The name game

Jacob hurriedly escaped from Lavan’s home with his family, but the Torah describes how his father-in-law caught up with him. Lavan proclaims that the daughters are his and their children are his. He then proposes that the two of them should seal a covenant.

There are two kinds of covenant: one to bring two parties closer together (ie. Genesis 15:18) and another to keep both parties apart (ie. Genesis 21:32).

According to R’ Tzvi Dov Kanotopsky, the last thing that Jacob wanted was to fuse his family with Lavan’s. Jacob’s concern is to preserve the special purity and identity of the house of Abraham. His immediate reaction is to set up a pile of stones to show that the purpose of this covenant will be to set up a barrier between them.

To seal the covenant, Lavan and his men and Jacob’s group eat together at the mound of stones. Lavan calls the place Yegar Sahaduta, which is Aramaic for ‘the gathering is a witness’. Lavan is intent on fusing the two families, so he names the place accordingly. Jacob, on the other hand names the place Gal’ed – ‘the mound is a witness’. For Jacob, the focus is on the separation barrier, not the gathering of parties.

Lavan continues his manoeuvring and makes a vow in the name of the God of Abraham, the god of Nachor (Abraham’s brother) and the god of their father (Terach). Lavan is a descendant of Nachor and this oath would be a way to get Jacob to acknowledge their common ancestry. Jacob, however, swears only in the name of his father Isaac. This makes it clear that from Jacob’s perspective, his family is separate and distinct from Lavan’s.

Jacob then offers a sacrifice and makes a second feast but only for his own people. This is to conclusively establish the final severing of his family from Lavan’s.

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