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How long did Jacob stay in Harran? The answer seemed to be in Genesis 31:38-41 (NIV)

38 “I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks.

39 I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night.

40 This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes.

41 It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times.

The answer seemed pretty straight forward, "twenty years". When look more carefully, the twenty years of vv38, may not be the same in vv41 as it added "I was in your household". Review Genesis 30, the negotiation between Jacob and Laban for leaving Laban household, Genesis 30:36 (NIV) said:

Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.

Was Genesis 30:36 a prove that Jacob lived outside of Laban household, which implied the account in Genesis 30:38 and Genesis 30:41 were two separated periods of 20 years?

From this article, the writer puts forth the following argument, tracing the known years of who was old at what time:

(edited for brevity)

Timeline of Jacob's Sojourn in Haran (referenced to Jacob's age) | Age | Jacob... | |:------|:--------------------------------| | 57 | leaves Canaan and comes to Harran | | 64 | marries Leah and Rachel, begins having children | | 65 | begins having children by Leah | | 76 | probably has last of children by Leah (Dinah) | | 91 | has Joseph (son of Jacob's old age) | | 97 | leaves Harran and returns to Canaan after 40 years |

What is the credibility of this?

6 Answers 6

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I do not believe that these twenty years periods are distinct - they are the same period of 20 years. This is apparent from the following considerations.

  1. The only period of 20 years mentioned anywhere in the Jacob narrative is that in Gen 31
  2. Jacob was still part of Laban's household because he was still shepherding the his flocks as per Gen 30:36
  3. The only effect of the agreement between Laban and Jacob (Gen 30:31-33) was to separate the flocks so as to remove later debates about who owned what.
  4. The incident recorded in Gen 30:25ff was at the end of the second seven year period at which time, Joseph was born (V23, 24). There followed a further six years where Jacob tended Laban's flocks before he departed.
  5. After Jacob had returned to Canaan (after having lived in a few other places, including, Gen 33:18; Bethel, Gen 35:1; Ephrath/Bethlehem, Gen 35:19; Mamre, Gen 35:27, 37:1), Joseph was still only 17 years old.

Therefore, Jocob lived in Haran only 20 years.

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  • Thanks Dottard. I use to believe your answer. However, I recently read an article that give a math that worth a thought. If Jacob in Haran was 20 years, Joseph borne when he was 91, he was 77 when he left for Haran. Genesis 28:9 said Esau went to Ishmael to marry his daughter. But Ishmael should have died 14 years ago because Ishmael was 14+60=74 years older than Jacob and Esau and Ishmael died at 137. So if Ishmael had died, it is weird the Bible said Esau went to Ishmael. What's your opinion? Jun 30, 2022 at 1:16
  • @VincentWong - the events in Genesis are not in Chronological order. Compare Gen 25:17 (Ismael died at 137 years) but Esau went to Ishmael in gen 29:9 before Jacob left for Haran.
    – Dottard
    Jun 30, 2022 at 2:20
  • @VincentWong could you post a link to that article or provide a quote and citation? That may present what's happening in the bigger issue.
    – Jesse
    Jun 30, 2022 at 2:49
  • @Jesse - here is the link sites.google.com/site/calendarstudies/genesis-28-9 Jun 30, 2022 at 3:47
  • @Dottard - Gen 28:5 Jacob went to Laban, then Gen 28:9 Esau went to Ishmael. The events happened in the same time period, when both Jacob and Esau were at age 77. The age was backward count from Jacob was age 130 in Egypt, deducted 2 years of famine, 7 years of abundant, 30 years age of Joseph, 14 years in Laban household before Joseph was borne. Jun 30, 2022 at 4:03
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Most likely 40 years

From the article you linked, the numbers make a lot of sense. Inspired by that article, I have redacted and reanalyzed the events into an easy list:

Joseph, Jacob, and Laban years and birth

  • Jacob lived 147 years, the last 17 in Egypt (47:28)
  • Jacob moves to Egypt at 130 years old
  • Joseph meets his brothers in the second year of famine (45:6)
  • Nine years pass, 7 years of plenty + 2 years of famine (41:29-30)
  • Joseph was 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh (41:38)

Conclude: Joseph was 39 when Jacob was 130. Joseph was born when Jacob was 91.

Consistent: Joseph was "the son of [Jacob's] old age" (37:3)

  • Jacob asks to leave Laban when Joseph is born, 91 years old (30:25)
  • Three-day journey is established between Jacob and Laban, working for Laban continues (30:36)
  • Six years of "working for flocks" described, Jacob is probably 97 (31:41)
    • "With Laban" 20 years, a defense of Jacob's character: (31:38-40)
    • "In Laban's house" 20 years, qualified as, 14 years service for marriage, 6 years for flocks. (31:41)
    • These are likely two separate 20 years because of a 3-day journey between Laban and Jacob, thus Jacob might not be "in Laban's house" (30:36)

Conclude: possible interpretation of two sets of 20 years in Jacob's final appeal/pow-wow with Laban (31:38-41)

Age of Ishmael, Esau-Jacob, and Isaac years and birth:

  • Ishmael dies at 137 (25:17)
  • Isaac sends Jacob to Uncle Laban's country, Paddan Aram, Esau seeks a wife from Uncle Ishmael (28:6-9)
    • Ishmael can't be older than 137 at that time
  • Isaac is 14 years younger than Ishmael (16:16 cf 21:5)
    • Isaac was 123 when Ishmael dies
  • Esau and Jacob were born when Isaac was 60 (25:26)
    • Isaac married Rebekah at 40 (25:20)
    • Rebekah was barren (25:21) 20 years of childless marriage
  • Esau and Jacob were 63 years old when Ishmael died

Conclusion: When Jacob and Esau went to their uncles (Laban and Ishmael, respectively) Jacob and Esau couldn't be older than 63, probably younger.

Problem: At 91, Jacob still works for Laban, having Joseph and requesting to leave Laban, (30:25) and still continuing to work more. That's 28 years minimum, not 20.

Work after 91: The time under Laban after Joseph was born is probably the six years of "flocks" mentioned in their final pow-wow (31:41), Having Jacob working until 97, when Joseph is 6.

  • Starting with Laban at 63 maximum, at 91 (28 years work min.) plus 6 more years after requesting to leave (34 years work min.), Jacob had 34 years of work minimum

Must be 34 years with Laban, minimum

Likelihood: There is no indication, and it is unlikely, that Ishmael died the day after Esau arrived for a wife, so 6 more years is reasonable if Esau and Jacob were 57 years old when they left for their uncles, not 63 (the oldest possible), which would be their age if Jacob was under Laban 20 years "with" and another 20 years "in his house".

The only way to chalk up Jacob's discussion/pow-wow with Laban (31:38-41) to a total of 34 years or more is to total it to 40 years.

Minimum possible work is 63-97, 34 years minimum total unexplained.

Sensible work is 57-97, 40 years explained by 20 + 20 (viz the great pow-wow of 31:38-41).

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  • 1
    your details match exactly the article said. 20+20 allows another sensible thought, that the negotiation between Jacob and Laban happened at the 20th year in Laban household, made Reuben and Joseph an age gap of 13 years, more sensible to have 5 more brothers from Leah in between. Consider as well Leah was barren a few years during which her servant Zilpah gave Jacob another 2 sons. So after Jacob and Laban separated, Jacob used 20 years to accumulate his great wealth. Jun 30, 2022 at 14:04
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The question can also be addressed by examining whether, in the Hebrew language, we should treat the 20 years in verse 38 and verse 41 as distinct periods of time or not.

(1) Syntax Observe:

Verse 38 זֶה עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה (literally: "this - twenty - years")

Verse 41 זֶה־לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה֮ (literally: "this - to me - twenty - years")

The word 'this' in an English translation seems to work as a usual demonstrative adjective, then both verses would refer to the same 20-year period. This usual use of זֶה is listed in Brown, Driver and Briggs [BDB], "זֶה," sense 2. However, in Hebrew, a demonstrative adjective often follows the noun, not precedes the noun. So, it is not as simple as 'this'. There are three possible ways to take the use of זֶה here.

First, it is rare for a demonstrative adjective to appear after the noun, but it is not impossible. The BDB has listed at least 10 cases in the Hebrew Bible.

Second, זֶה could be adverbial and simply emphasize the following noun's closeness to the speaker (BDB, sense 4). In this case, Jacob could have said, "now twenty years I ... " In this case, it seems that the total duration of Jacob having served Laban was 20 years.

Third, the repeated זֶה ... זֶה ... (this ... this ... ) can be a structure in Hebrew that denotes two different things, so it can be translated as "this ... that ..." or "this ... another ..." (BDB, sense 1b). In this case, it seems that there is room for verses 38 and 41 to refer to two distinct periods of time. However, there is a caveat of this understanding. While the repeated זֶה structure appears in many other places to denote two different things, the two זֶה are used in close proximity (e.g., Genesis 29:27; 1 Kings 3:23; 22:20; Psalm 75:8; Jb 1:16–18. Also, in these cases, there is a waw (וְ) in between. So the structure actually looks like (this ... and that ...). However, in Genesis 31:41, a וְ is not used before זֶה.

In sum, there is a (small) possibility that the use of זֶה in Genesis 31:38 and 31:41 allows for two distinct periods of 20 years, but we must scrutinize the context.

(2) Context

The context is clear that, in the first 14 years of Jacob's servitude, he only worked for the sake of Laban's two daughters (Gen. 29:20, 30; 31:41a), yet without accumulating his own possession (Gen. 30:30). After that, however, Jacob was working both for Laban and for himself because he began to accumulate his own flock as his wage (Gen. 30:43; 31:41b), and that lasted for 6 years. (Gen. 31:7-8, 41b). So, these 14+6 years are clearly what verse 41a is about. Now if we look at 31:38-40 carefully, Jacob said that he bore the loss of Laban's flock, meaning that he already had his own flock at that time. The 20 years mentioned in verse 38 could not happen before that of verse 41. Could it happen after? Note that God instructed Jacob to flee after Laban had changed Jacob's wages 10 times.

(3) Laban changing Jacob's wages

It could be that Jacob had served Laban for longer than 20 years, if Laban's wage-changing is done after Jacob had served for his own flock 6 years. One possibility is that, in 6 years, Jacob tended Laban's flock, receiving the wages designed by Jacob himself (Gen. 30:31-33), but Laban cheated by putting his sons in charge of the speckled, the spotted, and the black ones (30:34-35); then, in an unspecified amount of time, Laban changed Jacob's wages 10 times.

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    – agarza
    Jan 26, 2023 at 17:22
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Please, this 20 years are one and the same. Jacob was not that old when he left Laban's house. If you read it very well, you will see that Jacob lived with Laban for 20 years and then left. There was not another 20 years where he lived outside Laban's house. Instead of basing your stand on an article, I think you should base it on the Bible. Study your Bible again and understand. It's pretty obvious.

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    Oct 1, 2023 at 13:37
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    Oct 1, 2023 at 13:37
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I think the age of Ismael couldn't help us - it is not necessary for Ismael to be alive when Esau goes for another wife. In the Old Testament that language is frequently in use to name the clan/tribe by the name of forefather. But I agree with the double 20-year period.

If by the birth of Joseph, there are only 14 years in Haran, we have only seven years for Leah to give birth to six sons and one daughter, and two sons from her handmaid: After the birth of Juda (4th) "Lea ceased bearing" and after the birth to 2 sons (Balla), "When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife" and she gives birth to another 2 sons. After that, we have another son - Joseph. And all these children for 7 years!?!

Genesis 30:14

And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah...

How could a three-year-old do this? (These mandrakes Leah uses to buy the right to be that night with Jacob and give birth to his 5th son). After the birth of Joseph when Jacob accepts to stay and works for Laban they separate the spotted from the flock and Laban "gave them into the hand of his sons." By that time the biggest will be 6 years old!

Genesis 37:3

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age.

If all the children of Jacob were born in the period of seven years, Joseph would have the same age as the last ones. But when Ruben looks for Joseph to save him, he calls him "the child". He is definitely far more young than the ten others.

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What confuses the issue is length of gestations involved. Either Leah & Rachel started bearing children for Jacob after 7 years or after 14 years. A plain reading of the text would suggest that he started procreating with Leah & Rachel simultaneously. The best possibility is that the two marriages happened within one week of each other, and the 2nd set of seven years was worked retroactively for Rachel, during which most of the children were born. Eleven pregnancies, if back to back, would have been 8 years and three months long. There is nothing to say that the pregnancies from the four women involved were sequential, but the text would highly suggest that.

Plus, once Joseph was born, Jacob request leave from Laban and begins his sheep breeding regimen. A female ewe will be born and have her first babies by one year old. Jacob's breeding-in of recessive traits would have taken several years. (Robert Alter, citing the work of Yehuda Feliks, had some interesting commentary on this.)

So, 7 years--Jacob labors for Laban while celibate. Then Jacob marries Leah, and then marries Rachel one week later. Then Jacob labors 7 more years for Laban while impregnating the four women. Then there is a year-or-so gap period when Joseph is conceived and born. Then Jacob proposes and implements his sheep-breeding regimen, which takes 5-6 years. Twenty literal years total (give or take) is plausible.

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