It’s as if Hashem were saying, “I don’t need your fancy voodoo sticks Yaakov, but play in the mud if you must, I’ll prosper you anyway for My Own Name’s sake and for the sake of the redemption of your household.”
This chapter continues the record of the sons of Yaakov, seeing his eleventh son born, and then it turns to the account of Yaakov seeking to leave Laban as a response to a day dream he will reveal to his wives in the following chapter. Subsequently Yaakov amasses herds by the hand of HaShem, prior to returning to the land of his birth.
Many have debated the actions of Yaakov with regard to the streaked, spotted and speckled goats and lambs, and it is true that there are a number of factors to consider regarding both Yaakov’s use of the branches of various trees in the present chapter and the dream which he explains to his wives in the following chapter (31:10-13).
Regardless of the conclusions reached over the two accounts, the chapter begins and ends with God’s provision. It remains that in spite of humanity’s propensity for wives tales, folklore, superstition and witchcraft, it is God Who provides according to His will, and often in spite of ours.
Gen 30:1 And when Rachel (Ewe) saw that she bore Yaakov (Follows after the heel) no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Yaakov: 'Provide me with children, or else I’ll die.'
It is quite possible that up to this point Rachel and Leah had gotten along just fine. Keeping in mind that Rachel must have known about and may well have been complicit in the deception that saw her sister marry Yaakov. The text now marks the reason for the change in relationship between the two sisters, “When Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children, Rachel envied her sister”.
Rachel’s plea is a mournful indication of the grief and worthlessness felt by barren women in a society that placed great importance upon offspring and in particular male offspring. There was a significant stigma attached to barren women at the time and superstitious beliefs surrounding sin and fate often exacerbated a barren woman’s position of shame in the community.
However, as is still the case today, the provision of children was the husband’s responsibility. The Ketuva (Marriage covenant agreement) was written and given to the bride by the groom. This contract promises to provide for her every need, including housing, food, clothing, security and seed for the producing of offspring. A husband was in fact obligated to provide for his wife’s procreative needs. As much as there may be shame attached to the barren woman, there is even greater shame attached to the husband who is unable to provide his wife with children according to the Ketuva agreement he has given her.
Gen 30:2 And hot with anger, nostrils flaring, Yaakov turned to Rachel and said; 'Am I in God's place, Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?'
Yaakov seeks to distinguish himself from Rachel. His response alludes to the fact that it is Rachel who has a barren womb, after all, his seed has produced children in Leah’s womb. His anger may be due to his having become tired of the constant pleading of Rachel, or it may be due to his own frustration over her predicament and his knowledge that he is obligated by the Ketuva to provide her with offspring. We should also remember that she is the wife whom he loves and his angry response is in some sense a cry of frustration aimed at God, “Am I in the place of God?”
The Targum of Yonatan and the commentary of Onkelos both paraphrase Yaakov’s response:
“Why do you seek them (children) from me? Shouldn’t you be seeking them (children) of the Lord?”
The same Hebrew phrase, “Elohiym anochi” (Am I God?) appears in Genesis 50:19 where Rachel’s firstborn Yoseph uses it in recognition of the Authority of God over death and judgement. Therefore, Yaakov’s use of the phrase acknowledges that it is God alone Who gives life, and Yoseph’s use of the phrase denotes God’s ultimate authority over the taking of life. Thus, as the prophet Yob says, “HaShem gives and HaShem takes away, Blessed is the name of HaShem”(Job 1:21).
It is also worth noting that the phrase is used in both the present text and the later in response to sibling rivalry. The conclusion is that it is God alone Who brings true reconciliation.
Additionally, the emphasis on the fact that God alone provides for life and death alludes to Yaakov’s deluded actions later in the text when he attempts to help God out with the provision of speckled, streaked and spotted animals by placing sticks in front of the animals, thinking that this practice was causing them to birth the desired offspring.
Gen 30:3 And she said: 'Hinei, Behold my maid Bilhah (troubled), go in unto her; that she may bear upon my knees, and I also may be built up through her.'
Rachel’s suggestion is probably born of both common practice and in recollection of what she knows of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16:2).
By offering her maid servant to Yaakov, Rachel was binding her husband to yet another marriage relationship and the obligations that go with it. The phrase, “bear upon my knees” is a Hebrew idiom meaning, “a child to be counted as my own” and is used in Genesis 50:23 to mean the same thing (See also Isaiah 66:12). Thus culturally speaking the sons born to the maidservants of Yaakov’s wives’ will be counted as the offspring of Rachel and Leah.
We should not treat lightly the great sacrifice Rachel is making by offering her maidservant to Yaakov. Nor should we forget Bilhah and her feelings as she gives herself to be subject to both Yaakov and Rachel. If not for the servants Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel would be incomplete.
Gen 30:4 And she gave him (Yaakov) Bilhah her handmaid as a wife (l’ishah); and Yaakov went in unto her.
We note that Bilhah is given the status of a, “Ishah” wife in the Biblical text. This means that Yaakov has now entered into yet another marital obligation and must give Bilhah all the privileges of a wife, thus exalting her status from indentured servant to wife of a Patriarch. Whilst this may seem misogynistic to the modern reader, it is in fact a costly and honourable undertaking, given the historical cultural context of this account.
Gen 30:5 And Bilhah conceived, and bore Yaakov a son. Gen 30:6 And Rachel said: 'Dadani, judged me, has Elohiym God (Judge), and has also heard (shama) my voice, and has given me a son.' Therefore she called his name Dan (A judge).
As in almost every case in Scripture, the name corresponds to the events surrounding the birth. Rachel sees herself vindicated by the birth of Dan. She reasons that it is because God has judged her righteous that He has given her a son through Bilhah. Thus she names her son, “A judge” after The Judge.
Gen 30:7 And Bilhah Rachel's handmaid conceived again, and bore Yaakov a second son. Gen 30:8 And Rachel said: 'Naftuleiy wrestling Elohiym (God, judge), I have wrestled with achoti my sister, also prevailing.' And she v’tikra proclaimed (called out) his name Naftali (My wrestler).
Verse 8 is often translated, “And Rachel said: 'With mighty wrestling have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.' And she called his name Naphtali.”
This translation is at best presumptuous and at worst misleading. The Hebrew text literally says, “Naftuleiy Elohiym” I wrestled God. In fact, the full statement is reminiscent of the transformative naming of Yaakov when he becomes Israel (Gen. 32:24-30). Here Rachel says, “I have wrestled with God and with my sister and have overcome”, and in the Genesis 32 account, the Malakah Ha-Adonai (Messenger of The YHVH) says, “Your name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, because you have struggled/wrestled with God and with man and have overcome."
In fact, the naming of Naphtali is a prophetic foreshadowing of the coming events.
Gen 30:9 When Leah (weary) saw that she had ceased bearing, she took Zilpah (A trickling of myrrh) her handmaid, and gave her to Yaakov as a wife. Gen 30:10 And Zilpah Leah's handmaid bore Yaakov a son. Gen 30:11 And Leah said: 'Gad, a cutting fortune/circumstance has come!' And she called his name Gad (cutting/invading fortune/circumstance).
As in the case of Bilhah, Zilpah is given the status of a wife and Yaakov is once more bound to elevate her status and provide for her needs. The child born seems to be named for Leah’s heartbreak rather than her “good fortune” as some translations suggest. The Hebrew denotes a cutting circumstance, and would seem to contradict the more common English reading.
Gen 30:12 And Zilpah Leah's handmaid bore Yaakov a second son. Gen 30:13 And Leah said: 'I’m Happy (B’ashri)! for the daughters have advanced me (Ishruni) and proclaim me happy.' And she called his name Asher (Walk/advance in Happiness).
Asher is named by combining the Hebrew words, “ashri” and, “Ishruni” to mean, “Advance in Happiness”.
The following section, which covers the remainder of this chapter verses 14-43, begins with the superstitious use of an aphrodisiac and continues with trickery, human effort, mistrust and ultimately ends in Yaakov being prospered according to God’s will and in spite of his own deluded actions.
Yaakov shows the full spectrum of human behaviour, at one extreme, trusting God unequivocally and at the other, practicing idolatrous superstition in an attempt to help God out. Yaakov has yet to meet HaShem face to face (Gen. 32), and thus, he is still seeking after HaShem with all the frailty of his humanity. This should be of great comfort to each of us as we try to understand our own frailty and somewhat bipolar spiritual practices. The good news is that God blesses and provides for His children based on His righteousness alone.
Gen 30:14 And Reuven (See a son) went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: 'Give me, I beg you, some of your son's mandrakes.'
The Hebrew, “Dudaim” is translated various ways, but in the end the meaning remains the same. Whatever dudaim are, they are considered an aphrodisiac (Song of songs 7:14) by the women and are therefore bargained with due to the perceived benefit they offer. There is no reason to believe that these plants facilitated fertility, nor is there any reason to presume that either Rachel or Leah were above superstitious belief. In fact, later, as Yaakov and his wives seek to escape Laban, Rachel is found in possession of Laban’s household idols. It turns out that syncretism is not a second century Christian invention after all.
Gen 30:15 And she said to her: 'Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? and would you take away my son's mandrakes also?' And Rachel said: 'Therefore he (Yaakov) shall lie with you tonight in exchange for your son's mandrakes.'
The text infers either that Leah had been denied the marital bed for a time, or that she was seeking to get an extra opportunity to cohabitate with Yaakov by purchasing Rachel’s night from her.
Gen 30:16 And Yaakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: 'You must come in unto me; for I have secured your hire with my son's mandrakes.' And he lay with her that night. Gen 30:17 And Elohiym God heard Leah, and she conceived, and bore Yaakov a fifth son. Gen 30:18 And Leah said: 'God has given me my s’chari wages, because I gave my handmaid to my husband. And she called his name Yisashchar (Lifting up/exalted wages).
We note that it is Leah who has decided that her actions in giving her servant to her husband have caused her to give birth by way of reward from God. However, the text says simply that God heard her and as a result she gave birth. Once again the text makes it clear that God acts in mercy, not based on what His beloved do but rather because of His love for them.
Gen 30:19 And Leah conceived again, and bore a sixth son to Yaakov. Gen 30:20 And Leah said: 'Z’vadani endowing me, God Elohiym has given me a sign, a good gift; now exalting me (yiz’b’leiniy) my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.' And she called his name Zevulun (Exalted, endowed).
Leah’s proclamation is not just in response to the birth of Zevulun but also in recognition of the fact that she has now birthed six of Yaakov’s sons. Thus she has birthed Yaakov the sum of the children of his other three wives combined. Zevulun (endowed) is a memoriam of the great endowment of the six sons and is prophetic of the perpetual endowment of Israel up until this day and beyond into the Olam Haba.
Gen 30:21 And afterwards she bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah (Judgement, justice).
Dinah’s honour will become the subject of great consternation in chapter 34. Thus, a demand for judgement and justice.
Gen 30:22 And Elohiym God remembered Rachel, and Elohiym God heard her, and opened her womb. Gen 30:23 And she conceived, and bore a son, and said: 'Elohiym God has taken away my shame.'
As discussed in the past, God doesn’t forget and therefore does not need to remember in the modern sense. Here God is memorializing (zachar) rather than remembering. He has chosen Rachel to bear the son who will deliver Israel from famine and set in motion events that will lead Israel into the Promised Land. Thus God speaks into time the conception of Yoseph. The birth of this boy truly acts to take away any shame Rachel may have endured.
Based on the Hebrew, “zachar” commemoration, the Talmud concludes that Rachel conceived Yoseph on Rosh Ha-Shanah (Yom Teruah), the secular New Year (b. Rosh. Hash. 11a). This is also said to be the date when both Sarah and Channah (Hannah) conceived. As a result all three women are featured in the Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy.
Gen 30:24 And she called his name Yoseph (HaShem YHVH: Mercy added), saying: ‘HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) add to me another son.'
This is both an observation and an invocation. “HaShem add to me another son”. It is an observation because God has added a son to Rachel, of her own womb, in addition to the sons born to her of Bilhah. It is an invocation because she is calling on Hashem (Mercy) to add yet another son (Benyamin), so that she might have two sons of her own womb.
It is important that the birth of Yoseph is recorded prior to Yaakov’s accumulation of herds and his subsequent prosperity, because the name Yoseph means, “HaShem will add”. Nothing Yaakov does in the following verses purchases his prosperity. HaShem alone provides for him.
Gen 30:25 And it came to pass, when Rachel had birthed Yoseph, that Yaakov said to Laban (White): 'Send me away, that I may go to my own place of standing, and to my land.
The verb shalach translated, “Send me away” is a term used repeatedly to describe the request for freedom, issued at the going forth of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. Yaakov began as a relative to Laban but is now being treated like an indentured servant, a slave. As an indentured servant he has the right to be freed after seven years of service according to the Torah (Deut. 15:12-15). Thus, having served two seven year periods, he has both a moral and legal right to freedom. However, the wives and children of an indentured servant remain the property of the master (Exod. 21:2-4; Gen. 31:43). The counter point to this is that Laban agreed beforehand to give his daughters in payment for Yaakov’s work, thus selling his daughters to Yaakov. We should also note that if Yaakov’s work for Laban is a bride price for Laban’s daughters, then Laban is obligated to give this price to his daughters as their security according to the marriage traditions of the ancient East. Therefore, both Yaakov’s wives and his offspring are legally his because the agreement predates the servitude and any benefit generated from Yaakov’s fourteen years of service belongs not to Laban but to Leah and Rachel.
It is here that we should note Yaakov’s dream, as he explains it retrospectively in Genesis 31:10-13.
“Gen 31:10 And it came to pass that when the flocks were mating, that I lifted up my eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the he- goats which leaped upon the flock were streaked, speckled, and spotted. Gen 31:11 And Malakh ha-Elohiym the angel of God said to me in the dream: ‘Yaakov;’ and I said: ‘Hineini Here I am, ready and obediant.’ Gen 31:12 And He said: ‘Lift up now your eyes, and see, all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are streaked, speckled, and spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. Gen 31:13 I am the God of Beiyt-el, where you anointed a pillar, where you vowed a vow to Me. Now arise, get you out from this land, and return to the land of your birth.'
The reason I’ve placed this text here is because it appears from the recounting of this dream that Yaakov dreamed it while watching the flocks mating at a time prior to his offering the solution of ownership of the speckled, streaked and spotted animals as a wage. At the end of this account Yaakov is commanded by God to return to the land of his birth. Thus, because Yaakov has said Hineini (Here I am, ready and obedient), it seems likely that he approached Laban with his request to leave soon after having the dream encounter with The Messenger of God, Malakh Ha-Elohiym.
The fact that we have just read of the birth of Israel’s greatest dreamer Yoseph is profound. Yaakov’s experience of relating to God has been, to this point, entirely through dream encounters. Now his beloved wife Rachel gives birth to the dreamer who will deliver Israel and act as a type for the coming Messiah. Wallah (wow)!
One of the most prominent elements of this dream interaction is the emphasis God places on the fact that it is as a result of the harm He has witnessed Laban doing to Yaakov that He (God) will increase the streaked, speckled and spotted members of the herds. This should be understood to teach that Yaakov’s efforts will not bring this about, rather it is God Who both gives the dream and fulfils it.
Gen 30:26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service and the way I have served you.'
Yaakov is appealing to Laban’s conscience, or lack thereof. He knows that Laban cannot find fault in the service Yaakov has faithfully given him.
Gen 30:27 And Laban said unto him: 'If now I have found favour in your eyes - I have observed the signs (nichash’tiy), practiced divination, and have concluded that HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) has blessed me for your sake.'
Here we see that God acts as ruler over lesser deities and erroneous spiritual practices. HaShem has allowed Laban to see His blessing and favour over Yaakov in spite of Laban’s witchcraft and idolatry (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10). HaShem has not done this for Laban’s sake but for Yaakov’s sake, in order that He might prosper him.
The Hebrew nichash’ty (my divination) shares its root with nachash (snake/serpent), a figurative representation of Ha-Satan (Satan). Thus these events find a link to the entry of sin and death.
Gen 30:28 And he said: 'Specify to me your wage, and I will give it.' Gen 30:29 And he said unto him: 'You know how I have served you, and how your herds have fared with me. Gen 30:30 For you had very little before I came, and your possessions have increased abundantly; and HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) has blessed you wherever my feet have stepped. And now how long will it be before I can provide for my own house also?' Gen 30:31 And he said: 'What shall I give you?' And Yaakov said: 'You shall not give me anything extra; providing you will do this thing for me, I will again feed your flock and keep it. Gen 30:32 I will pass through all your flock today, removing every speckled and spotted one, and every dark one among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and these shall be my wages. Gen 30:33 So shall my righteousness witness against me from now on, when you shall come to look over my wage that is before you: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and dark among the sheep, if found with me, shall be considered stolen.'
It seems that based on the dream he has received, Yaakov is setting the scene for what he believes will be the means through which God will prosper him by divinely effecting the breeding of streaked, speckled and spotted herds. This is a wonderful act of trust and faithfulness on Yaakov’s part. It shows that he has listened to God and believes in God’s provision. It also stands in contrast to his subsequent actions in relation to invoking superstition in an attempt to aid the fulfilment of the dream.
Gen 30:34 And Laban said: 'Hein Now, may it be according to your word.' Gen 30:35 And he removed that day the he-goats that were streaked and spotted, and all the she-goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white in it, and all the dark ones among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.
Laban agrees to Yaakov’s terms, but before Yaakov can do what he had agreed to (30:32), Laban steals away the streaked, speckled and spotted animals that were meant to be Yaakov’s wages and instead, gives them to his sons. Perhaps the meaning of Laban’s name is not simply, “White” but, “White washed wall”.
Gen 30:36 And he set three days' journey between himself and Yaakov. And Yaakov fed the rest of Laban's flocks.
To further prevent the possibility of more streaked, speckled and spotted animals being born to the flocks under Yaakov’s care, Laban moves these animals three days distance away so that they will not mate with the animals of standard appearance.
Gen 30:37 And Yaakov took him rods of fresh poplar (White poplar, exuding white gum), and of the almond (a nut tree) and of the plane-tree (bark shedding tree); and peeled white streaks in them, making the white appear which was in the rods.
Here it seems that Yaakov’s tenacity begins to turn into pride. He may believe that HaShem will do as He has said He would in the dream (and rightly so), however, by using inanimate physical objects in order to aid the desired outcome Yaakov is not acting out of trust but out of self-determination. If the Scripture enforces one theme above all others (The existence and supremacy of God acknowledged), it teaches that humanity is unable to prosper or redeem itself.
The practical reason for Yaakov’s actions may be to expose the black haired goats and sheep to the white sap, thus marking their hair with streaks, speckles and spots. This does not however translate to the birth of streaked, speckled and spotted offspring, a genetic anomaly which is entirely reliant on God’s creation and not subject to human manipulation in this historical cultural context (Genetic modification was non-existent at this time in human history).
My dear Mizrachi brother Aharon, a member of our community who has lived in Iraq all his life up until recently, says that the majority of sheep and goats in Iraq are now speckled, streaked and spotted. That it is in fact the standard dark haired sheep and goats that are now the minority and that streaked, speckled and spotted goats and sheep are considered by modern Iraqi farmers to be a blessing from God. It seems that the blessing upon Yaakov has reached far beyond its origins.
Gen 30:38 And he set the rods which he had peeled over against the flocks in the gutters in the watering-troughs where the flocks came to drink; and they conceived when they came to drink. Gen 30:39 And the flocks conceived at the sight of the rods, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted.
In spite of Yaakov’s acknowledgement of God’s hand for the provision of streaked, speckled and spotted animals in Genesis 31:10-13, here Yaakov is acting on the folk superstition that a vivid sight during pregnancy or at conception will affect the embryo (Radak on Gen. 30:39:3; Rashbam on Gen. 30:40:1). This superstition has proved to be unfounded (D. M. Blair, A doctor looks at the Bible IVF 1959). This is affirmed by subsequent verses where he places the animals of Laban’s flock toward his streaked, speckled and spotted animals in order to invoke results based on the aforementioned superstitious belief.
The genetic anomalies present within a species to produce variations in appearance are not altered by visual stimulants. Therefore, we can only understand Yaakov’s actions here in one of two ways. Either he displayed the rods from the trees as a symbol of trust in the provision of God. That is, a visual prayer of sorts (unlikely, given that trees and stones are used by way of memorial in his culture and are set up once in memoriam rather than as a continuing means of producing a physical reward. Also, he was not commanded by God to employee any means in order to facilitate the miracle of the herds). Or he had adopted some of the idolatrous ways of his father in law and was bowing to common superstition, believing that he was somehow effecting the conception and subsequent progeny of the flock.
Regardless of Yaakov’s motivation, God provided spotted, streaked and speckled livestock for Yaakov according to the blessing He had pronounced over him. God’s ability to bless is neither limited nor prospered by our actions. What He promises He does, He cannot lie.
Gen 30:40 And Yaakov separated the lambs and young goats - he also set the faces of the flocks toward the streaked and all the dark in the flock of Laban - and put his own droves apart, separating them from Laban's flock.
The reference to the flocks of Laban facing the speckled and spotted flocks of Yaakov seems to emphasise the fact that Yaakov held to an ill-founded belief that the birthing process was somehow being effected by visual stimulation. On the up side, God provides the desired result and the reality is that not only did Yaakov receive offspring from his own herd, he was now to receive offspring from Laban’s herd, thus making the standard sheep and goats the minority. Laban’s herd was merely maintaining its number while Yaakov’s herd grew exponentially.
The more we see Yaakov relying on his own understanding of how he is being prospered, the more it appears that he is approaching his prosperity in a carnal way rather than trusting entirely in God’s provision. After all, trust says that, “God is able to provide regardless of my ability”, whereas doubt says, “I need to do something in order for God’s provision to come about”. This is in fact the greatest hurdle believers’ face, the idea that we can’t redeem ourselves is counterintuitive to us. Our fallen nature (Yetzer ha-ra) detests this idea. Death (Yetzer ha-ra: Yetzer ha-mot) seeks to become God and dies, whereas Life (Yetzer ha-tov: Yetzer ha-chayim) seeks God and lives.
Gen 30:41 And it came to pass, whenever the stronger of the flock conceived, that Yaakov laid the rods before the eyes of the flock in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods; Gen 30:42 but when the flock were feeble, he kept them from the rods; so the feebler were Laban's, and the stronger Yaakov’s. Gen 30:43 And the man (Yaakov) meod, meod increased exceedingly, and had large flocks, and maid-servants and men-servants, and camels and asses.
The repetition of this practice only affirms that it is based on superstition and continues to give weight to the probability that Yaakov believes it is he himself that is manipulating the birthing process via occult means. The fact that the stronger animals bear before the rods while the weaker do not is not proof of the effectiveness of Yaakov’s efforts, to the contrary, it only affirms that God is gracious. It’s as if Hashem were saying, “I don’t need your fancy voodoo sticks Yaakov, but play in the mud if you must, I’ll prosper you anyway for My Own Name’s sake and for the sake of the redemption of your household.”
What is clear from the text is that Yaakov’s herds grew from the seed of strong animals and as a result he was able to trade his herds for servants and livestock, and due to God’s miraculous provision Yaakov became exceedingly great, meod meod: in spite of his own efforts and not because of them.
What God promises He provides because He cannot lie, He is absolutely trustworthy, His fidelity is unchanging.
© Yaakov Brown 2017
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.