The Midrashic tradition seems to do a great disservice to Isaac’s brother-in-law Laban. It casts him as an out-and-out villain, a trickster who according to the Passover Haggadah, wanted to prevent the creation of the Jewish nation.
“Go and see what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. For Pharoah only issued a decree against the men (casting the baby boys into the Nile) whereas Laban wanted to uproot all (the whole nation).”
The Haggadah’s justification for this statement is based on a dubious understanding of Deuteronomy 26,5, where it renders the phrase that most grammarians understand as ‘My father was a wandering Aramean’ as ‘An Aramean tried to destroy my father.’ The Aramean, in the Haggadah’s interpretation, is Laban. That Laban is an Aramean is incontestable, he lives in Aram Naharayim. That he tried to prevent Jacob from becoming the ancestor of a nation is not attested anywhere in the biblical text.
The midrash has great fun with the name Aram. It is an anagram, in Hebrew, for trickery. Laban is certainly a trickster. He tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel and according to Genesis 31,41 he changes Jacob’s wages ten times, though what he actually did is not spelt out.
But being a trickster is not so unusual in Genesis; Abraham tricks Pharoah over his relationship to Sarah, Isaac tricks Abimelech and both Rebecca and Jacob trick Isaac. Yet none of them are demonised in the rabbinic commentaries. Why is Laban singled out for special treatment? After all, as the father of Rachel and Leah he is as much an ancestor of Israel as is Isaac (but don’t shout that out too loud!).
It’s not just that Laban is condemned as a trickster. It gets worse. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Numbers 22,5) says that he is also Balaam, the prophet who tried to curse Israel. The Midrash (Tehillim 53) identifies him with Nabal, who cursed King David (Nabal and Laban are anagrams), the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) accuses him of having sex with animals.
We first meet Laban when Abraham is seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham has sent his servant back to his homeland, to find a suitable match from among his own people. The servant identifies Rebecca at the village well, she runs home to tell her father Bethuel, and her brother Laban. Noting that the word Laban means white in Hebrew, the Midrash calls him a ‘paradox’- white suggests purity, he is the opposite.
Laban goes to the well. The word for ‘well’ is the same as that meaning ‘eye’. Seizing its opportunity, the Midrash says that he went, not to the well, but to eye him up, to see what he can steal or inveigle from the servant.
Interestingly, the servant is also no saint, in the eyes of the Midrash. He is not named in this particular story but elsewhere (Genesis 15,2) we read that Abraham has a steward called Eliezer. The Midrash determines that the servant in the Laban story is this same Eliezer. It calls him a Canaanite, a descendant of Noah’s son Canaan. The Bible says two pertinent things about Canaan. He will be a servant to servants (Genesis 9,25). And in the Book of Hosea (12,5): “Canaan has fraudulent scales in his hands, he loves to deceive.” The reason why Eliezer is a fraudster is, according to the Midrashic imagination, that he was trying to find an excuse to get Isaac to marry his own daughter. It’s an assumption that has no foundation in the text. It seems that the Midrash wants to tar Abraham’s servant with the same brush as Laban.
In the whole story of how Abraham’s servant found a wife for Isaac only one key protagonist comes out smelling of roses- literally. Rebecca, Laban’s sister, Isaac’s future wife is described by the Midrash as a ‘rose among the thorns’. It’s a phrase from the Song of Songs (2,2). Her whole family, according to this Midrash are tricksters, Rebecca is the rose among these thorns, she does not have a tricky bone in her body. Except, of course, as this Midrash does not remind us, she is the one who engineers Jacob’s deception of Isaac.
The real question that comes out of the character assassination of Laban and Eliezer and the innocence attributed to Rebecca, is why? Why not just treat the characters as they are portrayed in the narrative?
There have been many attempts to answer this. In a fascinating article on the TABS website, Naomi Graetz cites several reasons. Perhaps the most convincing is that Aram (now Syria) was a dominant cultural force in rabbinic times.
There is clear evidence that the ancient rabbinic tradition resisted the influence of Greek, Roman and Babylonian culture. But each of these, in their own time had been powerful political powers that had subjugated Israel. They were clearly enemies. Aramaic culture was a far more insidious influence. It presented a danger of assimilation; if you can speak the same language as your neighbours, you might end up becoming like them.
Particularly since Jewish tradition stresses purity of descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Aram were a separate family, whose culture was alien. We may be descended as much from Laban as from Isaac, but we will try our hardest to keep our distance.