After Joseph’s birth – Jacob’s twelfth child – Jacob tells Laban he’s fulfilled his work commitment and wants to go back to Canaan. Laban – who realizes he’s been blessed by Jacob’s presence – asks Jacob to stay. In return, Laban offers to pay Jacob so he can begin to build his own fortune (and not just work off the bride price for Rachel and Leah). Since Laban offers to pay him, Jacob stays another six years, throughout which Laban continually tries to cheat him while God enriches him. The story of Jacob and Laban is one of God blessing His chosen servant even in the midst of continual injustice and antagonism. The lesson is that God’s servants must trust Him regardless of circumstances or people around them, and that what we see isn’t as important as what we know.
After Joseph is born to Rachel, Jacob goes to Laban and tells him he wants to go back to Canaan. He presumably has finished his commitment of working seven years for Rachel, and he now wants to take his wives and children back to his home. Nothing is in the text as to how long he’s been in Haran, but his request to Laban makes it sound as if he’s reached the end of his commitment (see the lesson on 29:31-30:24 for a discussion of timing and the problems with fitting everything that’s happened to Jacob since he left Canaan into 14 years). At a minimum it’s been 14 years since he left Isaac and Rebekah and he’s ready to return.
Laban asks him not to go. He tells him honestly that he realizes he’s been blessed by having Jacob in his service (interesting that he’s up front about this – we’d expect him to veil his real intent so as not to weaken his bargaining position). He says he knows this through divination. This likely shows Laban’s pagan beliefs and also means the blessing has been so clear and so beyond what is normal that it prompted Laban to search for a reason. And because he knows Jacob’s presence has made him rich, he understandably doesn’t want Jacob to go. Notice that he says nothing about wanting his daughters and grandchildren to stay or that he’d miss them after they’re gone.
He tells Jacob, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.” Jacob has heard this before. It’s the same thing Laban told him when he first arrived (29:15). In that case Laban cheated him out of seven years by giving him Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob almost certainly takes that into account as he discusses arrangements with Laban going forward. The reason they discuss wages is to this point Jacob has worked only for his two wives. He’s earned nothing for himself (everything he oversees belongs to Laban – which means Laban has benefited both because God blessed him and because he hasn’t had to pay Jacob any tangible wages – Laban has, however, obviously provided food and shelter for Jacob’s large family). So Jacob has no reason to stay unless Laban actually pays him.
Jacob replies by rehearsing for Laban effectively what Laban just acknowledged. Laban has benefited greatly by Jacob’s work. Jacob says that Laban had very little when he got there but it has now increased to a multitude. Jacob’s take on Laban’s status when he arrived may be an exaggeration as Laban’s situation seemed to be pretty good when Abraham’s servant came for Rebekah (24:25). Regardless of how much or how little he had, however, it’s grown greatly through Jacob’s work. Jacob goes along with Laban’s question about wages by asking, “…when shall I provide for my own household?”
Laban again asks Jacob, “What shall I give you?” Jacob’s reply is interesting (and is likely influenced by his earlier experience of being cheated). He says, “You shall not give me anything.” His answer is similar to what Abraham told the king of Sodom after defeating the kings of the east (14:21-24). In both cases the answers come through faith. Abraham didn’t want the king of Sodom to say he enriched Abraham. Here Jacob seems to say he wants to trust God for his wages instead of Laban (which likely has as much to do with his distrust of Laban as with his trust of God). Whatever Jacob gains for himself in the coming years will come from God. Laban won’t be able to say that he enriched Jacob.
Jacob suggests a way for him to earn for himself. He tells Laban to let him separate all the non-white sheep and all the speckled and spotted goats, and leave just the white sheep and solid-colored goats (there is a play on words in this text in Hebrew – the word ‘Laban’ means ‘white’ – so Jacob effectively tells Laban that all the sheep that are laban are Laban’s). From the flocks that remain, Jacob will take as his wages all the newborn sheep that aren’t white and the newborn goats that aren’t solid-colored. Said another way, he will take the non-white offspring of the white sheep and the speckled and spotted offspring of the solid-colored goats. Since the offspring matching these specifications is expected to be very few, he very clearly sets this up such that only by God’s intervention will he acquire much at all for himself. He also makes it very easy for Laban to accept his proposal.
Jacob’s proposal isn’t entirely clear in the text, and other readings of his meaning are possible. It could be that he asks Laban to let him take the current speckled and spotted sheep and goats for his own. However, this would seem to directly contradict what he just said about Laban not giving him anything. It also would mean that Laban’s action in verse 35 is completely dishonest. And while Laban is known for his dishonesty, nothing in the text implies that Jacob feels this to be the case.
That said, Laban seems to jump at the offer. It is likely much less than what he expected he’d have to pay to convince Jacob to stay. So as to make sure everything accrues to his favor, he doesn’t wait for Jacob to separate the flocks – he does it himself. And then he makes very certain there will be no interbreeding. He takes the spotted animals and gives them to his sons, and then travels three days away from Jacob (this is likely his own addition to the plan). He wants to stack the deck in his favor as much as possible.
This part of the text is difficult to understand. Jacob takes action that seems to enrich him, but how he knows to do it and how it’s effective are a mystery. What he does is to take poplar and almond rods and somehow use them to influence the offspring of the flocks. He’s able to use the rods such that speckled offspring are produced when the animals mate in front of them. And he further uses the rods to make sure that only the strongest animals produce speckled and spotted offspring. By doing this, he ensures his flocks become not only large, but large and strong. And their size and strength come at Laban’s expense as Laban’s flocks by default become feeble and weak (it is interesting to compare Jacob’s becoming wealthy at Laban’s expense to the Israelites plundering the Egyptians after Passover – in both cases God allows His people to gain a measure of justice at the hands of those who oppressed them – and He does it right as they decide to leave).
Since the text simply explains Jacob’s actions with no comment, it’s left to the reader to speculate as to what this means. Does Jacob use the rods because it’s accepted practice at this time? Is it some kind of folklore tradition or superstition? And if that’s the case, does God simply allow it to work and effectively bless Jacob in spite of it? Or does Jacob do this at God’s direction? Jacob will later say he had a vision about the speckled and spotted flocks (31:10-12), so perhaps God instructed him at that time to use the rods? God will later use visual aids for His miracles in the wilderness with Israel (Ex 15:25, Num 21:4-9), does He do that same thing here with the rods?
Regardless of why he does it, it works. God blesses him greatly and he becomes exceedingly prosperous. He not only has large flocks, but he has female and male servants and camels and donkeys (he’s able to use the flocks and their produce to gain other goods). The man who left Canaan with nothing and who had to work 14 years just to pay the debt for his wives is now very wealthy. He will return to Canaan much differently than how he left it.
Thoughts and Observations
- God fulfills the promise He made at Bethel (28:13-15) to bless those who bless Jacob and curse those who curse him. Laban benefits greatly from Jacob’s service during his years of working for his wives. But he also loses much to Jacob as a result of cheating him (which won’t be discussed until Chapter 31). Before God had a chance to bless Jacob with his own wealth, Laban benefited from Jacob’s service. But once God could bless Jacob directly, Laban lost out.
- For a guy who showed no faith in God’s plan when he cheated Esau and lied to Isaac, Jacob shows enormous faith in his initial dealings with Laban. He doesn’t ask for Laban’s wealth and he even stacks the deck against himself with the plan for speckled and spotted sheep and goats. Yet he seems to have total trust in God’s provision and is willing to rely on Him alone. He has nothing of his own (32:10), he has an employer who cheats and lies, and his earnings look to be very small – yet he looks at God and trusts. It doesn’t matter what we see with our eyes. What matters is what we see with our faith. And walking by faith becomes increasingly important in a world growing more and more hostile to righteousness.
- While he shows great trust in God’s provision, what Jacob does with rods does seem somewhat underhanded. It’s hard to justify his actions – specifically his manipulation of the strong animals versus the weak – in light of the Golden Rule and the Second Greatest Commandment. From a horizontal perspective, Laban certainly gets what he deserves. But from the standpoint of Jesus’ teaching, it seems that Jacob acts for himself rather than for others or God.
- On the other hand, it is possible that God tells him to do what he does. If that’s the case – and there’s absolutely no way to know if it is – then perhaps the manipulation of the breeding is a means of both blessing Jacob and judging Laban. The effect is the same regardless of what motivates Jacob’s actions, but it’s possible that Jacob does what he does out of obedience rather than selfishness.