A Textual Critical Analysis
The Covenant of Laban and Jacob at Gal-ed
Introduction: A Summary of the Story
After Jacob slips away from his father-in-law Laban, the latter chases Jacob down and they meet in a border area between Aram and the Transjordan (Gen 31). After a heated exchange, the two men come to an agreement that has a number of steps. The exact reason for each step is unclear—for example: What is the pillar for? What is the relationship between the oath and the mound? Moreover, the wordiness of Laban’s oath (vv. 48-53), which takes up a number of verses, makes the process difficult to follow. Here is a summary of the steps:
- Laban suggests they make a pact. (v. 44)
- Jacob sets up a pillar. (v. 45)
- Jacob has his brothers set up a mound of stones. (v. 46)
- They eat a meal near the mound. (v. 46)
- Laban and Jacob name the mound. (v. 47)
- Laban declares that the mound (and the pillar?) is a witness. (v. 48)
- The name of the mound is explained (and the pillar?). (vv. 48-49)
- Laban threatens Jacob if mistreats his daughters. (v. 50)
- Laban declares the oath that neither Jacob nor Laban will pass by the mound with hostile intent towards the other. (vv. 51-52)
- Laban makes the oath in the name of the gods of Abraham and Nahor. (v. 53)
- Jacob makes the oath in the name of his father’s God. (v. 53)
The Septuagint versus the Masoretic Text
Looking at the way this account is told in the Septuagint (LXX) and in the Masoretic Text (MT), we can see that this account was already confusing to the ancient scribes. Below is a table comparing the verses; verses appearing in one text but not the other are marked in bold, while cases of variation are marked in italics.
|43 Then Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne?||43 Then Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne?||43 Identical in both versions.|
|44 Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.”||44 Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” He said to him: “Behold, there is no man among us. See, God is witness between you and me.”||44 In the LXX, one man (probably Laban) offers the other an oath formula, identical to the one offered by Laban in v. 50 of the MT.|
|45 Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar.||45 Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar.||45 Identical in both versions.|
|46 And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound.||46 And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound. And Laban said to him: “This mound is a witness between you and me this day.”||46 The LXX has an extra oath from Laban about the mound being a witness. The MT has a version of this in verse 51.|
|47 Laban named it Yegar-Sahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed.||47 Laban named it Yegar-Sahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed.||47 Identical in both versions.|
|48 And Laban said, “This mound is a witness between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;||48 And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold, this mound and this pillar which I have set up between you and me, this mound is a witness and this pillar is a witness.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;||48 LXX adds the word “behold”. LXX adds the pillar as a witness into the oath formula twice. LXX refers to the mound as witness twice, MT only once.|
|49 and [it was called] Mizpah, because he said, “May YHWH watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.||49 and [it was called] Mizpah, because he said, “May God watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.||49 The MT uses the name YHWH; the LXX uses the name E-lohim.|
|50 If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters—there is no man among us,see, God is witness between you and me.”||50 If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters—see, there is no man among us,||50 In the LXX, the word “see” appears before the phrase, “there is no man,” but in the MT it appears before the phrase, “God is witness.” The LXX does not have the phrase about God as witness here, though it uses this phrase in verse 44.
|51 And Laban said to Jacob, “Here is this mound and here the pillar which I have set up between you and me:||51||51 This verse does not appear at all in the LXX. But a version of it does appear in verse 46.|
|52 this mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness that I am not to cross to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound and this pillar, with hostile intent.||52 that I am not to cross to you, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound and this pillar, with hostile intent.||52 The LXX does not have the opening phrase about the mound and pillar as witnesses, though they do appear in the LXX’s longer version of v. 48. The phrase “past this mound” appears twice in the MT but only once in the LXX.|
|53 May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor”—the gods of their fathers—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.||May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.||53 The gloss explaining the identity of the gods does not appear in the LXX.|
(LXX Hebrew (Reconstructed
|מג וַיַּ֨עַן לָבָ֜ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַבָּנ֨וֹת בְּנֹתַ֜י וְהַבָּנִ֤ים בָּנַי֙ וְהַצֹּ֣אן צֹאנִ֔י וְכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה רֹאֶ֖ה לִי־ה֑וּא וְלִבְנֹתַ֞י מָֽה־אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֤ה לָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם א֥וֹ לִבְנֵיהֶ֖ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלָֽדוּ:||מג ויען לבן ויאמר אל יעקב הבנות בנתי והבנים בני והצאן צאני וכל אשר אתה ראה לי הוא ולבנתי מה אעשה לאלה היום או לבניהן אשר ילדו|
|מד וְעַתָּ֗ה לְכָ֛ה נִכְרְתָ֥ה בְרִ֖ית אֲנִ֣י וָאָ֑תָּה וְהָיָ֥ה לְעֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ:||מד ועתה לכה נכרתה ברית אני ואתה והיה לעד ביני ובינך. ויאמר לו הנה אין איש עמנו ראה א-להים עד ביני ובינך.|
|מה וַיִּקַּ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב אָ֑בֶן וַיְרִימֶ֖הָ מַצֵּבָֽה:||מה ויקח יעקב אבן וירימה מצבה.|
|מו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֤ב לְאֶחָיו֙ לִקְט֣וּ אֲבָנִ֔ים וַיִּקְח֥וּ אֲבָנִ֖ים וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־גָ֑ל וַיֹּ֥אכְלוּ שָׁ֖ם עַל־הַגָּֽל:||מו ויאמר יעקב לאחיו לקטו אבנים ויקחו אבנים ויעשו גל ויאכלו שם על הגל.ויאמר אליו לבן הגל הזה עד ביני ובינך היום.|
|מז וַיִּקְרָא־ל֣וֹ לָבָ֔ן יְגַ֖ר שָׂהֲדוּתָ֑א וְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב קָ֥רָא ל֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד:||מז ויקרא לו לבן יגר שהדותא ויעקב קרא לו גלעד.|
|מח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֔ן הַגַּ֨ל הַזֶּ֥ה עֵ֛ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינְךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד:||מח ויאמר לבן אל יעקב הנה הגל הזהוהמצבה הזאת אשר יריתי ביני ובינך עד הגל הזה והמצבה הזאת עדה על כן קרא שמו גלעד.|
|מט וְהַמִּצְפָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֔ר יִ֥צֶף יְ-הֹוָ֖הבֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ כִּ֥י נִסָּתֵ֖ר אִ֥ישׁ מֵרֵעֵֽהוּ:||מט והמצפה אשר אמר יצף א-לוהים ביני ובינך כי נסתר איש מרעהו|
|נ אִם־תְּעַנֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֗י וְאִם־תִּקַּ֤ח נָשִׁים֙ עַל־בְּנֹתַ֔י אֵ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ עִמָּ֑נוּ רְאֵ֕האֱ-לֹהִ֥ים עֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ:||נ אם תענה את בנתי ואם תקח נשים על בנתי ראה אין איש עמנו.|
|נא וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָבָ֖ן לְיַעֲקֹ֑ב הִנֵּ֣ה׀ הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ הַמַּצֵּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָרִ֖יתִי בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ:||נא|
|נב עֵ֚ד הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵדָ֖ה הַמַּצֵּבָ֑האִם־אָ֗נִי לֹֽא־אֶעֱבֹ֤ר אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶת־הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְאִם־אַ֠תָּה לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֨ר אֵלַ֜י אֶת־הַגַּ֥ל הַזֶּ֛ה וְאֶת־הַמַּצֵּבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְרָעָֽה:||נב אם אני לא אעבר אליך ואם אתה לא תעבר אלי את הגל הזה ואת המצבה הזאת לרעה.|
|נג אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּ בֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק:||נג אלהי אברהם ואלהי נחור ישפטו בינינו. וישבע יעקב בפחד אביו יצחק.|
What May We Learn from these Differences?
Ignoring the difference in verse 53—which will be dealt with in part 2—the differences between the LXX and the MT here don’t seem to represent any major theological issues or interpretive maneuvers. Instead, they seem to reflect different revisions by scribes who attempted to clarify an earlier form of the text. These scribes made insertions or deletions, thereby creating multiple editions of the same story.  Some of these may have originated in marginal notes and clarifications that found their way into the main text.
The God or Gods of Abraham and Nahor
Other variants likely derive from theological considerations, as in v. 53. The main problem with the verse is that Laban seems to be invoking multiple gods, the gods of Abraham and Nahor, in an oath with the founding father of Israel.
|May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.||May the god(s) of Abraham and the god(s) of Nahor”—the gods of their fathers—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.||May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the god of Abraham—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.|
אלהי אברהם ואלהי נחור ישפטובינינו. וישבע יעקב בפחד אביו יצחק.
אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּבֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק:
אלהי אברהם ואלהי נחור ישפט ביננואלהי אברהם, וישבע יעקב בפחד אביו יצחק.
The differences between the texts are as follows:
- The MT and the SP both have a gloss lacking in the LXX explaining the meaning of “the god(s) of Abraham” and “the god(s) of Nahor.”
- The MT’s version of the gloss is, “the god(s) of their fathers (אלהי אביהם).”
- The SP’s version of the gloss is, “the god of Abraham (אלהי אברהם).”
- In the LXX and the MT, the gods of Abraham and Nahor will judge—in the plural (ישפטו); the SP has the singular verb (ישפט), implying that it is the same god.
Stage One – The LXX
From a text critical perspective, the oldest extant version of the text appears to be that found in the LXX, since, in general, scribes add glosses to texts but they rarely subtract them. According to this text, Laban is invoking a god or set of gods on each side of the covenant—the god(s) of Abraham for Jacob and the god(s) of Nahor for Laban—to ensure that each side keeps his side of the bargain.
In this oldest form of the text, the Torah avoids the problem of Jacob swearing by multiple gods by having Jacob swear instead in the name of his father’s God and not the gods to whom Laban refers. Nevertheless, from the fact that the gloss was added, we can see that the later scribes of the MT and the SP felt this was insufficient.
Stage Two – The MT
The earliest form of the gloss would seem to be that found in the MT. This gloss clarifies that the gods to whom Laban refer are the ancestral gods of the family, the gods of Laban’s and Jacob’s family. It is unclear what the scribe who added this gloss was trying to accomplish, since it seems to state the obvious, though perhaps he wanted to emphasize that Laban was trying to find common ground with Jacob. In other words, Laban is not invoking one god for each—Abraham’s god for Jacob and Nahor’s god for Laban—but their common ancestral gods.
Although this would not remove the problem of Laban referring to multiple gods, it makes Laban’s reason for suggesting this formula more palatable. Nevertheless, Jacob has no choice but to “politely decline” Laban’s suggestion, and swear in the name of his father’s God.
Stage Three – The SP
As the MT’s gloss does little to solve the problem of Jacob’s participation in an oath where one side swears in the name of multiple gods, the editors of the SP further revised the text to ensure that any possible connection between Jacob and a polytheistic oath would be erased. Thus, they made two slight adjustments in the text.
- They changed the word “their fathers (אביהם)” to “Abraham (אברהם)”—a switch of one letter only in the Hebrew.
- They changed the word “judge” from plural (ישפטו) to singular (ישפט)—also a change of only one letter.
With these adjustments, the meaning of the verse becomes completely different. In the SP, Laban is stating that both Nahor and Abraham worshiped the same God—the one God—and that he (Laban) suggests that the two of them swear by this one God who will judge them if either break the treaty. Thus, Laban’s oath is monotheistic and poses no theological problem. Ironically, the difficulty with the SP text is that Laban’s suggestion is now so acceptable that it is hard to understand why Jacob rejects it!
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November 27, 2014
September 23, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).
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