Comparison Exersices (2): Laban’s Search Revisited

Our exercise today is taken from the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. You probably remember the story: the brothers come back to Joseph for the second time, this time with Benjamin, and after they had accomplished their mission, next morning they started their way back.  You probably also remember that not long before they had left, Joseph had commanded his steward  to put his – Joseph’s – silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Then, when they had gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, Joseph said to his steward, “Get up, follow the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good?”[1]

Can you imagine how they felt when the steward overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words?[2]  I can almost see this search: panting and crimson, indignant with the total injustice and groundlessness of the new accusation, they present their sacks to the servant of this Egyptian governor, who won’t leave them alone. One after another, they all come clean – and how could it be otherwise: “Look, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan the money which we found in the mouth of our sacks. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house?”[3]   Now everything is almost over, just one more moment and at last they will be released and can get moving on their way home again, far away from this strange place where evidently something mysterious is at work, far away from this sinister person who for some reason causes their hearts to shudder in remembrance of that long-ago perpetrated crime. Only Benjamin’s sack is left to be checked – and he of course is the youngest, and innocent of even what all of them are guilty of. Is there even any need to search his bag at all? Dancing around nervously with impatience, each brother has already loaded up his donkey. They are just about ready to get back on their way – hurry, come on, let’s get going… hey, what’s going on? What?!! I hear a moan of terror multiplied ten times over at the end of verse twelve: the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. And only Benjamin is silent…

And so, the brothers return to Joseph. What must Benjamin have felt during this cheerless return to the city?  He was innocent – and he knew that God knew that; but the cup had been found in his bag and this meant that, in the eyes of his brothers, as well as in the eyes of the Egyptian (so he thought), he was a thief. His heart, his believing heart,which from childhood had been taught to trust, pray, and seek God, silently cried out, “God, where are You? Why are You letting this happen? You know that I am innocent! ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’[4] Why do you remain silent, why do you not intervene, why do you not protect and stand up for me?”

Ashamed, crushed and confused, he must have been thinking of the story that we will recall now:  the story of the idols stolen by his mother Rachel, and of Laban’s following search. Do you remember this story? In Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return to his land; or to be more accurate, God decides, and Jacob was obedient to His will. However, Jacob did not fulfill God’s will in such a godly manner. His whole departure or flight, rather, was so unseemly that the Torah accuses both Jacob and Rachel of the hideous sin of theft, using in both cases the same word: “to steal”. Not only did Rachel steal (ותגנב רחל) the household idols that were her father’s, as you probably remember, but to our great surprise we discover that Jacob “stole the heart of Laban” (ויגנב יעקב את-לב לבן),[5] because he did not inform him that he was leaving and taking with him all his wives and children, i.e. Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. Jacob leaves, but after some time Laban overtakes him and accuses him of both the fact that he had run away, as well as of stealing his idols.

Overtaken and accused by Laban, Jacob is absolutely convinced that, as a matter of principle there couldn’t be any stolen goods in his camp. To the depths of his being he is insulted by such suspicion. Indignant at the accusation and not knowing of his wife’s theft, he invites Laban to search the whole camp. ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’[6] And Laban commences his search.

In exactly the same way, the insulted brothers, who have been accused of stealing by the steward of Joseph’s house, swear to their innocence in literally these same words: ‘With whomever of your servants it is found, let him die.’[7] Just like Jacob, they knew well that stealing was sin, and even the thought that they might somehow be mixed up in theft was unbearable and offensive. Both searches start in almost the same way; however, the end of these stories is very different – and as always, it points to a spiritual truth that the Torah wants us to learn from this comparison.

Laban searches all the tents but still doesn’t find his idols. Rachel had hidden and sat on them, and to this day (thought Benjamin ruefully) no one had any doubts that this story had ended favorably. Certain laws exist in the spiritual world, however, that are unseen and therefore at times ignored even by those who fear God – but nonetheless, they are just as inviolable as the law of gravity, for instance. The Bible wants people to be aware of the spiritual accountability that they carry, not only for their children, but before their children as well: things they hide from God and man may, in a most unexpected way, surface in the lives of their children. This is why the search of Rachel, the mother who had actually stolen and yet on whom nothing was found, reverberates a generation later, in as tense a drama through the search of her son, who though absolutely innocent, was accused of stealing.

[1] Gen. 44:4-6

[2] Gen. 44:4-6

[3] Gen. 44:8

[4] Ps. 22:1

[5] Gen. 31:19-20; in the Hebrew the word “steal” is used in both verses.

[6] Gen. 31:32

[7] Gen. 44:9


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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Elijahu Ritter Pfeiffer von Palmenkron

    Hi. Is this not suppirting an antisemitic view of the jews being genetically predisposed to be scammers, crooked, swindlers and rip off people? That view is actually gaining momentum in modern churches in the US as well. I mean you sugfest Jacob being crooked which is even transmitted to Joseph. It is dangerous to accusing past generations for the own sins. One of the prophets says clearly that the sons are not the heirs of the sins of the fathers and are not guilty when they are against that sins.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Elijahu, I can’t agree with you, I don’t think my interpretation is antisemitic. That’s the beauty of the Scripture that we see there absolutely real people, not some kind of superheroes. Jacob made a lot of mistakes (also Abraham and Isaac did), but in the end, after everything he went through and after all the work that God did in his heart, he became Jacob the Patriarch – and it’s how we know that his love for God was stronger and bigger than his natural character. It does encourage me to know that even though all these Biblical heroes had their weakness and flows, God still used them for His cause and for His glory and made them into Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Doesn’t it encourage you?

  2. Jackie McCLure

    Julia, is there significance that during the millennial period, Benjamin’s land allotment is adjacent to the temple/city allotment, in Ezekiel chapter 47?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Jackie, I personally think that there is, but I am not sure my answer is very professional, Ezekiel is definitely not my area of expertise. I can try to check it, if I find the answer, I’ll get back to you .

  3. Nick

    Yes Julia, who really “deserved” death?? Certainly not young Benjamin!! The brothers didn’t have to wait a generation to get their “reverberation”.