In Genesis 31:33 we read of Laban's search of the tents of Jacob's party:

וַיָּבֹא לָבָן בְּאֹהֶל יַעֲקֹב וּבְאֹהֶל לֵאָה וּבְאֹהֶל שְׁתֵּי הָאֲמָהֹת וְלֹא מָצָא וַיֵּצֵא מֵאֹהֶל לֵאָה וַיָּבֹא בְּאֹהֶל רָחֵל

If I was translating this verse I would render it as:

And Laban came in the tent of Jacob, and in the tent of Leah, and in the tent of the two maidservants, and he did not find. And he went out from the tent of Leah and came in the tent of Rachel.

This is a literal rendering of the words. However, it creates an obvious problem. The order portrayed in the first half of the verse is Jacob-Leah-maidservants, but in the second half of the verse it is portrayed as Leah-Rachel.

A bunch of translations avoid this discrepancy by simply ignoring the clause "וַיֵּצֵא מֵאֹהֶל לֵאָה" and skip directly to Laban entering Rachel's tent. Among such translations are:

  • New Living Translation
  • Contemporary English Version
  • Good News Translation
  • Douay-Rheims Bible

(All these translations can be seen here)

What is actually going on in this verse, and how do translators have license to just ignore difficult clauses? Is there any evidence for a Hebrew text without this clause?

The Septuagint seems to have a different version of this verse:

And Laban went in and searched in the house of Lea, and found them not; and he went out of the house of Lea, and searched in the house of Jacob, and in the house of the two maid-servants, and found them not; and he went also into the house of Rachel. (Brenton)

Here the order of Jacob-Leah is switched to Leah-Jacob, and there is an additional clause of "found them not" that is not in our Hebrew text. With this version there is no discrepancy, although one could still ask why Laban went to Rachel's tent last.

The Samaritan Pentateuch has two minor differences in this verse. It adds in the word ויחפש ("and he searched") before באהל יעקב and it refers to the maidservants as שפחות rather than אֲמָהֹת. (See here.) These differences do not address the discrepancy.

Genesis Rabbah cites the verse as:

וַיָּבֹא לָבָן בְּאֹהֶל יַעֲקֹב וּבְאֹהֶל רָחֵל וּבְאֹהֶל לֵאָה וּבְאֹהֶל שְׁתֵּי הָאֲמָהֹת וְלֹא מָצָא וַיֵּצֵא מֵאֹהֶל לֵאָה וַיָּבֹא בְּאֹהֶל רָחֵל

This adds a clause in the beginning of the verse in which Laban enters Rachel's tent. This only makes matters worse, as now the first half of the verse has Jacob-Rachel-Leah-maidservant while the second half of the verse has Leah-Rachel.

Genesis Rabbah tries to deal with the discrepancy by suggesting that after Laban searched Leah's tent he went back to Rachel's tent which he had already searched, because he suspected her more. Whether this is plausible or not, it still doesn't address the fact that the first half of the verse implies that after searching Leah's tent Laban went to the maidservants' tent not Rachel's tent.

The best answer that I have seen so far is that of a number of medieval rabbinic commentators (Samuel Ben Meir, Abraham Ibn Ezra in his second interpretation, Joseph Bekhor Shor, David Kimhi, Nachmanides). They argue that the actual order of searching was Jacob-Leah-Rachel-maidservants. However, the verse could not be written this way because there was an elaboration of the story by Rachel's tent. Thus the verse describes that Laban searched everyone else's tent and didn't find anything, and then it discusses Rachel's tent separately in order to elaborate. Because of this the reader might have thought that Laban went to Rachel's tent after the maidservants' tent, so the verse throws in a clause telling us that in truth he went to Rachel's tent after Leah's tent.

Ibn Ezra has another interpretation where he suggests that Laban must have gone back to Leah's tent after searching the maidservants' tent, and therefore the verse read straight through gives us the correct order of Jacob-Leah-maidservants-Leah-Rachel. The difficulty with this explanation is that it doesn't explain why Laban would search Leah's tent twice, nor does it explain why the verse left out the fact that he went back to Leah's tent (it only tells us that he came back out of it).

Bahya Ben Asher has a variation of this interpretation which addresses the difficulties. He suggests that the tent of the maidservants was actually inside the tent of Leah. Thus, Laban went into Leah's tent and then went into the maidservants' tent, and when he came out of the maidservants' tent he was still in Leah's tent. Thus, the verse then tells us that he came out of Leah's tent and went into Rachel's tent.

Are there any other ways to make sense out this verse?

(Standard answers such as multiple authors or bad editing are harder to justify within one verse.)

  • I don't see any contradiction in the way you translate the verse, "And Laban came in the tent of Jacob, and in the tent of Leah, and in the tent of the two maidservants, and he did not find. And he went out from the tent of Leah and came in the tent of Rachel." Just because Laban searches the tents of Jacob, Leah, and the 2 maidservants doesn't necessarily mean he searched them in that particular order. – Pascal's Wager Jun 16 '18 at 22:33
  • @Pascal'sWager I think the standard assumption would be that if events are listed in an order then it is the chronological order. Of course, as an answer to a question one could posit that the order is reflecting something other than chronology, (as the commentaries I cite do) but I don't think that invalidates the question. – Alex Jun 18 '18 at 0:26
  • I don't think it invalidates the question either. You raise an interesting point, that the Masoretic Text, the LXX, and Genesis Rabbah all give different variants of the verse. It would be interesting both to know which reading is most faithful to the original, and also which order Laban really searched the tents. – Pascal's Wager Jun 18 '18 at 5:52
  • By the way, assuming the Masoretic reading is right, here is my speculation (take it with a grain of salt) on the order. Laban first searches Jacob's tent, then the 2 maidservants' tents, then Leah's tent, and finally Rachel's tent, in that order. But the text mentions the tents in the order Jacob-Leah-Maidservants for hierarchical reasons. – Pascal's Wager Jun 18 '18 at 5:58

You ask three specific questions in your text (well four, since one is compounded). I'll answer them in slightly different order.

Is there any evidence for a Hebrew text without this clause?

Not that I am aware of (but I am not well versed in all textual variations in the Hebrew texts).

... [H]ow do translators have license to just ignore difficult clauses?

Translation is dependent upon one's translation philosophy, and of course, there is no set rules, so the "license" one takes in translating is whatever one chooses. Some are more careful to do a word-for-word (formal equivalency, which I like), while others attempt to divine a thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalency, which throws in more "interpretation" in the translation).

What is actually going on in this verse ... Are there any other ways to make sense out this verse?

I cannot discount the possibilities that some of the rabbinic commentators propose, as they may be valid. However, there is another way to make sense of it. Oftentimes in Genesis, summary statements are given, and then key parts of the story elaborated on.1

So the initial statement of the various tents entered may simply be a literary order to indicate that Laban had entered the three tents: Jacob's, Leah's, and the maidservants. That literary order has at least the significance of placing Jacob first (as he is the one originally implicated by Laban, v.30), then Leah next as she is more important (both as Jacob's wife and Laban's daughter), then the maidservants.

But then the verb beginning the next statement is given to hint at the actual order of the search: Leah then Rachel, the rest having occurred before them. This would logically make sense. Undoubtedly, based on Laban's accusation, Jacob's tent would have been searched first. The maidservants, not being Laban's actual daughters, would have logically been the next searched (i.e. I believe Laban would have assumed first that neither of his daughters were the culprit). Not finding his images yet, he moves to Leah's tent (whether he actually distrusted her more than Rachel may not be the case, it may simply be he had to pick one of them to start with—and perhaps was already aware of Rachel's indisposed state at this time, so chose not to bother her unless he needed to).

So logically, and certainly not implausible if one takes the first statement as a summary text given in hierarchical order and the second statement as the beginning of details, the order would have been: Jacob-maidservants-Leah-Rachel.

The above is my analysis. Cross checking, many Christian commentators do not even bother discussing the order. But I have found one commentary that did mention it and holds to the order I have advocated for here (with less information as why he might hold to that):

Then went he out of Leah’s tent (he probably commenced with Jacob’s and those of the hand-maids, and afterwards passed into Leah’s), and entered into Rachel’s tent—last, because she was the favourite.2

Gill's commentary mentions the order as initially given (Jacob-Leah-maidservants-Rachel), but does note Ibn Ezra's interpretation of twice in Leah's tent to resolve the point.


1 There are a number of places summaries are given, followed by details. A few are:

  1. While there is controversy about the relation of chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis, I would hold Genesis 1:26-27 is a summary, but chapter 2 gives details on creation of man and woman.
  2. The toledot statements are summaries of what follows.
  3. Genesis 17:23-27 is another example more explicitly having an ordering, yet two different ones (implying something is a summary, something perhaps actual). There, v.23 implies Ishmael is circumcised first, then the rest of the men in Abraham's house. But v.24-27 (esp. 26-27) implies the order was Abraham-Ishmael-others. The covenant of God was with Abraham (17:9-14), and in that passage, God seems to give the order that Abraham himself must keep the covenant sign, then his descendants (v.9), and then others related to his house (v.13). This gives a strong implication that the order given in v.26-27 is the actual order (Abraham first), making v.23 a summary statement of the actions of Abraham to fulfill the order with respect to his descendants and household, but the details of that given in v.24-27.

2 H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed. Genesis. The Pulpit Commentary. (London:Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 381.

  • 1
    Interesting. Though this doesn't account for why Rachel is entirely absent from the literary order, unless we follow the variant text recorded in Genesis Rabba where Rachel is in fact mentioned in the literary order. – Alex Jul 10 '18 at 12:59
  • @Alex I see it as accounting for her by the fact that since she is the focus and the last to be searched, so there is no need to summarize that her tent was searched and nothing found, because that is going to be detailed out. That is, the summary is a summary up to the point of searching her tent. – ScottS Jul 10 '18 at 15:09

KJV stays true to the Hebrew account. The Hebrew verse if from Scripture4all.org, ISA2 program.

Gen. 31:33 - And Laban(3837) went(935) into Jacob's(3290) tent,(168) and into Leah's(3812) tent,(168) and into the two(8147) maidservants'(519) tents;(168) but he found(4672) not.(3808) Then went(3318) he out of Leah's tent,(4480), (168), (3812) and entered(935) into Rachel's(7354) tent.(168)

Gen. 31:33 - And~he-is-coming (u~iba 935) Laban (lbn 3837) in~tent-of (b~ael 168) Jacob (ioqb 3290) and~in~tent-of (u~b~ael 168) Leah (lae 3812) and~in~tent-of (u~b~ael 168) two-of (shthi 8147) the~maidservants (e~ameth 519) and~not (u~la 3808) he-found (mtza 4672) and~he-is-(com)ing-forth (u~itza 3318) from~tent-of (m~ael 168) Leah (lae 3812) and~he-is-coming (u~iba 935) in~tent-of (b~ael 168) Rachel (rchl 7354):

Gill's Commentary says: "Aben Ezra thinks that he was twice in Leah's tent, and at the last time came out of that into Rachel's;..."

This take seems the most plausible, to me. Perhaps Laban really wanted it to be Leah (or anyone else) rather than Rachel - so he double-checked Leah.

When Laban entered Rachel's tent, he likely suspected now that she was the guilty party. And also that she was lying about not being able to rise ("lua" tip-off, see below). Laban let Rachel off the hook because he did not want her to be killed for the theft as Jacob had sworn to do in Gen. 31:32. (Though the others would have been expendable, it would seem.)

Gen. 31:35 - And she said(559) to(413) her father,(1) Let it not(408) displease(2734), (5869) my lord(113) that(3588) I cannot(3808), (3201) rise up(6965) before(4480), (6440) thee; for(3588) the custom(1870) of women(802) upon me. And he searched,(2664) but found(4672) not(3808) (853) the images.(8655)

Gen. 31:35 - And~she-is-saying (u~thamr 559) to (al 413)(-) father-of~her (abi~e 1) must-not-(be) (al 408)(-) he-is-(be)ing-hot (ichr 2734) in~eyes-of (b~oini 5869) lord-of~me (adn~i 113) that (ki 3588) not (lua 3808) I-am-(be)ing-able (aukl 3201) to~to-rise-of (qum 6965) from~faces-of~you (m~phni~k 6440) that (ki 3588)(-) way-of (drk 1870) women (nshim 802) to~me (l~i 9999) and~he-is-(m)searching (u~ichphsh 2664) and~not (u~la 3808) he-found (mtza 4672) ath (ath 853)(-) the~household-gods (e~thrphim 8655):


While searching on something else, I came across a short comment about whether or not Jacob was aware of the theft of the household gods by Rachel. Gen:31:32 has a sort of sidebar about 'and not he-knew, Jacob, that Rachel had stolen them'.


  1. Jacob could not have lived with Rachel for all those years and been unaware that she worshiped false gods.

  2. Jacob did not know that she'd stolen Laban's idols; however, it didn't take him long to strongly suspect it was possible.

  3. Gen. 31:32 - With whom you-are-finding ath-Elohim-of~you not he-shall-live (in)-front-of brothrs-of~us - identify-you!(-) for~yourself...."

Now, this article said that Jacob had invoked Hammurabi's Code, not Yahweh's, by declaring the death penalty for such a theft.

Hammurabi's Code:

[6] If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.

This law shows Hammurabi's belief that stealing sacred items was a heinous crime. Hence, the punishment is extremely severe. Hammurabi also believed that the person who received the stolen item is at fault, too.

If Laban would have found the objects in Rachel's tent and the consequence would have been Jacob paying a 'fine', then Jacob may have pursued the lie of Rachel that she couldn't rise from her spot. But Laban was not willing to see Rachel killed over the objects, once he became convinced that she was the culprit.

If Laban had called Jacob's bluff, would Jacob have been bound to carry out the threat - or could he have reconsidered his 'rashness' rather than disobey Yahweh?

Sorry, just can't find the place where I skimmed over these remarks on the way to a different object of inquiry. Curious as to whether anyone feels there is validity to the idea presented - that Jacob used 'quick thinking and a clever ploy' to save Rachel.

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