Terburgghen Jacob Reproaching Laban 1628. Oil on canvas, 123,5 x 157,5 cm. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me back to my homeland (Canaan). Give me my wives and children, for whom I served you, and I will be on my way. You know that I have worked hard for you.”

Laban replied, “If I have found favor in your eyes, then please stay. I have learned through divination that God has blessed me because of you. Name your wages and I will pay them.”

Jacob said to Laban, “You know that your livestock has fared well under my care. What little you had before I came has increased greatly and God has blessed you while I was here. But now, I need to do something for my own household.”

Laban replied, “What can I give you to keep you here?”

Jacob said, “Nothing, but if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them. Let me go through your flocks and remove every spotted sheep and goat and every dark-colored lamb. They will be my wages. My honesty will testify for me in the future whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat or sheep in my possession that is not spotted or dark-colored, will be considered stolen.”

Laban agreed but that same day, despite his agreement with Jacob, removed all goats that were spotted (all that had white on them), and all the dark-colored lambs and gave them to his sons. Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob while Jacob continued caring for the rest of Laban’s flocks.

Jacob however, had a plan. He took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling away the darker bark. Then he placed the striped branches in front of the water troughs so they could be in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks came to the troughs to drink and were in heat, they mated in front of the branches and bore young that were spotted.

Jacob set apart the young of the flock but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban – Jacob made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches. Thus, the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob (selective breeding). In this way, Jacob grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large, healthy flocks, along with servants, camels, and donkeys.

What the story means to us today

A trickster gets tricked again but God protects his own

Jacob and Laban (unknown)Having completed his promised years of servitude to Laban, the time has come for Jacob to head back to the land of Canaan. Jacob, the devious trickster who himself had already been tricked once by Laban, attempts to make an honest deal but once again, Jacob suffers from Laban’s trickery. However, God protects Jacob, ensuring his prosperity regardless of Laban’s devious actions. Jacob’s ties with God are growing ever closer.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Jacob’s wives and children

Jacob tells Laban, “Give me my wife and children and I will be on my way.” By this time, Jacob has eleven sons and one daughter. A 12th son, Benjamin, will soon be born. We will soon see Jacob renamed “Israel”. From Jacob’s twelve sons will come the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Dividing up the sheep and goats

The Bible’s description of the division of animals may be unclear to some. In Jacob’s part of the world, most sheep were white (seldom black or spotted) and most goats were dark brown or black (rarely white or spotted with white). Jacob offered to take the goats that were spotted and the sheep that were dark-colored, animals with unusual coloring that were rare and few in number. This would leave Laban with the dark-colored goats and white sheep – typical colorings you would expect in sheep and goats in that part of the world.

In other words, Jacob was offering to take the sheep that did not look like the others or appeared, by their coloring, to be flawed (i.e. the rejects). Thus, Laban would presume to be getting the better part of the deal. Still, despite his favorable terms, Laban chooses to trick Jacob once again by removing animals from the flock that had been promised to Jacob.

Laban’s trickery and Jacob’s response

The Bible tells us that the same day Laban agreed to give Jacob all spotted goats and dark-colored sheep, he violates the agreement by removing to a safe distance, the animals promised to Jacob (he gives the animals to his sons). Generally, monochrome sheep and goats will not produce offspring with markings. Jacob did not anticipate Laban’s trickery and thus, needed God’s help to build up his flock. Once Jacob obtained enough marked offspring (using visual stimulus), he used standard breeding techniques to continue increasing the size of this flock.

The striped branches – was Jacob practicing magic?

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione - Jacob Leading the Flocks of LabanModern-day readers may puzzle of Laban’s use of “divination” as well as Jacob’s placement of striped branches before the sheep in order to influence their behavior. This is especially disconcerting to readers given the use of magical practices is typically frowned upon by modern-religions.

The verses do not explain how or why Jacob stripped branches to influence the characteristics of newborn goats and sheep. “Sympathetic magic” however, was a common practice by pagan civilizations in biblical times. Folk beliefs stated that “visual stimuli” could be used to influence or condition prenatal animals. We do not know if Jacob was employing these methods based on ancient beliefs or if our understanding of the methods has been lost to modern-day civilizations.

Divination practices (attempting to foresee or influence past or future events) were common in biblical times and are generally condemned by the Bible. However, unlike pagan divination practices, the Israelites called upon God to control the outcome of certain divination procedures (in fact, in the next chapter we will see that Jacob was instructed by an angel and thus, his victory was more dependent upon God than he thought). For this reason, divination practiced by prophets was not condemned and indeed, God sometimes appears to have acted outside the norms of science via divination. In other words, the physical action (e.g. tossing dice) behind the divination procedure was not the concern but rather, the underlying source the outcome of the action was attributed to. More importantly though, it is clear that Jacob did not attribute the turn of events to his own actions but rather, to God’s will.

The science and history behind the story

Selective breeding in ancient times

Notwithstanding the questionable use of “visual stimulus” to influence the characteristics of the flock’s offspring, Jacob uses the scientific principles of selective breeding to ensure the strongest in the flock reproduce. Selective breeding of both plants and animals dates back at least to the earliest recorded history and likely came about soon after Man began to domesticate plants and animals as a source of food. We know from ancient writings that the Romans practiced selective breeding more than 2,000 years ago but archaeological evidence suggests selective breeding was practiced much earlier – in the East over 10,000 years ago, in China about 8,000 years ago, and in North America about 4,000 years ago.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Divination”

Laban tells Jacob that through “divination” he has learned that God blessed him through Jacob. The meaning of the divination procedure is unclear and the verse could more accurately be translated to “I have become prosperous, Yahweh has blessed me because of you.”

Bible Text

Jusepe de Ribera Jacob with the Flock of Laban (ca. 1638) Museo Cerralbo, MadridNIV

25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. 26 Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I’ve done for you.”

27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you.” 28 He added, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.”

29 Jacob said to him, “You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30 The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my own household?”

31 “What shall I give you?” he asked.

“Don’t give me anything,” Jacob replied. “But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32 Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33 And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-colored, will be considered stolen.”

34 “Agreed,” said Laban. “Let it be as you have said.” 35 That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36 Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.

37 Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. 41 Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42 but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. 43 In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

After Rachel had had Joseph, Jacob spoke to Laban, “Let me go back home. Give me my wives and children for whom I’ve served you. You know how hard I’ve worked for you.”

27–28 Laban said, “If you please, I have learned through divine inquiry that GOD has blessed me because of you.” He went on, “So name your wages. I’ll pay you.”

29–30 Jacob replied, “You know well what my work has meant to you and how your livestock has flourished under my care. The little you had when I arrived has increased greatly; everything I did resulted in blessings for you. Isn’t it about time that I do something for my own family?”

31–33 “So, what should I pay you?”

Jacob said, “You don’t have to pay me a thing. But how about this? I will go back to pasture and care for your flocks. Go through your entire flock today and take out every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb, every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. That way you can check on my honesty when you assess my wages. If you find any goat that’s not speckled or spotted or a sheep that’s not black, you will know that I stole it.”

34 “Fair enough,” said Laban. “It’s a deal.”

35–36 But that very day Laban removed all the mottled and spotted billy goats and all the speckled and spotted nanny goats, every animal that had even a touch of white on it plus all the black sheep and placed them under the care of his sons. Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob. Meanwhile Jacob went on tending what was left of Laban’s flock.

37–42 But Jacob got fresh branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled the bark, leaving white stripes on them. He stuck the peeled branches in front of the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink. When the flocks were in heat, they came to drink and mated in front of the streaked branches. Then they gave birth to young that were streaked or spotted or speckled. Jacob placed the ewes before the dark-colored animals of Laban. That way he got distinctive flocks for himself which he didn’t mix with Laban’s flocks. And when the sturdier animals were mating, Jacob placed branches at the troughs in view of the animals so that they mated in front of the branches. But he wouldn’t set up the branches before the feebler animals. That way the feeble animals went to Laban and the sturdy ones to Jacob.

43 The man got richer and richer, acquiring huge flocks, lots and lots of servants, not to mention camels and donkeys.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

30:25 After Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so that I can go home to my own country. 30:26 Let me take my wives and my children whom I have acquired by working for you. Then I’ll depart, because you know how hard I’ve worked for you.”

30:27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, please stay here, for I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me on account of you.” 30:28 He added, “Just name your wages—I’ll pay whatever you want.”

30:29 “You know how I have worked for you,” Jacob replied, “and how well your livestock have fared under my care. 30:30 Indeed, you had little before I arrived, but now your possessions have increased many times over. The LORD has blessed you wherever I worked. But now, how long must it be before I do something for my own family too?”

30:31 So Laban asked, “What should I give you?” “You don’t need to give me a thing,” Jacob replied, “but if you agree to this one condition, I will continue to care for your flocks and protect them: 30:32 Let me walk among all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb, and the spotted or speckled goats. These animals will be my wages. 30:33 My integrity will testify for me later on. When you come to verify that I’ve taken only the wages we agreed on, if I have in my possession any goat that is not speckled or spotted or any sheep that is not dark-colored, it will be considered stolen.” 30:34 “Agreed!” said Laban, “It will be as you say.”

30:35 So that day Laban removed the male goats that were streaked or spotted, all the female goats that were speckled or spotted (all that had any white on them), and all the dark-colored lambs, and put them in the care of his sons. 30:36 Then he separated them from Jacob by a three-day journey, while Jacob was taking care of the rest of Laban’s flocks.

30:37 But Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees. He made white streaks by peeling them, making the white inner wood in the branches visible. 30:38 Then he set up the peeled branches in all the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink. He set up the branches in front of the flocks when they were in heat and came to drink. 30:39 When the sheep mated in front of the branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 30:40 Jacob removed these lambs, but he made the rest of the flock face the streaked and completely dark-colored animals in Laban’s flock. So he made separate flocks for himself and did not mix them with Laban’s flocks. 30:41 When the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would set up the branches in the troughs in front of the flock, so they would mate near the branches. 30:42 But if the animals were weaker, he did not set the branches there. So the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob. 30:43 In this way Jacob became extremely prosperous. He owned large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

25 And it came to pass, when Rachel had born Joseph, that Jacob said unto Laban, Send me away, that I may go unto mine own place, and to my country. 26 Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served thee, and let me go: for thou knowest my service which I have done thee. 27 And Laban said unto him, I pray thee, if I have found favour in thine eyes, tarry: for I have learned by experience that the LORD hath blessed me for thy sake. 28 And he said, Appoint me thy wages, and I will give it. 29 And he said unto him, Thou knowest how I have served thee, and how thy cattle was with me. 30 For it was little which thou hadst before I came, and it is now increased unto a multitude; and the LORD hath blessed thee since my coming: and now when shall I provide for mine own house also? 31 And he said, What shall I give thee? And Jacob said, Thou shalt not give me any thing: if thou wilt do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep thy flock: 32 I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire. 33 So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come, when it shall come for my hire before thy face: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the sheep, that shall be counted stolen with me. 34 And Laban said, Behold, I would it might be according to thy word. 35 And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons. 36 And he set three days’ journey betwixt himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.

37 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. 38 And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink. 39 And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban’s cattle. 41 And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods. 42 But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database