Arami Oved Avi: The Demonization of Laban
A Fugitive Aramean Was My Father
When farmers bring their offering of first produce to the priest at the Temple, after the priest takes the basket of produce and places it before the altar, the farmer recites a declaration “before YHWH.” It opens (Deut 26:5):
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
A fugitive (or “wandering”) Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with meager numbers, but there he became a great and very populous nation.
In the simple reading, the text refers to the Israelites who moved to Egypt, and were eventually enslaved there. Concerning its opening words, Jeffrey Tigay writes in his JPS commentary on Deuteronomy:
The precise meaning of this phrase is uncertain …[and] probably very ancient, for it is unlikely that Israelite tradition would have chosen to describe Israel’s ancestors as ‘Arameans’ once the Arameans of Damascus became aggressive toward Israel in the ninth century B.C.E.
This ancient confession thus reflected a belief or tradition that Israel’s ancestors were Arameans who moved to Egypt.
Reading the text canonically, as part of the Pentateuch, the Aramean likely refers specifically to Jacob, who came down to Egypt with his 70 descendants. He is called an Aramean either because;
- His grandfather Abraham was from Aram (Gen 12:4);
- Jacob’s mother Rebekah was from Aram (Gen 25:20);
- Jacob himself lived in Aram for a time and married Aramean women (Gen 29-30).
This understanding of the verse was already noted by medieval peshat commentators such as Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and R. Judah ibn Balaam.
An Aramean Tried to Destroy My Father
Rabbinic midrash however, does not translate the first three words as “my father was a fugitive/wandering Aramean” instead reading the present participle אֹבֵד not as the adjective “wandering” but as the verb “destroying.” They thereby creatively understood the phrase to mean “an Aramean (would have) destroyed my father.”
The midrash thus identifies the Arami as Jacob’s father-in-law Laban, who, after Jacob stole away to return to Canaan, chased after him (Gen 31:23). Once Laban catches up with Jacob, however, before Laban even speaks with him, God appears to Laban and warns him not to harm (literally “speak good or bad to”) Jacob (Gen 31:24).
Laban admits that this visitation from the deity made him rethink any harm he was considering causing Jacob (Gen 31:29):
יֶשׁ לְאֵל יָדִי לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם רָע וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבִיכֶם אֶמֶשׁ אָמַר אֵלַי לֵאמֹר הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ מִדַּבֵּר עִם יַעֲקֹב מִטּוֹב עַד רָע.
I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night, “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”
The Rabbis even specify the type of harm, noting in the same midrash, well known to many since it forms a key part of the Passover Haggadah:
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל.
Go and learn what Laban the Aramean wished to do to our father Jacob: for Pharaoh only issued a decree about the [Israelite] males, but Laban wished to uproot everything.
“Uprooting everything” means that Laban intended to slaughter Jacob and his entire family, thus uprooting Israel’s future existence entirely. This is a surprisingly harsh accusation. It is one thing to consider the possibility that Laban intended to murder Jacob—something the text does not quite say—but another to assume he would murder his daughters and his own grandchildren. But this fits with the overall approach the rabbis take towards Laban.
Not an Aramean (Arami) but a Trickster (Ramai)
The Torah presents Laban as fooling Jacob into marrying the wrong sister, thus extending his years of labor. Jacob even accuses Laban of changing the agreed upon pay multiple times (the Torah’s narrator never describes this directly). The Hebrew word for a trickster or deceiver is ramai (רמאי). Genesis uses the verbal form of this root in Jacob’s accusation against Laban (Gen. 29:25), though it never actually calls Laban a ramai—this noun is never found in the Bible.
Nevertheless, the rabbis noted that the word ramai (רמאי) is formed with the same letters as Aramean (ארמי), like an anagram, and they used this arami-ramai pun frequently, especially when interpreting verses that refer to Laban as an Aramean. For example, Genesis 25:20 uses the word Aram three times:
בראשית כה:כ וַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 25:20 Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.
Bothered by this three-fold repetition, Genesis Rabbah offers this midrash (Toledot 63, Theodor-Albeck):
אמר ר’ יצחק אם ללמד שהוא מפדן ארם מה תלמוד לומר אחות לבן הארמי, אלא בא ללמדך אביה רמאי ואחיה רמאי ואף אנשי מקומה רמאין והצדקת הזו שיוצאה מבינתיים למה היא דומה לשושנה בין החוחים,
R. Yitzhak said: “If it just wanted to teach us that he was from Padan-Aram, what does ‘Laban the Aramean’ teach us? It comes to teach us that her father was a trickster and her brother was a trickster, and even the people who lived there were tricksters, and that this righteous woman who came from there can be likened to ‘a lily among the thorn-bushes’ (Song 2:2).”
Interpreting arami as ramai, the rabbis read the verse to say that Laban is a cheat from a family of cheats in a town of cheats. But this is the least of the rabbis’ accusations.
Whitened with Wickedness
The story in which Abraham’s servant goes to Haran to find a wife for Isaac introduces Rebekah and her brother (Gen 24:29):
וּלְרִבְקָה אָח וּשְׁמוֹ לָבָן
Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban
In commenting on this verse, Genesis Rabbah (60:7, Theodor-Albeck) offers a play on Laban’s name, which means “white”:
ר’ יצחק אמר פרדיכסוס, ר’ ברכיה אמר מלובן ברשע.
R. Yitzhak said: “He was a paradox (i.e., a light name for a dark person).” R. Berechiah said: “He was whitened (meluban) in wickedness…”
R. Berechiah’s reading stands out when we contrast it to other rabbinic texts that see “white” as a color with positive connotations, such as “whitened from sin” as in pure (see, e.g., m. Middot 5:4, Abot de-Rabbi Nathan B, ch. 29), or the white clothing of the high priest. It is clear that R. Berechiah is already certain that Laban is filled with sin, and his midrash on the name merely confirms this.
One particularly popular way of blackening Laban is to say that he is one and the same as some other biblical villain.
Laban is Kemuel
Genesis 22:20-24 lists the sons of Nahor, one of whom is named Kemuel (v. 21), who is described as “the father of Aram” (אֲבִי אֲרָם). Genesis Rabbah comments (Vayera 57):
ר’ יודן ור’ יהודה בר’ סימון בשם ר’ יהושע הוא לבן הוא קמואל, ולמה נקרא שמו קמואל שקם על אומתו שלאל.
R. Yuden, R. Yehudah son of R. Simon in the name of R. Yehoshua: “Laban and Kemuel are the same person. So why does the verse call him Kemuel? Because he stood (kam) against the people of God (el).”
The assertion that Kemuel is Laban is particularly strange; Kemuel’s brother is Betuel, Laban’s father—in other words, according to this midrash, Laban is his own uncle! The claim that Kemuel was the father of Aram surely influenced the rabbis, since Laban is consistently referred to as “the Aramean.” The opportunity to play negatively on Kemuel’s name was likely also attractive to the rabbis.
Laban is Balaam
In the story of King Balak of Moab’s attempt to hire Balaam to curse Israel, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan offers the following translation (Num 22:5):
וְשָׁדַר עִזְגְדִין לְוַת לָבָן אֲרַמִי הוּא בִּלְעָם דִבְעָא לְמִבְלוֹעַ יַת עַמָא בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּר בְּעוֹר דְאִיטַפַּשׁ מִסוֹגְעֵי חָכְמָתֵיהּ וְלָא חַס עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל זַרְעָא דִבְנֵי בְנָתֵיהּ וּבֵית מוֹתְבֵיהּ בְּפַדַן הִיא פְּתוֹר עַל שְׁמֵיהּ פָּתִיר חֶלְמַיָא…
He (Balak) sent messengers to Laban the Aramean, who was [called] “Balaam” since he wished to swallow up (bala) the people of Israel, “son of Beor” whose great store of knowledge turned him foolish, and he felt no pity for his daughters children, and he lived in Padan, which is called Pethor, since he could interpret (patir) dreams…
The story here assumes, as rabbinic midrash does in general, that Balaam was a wicked character who wished to curse Israel, and notes the sad irony, that if Balaam is Laban, he would be cursing his own descendants.
Laban is Cushan-rishataim
The book of Judges lists the first of the many peoples who attacked Israel after the death of Joshua:
שופטים ג:ח וַיִּחַר אַף יְ-הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּמְכְּרֵם בְּיַד כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתַיִם מֶלֶךְ אֲרַם נַהֲרָיִם וַיַּעַבְדוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתַיִם שְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנִים.
Judg 3:8 YHWH became incensed at Israel and surrendered them to King Cushan-rishataim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites were subject to Cushan-rishataim for eight years.
Noting that this king and Laban come from the same place, the Jerusalem Talmud quotes Rabbi Acha who suggests that Laban and Cushan-rishataim, whose name means “doubly wicked,” were one and the same person (j. Nedarim 9:1):
הוא לבן הוא כושן רשעתיים ולמה נקרא שמו כושן רשעתיים שעשה שתי רשעיות אחת שחילל את השבועה ואחת ששיעבד בישראל שמונה שנה
Laban and Cushan-rishataim are the same person. So why was he called Cushan-rishataim? Because he did two wicked things: he violated the oath [he/Laban made with Jacob] and because he subjugated Israel for eight years.
Here R. Acha draws on the story of Gal-ed, where Jacob and Laban make an oath not to cross the border with malice, to explain why Cushan who subjugated Israel, is one who committed “two wrongs,” the literal meaning of rishataim. The fact that this story is set hundreds of years after the story of Laban and Jacob is not a problem for this midrash.
Laban is Nabal
The latest character with whom Laban is associated is Nabal the Carmelite, who speaks rudely about David and is only spared by David because Abigail, Nabal’s wife, talks David out of hurting him by bringing David gifts. When delivering the gifts, Abigail tries to calm David by punning on her husband’s unfortunate name (1 Sam 25:25):
אַל נָא יָשִׂים אֲדֹנִי אֶת לִבּוֹ אֶל אִישׁ הַבְּלִיַּעַל הַזֶּה עַל נָבָל כִּי כִשְׁמוֹ כֶּן הוּא נָבָל שְׁמוֹ וּנְבָלָה עִמּוֹ…
Please, my lord, pay no attention to that wretched fellow Nabal. For he is just what his name says: His name means ‘boor’ and he is a boor…
In two separate places in Psalms that use the word nabal (Psalms 14:1 and 53:2), Midrash Tehillim understands it as an anagram for Laban:
אמר ר’ סימון הוא נבל הוא לבן, הן הן האותיות, מה לבן היה רמאי, אף נבל היה רמאי,
Rabbi Simon said: “Nabal and Laban are the same person – the names have the same letters. Just as Laban was a swindler, so too Nabal was a swindler…”
This is perhaps the hardest of the four midrashim to understand, since Nabal is not some foreign antagonist but an Israelite descendent of Caleb, who lives in Hebron hundreds of years after Jacob.
Laban Was Many of These People
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) makes the most sweeping identification of Laban, saying that he was both Cushan and Balaam. (Ostensibly it identifies Laban with Balaam’s father Beor, but it seems that the text is actually translating ben Beor not as “son of Beor,” but as “the one with the animal,” i.e., Balaam, famous for the talking donkey story.)
תנא: הוא בעור, הוא כושן רשעתים הוא לבן הארמי. בעור – שבא על בעיר, כושן רשעתים – דעבד שתי רשעיות בישראל, אחת בימי יעקב ואחת בימי שפוט השופטים. ומה שמו – לבן הארמי שמו.
It was taught: Beor, Cushan-rishataim, and Laban the Aramean are all the same person. Beor – because he had sex with an animal (bair); Cushan-rishataim, because he did two wicked things to Israel, once in the time of Jacob and again in the time of the judges. And what was his actual name? Laban the Aramean.
In short, the rabbis revel in the ability to find some connection between an ancient villain from the Bible and Laban, so they can pin more sins onto the latter.
Is the Biblical Laban Really So Bad?
Many of these midrashim are well-known, and influence the manner in which we understand the biblical Laban. But what does the Torah actually say about Laban? We first meet him when Abraham’s servant arrives in Haran and wishes to take Rebekah back to Canaan to marry Isaac. While Laban attempts to stall the servant, no motive for this is given. Perhaps Laban wanted to keep his sister close to home. In any event, Abraham’s servant was not to be detained, and Rebekah departed with him forever one day after he arrived.
Skipping many years later, Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to claim another woman in Laban's family, this time his daughter Rachel. This time, Laban devises a way to keep his daughter by him for the next twenty years. Perhaps Laban was hoping for a situation, akin to what is described in some Nuzi texts, where “Jacob would have become like the Nuzi herdsmen, who, through debt and dependence on the livestock owner, affiliated with [Laban’s] family permanently.”
Laban’s stalling succeeds for twenty years, but eventually, Jacob loses patience with the situation, figures out a way to make enough money to gain independence, and rushes off without a word to his father-in-law. Moreover, even his daughters feel like their father has mistreated them and wholeheartedly support Jacob’s unannounced departure.
As discussed above, Laban chases Jacob down and catches up with him in the Gal-ed area. The verses imply that Laban wished to do Jacob harm, but God warns him not to and he does not. In fact, Laban makes a peace treaty with Jacob, and Laban’s only extra stipulation is that Jacob may not marry any other women. He goes so far as to say, “If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters—though no one else be about, remember, God Himself will be witness between you and me.” (Gen 31:50)
In other words, his last act is to protect the daughters that rejected him. Even if they rejected him for good reason—that he manipulated their husband and even them—in the end, he behaves honorably. His final act in the treaty may even be fairly described as “repentant.”
In this reading, Laban could be construed as a tragic figure, one who suffered personal loss, and who wished to keep his family together. But even if one wants to read Laban’s acts in a harsher light, and suggest that he was simply a deceiver who wished to make as much money as possible, his character hardly deserves the animus displayed against him by the rabbis.
So why do the rabbis paint him as full of iniquity, the embodiment of Israel’s foes throughout the centuries, and a threat to the very existence of Israel, worse even than Pharaoh himself? In other words, why do the rabbis demonize Laban?
Why We Demonize Others
Fred Guyette, a research librarian at Erskine College, notes how the book of Psalms makes use of animal metaphors to portray Israel’s enemies negatively. Wild animals are bestial, they are not easy to control or dominate. Thus, it is easy to fear and or hate them.
This kind of hatred is often extended to other races or ethnic groups. We “other” them, turn them into enemies. Subsequently, our hatred is accompanied by racialization, as a consequence of the real or perceived threat that one group feels from another. Amy Chua, Professor of Law at Yale, writes of this danger:
When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.
Hatred allows us to define ourselves in comparison to others. We view those outside our group negatively, as hateful and threatening.
By negating another group and depicting them as monsters we also define ourselves. We are not what we hate. Alexander Wendt, a German political scientist, points out that often our “mutual fear [of the other] is so great that factors promoting anything but negative identification with the other will find little room to emerge.”
The process of hate and demonization of the other reveals the anxieties held by a group and its inverse informs the group’s ideal identity. As Brandon R. Grafius writes,
The monster serves as a way for a social group to construct identity, by constructing a picture that is the opposite of how they see themselves. However, because our self-image is always distorted, this monstrous other will often reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
In short, they are somewhat like us, yet they are a demonic version of us.
Protecting Jacob’s Reputation
One uncomfortable truth the Rabbis may have been facing is that Jacob is depicted as every bit as cunning as his uncle. Jacob’s name can mean the deceiver—certainly that is how Esau understands it when he accuses Jacob of tricking him twice, once out of his birthright and next out of his blessing (Gen 27:36). Later, after being duped by Laban into marrying Leah, he gets Laban back with his peeled-stick trick, to ensure that the baby sheep all come out speckled or spotted.
By calling Laban the deceiver, the rabbis distance themselves from Jacobs’s long history of deception. As Grafius points out, “the monster is a paradoxical embodiment of both Otherness and sameness, seeming to reflect our fears that we are not really as different from the Other as we would like to think.”
Christian Use of Jacob the Deceiver
David Berger points to Christian sources which blame Jacob for deceptive behavior and the need for Jewish sources to counter this by blaming Laban. In fact, as Herbert Basser has shown, Shakespeare uses this reading as a basis for Antonio’s playful jabs against Shylock, for being like Jacob in this regard.
Berger points out that the Jewish answer to this accusation was to blame Laban:
As for Laban, the answer to the Christian critique was that Jacob was the real victim of deception, and his treatment of his father-in-law was marked by extraordinary scrupulousness.
These later sources likely illustrate what the rabbis may have seen in Jacob when reading the biblical stories about his early life.
Begins in the Bible
The distancing of Israel from Aram begins in the Bible. At the beginning of the story, when Jacob appears at Laban’s house, Laban declares that the two are close family, “the same bone and flesh” (עצמי ובשרי; Gen 29:14) and Jacob does not demur.
At the end of the story, when they meet in Gal-ed, Laban suggests that he and Jacob share the same God through their common ancestry (Gen 31:53) and should swear by him. Jacob, however, does not want to acknowledge this connection. Instead, each man swears in the name of his own ancestral God. Moreover, the two men end up referring to the place of their oath in their respective languages, Hebrew for Jacob, and Aramaic for Laban.
Dalit Rom-Shiloni, Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University, suggests that,
[I]n its insistence on Jacob’s non-Aramaean origin in spite of the family connection, in its presentation of the … distinctions between Jacob and Laban at their parting, Genesis 31 reveals a hidden polemic and establishes its own position within the polemics concerning Jacob’s identity.
Thus, in one sense “Jacob’s return from Haran is as important a foundational story as Abraham’s previous immigration from that place,”since it establishes the break between the future Israelites and their Aramean family of origin.
Descendants of Arameans
Genesis 31 draws this distinction between Israel and Aram because its author is aware of texts or traditions that emphasize how the Israelites are themselves descendants of Arameans, as now reflected in the verse in Deuteronomy “my father was a wandering Aramean” or in the Genesis stories of Isaac and Jacob marrying Aramean women. The author of Genesis 31 is thus saying that Arameans are relatives with whom “we share a common ancestry, [yet we do] not consider Aram to be a direct ancestor of Israel.”
My Father Was Not an Aramean
The distancing that begins in the Bible is taken further by the rabbis into the realm of demonization. Returning to the rabbinic midrash, Jeffrey Tigay points out that the demonization of Arameans
may underlie the fanciful interpretation of the clause as ‘[Laban the] Aramean sought to destroy my father.’ This interpretation, found in the Pesah Haggadah and reflected in the Septuagint and the targums, is due, perhaps, to a disbelief that the Bible would describe one of Israel’s ancestors as an Aramean.
The rabbinic polemic against Arameans likely reflects more than just discomfort with the biblical text. The linguistic hegemony of Aramaic extended past the Persian period and into the Rabbinic period, even when Aram no longer had any political influence. Not only did all of the rabbis’ neighbors speak Aramaic, but the rabbis themselves spoke Aramaic. For them, although “Aramean” became a euphemism for outsiders, these were outsiders with whom they shared a land and a language, and whom the Bible ties together with Israel from its inception.
This is likely the reason that the rabbis felt the need to draw a razor-sharp line between “us” and “them.” What better way to do this than to turn our “Aramean ancestor” referenced in Deuteronomy, into our wicked “Aramean uncle” who tried to destroy us for hundreds of years in his various different guises. And thus the rabbinic villain “Laban the deceiver,” who tried “to destroy our father” was born.
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August 27, 2018
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Naomi Graetz taught English (now retired) at Ben-Gurion University and still teaches a course on feminist approaches to Jewish texts in the their Overseas Program. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God, The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder, S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories, and Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating.
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