In his book Knowing Scripture, Dr. R.C. Sproul reminds us that sound biblical interpretation requires study of “the historical context of a writing” (p. 60). If we do not understand the situation in which a text was composed, we can make the text say anything we want. But if we take the time to consider the author and his circumstances, we will discover his intent and will therefore be more likely to take our doctrines from the text instead of reading them into it.
Moses originally wrote Genesis to the Israelites newly freed from slavery. Though things were bad in the land of the Nile, the long journey to Canaan made the people question their choice to follow Yahweh (Num. 11). In Egypt, protected (as many thought) by its different gods, the Israelites had homes. Under Moses, they were desert nomads.
Idolatry was the strongest temptation for these people. Faced with difficulties, it was alluring to believe worship of foreign deities could alleviate one’s trouble. In fact, the Israelites did succumb to this temptation while they journeyed through the wilderness (Ex. 32). Thus, it was important for Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to emphasize the perils of idolatry in his historical record.
This teaching is clear in Genesis 31. First, Rachel’s theft of Laban’s idols in verse 19 depicts the danger of idolatry. Laban might have left Jacob’s family alone if the images had been left behind. The Lord’s hand graciously shielded them from harm despite her folly, but Rachel’s theft jeopardized her family (v. 30). Sadly, many in Israel never learned this lesson (2 Kings 17:7–23), and we dare not think the new covenant church cannot repeat this mistake.
Today’s passage reveals the impotence of false worship. Try as he might, Laban cannot find his gods because they are hidden under a saddle (Gen. 31:34). What kind of deity can be hidden under a seat? Only a small, powerless one. Moreover, Rachel cannot dismount her camel and reveal their presence because she is menstruating, a condition that rendered women ceremonially unclean under the old covenant (Lev. 15:19–33). Their position under Rachel shows these gods are impotent and impure.
Duress makes false gods enticing. Those in dire financial straits may look to the lottery or corrupt politicians to save them. Men or women under pressure at work or at home may seek refuge in drugs, alcohol, or pornography. The terminally ill may follow those who promise healing while teaching a false gospel. Make sure you are surrounded by caring Christians who will help see you through difficulties and caution you against chasing after idols.