A good many years ago while I was a student in college, I did something which surprised my friends, and years later, continues to surprise me. My two roommates and I lived in the upper stories of an old house close to the college campus. Living on the lower level were an older man and his wife, serving somewhat as house parents. One day the older gentleman came upstairs and asked two of us to help him load a piece of furniture into a rented trailer. All told, it must have taken five minutes for us to carry that item from the third floor to the trailer.
When we had finished, he expressed his sincere thanks and held out a crisp new ten dollar bill. Of course he never dreamed that we would accept it. Naturally, none of my roommates did. I took the money as if it were manna from heaven, expressing my sincere thanks to this man, who stood with his mouth gaping. It never occurred to me that this money was anything but God’s provision for a hungry student.
I can only imagine what must have taken place when that poor man attempted to explain to his wife how he managed to give away that ten dollar bill. The lesson which I suspect his wife brought home to him was probably this: Don’t ever try to out-con a con. Those most susceptible to being conned out of their money are those who have at least a fair portion of the con artist in themselves.
The events of our portion of Scripture seem to depict two cons, each trying to out-con the other. In the grace and providence of God it will be Jacob who comes out the winner, but for reasons completely different from those which he expected. Many of us, like Jacob, have a tendency to give God the credit for prospering our sinful efforts to get ahead. It was in spite of Jacob’s conniving that he left Laban as a wealthy man. It was neither his spirituality nor his shrewdness which got him ahead in life.
Now it came about when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my own country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me depart; for you yourself know my service which I have rendered you.” But Laban said to him, “If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account.” And he continued, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.” But he said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you and how your cattle have fared with me. For you had little before I came, and it has increased to a multitude; and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now, when shall I provide for my own household also?” So he said, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: Let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep, and every black one among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.” And Laban said, “Good, let it be according to your word.” So he removed on that day the striped and spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, every one with white in it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and gave them into the care of his sons. And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks (Genesis 30:25-36).
The fourteen years of service for Leah and Rachel must have been fulfilled shortly after the birth of Joseph. Just as Jacob reminded Laban that it was time to take his wife (29:21), so he must seek his release so that he might return to his homeland and family. Several factors would have contributed to Jacob’s desire to leave. First, his feelings toward Laban might not have been very positive at this point. He had been deceived, and his return had already been delayed seven years longer than he had expected. There certainly would have been a desire to return to his family. While we do not know if Rebekah was still alive, at least Isaac was. And, finally, God had revealed to him that he would someday return to the promised land where he would be blessed (28:10-22).
Having fulfilled his obligation to Laban, Jacob was free to go, but Laban was reluctant to see this happen. He had come to realize250 that his prosperity was the result of Jacob’s presence (verse 27). If Jacob were to stay, Laban reasoned, it would be on the basis of the profit motive. All of Jacob’s labor over those fourteen years had been in lieu of a dowry. He had nothing to show for his labor except for his wives and family. It was now time to re-negotiate Jacob’s contract, and Laban asked him to name his terms.
Jacob was in no hurry to do this. He first strengthened his position by underscoring in Laban’s mind the value he would be to him, just as it had been evident in the past (verses 29-30). Jacob now had a family to provide for, and thus his wages must be adequate to meet their needs. Jacob must think of the future. Laban’s offer, he suggests, will have to be a good one.
Now that Laban is prepared to accept a hard bargain, Jacob names his terms. And frankly, Laban must have breathed a sigh of relief, for the request was one that was easy to accept. Normally goats in that land were black or dark brown, seldom white or spotted with white. On the other hand, the sheep were nearly always white, infrequently black or spotted.251 Jacob offered to continue working as a tender of the flocks if he were but to receive the rarer of the offspring.
Jacob would examine the flocks that day, removing all the speckled and spotted animals, and these would be set aside as Laban’s property. These animals would be taken three days’ distance and kept by Laban’s sons. Only those newly born spotted or striped would become Jacob’s property. At some later time the herd would be examined, and the spotted or striped animals would go to Jacob, while the rest would be Laban’s. Removing the spotted and striped which were in the flock benefited Laban in two ways. First, it left these animals to him, not Jacob. Also, it lessened the chances of other spotted or striped animals being conceived, since these would not be mating with the flock.
It was too good to be true, Laban must have thought. How could he possibly lose? However, it was an open-ended agreement, which encouraged Jacob to attempt to manipulate the outcome and also left God free to overrule the normal course of nature in order to bless Jacob. The agreement was solidified, and the flocks were divided, with Jacob tending the unspotted, unspeckled, and unstriped animals of Laban.
Jacob and Laban must both have departed while chuckling to themselves. Both thought the agreement was one that they could manipulate to their own advantage and at the expense of the other. Rather than conscientiously tending the flocks of Laban while looking to God for the increase, Jacob decided that this was something he could handle best by resorting to his schemes and devices. He employed three techniques which appeared to result in great success:
Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Moreover, it came about whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, that Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods, but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys (Genesis 30:37-43).
The first method Jacob used (verses 37-39) was peeled poles, which were supposed to have some kind of prenatal influence on the flocks. Jacob supposed that if the flocks had a visual impression of stripes while they were mating and conceiving, the offspring would assume this same form. So all about the trenches, which served as watering troughs, Jacob placed these peeled poles; and every appearance would incline him to believe that his scheme was working, for the resulting offspring were striped, speckled, or spotted (verse 39).
The second phase of Jacob’s plan to predispose the outcome of his labors was to segregate the flocks. The striped, speckled, and spotted offspring (which belonged to Jacob) were put off by themselves. The rest of the flock was faced toward those animals which were either striped or all black (verse 40). While the peeled poles were artificial, the striped animals were the “real McCoy.” Surely by seeing these animals, the rest of the flock would get the idea.
The third phase was a stroke of genius (verses 41-42). It was a kind of selective breeding. We are told that lambing took place twice during the year, once in the fall and once in the spring.252 Those born in the fall were thought to be hardier, since they must endure the harsh winter. Jacob placed his peeled poles only in front of the superior animals and not before the weaker. In Jacob’s mind the result was that the strong animals went to him, while the weak went to Laban (verse 42).
From everything that has been said, we would naturally conclude that the great prosperity of Jacob (verse 43) was due to his shrewd techniques for manipulating the outcome of the mating of the flocks. So it would seem. So it seemed to Jacob. There is only one problem: it didn’t work because it couldn’t work. From a spiritual perspective, it did not work because God does not bless carnal effort. From a physical point of view all of Jacob’s schemes were of no avail because they operated on one assumption, and that assumption was scientifically erroneous. Each of the three techniques Jacob employed was predicated on the belief that visual impressions at the time of conception affected the outcome at birth. In the first and third techniques it was the peeled poles which were thought to produce striped offspring. No one believes that this is true today, and no farmer uses this technique to upgrade his cattle. The second device of Jacob was based on the same premise, but it employed the black and striped of the flock to create the visual impressions.
Only later will we be told the real reason for Jacob’s prosperity. But mark this well—Jacob did not prosper because he pulled one over on Laban. Jacob’s success was not the product of his schemes.
Just as Jacob’s deception of his father had adverse side effects (27:30ff.), so Jacob’s newly obtained prosperity produced its problems:
Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s and from what belonged to our father he has made all this wealth.” And Jacob saw the attitude of Laban, and behold, it was not friendly toward his as formerly (Genesis 31:1-2).
Two significant changes have occurred since Jacob first arrived at Paddan-aram, and the intersection of these precipitated a family crisis. First, Jacob, who arrived penniless (cf. 32:10), had now become prosperous, and this at the expense of Laban. Secondly, when Jacob first arrived there was no mention of Laban having any sons, but now he has sons of his own.
In addition to these hard facts we must consider one more factor which we have learned from archaeology. A man who did not have sons of his own could adopt a near relative, who would then become his son. At times this “son” would be given a daughter in marriage by his new “father.” If the father later had sons of his own, the inheritance would have to be divided among these heirs in some fashion. The son who had the rights of the firstborn and, therefore, headship over the family, would in that culture, be given the household gods, which would signify his headship.253
From these facts we can read somewhat between the lines of the story and surmise with some degree of confidence the cause of the change in attitude toward Jacob and his family. Initially Laban would have looked on Jacob as his son, his heir; but when sons of his own came, this was no longer needed. In fact, Jacob was now a competitor for the family inheritance. When Jacob prospered at Laban’s expense, it is easy to understand why Laban’s sons looked on him with disfavor, for all their inheritance was fleeing before their very eyes. Thus, the change in attitude on the part of Laban and his sons brought about a change of plans for Jacob. Not only did circumstances seem to dictate this change, but God revealed to Jacob that it was time to return to his homeland:
Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to his flock in the field, and said to them, “I see your father’s attitude, that it is not friendly toward me as formerly, but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that I have served your father with all my strength. Yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me. If he spoke thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages, then all the flock brought forth speckled; and if he spoke thus, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock brought forth striped. Thus God has taken away your father’s livestock and given them to me. And it came about at the time when the flock were mating that I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Lift up, now, your eyes and see that all the male goats which are mating are striped, speckled, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth.’” And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you” (Genesis 31:3-16).
The last recorded revelation that Jacob had received was twenty years previous while he was still in the land of promise (28:10ff.). Now Jacob receives a divine directive which is particularly related to his return to the land. The impression is given that Jacob received no other revelation during those twenty years. Jacob’s actions would seem to confirm this conclusion, for little was said of God and His will until this time.
What circumstances suggested Jacob do, God instructed Jacob to do. He was to return to his homeland and to his relatives. Jacob did not worry about convincing his father-in-law (cf. verses 17ff.), but he did find it necessary to have the support of his wives. They must now choose between their father and their husband. In order to have a private conversation, Jacob called his wives to him in the field.
Jacob’s first line of defense was to the effect that their father had given him a dirty deal (verses 5-9). Things were not as they used to be. For some unknown reason Laban’s attitude had strangely changed toward Jacob. While not favored by Laban, God has been on Jacob’s side. I would assume that the inference is that this could be seen by his prosperity.
In Jacob’s defense he puts himself in a very favorable light. He is the knight in shining armor, while Laban is the real villain. Jacob has worked hard (verse 6), but Laban has been the cheater (verse 7). Continually Laban changed the terms of their agreement (verse 8). The evidence of Jacob’s integrity is that God had vindicated him by giving him the flocks of Laban. That proved his innocence.
Besides this, God had spoken to Jacob confirming His blessing and directing him to return to the land of promise (verses 10-13). Jacob then reported the content of the dream he recently had,254 which further confirmed the righteousness of his actions and the rightness of his return to his homeland.
All that Jacob saw in this dream was a divine directive to return home. The vision of the striped, speckled, and mottled goats seemed to justify all that he had done to manipulate the mating and offspring of the flocks. This same God, Who gave him the upper hand over Laban, had also revealed Himself at Bethel (verse 13) and was instructing Jacob to return.
At least Jacob was able to convince his wives that it was right to leave Laban. They recognized that they no longer were in their father’s favor. He favored his sons and considered Jacob and his wives only a liability. Laban sold these daughters to Jacob and then spent the proceeds on himself. There was no love lost between these women and their father. They would not find it hard to leave Laban.
While what Jacob understood was true in part, he did not see nearly enough in this vision. God had not commended him for his attempts to manipulate matters against Laban to his own advantage. In fact, the prosperity which he experienced had nothing to do with his fervent efforts. All of his poles and peeling and segregating were of no profit whatever. A careful look at the words describing the dream will make this clear. Notice how God drew Jacob’s attention to the fact that the males that were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled (verse 10, 12).
Previously we asserted that all of Jacob’s efforts were based upon a faulty premise—that a visual impression during conception would influence the animal born. In the vision which Jacob had from God there were no peeled poles, no segregated flocks, but only male goats mating that were striped, speckled, and mottled. Now what lesson was God getting across to Jacob, or at least to us?
What determined the offspring of the flocks was not the circumstances (visual impressions) at conception but the characteristics of the male that mated with the female goats. Jacob’s attention was drawn to the fact that all the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled. To put it another way, only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating, none of the rest.
Now this we know to be a very significant factor in determining the characteristics of the offspring. “Like father, like son,” we say. While Jacob operated upon an entirely false premise, God was working on a premise that is scientifically proven. How was it that only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating? Simple. God appointed it to be so in order that Laban’s wealth would be passed on to Jacob.
Think of it. All of Jacob’s efforts were of no benefit. All that time peeling poles and separating flocks and striving to outdo Laban was all for naught. What seemed at the moment to be the work of Jacob’s hands and the outcome of his schemes was nothing of the sort. It was the hand of God in spite of his scheming, not because of it.
The parallels between Jacob’s sojourn in Paddan-aram and Israel’s bondage in Egypt must have been evident to the nation as they first read this account from the pen of Moses. Jacob’s sin necessitated this departure just as Joseph’s journey was the result of many sins. Jacob went to Paddan-aram a poor man, but he left with a large family and great wealth. Joseph was sent to Egypt a virtual slave; but when the nation emerged at the exodus, they were many, and they had considerable wealth. Just as Laban was judged of God by his wealth being given to Jacob, so Egypt was judged by the wealth that was taken out at the exodus.
While these similarities are rather striking, there remains yet one further parallel which would be very instructive to the nation Israel. Jacob’s wealth did not come through his scheming but in spite of it. Jacob was not blessed of God because of his godliness but due to God’s grace. So also, the Israelites were to understand that their blessings were a gift from God, apart from the sin-stained works of their own hands. God deals with His people in grace.
So far as I can tell, Jacob never fully grasped the folly of his fervent efforts to outwit his uncle Laban. He never fully perceived the sinfulness of his motives and methods. To him the end justified the means. He believed that the one who prospered was blessed of God. Prosperity, to Jacob, proved piety. It was Moses who, in recording this account, allowed us to see more deeply into the issues involved. We must conclude that success cannot be equated with spirituality.
Religion is as distinct from Christianity as Jacob’s pole-peeling was from God’s sovereign grace in the life of Jacob. Countless men and women are trying to work their way into God’s heaven by their own devices. Some of these would include church membership, baptism, confirmation, communion, church leadership, charity, and so on. Now all of these activities may have great value to the one who is already a Christian, but they are useless to the one who is trying to win God’s approval and blessing by doing them. The appearance of benefit may be there but not the reality of it. People may think we are Christians. They may commend our devotion to duty. But self-effort is mere pole-peeling so far as God is concerned.
The only way to enter God’s heaven is to recognize that we are undeserving of it. We must come to distrust anything we are or do to merit the favor and blessing of God. The work of salvation is God’s sovereign work. It has been accomplished by His Son, Jesus Christ. He bore the penalty for our sins. He provided the righteousness which God requires. Salvation comes when we trust in nothing more and nothing less than the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for our eternal blessings.
I wonder how many times genuine Christians foolishly conclude that the success which we experience is proof of God’s blessing and approval of our carnal and unspiritual methods. Do we, like Jacob, suppose that any method that appears to work must be acceptable to God? As I look about me and as I observe many of the techniques that are commonly accepted by evangelicals today, I must admit that it appears that results are more important to us than righteousness. While we may be successful in convincing ourselves and perhaps others, God knows our hearts, and He will eventually make us stand and give account of our deeds. As someone has rightly pointed out, we are not commanded to be victorious, only obedient. We are not commanded to be fruitful, only to abide (John 15:1-8).
Perhaps we may try to excuse our deceitfulness by insisting that we live in a “crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). We have come to believe that the only way to survive in such a society is to out-con the cons. Jacob may well have thus satisfied his conscience, reminding himself of the fact that Laban could not be dealt with on a straightforward basis. But this is not what the apostle Paul taught:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, … (Philippians 2:14-16).
Finally, many of us, like Jacob, fail to “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) in our work lives. We enter into an agreement with our employer but then conclude that he is not so interested in our future as we are. We begin to look out for our own interests at the expense of our boss. We begin to build our own little empires just as Jacob set his flock apart from Laban’s. We begin to spend an enormous portion of our time trying to figure out how we can get more of what belongs to the company. Rather than working diligently and leaving our well-being in God’s hands, we take matters into our own hands. While we may, like Jacob, stay within the letter of the law, we get ahead at the expense of another. Such conduct is not to the glory of God. Such does not “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). May God enable us to trust in Him and in His grace rather than in our schemes and in the work of our hands.
250 It is possible that Laban learned this through the pagan process of divination, as is suggested by the term employed. This is not mandatory, however, and thus scholars are divided as to which possibility is most likely. One way or the other, Laban learned that God’s hand was upon Jacob. It seems hard to believe that Laban should have had to resort to divination to determine this. If it were divination, surely Jacob’s testimony was gravely deficient.
253 “The adoption tablet of Nashwi son of Arshenni. He adopted Wullu son of Puhishenni. As long as Nashwi lives, Wullu shall give (him) food and clothing. When Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be the heir. Should Nashwi beget a son, (the latter) shall divide equally with Wullu but (only) Nashwi’s son shall take Nashwi’s gods. But if there be no son of Nashwi’s, then Wullu shall take Nashwi’s gods. And (Nashwi) has given his daughter Nahuya as wife to Wullu. And if Wullu takes another wife, he forfeits Nashwi’s land and buildings. Whoever breaks the contract shall pay one mina of silver (and) one mina of gold.”
After citing this translation of tablet G51 from a Nuzu tablet, Vos goes on to suggest this interpretation of what took place in the Jacob-Laban contest:
“The interpretation would then run something like this. Laban adopted Jacob (at least he made him a member of his household and made him heir, sealing the transaction by giving Jacob a daughter to be his wife. As long as Laban lived, Jacob had the responsibility of caring for him. When Laben died Jacob would inherit Laban’s estate in full if Laban failed to have any sons. If Laban had natural sons, each would receive an equal share of the property, and one of them would receive the household gods, which signified headship of the family.” Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 99. Cf. also Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 231.