Read Genesis 30:25–43
The covenant promise had been that God would be with His people, He would create seed (people, a nation) and provide land (place to call home) for that seed. But He had also promised to increase the blessings that His people would receive. That was Isaac’s blessing to his son in Genesis 27. God has enabled Jacob to acquire a goodly number of children through his two wives and their two maidservants. So is it now time for Jacob to gather his family together and move on?
Jacob asks (!) for his family (30:25–26)
The agreement by which Jacob had acquired his wives required that he serve Laban for a total of fourteen years. Apparently those fourteen years are drawing to a close, and the birth of Joseph to beloved wife Rachel occurs near the end of those fourteen years. Laban had deceived Jacob at the wedding, and he has obtained a great amount of work and service from Jacob. Perhaps Jacob himself senses that he has been used, even taken advantage of by his wily uncle. Jacob now wants to depart from Paddan-Aram with his wife and children (verses 25–26).
The very fact that he must ask for his own family now raises a new set of questions. Is Laban in such control of people that he has not really relinquished his two daughters to Jacob? If Jacob is truly married, then his wives, Leah and Rachel, are joined to him. One must always love and honor one’s parents, as the fifth commandment requires. But in marriage a new social unit in the Kingdom of God has been established. Jacob has left his own father and mother, and he is married. He must cling to his wife (for him it is wives!) that God has brought into his life. Why must he ask Laban for his wives and children? Or, is Jacob simply being overly polite so that the departure from Laban will be on good terms and that there will be no hard feelings when Jacob and his large family set out on the way back to Canaan?
Another question that comes to mind here relates back to the plan that mother Rebekah had given to Jacob. “Go to Laban and wait ‘a few days’ until your brother Esau’s anger has subsided, and I will send you word that it is safe to return here” (Gen. 27:43-45). In Genesis 30 we do not have any indication that Jacob has received that “allclear signal” that it is safe to return to the family in Canaan. Yet Jacob in Genesis 30:25ff. seems eager to be on his way.
Jacob has received the following: God’s promises, his wives, and his children. Now we read how the Lord increased his wealth in terms of flocks. But first, Jacob desires to depart from Laban, and he asks permission to leave. It appears that Laban has some kind of authority over his daughters. How much authority does Laban have over his two daughters (and their children)? Should a man like Jacob (who probably is in his early 90s by now) have to ask for his own family?
Laban renegotiates with Jacob (30:27–34)
Laban wants Jacob to stay. He is smart enough to realize that Jacob’s presence is the source of riches for himself. The NIV in verse 27 says that Laban has learned by divination that his riches are the result of Jacob’s presence. In other words, it pays to have Jacob around! The NIV footnote, however, suggests a different translation that does not include Laban’s use of divination: “I have become rich (have prospered) and the LORD has blessed me because of you.” This second possibility of translation thus leaves unanswered the question of whether or not Laban used divination, that is, any means of discovering knowledge apart from the revelation of God.
If Laban says that the LORD has given him many blessings, would that not suggest that Laban should submit himself fully to that same God? The true God is the source of all blessings. Psalm 104 tells us in a beautifully poetic way that all creatures look to God for their food. Daily bread on our tables as well as sufficient funds in our bank accounts are testimonies to the goodness of our heavenly Father. Prosperity should drive us to prayer, to thanksgiving and joyful obedience. Or, is formal godliness a means of gain, doing the “right things” in order to get something from God? Do we live with God in some kind of mercenary arrangement: we do something for God so that God might do nice things for us?
In any case, Laban gives credit for his good financial situation to having Jacob around. So in an effort to keep Jacob and his family nearby, Laban begins to talk about wages. “What can I pay you so that I can keep you here? Maybe I can pay you more.” Jacob is useful to Laban for a good income.
Jacob also realizes this (verses 29–30). In responding to Uncle Laban, Jacob tells us that Laban had far less in terms of possessions when he had arrived about a decade and a half earlier. But that is quite changed now. The gross family income has gone up noticeably. Jacob, like Laban, also gives the LORD the credit for this surge in prosperity. Truly blessing comes from the LORD! But the time has come for Jacob to steer his own course with his family, now away from Laban. Jacob has been “used,” and the time for that usage is now over.
Laban and Jacob strike a deal. A financial arrangement is made such that Jacob will receive all the speckled, spotted, and dark-colored sheep, and every spotted and speckled goat. Victor Hamilton (Genesis 18–50, pp. 282–283) points out that in the Mediterranean world most sheep are white and most goats are black. “Thus Jacob is requesting the irregular, abnormal parts of Laban’s flock.”
The rest belong to Laban. Such animals will be obvious to the eye of any beholder. Thus, all things being equal, Jacob would have smaller flocks because he would have the animals that are not the “norm” in appearance. This is the deal to which they both agree (verse 34), and it is a deal in which Laban expected to prosper. Jacob’s flock will consist of animals without spots or speckles, and the odds are not in his favor biologically for uni-colored animals to give birth to spotted, speckled, or dark-colored animals.
Jacob, “expert” in animal husbandry (30:35–42)
To achieve success, Laban separates the flocks with a three-day journey between them. This will make it virtually impossible for any mixing of the flocks. More than that, Laban takes away all the spotted and speckled (those with “white”) male and female goats, placing these irregular animals in the care of his sons. By all these means Laban (whose name means “white”) intends to frustrate any chance that Jacob would profit from this arrangement. But God is with Jacob, and that will be the decisive fact in all this. God had promised Jacob great things in His covenant promises (see Genesis 28:13-15), and God always keeps His word.
Jacob continues to work tending the rest of Laban’s flocks (verse 36). This will be a critical factor, but not the most important one. Jacob makes a counter move, namely, placing striped branches in the water troughs, especially when the stronger females would come to drink. Apparently, some ancient people believed that what an animal saw before she gave birth would determine the look of the animal that was born. There is no scientific basis for this, and such a belief and practice strikes us as bordering on sympathetic magic, or what others would call “maternal impression.” But does Jacob believe this? Possibly so, but this is not as clear as some commentators make it. In any case, there is something of a pun going on in this story. Laban means “white.” Jacob takes some (white) poplar branches (with other branches), cuts white stripes in them, and he sets them before the female animals when they came to drink at the watering troughs. Jacob earlier got the best of Esau with “red” stuff (Edom means “red”). Now he is going to get the best of “whitey,” i.e., his Uncle Laban!
At the same time, he also applies some very shrewd principles of animal husbandry when he placed such striped sticks in front of the stronger female animals (verse 41). Perhaps in his younger years, while twin brother Esau was off hunting animals, Jacob was learning animal husbandry with the flocks of his household, and maybe now he is applying that knowledge with telling effect. In the end, it is God who alone can give the increase and the blessing to Jacob’s use of ancient “animal science,” such that there is born a significant number of speckled and spotted animals, even to otherwise unspotted female animals. Laban’s flocks are filling with weaker animals, while Jacob’s animals are the stronger. But God had said back in Genesis 25:23 that the younger son would be stronger and would dominate. God is keeping His word, even in the area of livestock that Jacob was now getting. John Currid (Genesis, vol. 2, p. 102) is correct when he writes that “the effort expended by Jacob is not the means by which the results are gained. Success does not come by questionable ancient customs, but only by the hand of Yahweh.” There is a miracle here! Whatever we may think of Jacob’s methods, the text does not explicitly criticize him.
And the bottom line is… (30:43)
In the end, what is God’s intention here, since the increase in these sheep and goats in Jacob’s flocks is God’s doing? Can we detect the divine “hidden hand” in all this, and, if so, for what purpose?
This increase in Jacob’s wealth must be connected with God’s promises made earlier to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. In Genesis 12:1–3 God had said that He would bless His people, even in physical ways, make them a blessing, and through them the nations would experience blessing. Abram’s nephew Lot sees his own flocks increase as he is associated with Abram and his flocks (Gen. 13:5ff.). Genesis 15, 17, 22, and 26 give the patriarchs (and us the readers) repeated mentions of God’s promises of blessing, specifically in terms of children and land. In Genesis 28:14 God tells Jacob in his dream at Bethel that his descendants will spread out in all directions (cf. Gen. 13:14–17).
Now here in Genesis 30:43 we read that “the man grew exceedingly prosperous,” literally, “the man spread out strongly, strongly (or, very much, exceedingly).” We get a list of what Jacob owned during this new phase of his time with Uncle Laban: large flocks, all kinds of servants, camels and donkeys. Earlier Abraham had entered Egypt during a time of famine, but he left a wealthier man (see Gen. 12:16–20). God is not afraid to bless His people, also in very physical ways. Just as Abraham will leave Egypt a richer man, despite his misleading of Pharaoh, so too Jacob will leave his semi-bondage state with Uncle Laban an incredibly rich man, in terms of his family and his flocks.
The covenant of God’s sovereign grace continues to march on here. Jacob is not getting younger in this story, but he is getting richer. God has blessed him with a large family, and when Laban had tried to squeeze more works and longer service out of Jacob, God has blessed Jacob with larger flocks and great physical blessings. How this is all playing itself out in Jacob’s heart and soul, is hard for us to determine. Time will tell as we await more of this story to play itself out.
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.
Lesson 6: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Haran is not the Promised Land to which God had brought Abraham. How does God use and direct the circumstances that Jacob faced to make him want to desire to leave Laban and return to Canaan?
2. Jacob and Laban appear not to have had the best of relationships. We often joke about friction with our in-laws. Can such joking be overdone and even be needlessly cruel? What are several ways that we can be an encouragement to our extended family, without meddling and trying to control them?
3. Laban has “used” Jacob in several ways. Identify these ways. How easy is it also for us to use other people? When does such use become, in fact, abuse? Are we even always aware of what we are doing with other people? How does Philippians 2:1–5 point us to a different way in God’s Kingdom?
4. What Jacob does with the animals leads to an increase in his own flocks, both in terms of quantity and quality of animals. Were Jacob’s husbandry tactics an instance of wisdom, or of trickery, or of both? What does the text say? What is God’s purpose here in increasing Jacob’s flocks?
5. Read Psalm 144, especially verses 12–15. Is this a picture of God’s blessings in the Kingdom of His Son, Jesus Christ? Does the Kingdom consist only in spiritual blessings, or are physical blessings also part of the picture? Are such blessings experienced in this life, or are we to look for such blessings only in the life to come?
6. God often blesses His people with physical blessings. But read Hosea 13:4–6. What are the dangers to our own souls when we prosper? Are we able to focus on the things that really matter in God’s Kingdom when we are “blessed” with success?