Commentary on Genesis 30:25-43

Last updated: October 11, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

25As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. 26Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.” 27But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you. 28Name your wages, and I will give it.” 29Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. 30For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?” 31He said, “What shall I give you?” Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: 32let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. 33So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” 34Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.” 35But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons. 36And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock.

37Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. He put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, 42but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.

Notes

27-28 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you. Name your wages, and I will give it.”

There is a problem with translating nihasti as “I have learned by divination”:1

Divination is a device by which one gains knowledge about the future, not about the past. Laban could have pinpointed Jacob as the cause of his blessing only through some such medium as a dream or a vision, neither of which is covered by nahas. The translation I have grown rich is obtained by taking nihasti as cognate with Akk. Nahasu, “to flourish, prosper.” To be blessed by Yahweh means to be enriched. Thus Laban is, to a degree, Deuteronomic in his theology; that is, he attributes his material prosperity to Jacob’s God. His statement is un-Deuteronomic in the sense that his prosperity, by his own admission, is not a divine reward for his own virtue but is due solely to the presence of Jacob in his home.

31-34 He said, “What shall I give you?” Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.”

The typical appearance of sheep and goats was the opposite coloration, namely, white sheep and dark-hued (black or brown) goats. Presumably, the animals designated by Jacob were fewer to begin with, and, moreover, he intended to remove these uncommon ones from the flock. Once these animals were removed, Jacob would have no animals designated for him to own since he was left with only the white sheep and dark goats. He could only count on any future births of black sheep and variegated goats. Laban must have reasoned that these births would indeed be scarce, since Jacob had only th e one-color animals for breeding.

Jacob’s proviso in v. 32 does not contradict his stated refusal to take anything from Laban (v. 31), for the nature of his wages in effect ensured that Jacob will begin without any venture capital. He names the categories of animals that he might obtain in the future as his wages, not the specific animals rounded up initially. By referring to his “wages,” therefore, he is speaking proleptically, assuming that he will gain a herd through breeding. This explains the reaction of Laban, who immediately removed the selected animals so as to prevent Jacob from claiming their offspring (vv. 35-36). Laban must have reasoned that the mating of the designated animals would result in a herd that Jacob could claim. Laban’s caution, however, only accomplished what Jacob himself had recommended, and Jacob accepts Laban’s actions without protest. What Laban did not anticipate was the success Jacob could achieve through selected crossbreeding.

In the future any animals that were found among Jacob’s personal herd that were not of the uncommon varieties must be considered stolen (v. 33). Jacob presumed that Laban would periodically inspect his flocks. By this openness, Jacob wanted to avert any unjust charges of fraud leveled against him. He anticipated trouble with Laban’s family, and he was not far from the mark (cf. 31:1-2, 29). With what Jacob knows of his own past, we conjecture that with tongue in cheek, Jacob swears on his honor that he will treat Laban fairly. “My honesty” translates the term sedaqa, which can mean “righteousness” and “vindication” (cf. 15:6; 18:19). The word group s-d-q often occurs in a judicial setting (2 Sam 15:4; cf. 44:16). In the present context the idea is Jacob’s compliance to an agreed behavior. The word “testify” (ana, “answer”) may also convey a forensic nature (e.g., Deut 19:18; Isa 59:12). The image lying behind Jacob’s remark is a hearing wherein Jacob’s integrity witnesses to his adherence to their bargain. Laban will not risk deception anyway, choosing to assort the animals himself (cp. v. 35).

Such an arrangement could hardly be refused (cp. kidbareka, “as you say,” 47:30), although Laban had no intention of fulfilling whatever agreement Jacob had proposed. He at once deviated from it by segregating the animals himself. Jacob could legitimately complain that Laban “changed my wages ten times” across the six years (31:41).2

35-36 But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons. And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock.

Laban creates a buffer between the flocks to guarantee that no stragglers will roam into Jacob’s flock. Yet this distance also makes it impossible for Laban to observe, and possibly hinder, Jacob’s schemes.

37-40 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. He put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban’s flock.

Jacob’s folk methods corresponded to Rachel and Leah’s use of mandrakes in their competition for children (30:14-16). Although the women believed that the mandrakes somehow conveyed potency, they also understood that ultimately pregnancy was the result of God’s gracious favor (e.g., 30:17-18, 22-23). It was their prayers, not the mandrakes, that resulted in the birth of children. Some commentators object that Jacob actually believed his tactics would work. He employed this elaborate plan as a hoax to distract Laban’s attention from the crossbreeding that he practiced. Yet the passage does not indicate that Jacob’s play involved “deceit” or “stealth,” which are descriptions commonly used when narrating deceitful actions (e.g., 27:35-36; 29:25; 31:20, 26-27; 34:13). Furthermore, it appears he attributes the idea to a divine revelation (31:10-13). Modern eugenics can explain technically how he succeeded by breeding animals that possessed the desired, recessive genes and further by selective breeding to multiply the stronger animals; but Jacob’s knowledge would have been dependent on learned experience as a seasoned herdsman, or possibly by divine instruction in his dream (31:10). Whatever the precise explanation for his success, the passage shows that Jacob relied on the visual aids, as did the women on the mandrakes, but ultimately credited God with the prosperity of his herds (31:10-13). The Lord tolerated Jacob’s imaginative devices and transcended them. God was pleased to bless despite whatever erroneous notions Jacob may have had about animal husbandry.

Verse 40 creates a special problem by the confusing mention of the “young of the flock” and “streaked and dark-colored animals” from Laban’s flocks. This does not appear to conform to Laban’s transfer of the streaked goats and dark-colored sheep to his sons’ safekeeping (vv. 35-36). The resolution is the recognition of two factors in v. 40. First, the verse pertains to the breeding of the young of the sheep (kesabim), wherein he modified his procedure to the goats described in vv. 37-39. Second, v. 40 names two groups of goats: variegated and black “animals” (i.e., goats, so’n). Thus, Westermann explains that Jacob isolated the young white sheep and set them facing the speckled goats (from Jacob’s own flock) and the dark goats (from Laban’s flock). The combination of speckled and dark goats approximated the alternating colors of the peeled branches employed for the goats. Thus, Jacob derived the dark sheep that he could claim. That the passage exhibits difficulties probably is the result of the fluid arrangements that occurred across the six years that Jacob cared for the herds.3

41-42 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.

Verses 41-42 describe not a new breeding method different from that described in vv. 37-39. Rather, these two verses imply that Jacob applied the breeding method of vv. 37-39 selectively. The stronger animals are the heterozygotes. The feebler animals are the homozygotes. Jacob crossbred only the former. How he could distinguish one from the other is made clear in 31:12 – the heterozygotes are excessively potent and conceive earlier than the homozygotes. Jacob’s knowledge of zoology is far from primitive. But perhaps such knowledge has been given him by God, just as his son’s capacity to interpret dreams was a gift from God.4

43 Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.

Jacob is wealthy like Abraham (12:16; 13:2; 24:35) and Isaac (26:13). He could sell members of his flock for servants and other animals.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

1Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 282.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 498-499.

3Ibid., 502-503.

4Ibid., 284.

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