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B'resheet/Genesis 31:36 And Ya'akov became angry and he contended with Laban ... "What is my offense? What is my sin that you have pursued me?"
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Laban has just pursued Ya'akov and his family across the desert from Padan Aram to the mountains of Gilead after Ya'akov had picked up everything that he had and travelled back to the land of Canaan while Laban was busy elsewhere. Under the accusation that one of his party has stolen Laban's family idols, Ya'akov has allowed Laban to search through all the tents to see if they are there and, since Rachel has been sitting on them, Laban has failed to find anything to justify his accusation. TheRamban offers the following comment on Ya'akov's outburst: "Ya'akov had originally given him permission to search the tents and how could Laban find it if not by searching and handling? At first, however, Ya'akov feared lest one of his wives or servants had stolen Laban's gods, and now that he saw that the were not with them his anger was aroused, for he said to himself, "He did not lose his gods, only 'he is seeking a quarrel with me' (as Samson in Judges 14:4)".
TheSforno, too, reflects Ya'akov's righteous anger: "Once nothing was found, Ya'akov thought that the terafim had never been stolen and that Laban had used this accusation as a pretext to enable him to make a general search, because he suspected him of stealing something else from him." Nahum Sarna adds, "By searching Ya'akov's tent, Laban had shown that he really believed him to be guilty of theft. Moreover, the man maintains his silence and does not even apologise for his false accusation." The Sforno paraphrases Ya'akov's words: "What wrongdoing have you found me guilty of in the past, that you suspect me now of being a robber?" Nechama Leibowitz tries to find something positive in the outburst: "The Torah here teaches us an instructive lesson in human conduct and self-control. Anger and bitter reproof should be deferred until the last possible moment, until there is no other alternative - only as a last resort ... The Almighty Himself is described a acting in a similar manner on hearing Miriam and Aharon's speaking against Moshe."
Moving to the text itself, the first verb - , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , "to burn, be kindled; to become hot, angry, wroth" (Davidson), here in a vav-conversive construction for narrative past tense - tells us that Ya'akov became angry, his anger heated up, as a result of Laban's search; it was the search that had angered Ya'akov. The second verb - , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , "to contend, strive, quarrel" (Davidson), followed by the attached preposition , translated 'with' to indicate the target of the contention, again with a vav-conversive - tells us that after Ya'akov became angry, he contended with Laban. The JPS translation adopts the slightly quaint phraseology: "he took up his grievance with Laban". The boot is now on the other foot! Sarna explains, "The Hebrew stem, as a verb and a noun, belongs to the terminology of jurisprudence. It is Ya'akov who now becomes the aggrieved party, the plaintiff, and Laban the accused, the defendant."
The way that Ya'akov asks his questions, using the particle - what, how - is typical of a reported legal discourse. The repeated question technique is used in the book of Malachi. HaShem levels a series of allegations against the priests and they respond: "Where is the reverence due Me, O priests who scorn My name?", is followed by, ", How have we scorned Your name?" (Malachi 1:6, JPS); "You offer defiled food on My altar" by ", How have we polluted You?" (v. 7, JPS); and "You have wearied ADONAI with your words" by ", How have we wearied him?" (2:17, CJB). The technique appears again in Yeshua's parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In the case of the righteous: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink" followed by "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?" (Matthew 25:35,37, ESV); in the case of the unrighteous: "For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink" followed by "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty" (vv. 42,44, ESV).
Despite the attempts to present Ya'akov's words in a positive light, simply turning the legal tables, the text itself - the use of the "hot, angry" verb and then "contend, strive" - seems to be suggesting that he lost his temper, that this was a more than slightly intemperate outburst. This would, after all, not be all that surprising given both the affront given by Laban's accusations and the undeniable fact that Ya'akov had to all intents and purposes run away while Laban wasn't looking. Ya'akov must have been feeling uneasy on that score at least and attack is often the best form of defence. On edge, feeling vulnerable and now accused of being a thief - something which Laban's sons certainly felt with regard to the flocks and herds that Ya'akov had 'acquired' while working for Laban and, as the text will go on to tell us, also felt by Laban about everything that Ya'akov has: "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine" (B'resheet 31:43, JPS) - perhaps Ya'akov simply lets fly and his pent-up emotion pours out in a diatribe of self-defence and justification.
How often, then, do we find ourselves in the same position? How often do we lash out at someone in frustration and annoyance when picked up for something that we didn't do properly or failed to to at all? It seems to be an human instinct, when accused of something, to jump up and down and bluster, demanding to know just exactly what it is that we are supposed to have done wrong. We smile when we see or hear of a child behaving in that way, turning a blind eye when we do it ourselves.
Isaiah spoke of how G-d's servant would behave when accused of wrong-doing: "He was maltreated, yet He was submissive, He did not open His mouth; like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, He did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7, JPS). Yeshua fulfilled that prophesy when before the Sanhedrin, "The high priest stood up and said, 'Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?' But Yeshua remained silent" (Matthew 26:62-63, ESV), before Herod, "When Herod saw Yeshua, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about Him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by Him. So he questioned Him at some length, but He made no answer" (Luke 23:89, ESV) and before Pilate, "When He was accused by the chief priests and elders, He gave no answer. Then Pilate said to Him, "Do you not hear how many things they testify against You?" But He gave him no answer, not even to a single charge" (Matthew 27:12-14, ESV). Even when the two criminals being crucified with him screamed abuse at Him, he made no response. He was oppressed and afflicted, but remained silent.
How are we to respond when attacked and accused of various calumnies? Peter tells us, "In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:15-16, ESV). If we know that our behaviour has always been good, being done to and for the Lord, then we may answer those who accuse with gentleness, remembering that "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1, NASB). More than that, Yeshua tells His disciples, "When they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you" (Matthew 10:19-20, NASB). Like Yeshua Himself, we should be prepared to be silent, leaving those who attack us to contradict and perjure themselves, only responding when the Ruach gives us His words to share. Unlike Ya'akov, we should not rush to defend ourselves, answering out of and projecting anger; for in anger we lose control and may slander and attack others.
Further Study: Mark 13:11-13
Application: Do you wait out the flood-tide of accusations, either saying nothing or responding with grace when the force of the ebb has passed, or must you answer quickly in the heat of the moment to defend yourself? Pray today for patience and grace to endure patiently, only responding with the truth at the appropriate moment.
Comment - 13:25 15Nov15 Tom Hiney: Jesus was certainly right in being silent when wrongly accused. We are unlikely to be so strong. To reply with grace and patience is the most we can hope for. The Holy Spirit will give us the words. We should not lose our temper as Jacob did but behave as Isaiah said that G-d's servant would -- fulfilled as this was by Jesus.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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