work for him seven more years.

Not able to outwit Laban, and still poor after fourteen years of labor, Jacob now put his trust in God to avenge the wrong. A second bargain was made with Laban by which Jacob would receive those sheep and goats in Laban’s flock which were not of solid color (30:27ff.).

It is not clear whether Jacob believed his trick of having the sheep conceive where he had peeled the rods would work or not (30:37ff.). He later testified that God had promised him Laban’s flocks and that all was of God’s doing (31:7ff.).

Nevertheless, Laban’s flock did decrease and Jacob’s increased, apparently not by any dishonesty on Jacob’s part. Laban’s sons, heretofore not mentioned, murmured and Laban himself no longer trusted Jacob (31:1, 2). Jacob accused Laban of cheating him in wages, and from Laban’s past performance this is not hard to believe (31:6, 7). Evidently Laban’s daughters did not doubt the truth of Jacob’s accusation (31:16).

Jacob took his possessions and fled while Laban was away from home (31:20).

Laban, on learning of Jacob’s flight, angrily pursued. After seven days he overtook Jacob at Gilead in the hill country SE of Galilee.

In this last encounter between the two branches of Terah’s family, the severe side of Laban is shown. He accused Jacob of cheating him by taking his daughters away without a farewell (31:26-28). In addition he accused Jacob of stealing his household gods, a thing which Jacob denied, not knowing that Rachel had indeed stolen them (31:19).

Laban was unable to find the gods and Jacob soundly scolded him in return. He accused Laban of cheating him for twenty years though Jacob had faithfully served him (31:38ff.).

Laban never conceded a point in this argument, but yielded to Jacob anyway (31:43). Still distrusting one another, the two made a covenant whereby God was called to be a watcher over the two to prevent either from wronging the other. This has sometimes erroneously been called a “Benediction.” It certainly was not a blessing.

After that, Laban departed and never appears again in the history of God’s people.

A study of the Nuzi tablets gives much insight into the Biblical record concerning Laban and Jacob. Clarification is seen in the reason for Rachel’s theft of her father’s teraphim, for by the teraphim she could claim inheritance in Laban’s house.

2. A city in the area of encampment of Israel, across the Jordan in the Arabah (Deut 1:1). In this area, Moses spoke to Israel the words contained in Deuteronomy, just before his death. It is perhaps the same as Libnah, but that site would seem to be too far N.

Bibliography

F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and a History of the Jews, 49, 61; A. Edersheim, Bible History, I (1890), 108, 109, 125, 129, 131; J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (1946) 55; H. Rowley, The Rediscovery of the Old Testament (1946), 48; D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957), 228; Wright and Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God (1957), 63, 81, 86; D. Thomas, Documents From Old Testament Times (1958), 62, 122; J. Bright, A History of Israel (1960), 78-82, 91ff.; C. Pfeiffer, Patriarchal Age (1961), 26, 46, 72, 79, 83, 85; G. Von Rad, Genesis (1961), 282ff.; J. Gray, Archaeology in the Old Testament (1962) 98; J. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (1962), 30ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

la’-ban: The person named Laban, labhan; (Laban, possibly connected with the root meaning "to be white," from which in Hebrew the adjective meaning "white" has just this form) is first introduced to the reader of Genesis in the story of the wooing of Rebekah (Genesis 24). He belonged to that branch of the family of Terah that was derived from Abraham’s brother Nahor and his niece Milcah. The genealogy of this branch is traced in Ge 22:20-24; but, true to its purpose and the place it occupies in the book, this genealogy brings the family down to Rebekah, and there stops without mentioning Laban. Accordingly, when Rebekah is introduced in the narrative of Genesis 24, she is referred to (24:15,24) in a way that recalls to the reader the genealogy already given; but when her brother Laban is introduced (24:29), he is related to his sister by the express announcement, "And Rebekah had brother, and his name was Laban." In this chapter he takes prominent part in the reception of Abraham’s servant, and in the determination of his sister’s future. That brothers had an effective voice in the marriage of their sisters is evident, not only from extra-Biblical sources, but from the Bible itself; see e.g. So 8:8. In Ge 24, however, Laban is perhaps more prominent than even such custom can explain (compare 24:31,50,55), and we are led to see in him already the same forcefulness and egotism that are abundantly shown in the stories from his later life. The man’s eager hospitality (verse 31), coming immediately after his mental inventory of the gifts bestowed by the visitor upon his sister (24:30), has usually, and justly, been regarded as a proof of the same greed that is his most conspicuous characteristic in the subsequent chapters.

The story of that later period in Laban’s life is so interwoven with the career of Jacob that little need here be added to what is said of Laban in JACOB, III, 2 (which see). By the time of Jacob’s arrival he is already a very old man, for over 90 years had elapsed since Rebekah’s departure. Yet even at the end of Jacob’s 20 years’ residence with him he is represented as still energetic and active (Ge 31:19,23), not only ready for an emergency like the pursuit after Jacob, but personally superintending the management of his huge flocks.


The character of Laban is interesting to observe. On the one hand it shows a family likeness to the portraits of all his relations in the patriarchal group, preeminently, however, to his sister Rebekah, his daughter Rachel, and his nephew Jacob. The nearer related to Laban such figures are, the more conspicuously, as is fitting, do they exhibit Laban’s mingled cunning, resourcefulness, greed and self-complacency. And, on the other hand, Laban’s character is sui generis; the picture we get of him is too personal and complex to be denominated merely a "type." It is impossible to resolve this man Laban into a mythological personage--he is altogether human--or into a tribal representative (e.g. of "Syria" over against "Israel" equal Jacob) with any degree of satisfaction to the world of scholarship. Whether a character of reliable family tradition, or of popular story-telling, Laban is "a character"; and his intimate connection with the chief personage in Israel’s national recollections makes it highly probable that he is no more and no less historical than Jacob himself (compare JACOB, VI).

J. Oscar Boyd