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Jacob's Bizarre Breeding Techniques in Genesis 30 (and mandrakes) (and a lack of self-awareness)

We're not as clever as we think we are.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 30

This week's passage is most famous for its bizarre breeding techniques, but focusing on those misses the actual point: Jacob was not responsible for any of his successes in life; God was blessing him (in spite of him). Only when Jacob could come to grips with this reality could he truly appreciate his relationship with God and his need to obey God.

And the man became very rich. (30:43)

When We Studied This Passage in 2018

In 2018, we actually studied chapter 31 (not chapter 30), but it's about the same event -- just 4 years later. It's going to be really hard for me not to duplicate some of the information in that previous post.

In that post, I offered:

  • The importance of deciding to go home

  • What's changed in your life in 20 years?

  • A big section on breeding techniques

  • An important map

  • Laban's culpability

  • When does "home" become home?

Getting Started: Things to Think About

When Someone Took Credit for Your Work

One of the top sources for workplace dysfunction is people taking credit for other's work. It's pretty common, and the fallout often gets really personal. Here's a "just the facts" article about times this happened in the scientific world:

Has this ever happened to you? (At least, that you're able to talk about in mixed company?) As far as outcomes, how did this affect the way you thought about that person?

In this week's passage, we have two different instances of this. In one, Laban acknowledges that Jacob is the reason he's gotten so wealthy, and that admission turns his daughters again him and his sons against Jacob. The whole dynamic is weird.

In the other, Jacob takes credit for something God did. Certainly, God was more bemused than bothered. But when Jacob and his family realized what was going on, it knocked Jacob down a peg, and it raised God up many pegs (in their eyes).

[Though all of the "experts" insist that you need to make sure you get the credit you deserve, it's always helpful for Christians to remember that God knows exactly what really happened. Exactly. What. Really. Happened. Just remember that.]

When You Aren't as Clever as You Thought You Were

Related to the previous topic, history is filled with people who thought they were a lot cleverer than they actually were.

[Related Aside: Did you see that Sam Bankman-Fried was sentenced this week for his role in the FTX fiasco? He didn't think he was doing anything illegal. He was someone who thought he was smarter than everyone else, when it turns out that many of his "gains" were more a function of lucky timing than anything he did.]

We all know people like that -- a smug superiority complex -- that we know their success wasn't nearly as connected to their efforts as they think it was. And doesn't it drive you nuts when they actually succeed? When their plan works?

Well, that's Jacob. His smug approach to his ridiculous plan rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. And sure it worked -- but guess what? It wasn't his plan that worked. It was God working in spite of his plan!

[That's certainly not to say that God blesses all of the smug success stories (any more than we would say that God was blessing SBF, considering how that turned out) like He blessed Jacob. But it is a very helpful reminder to be careful about what we take credit for.]

Strange Superstitions

I'm going to mention two really weird superstitions in this week's lesson -- one about mandrakes (see below), and one about sheep breeding. I told you what I think about superstitions when we studied John 5 (they're dangerously unhealthy for a Christian to hold), but that doesn't make them any less fun to talk about. Here's a super-fun "map" of the most common superstition in each state. I have no idea how accurate it is, and frankly that's beside the point. It's just a fun talking point.

What are the superstitions you think most people around here hold and why?


Where We Are in Genesis

Chapter 29 and 30 are very important for the history of the Jews. You know the story, but I need to make sure you appreciate it.

Last week, we saw Jacob running from home because his brother wanted to kill him. (Not a great entry on a resume.) His mother sent him north to his uncle's house, "And while you're there, you may as well get married."

Jacob meets Rebekah's brother Laban who has two daughters: Leah and Rachel. The Bible does not say that Leah was unattractive (the Bible says that Leah had "delicate" eyes"), but the Bible does say that Rachel was gorgeous, and that's what Jacob noticed. (Men.)

Jacob offers to work for Laban for seven years in return for permission to marry Rachel. But somehow, Laban pulls the ol' switcheroo and gets Jacob to marry Leah. The clear point is that Jacob the Deceiver was deceived. Nobody feels bad for him, and readers would probably clap Laban on the back for his cleverness.

So, Jacob works another 7 years in order to marry Rachel. However, Laban allows Jacob to marry Rachel right away (while he works), which means that Jacob has two wives. (Do note that Laban created this situation, not Jacob.) But here's the point -- Jacob loved Rachel far more than Leah. Of course this displeased God, and in consequence God enabled Leah to have many children.

In fact, Leah had four sons -- Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah -- while Rachel remained childless. And thus the rivalry was on. Rachel had more love, but Leah had more children. Rachel's finger-pointing solution was to offer her servant Bilhah as Jacob's third wife and then adopt whatever children Bilhah had.

(And we gave Abraham a hard time for his approach to Sarah and Hagar!)

Bilhah has two sons by Jacob -- Dan and Naphtali. This has now been a few years since Leah had children, so she gave her servant Zilpah as Jacob's fourth wife in order to adopt any children she had. (And no, no one seems to care what the servants think or feel.) Zilpah has two sons -- Gad and Asher.

That's now four wives. And not a lot of theological leadership on Jacob's part.

The Mandrakes

And then we have the bizarre exchange about the mandrakes. Mandrakes are these rare and incredibly creepy-looking plants that superstitious people associate with fertility. Leah's son Reuben finds some, and Rachel wants them because she thinks they will help her conceive. This is bold to ask of Leah considering that Leah's children are the only "advantage" she has over Rachel. In exchange, Leah demands that she get to sleep with Jacob again.

This surprisingly important episode demonstrates two critical truths:

  1. Rachel is desperate to have children.

  2. Rachel has all of the power over Jacob.

The mandrakes don't work out for Rachel. In fact, Leah will give birth three more times -- Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah (a daughter) -- before Rachel has children.

But Rachel indeed eventually has children. We are not told why except that God took note of her. Perhaps she had borne enough reproach and shame. She has a son -- Joseph.

[Note -- this unattributed chart has a really nice summary of the meaning and significance of all of these names:

The Flocks

The birth of Joseph spurs Jacob into action -- it's time to leave Laban. The indication seems to be that the 7 years of labor for Rachel are up (that's 11 sons in 7 years by 4 women).

Laban doesn't want Jacob to leave; he's figured out that Jacob is the proverbial golden goose. He's going to do what he can to keep Jacob around.

This is where things get really weird. (And of course that's what Lifeway picked for our focal passage.)

Jacob asks for all of the speckled/spotted/dark-colored sheep (and goats), and Laban gets to keep the solid-colored sheep (and goats). And that's how we get to today's passage.

There's one more critical tidbit: Laban, thinking he has outsmarted Jacob, takes all of the existing speckled/spotted/dark-colored sheep and gives them to his sons and sends them 3 days north. If Jacob only starts with white sheep, he should only end up with white sheep, right? Laban, himself a manipulative trickster, thinks he's getting the last laugh.

What does that 3-day gap between the two herds accomplish? It will eventually give Jacob a 3-day head start when they attempt their escape.

Here's the main background: both men think they've outsmarted the other.

  • Jacob thinks he has a way to make all of the offspring speckled/spotted/dark.

  • Laban simply manipulates Jacob's starting flocks.

We will see what happens.


This Week's Big Idea: Can You Get Spotted Lambs by Jacob's Method?

You guys have all read and been confused by what happens next:

30:37 Jacob then took branches of fresh poplar, almond, and plane wood, and peeled the bark, exposing white stripes on the branches. 38 He set the peeled branches in the troughs in front of the sheep—in the water channels where the sheep came to drink. And the sheep bred when they came to drink. 39 The flocks bred in front of the branches and bore streaked, speckled, and spotted young. 40 Jacob separated the lambs and made the flocks face the streaked sheep and the completely dark sheep in Laban’s flocks. Then he set his own stock apart and didn’t put them with Laban’s sheep. 41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob placed the branches in the troughs, in full view of the flocks, and they would breed in front of the branches. 42 As for the weaklings of the flocks, he did not put out the branches. So it turned out that the weak sheep belonged to Laban and the stronger ones to Jacob.

So, is that how that ... works?


Just, no.

Y'all, there are quite a few people out there who insist that Jacob was somehow using some sort of scientifically-sound breeding practice to get his flocks to produce spotted sheep. I want to be very respectful how I say this: people who suggest that have missed the entire point of this episode! Jacob's efforts have nothing to do with the outcome -- it was entirely God working behind the scenes.

We learn this in chapter 31, when Jacob calls his wives to tell them they have to flee:

31:10 “When the flocks were breeding, I saw in a dream that the streaked, spotted, and speckled males were mating with the females. 11 In that dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see: all the males that are mating with the flocks are streaked, spotted, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you poured oil on the stone marker and made a solemn vow to me. Get up, leave this land, and return to your native land.’”

In other words, God is telling Jacob in this dream that the condition of the offspring are His doing, not Jacob's. It was very sobering for Jacob, but it had the desired effect. Jacob realized his dependence on God, and thus he should listen to what God wants.

If you could get speckled lambs through Jacob's crazy method, then Jacob could take credit for the growth of his flocks.

But you can't. All of this happens according to God's plan and design.

Bonus Big Idea: The Twelve Tribes of Israel

As I said above, the most important outcome of this chapter is the knowledge of where the Twelve Tribes came from -- the rivalry between two sisters.

There can be no doubt that the two women played favorites among the boys. And there can be equally no doubt that the sibling dynamics were skewed by that favoritism. On the one hand, it helps us understand the divine tragedy of their treatment of Joseph. But on the other hand, it foreshadows the rivalry that will spring up between the future tribes.

(With apologies, I don't remember where I found this chart.)

Note that the family tree doesn't predict much of anything for the future of Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah consists of Judah and Benjamin -- and that based on proximity of tribal inheritance.

All we learn from the sibling dynamics is the propensity for quarrel.


Part 1: It's Time to Leave (Genesis 30:25-30)

25 After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me on my way so that I can return to my homeland. 26 Give me my wives and my children that I have worked for, and let me go. You know how hard I have worked for you.” 27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor with you, stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.” 28 Then Laban said, “Name your wages, and I will pay them.” 29 So Jacob said to him, “You know how I have served you and how your herds have fared with me. 30 For you had very little before I came, but now your wealth has increased. The Lord has blessed you because of me. And now, when will I also do something for my own family?”

As I said above, Joseph's birth likely coincides with the end of Jacob's 7 years of labor for Rachel. He has spent 14 years making Laban wealthy, and now he is ready to look to his own family's future.

It's possible that Jacob has delayed beyond the 7 years, which could be why God has allowed the threat to Jacob's family to grow as much as it has. God has already told Jacob to go home, and it will actually be about another 6 years from these verses before Jacob finally takes the plunge.

(According to 31:41, Jacob says he worked 14 years for Leah and Rachel, and 6 years for the flocks -- 20 years in total.)

There are several parallels we can think of to help us appreciate Joseph's attitude:

  • An employee is ready to start making money for himself, not his boss, and gets ready to start his own business.

  • A son is ready to move on from the family business because he's just not making enough money.

Either of those scenarios is tricky (to say the least). Have you been there? What are the dynamics of preparing to make that kind of move?

Likewise, Laban's response is to be expected. When I told my boss I was quitting in order to go to seminary, his first response was to offer more money. Businesses, organizations, churches, you name it -- when a key member tells you they want to leave, the inclination is to get them to stay.

But a very wise person once told me, "Sometimes when someone tells you they want to leave, your best move is to wish them well." Laban would have been a lot better off if he just let Jacob walk out the door.

But he couldn't. And I understand.

Jacob had prepared for that -- once Laban gave his "what will make you stay?" shpiel, Jacob was ready to go with his convoluted request.

This first section is all about setting up the backstory and making sure everybody kinda understand where both Jacob and Laban are coming from in this situation.


Part 2: Now That You Mention It (Genesis 30:31-34)

31 Laban asked, “What should I give you?” And Jacob said, “You don’t need to give me anything. If you do this one thing for me, I will continue to shepherd and keep your flock. 32 Let me go through all your sheep today and remove every sheep that is speckled or spotted, every dark-colored sheep among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the female goats. Such will be my wages. 33 In the future when you come to check on my wages, my honesty will testify for me. If I have any female goats that are not speckled or spotted, or any lambs that are not black, they will be considered stolen.” 34 “Good,” said Laban. “Let it be as you have said.”

If y'all remember studying genetics, this square probably gives you a nervous tick --

People in Jacob's day knew nothing about genetics, but they had the power of observation. Breed a white sheep with a white sheep, and you're going to get a white sheep. Right?

[Aside: we are not going to try to explain the actual genetics of color breeding!]

So, Jacob says that he will give Laban all of the white sheep (which were probably assumed to be "better"), and he will take all of the rest of the sheep. It's a brilliant plan on two levels:

  1. There's no way to hide it; Laban will not be able to accuse Jacob of manipulating the flocks. Right?

  2. It's "totally fair" -- no way Jacob can game the system. Right?

Of course, Laban immediately takes the bait. And he has a twist of his own --

30:35 That day Laban removed the streaked and spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats—every one that had any white on it—and every dark-colored one among the lambs, and he placed his sons in charge of them. 36 He put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob. Jacob, meanwhile, was shepherding the rest of Laban’s flock.

It's a double-cross! Laban isn't going to give Jacob a level playing field in the first place!

But wait, that's exactly what Jacob wanted Laban to do. It's a triple-cross! Jacob has a secret breeding scheme to turn white sheep into speckled sheep ...


Part 3: You Can't Make This Up (Genesis 30:41-43)

41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob placed the branches in the troughs, in full view of the flocks, and they would breed in front of the branches. 42 As for the weaklings of the flocks, he did not put out the branches. So it turned out that the weak sheep belonged to Laban and the stronger ones to Jacob. 43 And the man became very rich. He had many flocks, female and male slaves, and camels and donkeys.

Sorry, y'all, I'm not going to try to explain what Jacob was doing. It's completely nonsensical, based on so many superstitions. It's pointless to try to understand it because it didn't work. (Jacob only thought that it worked.)

The observation in verse 43 is important -- Jacob was also very shrewd with his wealth. He didn't just accumulate large herds of sheep and goats -- he turned those herds into additional wealth. (Did he swindle other people out of their slaves and camels? The Bible doesn't say.) Jacob was in it for the money and everything that came with it.

There's absolutely no indication that Jacob was generous with his wealth. In fact, I think it is very important that you continue reading a few verses into the next chapter:

31:1 Now Jacob heard what Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s and has built this wealth from what belonged to our father.” 2 And Jacob saw from Laban’s face that his attitude toward him was not the same as before. 3 The Lord said to him, “Go back to the land of your ancestors and to your family, and I will be with you.”

Jacob wasn't just taking Laban's wealth; he seems to have been smug about it. As you all probably know, a great way to make enemies is to flaunt your wealth, especially to the people you gained it from.

And not coincidentally, God then re-reminds Jacob that he's supposed to go home. How does the song go? "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run." Jacob far overestimated his gambling skills, and God was about to take extreme measures to get him away from the table.

In just a couple of verses, Jacob is going to tell his wives about his dream in which he learned that God was the one who gave him the success. My guess is that this dream happened not long before. It made him (rightly) think twice about his plan.

If God was the One who had given him success, then God could take that success away at any time. And God was telling him to go home.

For a man who had just learned that he couldn't rely on his own wits like he thought he could, maybe he should start listening to God.

It's really a fascinating case study of a man essentially coming to grips with his own mortality. His success in life (and his survival) is nearly as based on his own efforts as he thought. He wouldn't be able to talk his way out of trouble forever.

And goodness isn't this a great way to shift the conversation to the gospel! Jacob thought he was responsible for his own blessings in life. He thought that this future and his family was entirely dependent on his own efforts and cleverness.

Perhaps some people in your Bible study group feel that way about life and eternity?

The Lifeway material emphasizes the "believers should celebrate God's blessings" application. And that's great! We should! But I don't think that's the heart of what's happening in this passage.

  • Jacob had to recognize that God's blessings in his life were independent of his own efforts and worthiness.

  • Jacob had to recognize that God's blessings weren't for his comfort and wealth.

That's why I think salvation is a great illustration. Most of the Christians in our churches can grasp that they didn't do anything to earn salvation, and they can grasp that their salvation is part of God's bigger plan for human history.

Well, the same can (and should) be said of all of God's blessings -- great and small. In what ways do we need to re-look at our lives to see God's hand in it?

Closing Thoughts: Why Does God Bless Anybody?

I'd love to know what your group thinks about this: why did God bless Jacob as He did? I'm sure you're already thinking of a broad answer, but why this specific method? Why the flocks and herds?

And don't forget that Jacob is going to lose it all in the coming famine. So with all of that in mind, why did God do this?

And your answer to that question will help you answer the broader question: why does God bless anybody? Why does God bless you and me?

And a related question (which might tip my hand) -- what does God expect you to do with His blessings?


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