Laban (curiously “Nabal” backwards) is an oily, cheating figure. He seems normal and reasonable at first, but the longer one deals with him, the more one wishes that one didn’t have to. While he does nothing overtly wicked, his actions consistently lack integrity, fairness, or consideration for others. He is out to get the best for himself, only he knows that he needs people around to feed him– so he can’t completely drive them away with undisguised avarice. People must think he is decent. These types flirt with outright cruelty but know that they don’t have the luxury to go there. This toxicity relies heavily upon coercion and manipulation, and the victims most often are closest family. The fronts they present are not at all reality, but just a tall tale designed to get you to buy into a scam. You can be sure that whatever he is trying to sell you will benefit him far more than yourself. (Alas, even if you know this, blood is thicker than water and letting it slide is often the only realistic option. Even if you object, the result generally end up the same.)
Laban gives us a peek at this when he takes charge of family affairs even while his father is still living. He is the one who pursues the servants of the wealthy suitor, even taking credit for making preparations for them personally. (Genesis 24:29-31) Subtle but significant. But it becomes more and more clear later with the loaded bargains and unspoken caveats he presses onto Jacob.
Surely after seven years of living in a culture, Jacob would have keyed in on the “tradition” of marrying the oldest daughter off first. But no such hint was given, Jacob was deceived, fed a shallow excuse which he now felt obligated to keep since he was in too deep to get out without shame, pain, and the risk of losing his beloved Rachel. Undoubtedly Laban knew Jacob, fearing his brother, had no where else to go either. So he took advantage. Not only marrying his daughters off to the heir of a rich relative, but in getting as much cheap labor as he could. Laban makes a generous offer by asking Jacob how he can pay him, agrees to the suggestion, and then immediately hides what Jacob requested among his sons’ possessions. So now, skating out of paying him, Laban (probably more significantly) is in the position to keep Jacob poor and dependent. From what Jacob says later on, this kind of behavior was very typical. Laban was a cheat.
Jacob gradually catches on and responds with shrewdness. When meekness fails, this is what the human nature often resorts to: secret resistance. Jacob, force to accept unfair terms, tries to find a way around the injustice– which is often the case with manipulative relationships. While his methods were questionable, ultimately God’s hand worked some justice for him.
Eventually Jacob is financially stable enough and is told to leave. As with most others under controlling toxic webs of manipulation, Jacob does not feel that he can leave without sneaking out. Anyone struggling to uncover the multiple layers of ulterior motives, false pretense, coy tricks, and smooth talk knows that discussion and appealing to reason get you nowhere. The more warning you give them, the more chance they have to concoct some trap to keep you stuck. They are not interested in helping you achieve anything objectively good; it’s all about entangling you deeper for their own interests. Better to avoid the tangling and leave without warning or explanation!
Even his fears of Esau’s sworn mortal revenge were more promising than dealing with Laban. Jacob faces his fears and breaks free… to his relief, and frankly, to the relief of the reader too. Even hearing about it is disturbing.
But leaving did not solve everything. Jacob and Leah would struggle the rest of their lives with the repercussions of Laban’s meanness. Duty at the hand of deceit is devastating.