Times and Seasons

Part 4. Jacob

Jacob was 57 when he went to Padanaram to find himself a wife and 97 when he returned with four wives, numerous children and a large establishment of servants, shepherds and herdsmen. It is sometimes thought that his period in Laban's service was only twenty years but this is due to an insufficiently careful reading of Genesis 31.38‑41. In any case the events of this period cannot possibly be fitted into less than forty years.

Put briefly, the twenty years of Gen.31.38 is one period spent by Jacob "in the field" caring for Laban's flocks and herds; the twenty years of verse 41 is another period, "in the house", comprising the initial fourteen years service for Leah and Rachel, and the final six years during which he was building up his own flocks preparatory to returning to Canaan. This is shown by the use of what is called the "double demonstrative" which in English is normally expressed by the comparison "this" and "that". The Hebrew demonstrative "zeh" is normally "this", but when repeated, as in this passage, has the meaning of difference or contrast. So "this twenty years" in verse 38 is in contrast to "thus" (or that) "twenty years in thy house". Other examples of this use of the double demonstrative "zeh.... zeh" are:

1 Kings 22:20 "One said on this manner, and another said on that manner".

Exod.14:20 "It was a cloud and darkness to them (the Egyptians), but it gave light by night to these" (the Israelites).

Job 21:23,25 "One dieth in his full strength...and another dieth in the bitterness of his soul".

Eccl.6:5 "This hath more rest than the other".

The sense of Jacob's words might have been brought out more clearly in the A.V. had the translators rendered "zeh…zeh" as they did in the Kings and Job quotations, so making him say "One twenty years have I been with thee (in the field)....another twenty years have I been in thine house" and this would have made the matter perfectly clear.

A critical examination of the circumstances surrounding the births of Jacob's sons as narrated in chaps.29‑30 supports the forty year period. Jacob served seven years before receiving Leah and Rachel as wives. Thereafter Leah had four sons and probably at least a couple of daughters. This could hardly have been achieved in less than, say, ten years. She then "left bearing" (Ch.29:35). In the meantime Rachel, despairing of herself becoming a mother, gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob in accordance with custom, hoping to obtain children by her. She must have waited maybe five or six years before resorting to this expedient. Bilhah presented Jacob, probably during the next four years, with two sons, and this must have led Leah, after five years or so barrenness, to present her own maid Zilpah to Jacob for the same purpose. The result was two more sons, Gad and Asher, with perhaps another daughter, and all this implies that Asher could not have been born less than twenty‑five years from Jacob's entry into Laban's service.

It was after this that Reuben brought the mandrakes to his mother (Ch.30:14) which led directly to the birth of Leah's fifth son in the following year. Another son Zebulun, followed, and last of all a daughter, Dinah. Now Dinah could not possibly have been less than eleven or twelve years old at Jacob's departure from Laban if the narrative of Gen.34, in which Hamor, the son of Shechem, wished to make her his wife, is to be credible and this in turn means that Issachar must have been born at least fourteen years before the departure. Twenty‑five years from Jacob's entry to the incident of the mandrakes, plus fifteen years thereafter to his departure, totals forty years which appears to be the minimum possible.

The implication of Gen.30:25 is that Joseph was born at the commencement of the final six years. Since he was thirty years old when called before Pharaoh, (41:46), and therefore thirty‑nine in the second year of famine when Jacob came down into Egypt, the period of Jacob's sojourn in Canaan after leaving Laban was 33 years. This however must include the time taken on the journey from Padanaram. The magnitude of this undertaking is not appreciated by a mere cursory reading of the narrative. According to Gen.32:13‑20 Jacob sent his brother Esau a present from his flocks totalling 580 head of cattle, sheep, camels and so on. This means that his flock must have numbered several thousands at least, and this in turn that they would consume at least ten tons of food per day, and a considerable amount of water. Much of this must have been in the form of stored grain and root crops brought with them from Padanaram. He would hardly achieve more than ten miles a day, with a day's rest in between, and could easily have been three months covering the 250 miles to Succoth, on the eastern side of Jordan. Here, the narrative tells us (33:17) Jacob built himself a house and made booths for his cattle. This implies a lengthy stay; a little reflection will show that whilst his cattle could very largely "live off the land" in the uninhabited pasture‑lands east of Jordan, once inside settled Canaan, already occupied by farmers and stock‑breeders, his food supply problems would be much more acute until he could reach his father's lands in the far south. Evidently the stay at Succoth, with its house building and provision of corrals for cattle, all indicative of a lengthy sojourn, was for the purpose of sowing and eventually reaping crops sufficient to tide them over the last stages of his journey. Such a programme, of course, would require two years. At the end of that time Jacob resumed his journey, crossed the Jordan, stopped briefly at Shechem but had to move on in consequence of the trouble over Dinah, and finally arrived at Bethel in the very centre of Canaan, where in obedience to the instructions of God he built an altar and settled down for a lengthy stay. Here God solemnly re‑affirmed the Abrahamic covenant and pledged that it would be fulfilled through the sons of Jacob.

All things considered, the arrival at Bethel must have been a full three years after the departure from Padanaram. It could not have been less, and succeeding events make it unlikely that it could have been any more. One intriguing incident is connected with this sojourn at Bethel; Ch.35:8 records the death and burial at this time of Rebekah's old nurse, Deborah. Rebekah was obviously already dead; it would appear that the old lady, probably now more or less an encumbrance to Isaac at his advanced age, and of no concern to the younger sons of Isaac now managing his affairs, had been sent to Jacob upon his arrival back in Canaan to be looked after. The point of interest is that Deborah must be the longest lived woman mentioned in the Bible whose age can be deduced. According to Gen.24:59 Deborah was Rebekah's "wet‑nurse"—this is the meaning of the Hebrew word—in her childhood and accompanied her when she came to be Isaac's wife. Deborah must have been at least twenty‑five years of age at Rebekah's birth to have acted in the capacity indicated, and even if, as is likely, Rebekah was as young as sixteen at her marriage it implies that Deborah died at Bethel in Jacob's encampment at the ripe old age of between 161 and 163. Sarah the wife of Abraham is stated to have lived 127 years, Miriam the sister of Moses died within a year or two of 137; but Rebekah's old nurse appears to hold the record.

The sojourn at Bethel lasted a few years only, not more than three or four. Eight years later, when Joseph was 17 (Ch.37:1‑4), Jacob was reunited with Isaac at Hebron. In the meantime, and while the family was still at Bethel, Joseph had the dreams which incurred his brothers' enmity (Ch.37:5‑11). He would then be about ten or eleven years old and his mother Rachel was still alive (see Ch.37:10). A year or so later, on the march from Bethel towards Hebron, she died giving birth to Benjamin and was buried near Bethlehem (Ch.35:16‑20). So, at last, Jacob arrived back at the family home at Hebron after an absence of half a century. There was little happiness in his home coming. He had lost his beloved wife Rachel; within another year or so he mourned her son Joseph, torn to pieces by wild beasts as he believed, in reality sold as a slave into Egypt by the jealous brothers. He only had five‑year old Benjamin to remind him of them both. Another twelve years and Isaac died and there was the brief re‑union with his brother Esau as together they paid their last respects to the old Patriarch. The descent into Egypt was now only ten years away; already the shadow of the approaching famine was darkening the land. The story of Jacob's sons going into Egypt to buy corn for their families' sustenance does not sound as if the vast flocks and herds which Jacob brought with him from Padanaram still existed. Neither is there any indication of what was left of Isaac's far‑flung interests which Jacob had inherited. Only a few years previously Jacob's sons were scattered over the country from Dothan in the north to Hebron in the south (Ch.37:17), whilst Judah was apparently running a separate concern in the south‑east at Timnath (Ch.38:12‑14). Much of this appears to have disappeared towards the end, and it does seem as though virtually all of Jacob's achievements had vanished and he was left with little more than his own family and closest retainers, with considerably shrunken possessions, at the end of his sojourn in Canaan. Well may he have said, as he did rather bitterly to Pharaoh when he appeared before him, "few and evil have the days of my life been". (Gen.47:9).

So, at 130 years of age, and 215 years after Abraham's entry into Canaan, Jacob and his family and household left the land and went into Egypt. The era of the Patriarchs ended. A new era began, that of Israel, the nation that was to be the peculiar representative of God and of his truth in the world for nearly two thousand years, until the duty and the privilege was taken over by the Christian Church. Jacob knew nothing of all that; he knew only that according to Divine promise his descendants would return to Canaan after four hundred years had passed, and he made his sons promise that he himself would be buried in the family sepulchre at Hebron where his father and grandfather lay, that he himself might be identified with the promise.


To be continued.