The person named Laban, labhan; (Laban, possibly connected with the root meaning "to be white," from which in Hebrew the adjective meaning "white" has just this form) is first introduced to the reader of Genesis in the story of the wooing of Rebekah (Genesis 24). He belonged to that branch of the family of Terah that was derived from Abraham's brother Nahor and his niece Milcah. The genealogy of this branch is traced in Genesis 22:20-24; but, true to its purpose and the place it occupies in the book, this genealogy brings the family down to Rebekah, and there stops without mentioning Laban. Accordingly, when Rebekah is introduced in the narrative of Genesis 24, she is referred to (24:15,24) in a way that recalls to the reader the genealogy already given; but when her brother Laban is introduced (24:29), he is related to his sister by the express announcement, "And Rebekah had brother, and his name was Laban." In this chapter he takes prominent part in the reception of Abraham's servant, and in the determination of his sister's future. That brothers had an effective voice in the marriage of their sisters is evident, not only from extra-Biblical sources, but from the Bible itself; see e.g. Song of Solomon 8:8. In Genesis 24, however, Laban is perhaps more prominent than even such custom can explain (compare 24:31,50,55), and we are led to see in him already the same forcefulness and egotism that are abundantly shown in the stories from his later life. The man's eager hospitality (verse 31), coming immediately after his mental inventory of the gifts bestowed by the visitor upon his sister (24:30), has usually, and justly, been regarded as a proof of the same greed that is his most conspicuous characteristic in the subsequent chapters.
The story of that later period in Laban's life is so interwoven with the career of Jacob that little need here be added to what is said of Laban in JACOB, III, 2 (which see). By the time of Jacob's arrival he is already a very old man, for over 90 years had elapsed since Rebekah's departure. Yet even at the end of Jacob's 20 years' residence with him he is represented as still energetic and active (Genesis 31:19,23), not only ready for an emergency like the pursuit after Jacob, but personally superintending the management of his huge flocks.
His home is in Haran, "the city of Nahor," that is, the locality where Nahor and his family remained at the time when the rest of Terah's descendants emigrated to Canaan (Genesis 11:31; 12:5). Since Haran, and the region about it where his flocks fed, belonged to the district called Aram (see PADDAN-ARAM; MESOPOTAMIA), Laban is often called "the Aramean" (English Versions of the Bible, "the Syrian," from Septuagint 5 ho Suros); see Genesis 25:20; 28:5; 31:20,24. It is uncertain how far racial affinity may be read into this term, because the origin and mutual relationships of the various groups or strata of the Sere family are not yet clear. For Laban himself it suffices that he was a Semite, living within the region early occupied by those who spoke the Sere dialect that we call Aramaic. This dialect is represented in the narrative of Genesis as already differentiated from the dialect of Canaan that was Jacob's mother-tongue; for "the heap of witness," erected by uncle and nephew before they part (Genesis 31:47), is called by the one Jegar-saha-dutha and by the other Galeed--phrases which are equivalent in meaning, the former Aramaic, the latter Hebrew. (Ungnad, Hebrdische Grammatik, 1912, section 6 puts the date of the differentiation of Aramaic from "Amurritish" at "about 1500 BC"; Skinner, "Genesis," ICC, argues that Genesis 31:47 is a gloss, following Wellhausen, Dillmann, et al.)
The character of Laban is interesting to observe. On the one hand it shows a family likeness to the portraits of all his relations in the patriarchal group, preeminently, however, to his sister Rebekah, his daughter Rachel, and his nephew Jacob. The nearer related to Laban such figures are, the more conspicuously, as is fitting, do they exhibit Laban's mingled cunning, resourcefulness, greed and self-complacency. And, on the other hand, Laban's character is sui generis; the picture we get of him is too personal and complex to be denominated merely a "type." It is impossible to resolve this man Laban into a mythological personage--he is altogether human--or into a tribal representative (e.g. of "Syria" over against "Israel" EQUAL Jacob) with any degree of satisfaction to the world of scholarship. Whether a character of reliable family tradition, or of popular story-telling, Laban is "a character"; and his intimate connection with the chief personage in Israel's national recollections makes it highly probable that he is no more and no less historical than Jacob himself (compare JACOB, VI).
J. Oscar Boyd