The People & the Book: The unwilling father-in-law

Laban was a good father, but he was not a good father-in-law.

"God Himself will be witness between you and me" (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
"God Himself will be witness between you and me"
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
WHEN WE think of in-laws, we usually think of the hated mother-in- law, the one who never lets go of her son and bad-mouths his new bride, who strikes fear in her daughter-in-law. She is the evil stepmother from fairy tales.
Yet, in the Bible the fathers-in-law hold center stage and they can be divided into two groups: those who have their sons-in-law’s interests at heart, like Jethro, and those who thwart them at every turn, like Saul. No prizes for guessing in which group Laban belongs. He cheats Jacob of his intended bride and puts him to harsh, physical labor.
In Hebrew, a hatan is “a relative by marriage” depending on the context. It is a relationship of “affinity” rather than “blood.” It is fascinating that neither Jacob nor Laban refer to each other as a hatan or hoten.
Is it that their relationship is so acrimonious: the master as opposed to the servant, the cheater vs. the cheated? For all that, Laban acts as one who has his daughters’ interests in mind. In our town, he says, we don’t let the younger marry first. He threatens Jacob that if he lays a hand on either of his daughters, he will come after him.
Laban respects his older daughter’s right to marriage. Despite this, he is depicted as a villain in the Bible and demonized in rabbinic tradition.
In truth, in the biblical text Laban is not a hoten, a father-in-law or any kind of relation to Jacob. I believe that this is Laban’s choice.
His ongoing tragedy is the loss of his beloved sister Rebecca. He unsuccessfully tried to delay her leaving with Eliezer decades ago.
Now he fears that he is going to lose his daughters. Ever since he heard that Isaac and Rebecca had twin sons, he knew that both of them had first rights to his daughters. When Jacob came – and to Laban it was a replay of the scene at the well – and fell for his daughter Rachel, just as Rebecca fell off her camel when she saw Isaac – it was love at first sight. All Laban wanted to do was postpone the inevitable.
He stalled for seven years, and then he tricked Jacob by switching his daughters. As with much of Genesis, this is a foundational narrative for Jewish perspectives and values, with Jacob seen as an ideal worker and Laban’s behavior as an example to be avoided.
The Shulhan Arukh cites this story in laying out the obligations of employers to act fairly.
Despite the chicanery, Laban could not keep his daughters: they conspired with Jacob to flee. In desperation, he ran after Jacob, but it didn’t do any good – and then he realized that he would have to back down and come to terms.
For some reason, tradition looks on Laban as a would-be destroyer of the Jewish people. Rashi writes that “Laban wanted to uproot everything.” I always wondered why Laban has been demonized. I believe it is connected to the original loss of his sister Rebecca. Had he succeeded in keeping her with him, there would have been no marriage between her and Isaac and there would have been no Jacob, the progenitor of Israel.
This is why Laban is never referred to as a hoten, because he was never able to face up to the relationship by marriage.
There was no formal marriage agreement. What we have, and what Laban saw, is a prior relationship of blood, not marriage. If we look closely at the text, we see that he regards Jacob as his sister’s son or his “brother,” not his son-in-law! He refers to him as his own flesh and blood, and not as a relation by marriage. Admitting to the marriage relationship would mean accepting he had lost his daughters, just as he had lost his sister.
Laban saw himself as the paterfamilias and was unwilling to relinquish this status to transfer his ownership of his daughters to Jacob and allow this usurper to establish his own family unit.
Laban was a good father, and had his daughters' interests in mind, hence his final words, “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.” But he was not a good father-in-law. He wanted to hold on to his daughters, the women who replaced his beloved sister Rebecca in his affections. He tried, but ultimately lost, and he let go with dignity.
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of several books, including ‘Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible,Midrash and God (2005).