Labeling Laban
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Labeling Laban*

The ancient Hebrew work known as the “Book of Jubilees” is one of the earliest commentaries to the Torah that have come down to us. It selectively narrates many of the stories in the book of Genesis, often inserting details that are not found in the original text. Many of the alterations in Jubilees express its author’s distinctive approaches to chronology—for instance, dividing history into a sequence of forty-nine-year units. However, some of those additions appear to be responding to difficulties posed by the scriptural text, the same kinds of difficulties that would be dealt with in later times by the rabbis of the Midrash and by classical Jewish commentators.

Take for example the story about Jacob and Laban. Now, Laban the Aramean has not fared very well in the hands of mainstream Jewish tradition. However, though his personality according to the unvarnished biblical text may not be particularly sympathetic, neither is it abhorrent. He acts as a sort of foil to young Jacob, who was (let’s face it) a bit of a wimpy Mama’s boy; Laban, on the other hand, is portrayed as a hard-nosed negotiator whether in his determination to find husbands for both his daughters or in squeezing the most out of his employees. His resolve to tend to his daughters’ successful marriages is not unlike the challenges faced by familiar literary parents like Jane Austen’s Bennets or Sholem Aleichem’s Tevyeh.

And yet the well-known midrash cited in the Passover Haggadah paints Laban in colours even more nefarious than the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, ascribing to him a diabolical plot to commit preventative genocide against Jacob’s still-unborn descendants. It can therefore be quite jarring for Jewish readers to read how the book of Jubilees seems to bend over backwards to minimize the negative implications of Laban’s behaviour.

For example, the Torah contrasts Jacob’s feelings toward Laban’s two daughters, a contrast that resulted from their their different physical appearances: “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” It would follow from this that palming off the homely daughter in place of the beautiful one would indeed amount a clear case of fraud.

However, Jubilees introduces a subtle abridgement into the description of the the two sisters’ appearances: “Leah's eyes were weak, but her form was very lovely; but Rachel had beautiful eyes and a graceful and very lovely form.” According to this reading, Laban’s bride-switching was not a clear-cut case of substituting an ugly girl for an attractive one, but rather of exchanging one beauty (albeit with bad eyes) for a more stunning beauty. Since according to either version Jacob was the kind of man whose romantic affections were shaped by external appearances—he fell for Rachel at first sight before acquainting himself with her personality—he had less compelling grounds for resentment against his father-in-law.

And what, indeed, was Laban’s motive for exchanging Jacob’s sisters? According to the Torah he argues in his defense, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.” In their general determination to vilify Laban, traditional Jewish commentators have tended to read this argument as a disingenuous bit of self-justification. To be sure, some later Jewish exegetes, like the sixteenth-century Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, read the passage astutely as a fitting retribution for Jacob’s own deception when he misled his father into awarding him the blessing that was really intended for his older twin Esau.  

Evidently, however, the author of Jubilees is accepting Laban’s argument as fully sincere. In that version, Laban goes on to argue his case in elaborate detail: A father who marries off his younger daughter before the elder will have committed a grave sin that is registered on his heavenly permanent record. Therefore, such behaviour is eschewed by all righteous persons, and is deemed evil in the eyes of the Lord.

And if the reader hasn’t yet got the hint, Laban spells out clearly that this is not just a local custom but a full-scale law: the Israelites are absolutely forbidden to take or give a younger daughter in marriage before her older sibling. (Note that at this point in the narrative, neither the name “Israel” nor any of the children who were to inherit it were yet in existence.)

And if your are skeptical as to the genuineness of such a prohibition, Laban in Jubilees appends a remarkable footnote to his plea: “for thus it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets.”

Now, we might have understood that the wily Laban was just fabricating an impressive-sounding source on which to base his deed. After all, the Bible contains not even the slightest hint of a law or moral injunction that an older daughter must be married before her younger sister. In fact, the Torah forbids a man to marry any two sisters, so it is not clear how the author of Jubilees—who believed that the Hebrew patriarchs observed all the precepts of the Torah prior to its proclamation at Mount Sinai—was able to justify Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel in whatever sequence.

However, the image of heavenly tablets “of instruction and testimony” is a prominent one in the book of Jubilees, one that is adduced several times in order to provide confirmation for cherished religious concepts and practices. It is an image that can be traced back to the “tablets of fate” in ancient Babylonian myth, and was mentioned often in Jewish Apocalyptic works like the Book of Enoch. It would later resurface in traditions as diverse as Islam and Mormonism. In some instances, as in our current passage, the tablets are invoked as a testimony of the commandments and laws that were being observed before Sinai. In other places, it serves a more abstract or narrative function as the document in which God wrote down the destiny of the human race, or as the ledger in which our good and evil deeds are recorded in order to mete out our final retribution.

All of this is fully consistent with the fatalistic outlook that pervades the book of Jubilees, whose author was deeply convinced that the course of history had been pre-ordained from the beginning of time and that the people of Israel were chosen from the moment of the world’s creation to participate in a divine covenant. After surveying these themes as they appear in numerous religious traditions, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel felt compelled to stress that the normative religion of Israel “had no place for the concept of ‘tablets of fate,’ and that any texts that seem to suggest otherwise must be interpreted figuratively.”

Nevertheless, it would appear that from the distinctive perspective of the book of Jubilees, Laban has not only been exonerated from the stigma of fiendish villainy that was affixed to him by the rabbinic tradition, but he has attained the full status of a halakhic authority—and almost to the rank of a prophet who is privy to the teachings inscribed on the revered heavenly tablets, to their sacred laws and to their records of human virtues and failings.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 28, 2014, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Amaru, Betsy Halpern. The Empowerment of Women in the Book of Jubilees. (Supplements to the Journal for the study of Judaism v. 60). Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1999.
    • Boccaccini, Gabriele. “From a Movement of Dissent to a Distinct Form of Judaism: The Heavenly Tablets in Jubilees as the Foundation of a Competing Halakah.” In Enoch & The Mosaic Torah The Evidence of Jubilees, edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and Giovanni Ibba, 193–210. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
    • Garćia Martínez, Florentino García. “The Heavenly Tablets in the Book of Jubilees.” In Studies in the Book of Jubilees, edited by Matthias Albani, Jörg Frey, and Armin Lange, translated by Michael Thomas Davis, 243–260. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 65. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997.
    • Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. Translated by Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin. New York: Continuum, 2005.
    • Himmelfarb, Martha. “Torah, Testimony, and Heavenly Tablets: The Claim to Authority of the Book of Jubilees.” In A Multiform Heritage: Studies on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Robert A. Kraft, 19–29. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
    • Kister, Menahem. “Two Formulae in the Book of Jubilees.” Tarbiz 70 (2001): 289–300.
    • Kugel, James L. Walk through Jubilees : Studies in the Book of Jubilees and the World of Its Creation. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, Volume 156. Leiden: Brill, 2012.fy
    • Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in the Book of Genesis in the Context of Ancient and Modern Jewish Bible Commentary. Translated by Aryeh Newman. Jerusalem, Israel: World Zionist Organization, Dept. for Torah Education and Culture, 1972.
    • Loader, William R. G. Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Early Enoch Literature, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the Book of Jubilees. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2007.
    • Paul, Shalom M. “Heavenly Tablets and the Book of Life.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 5 (1974): 345–353.
    • Segal, Michael. The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology, and Theology. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism volume 117. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
    • Shemesh, Aharon. Halakhah in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
    • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. What Is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
    • Tzoref, Shani. “Covenantal Election in 4Qq252 and Jubilees’ Heavenly Tablets.” Dead Sea Discoveries 18, no. 1 (2011): 74–89.
    • VanderKam, James C. Textual and Historical Studies in the Book of Jubilees. Harvard Semitic Monographs No. 14). Missoula: Scholars Press for Harvard Semitic Museum, 1977.
    • Werman, Cana. “Jubilees 30: Building a Paradigm for the Ban on Intermarriage.” Harvard Theological Review 90, no. 1 (1997): 1–22.
    • ———. “The תורה and the תעודה Engraved on the Tablets.” Dead Sea Discoveries 9 (2002): 75–103.
    • Widengren, Geo. The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book. Uppsala: Lundequistska bokhandeln, 1950.
    • Zetterholm, Karin. “Portrait of a Villain: Laban the Aramean in Rabbinic Literature.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 2. Leuven: Peeters, 2002.