Genesis 30:1-2 Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” 2 And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
In the previous chapter, we saw how Leah dealt with adversity: she called out to the Lord, and continued to desired to be loved by Jacob. Several chapters ago, we saw how Rebekah was childless for 20 years, but she and Isaac did not fight over it. In fact, Isaac prayed for Rebekah, and God gave her twins.
Here, we see a contrast in Rachel. She was envious of the fruitfulness of her sister, and became bitter, and it produced a rift in her relationship with Jacob. She wasn’t necessarily being overly dramatic when she said she wanted to die. Proverbs 14:30 tells us that a sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones. Envy will drive the desire for life right out of our core.
Jacob was the target for Rachel’s outburst as she complained to him rather than take it to the Lord. It is a huge misconception to believe that we can use people close to us to receive our complaints. Sharing our heart with someone (including our struggles) is one thing, but complaining is another matter entirely. The Bible is very clear about God’s position on complaining (read Philippians 2:14, Ephesians 4:29, Numbers 11:1-4, Exodus 16:8). Instead, we should consider how damaging it is to our relationships when we complain! Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29). When we are complaining, we are not thinking at all about what is being imparted to the “hearers”. Unfortunately, husbands and wives often use each other as “complaint boxes” without any thought for the other person. There is a reason that the Lord asks us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV).” The reason is because God wants our speech and conduct to always be edifying to others, not to bring them down. If you are down, don’t expect another person to be capable of lifting you up. Let the Lord be the one who lifts you up: But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head Psalm 3:3.
Jacob didn’t necessarily respond any better, though. He became angry, and rather than become an encourager and one to remind Rachel to seek help from the Lord, he snapped back at her something like, “Maybe the reason you can’t get pregnant is because God is withholding that blessing from you!” Whether or not that was true, Jacob’s response (especially the anger) was certainly a misrepresentation of God’s heart towards Rachel. Jacob could have been angry at the sin and the circumstance. But the verse tells us that his anger was towards Rachel. There can be times when a person needs to reprove someone for their attitude, or for what that person has done. The reproof might be in the form of a rebuke. But no matter what, it must be given in love.
Genesis 30:3-5 So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” 4 Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her. 5 And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son.
I’ll mention it again. Rachel had not sought the Lord, cried out to Him, asked for help, or anything. She didn’t even argue with Jacob that her barrenness was a result of God withholding a blessing and that she deserved to be in the trial because of her bitterness towards Leah. No prayers, no repentance, no forgiveness. Just a plan to work her way out of the circumstance. It really doesn’t even make any sense. Rachel was closer to her own sister’s children than she would be to the children of an unrelated servant. Yet, she would rather have children by that means than to humble herself and “adopt” her sister’s sons.
Genesis 30:6-8 Then Rachel said, “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. 7 And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.
The names that Rachel gave these two sons are a reflection of where her heart was. The name Dan, literally means Judge. The name Naphtali literally means “My Wrestling.” First, she assumed that God had judged over her situation, and made a ruling in her favor. Actually, she had gained her son by way of a legal technicality. By law, any sons that her servant had by Jacob would be hers, so according to law, she had the authority of a mom over Dan and Naphtali. Second, she assumed that she somehow overcame her sister in some sort of battle of wills, and that God rewarded her with a son for her efforts. But Leah wasn’t battling Rachel for Jacob’s sons.
Rachel’s problem was that she didn’t understand grace, and she didn’t understand how God would choose to bestow grace on someone else that (in her mind) didn’t deserve it. She was the one loved by Jacob, not Leah! She was the one chosen, not Leah, so she should have been the one blessed with children, not Leah. In her envy of Leah’s blessing, she resorted to the law and her efforts in order to obtain God’s blessing for herself. Rachel’s attitude is very similar to the attitude of the bitter brother who didn’t understand his father’s grace, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). God was going to bless Rachel, in His time, but it would be according to His grace, not her use of the law or her efforts.
Genesis 30:9-13 When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took Zilpah her maid and gave her to Jacob as wife. 10 And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “A troop comes!” So she called his name Gad. 12 And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.” So she called his name Asher.
Well, now the competition was on. Leah had stopped bearing after the fourth son, but it wasn’t permanent! God probably gave her four sons in a row, with very little break in between, and her body just needed a rest. But rather that wait for God’s timing, she jumped into Rachel’s game and gave Jacob her maid. But there might be a little more to it than just the competition, and I will bring that up after we get to verse 18.
The first son by Ziplah was named Gad, which means “a troop.” Evidently, Leah believed that God was going to bless her with a whole troop of kids. The second son’s name meant “happy.” He made Leah happy because she figured that having a sixth son would be just the ticket to impress all the neighbor girls. Leah wanted to be seen as blessed by people around her. We often do this, as we look around at what God is doing in others, and how they are receiving recognition from people, and we desire this as well. It is an unfortunate consequence of the envies and jealousies that creep into our relationships.
This battle between Leah and Rachel, with the envies and jealousies, the complaining, and the petty competitiveness is really just a reflection on the folly in our hearts, as we can so easily get caught up in vanities. We are looking at what blessings have been given to our neighbors, and we chase after things in our own strengths and abilities, and we compete against our Christian brothers and sisters for favor from God and favor from other people. It really is just evil. But God can make something good out of all this, just like he did for Jacob’s family. The sons born to the two maids received the full inheritance promised to Abraham’s seed and became four of the twelve tribes of Israel. Another example of God’s grace!
Genesis 30:14-15 Now Reuben 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, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” And Rachel said, “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.”
Jacob’s four wives had given him eight sons pretty fast, so the oldest son Reuben could not have been more than six or seven here. He was probably “helping” the men out in the fields, and in between helping, probably was playing a bit and found mandrakes. We don’t know for sure what they were exactly, but mandrakes were probably a little fruit that grew on bushes or small trees. They apparently were believed to be aphrodisiacs. I’m not sure what an eight year old boy knew about that, but he did know that his mom really wanted some, so he gathered a bunch and took them home. We can also assume that he kept the location of the source a secret; otherwise Rachel would have sent one of her sons to go get her some too.
For Leah, these special fruits were just what she had been hoping for. Because, while Jacob had been with Leah enough times for Leah to have four sons (of her own), it is likely that Rachel had him to herself most of the time. I believe this is the meaning behind Leah’s statement, “you have taken away my husband.” According to custom, Jacob should have been more equitable with his time among his two full wives. Since he wasn’t, and because this was hurtful to Leah, Rachel decided that she could use her leverage to get some of the fruit for herself. Her angle was to have her own baby. So in order to increase her fertility, she was willing to “allow” Leah to have a night with Jacob.
Genesis 30:16 When Jacob came out of the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night.
I’m sure Leah had been praying for the Lord to bless her with more children. Yes, we discussed the “competition” aspect of this a little earlier. But Matthew Henry suggested that there was more to it than this, that both Leah and Rachel had a deep desire to be part of the way that God would bless Jacob with the multitude of seed that God had promised Abraham. The petty jealousies and the competition clouded this, but it was probably there. So with Leah praying, and then her son returning with mandrakes, and then Rachel giving her “permission” to have Jacob out of turn, Leah must have been pretty sure God was going to bless her again.
Genesis 30:17-18 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.
The Lord listened to Leah’s prayer and answered it. What this tells me is that she prayed according to God’s will, not according to her own selfish desires. This confirms, at least in regards to Leah, that while she might have had hard feelings towards her sister, deep down inside she just wanted to see God’s plan for the family fulfilled.
It even might shed a little light about Leah’s real motive for giving Zilpah to Jacob. At first glance it might appear to be just part of the battle between Leah and Rachel. However, as misguided as it was, Leah’s intent in giving Zilpah to Jacob was more about trying to achieve God’s promises. She was mostly interested in helping Jacob have as many of the children of promise as he could get. Rachel, on the other hand, was interested mostly in having sons that by law she had authority over. So, their motives in offering Jacob their maids were totally different. Here, Leah believed that God recognized her heart in what she did with Zilpah, and that He blessed her for it. Actually, while God did not give her a fifth son as a reward for Zilpah, He did continue to favor Leah because of her heart towards Him.
Genesis 30:19-21 Then Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 And Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah.
The name Zubulun meant “Dwelling,” reflecting Leah’s hope that Jacob would spend more time with her. Maybe he did, because she soon after had a daughter named Dinah. It is likely that Jacob and Leah had other daughters as well, even though they aren’t named.
Genesis 30:22-24 Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. 23 And she conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 So she called his name Joseph, and said, “The Lord shall add to me another son.”
There came a point where either Rachel began to pray, or, God began to hear her prayers for the first time. God hadn’t changed, so we conclude that it was Rachel’s heart that had changed. Whereas before she had prayed in bitterness and out of envy, now she must have prayed out of a humble spirit. James 4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:3,6) Rachel’s prayers changed from selfish to selfless, and her heart changed from prideful to just wanting to be right with the Lord.
She named the son that God gave to her Joseph, which meant “Jehovah has added.” First, the Lord took away her reproach, which was the blemish on her that outwardly looked like childlessness, but inwardly was the result of her bitterness and envy. Those were gone, and she had experienced God’s forgiveness (Psalm 119:39 Turn away my reproach which I dread, for Your judgments are good.) Rachel also looked forward in faith, believing that God would give her another son. Joseph was just the down payment. The Lord has added, but He is not done. He is going to be adding more.
Genesis 30:25-28 And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service which I have done for you.” 27 And Laban said to him, “Please stay, if I have found favor in your eyes, for I have learned by experience that the Lord has blessed me for your sake.” 28 Then he said, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.”
In case we are wondering about the ages of all the kids, here is some quick estimation. We know that Jacob will end up staying with Laban for 20 years. He spent the first seven working for Rachel, and the last six were spent earning the “wages” that Laban just referred to. So that leaves seven years that had passed since Jacob married Leah and Rachel. In those seven years, Jacob had at least twelve children by four different wives (seven by Leah, two by Bilhah, two by Zilpah, and one by Rachel). There were probably more, because only one daughter was named, and the odds are, Leah and the two maids probably each had daughters. So by verse 25, there were at least 12 kids running around, and none of them were older than seven or eight.
Laban didn’t want Jacob to leave. By some sort of “experience,” Laban had discovered that he was being blessed because Jacob was around. The word for “experience” was nachash and it meant “by divination.” Laban had learned what he learned by some sort of occultism or enchantment. He was a pagan idol worshipper, not a servant of the Lord.
And there was that “name your wages…” offer again. Jacob should have learned from the last time he heard that to get as far away as possible! That was Laban’s code phrase for, “I’m going to rip you off, bro!”
Genesis 30:29 So Jacob said to him, “You know how I have served you and how your livestock has been with me. 30 For what you had before I came was little, and it has increased to a great amount; the Lord has blessed you since my coming. And now, when shall I also provide for my own house?”
Jacob wanted to make sure he left with resource that would benefit his own household. So he was going to ask for something, but it was going to be in a way that would make it really hard for Laban to cheat him.
Genesis 30:31-33 So he said, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep your flocks: 32 Let me pass through all your flock today, removing from there all the speckled and spotted sheep, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and these shall be my wages. 33 So my righteousness will answer for me in time to come, when the subject of my wages comes before you: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs, will be considered stolen, if it is with me.”
The speckled and spotted and the brown colored animals were the “undesirables” of the herds and flocks. They were considered to be a waste of valuable resources (water and pasture) and it was probably hard to give them away, let alone sell them. So when Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything,” he was really speaking Laban’s language, because Laban would have been glad to pay to get rid of them, and here Jacob was offering to take them for nothing! Under this arrangement, Jacob would always take the “undesirable” animals, leaving Laban with the desirable “strong” ones. Laban would always have the ones that outwardly looked the part (white, unblemished, solid colors).
Genesis 30:34 And Laban said, “Oh, that it were according to your word!”
Do you think he liked the deal?
Genesis 30:35-36 So he removed that day the male goats that were speckled and spotted, all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had some white in it, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and gave them into the hand of his sons. 36 Then he put three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.
Laban took Jacob’s suggestion and removed all of the speckled and spotted of the herds and the non-white lambs, and put them into the care of his sons, and his sons drove the animals to a distance that was three days away from Laban’s own herds. This was so that it would not be possible for any of the undesirable animals to mix with Laban’s perfect ones. Notice that Jacob stayed behind and tended Laban’s own flocks, just like he had been doing for the past 14 years.
Jacob had offered to separate the animals himself and call the ones he took his wages. But instead it was Laban who divided the animals and moved them off to a distance. Jacob could have been upset about this, but instead, Jacob was going to allow God to decide how the herds and flocks would be blessed and multiplied.
Genesis 30:37-40 Now Jacob took for himself rods of green poplar and of the almond and chestnut trees, peeled white strips in them, and exposed the white which was in the rods. 38 And the rods which he had peeled, he set before the flocks in the gutters, in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, so that they should conceive when they came to drink. 39 So the flocks conceived before the rods, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted. 40 Then Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the streaked and all the brown in the flock of Laban; but he put his own flocks by themselves and did not put them with Laban’s flock.
It’s difficult to understand what this is saying, as written. It is, however, apparent that Laban and Jacob both understood how to direct the breeding of cattle, goats, and sheep. Laban had carefully removed all of the colored animals from his own flock. He understood that the physical attributes of the parents would be passed along to the offspring. He knew that by removing the animals with traits that he didn’t want, the remaining animals (his) would likely breed and have offspring that had only the traits he wanted.
In 1865, Gregor Johann Mendel published his work describing the laws of inheritance (known as Mendelian inheritance). His work provided a foundation for the Chromosome Theory of Inheritance in 1915, which became the core of classical genetics. Based on these theories, today, we have a clear understanding about how traits are passed to offspring. Laban and Jacob likely were not aware of all of this stuff, but they didn’t need to be. Herdsmen of that day had by experience learned quite a lot about inheritance, merely by observation. In fact, their ability to control the traits of their animals through selective breeding was probably very effective, and they knew nothing about chromosomes and genes.
So can we guess what Jacob was doing? After Laban had so “thoughtfully” removed all of the colored animals, the remaining herds and flocks looked, by appearance, like Laban’s. Jacob might have wondered how it was that he was going to get anything out of them. Laban was clever, no doubt, essentially stacking the deck with the odds in his favor, and making sure that Jacob had no access to any animals that could sneak any of those undesirable traits into his flocks and herds.
But God had the final say, because of how He created animals. Some of the animals in Laban’s herds carried genes for speckled and spotted and colors, even though they weren’t expressed. The animals might have looked white, but the traits for spots, speckles, and browns were hidden in their genomes. These are called recessive traits that are dormant in an offspring unless the offspring inherits the trait from both parents. So even though all of the animals looked like Laban’s, some breeding combinations would result in offspring that expressed those traits, and when that occurred, those were pulled aside by Jacob, away from Laban’s animals. It is estimated that after just a single breeding season (one generation), 11% of the animals in Laban’s flock would have exhibited Jacob’s traits. So, that is interesting, but hardly impressive. It was still almost all Laban’s.
However, Jacob then performed a simple but effective selective breeding program. Using the rods, he probably constructed fenced areas and pens in the watering areas. When the herds and flocks came to be watered, this was the most likely place where mating would occur. The fencing and pens allowed Jacob to selectively control which males could have access to the females in heat. He only allowed the spotted, speckled and brown males to have access to the females. The white males were kept apart, and not allowed to breed. He did not need many males for this. A single male showing the trait that Jacob desired could be mated with many females.
Jacob could then segregate the offspring. That first breeding generation would not have likely produced very many of his animals. But many of these offspring would be carrying the traits he desired. Jacob could set those aside and reserve them for further cross breeding with his stock of males. With each generation, more and more of the offspring would be demonstrating the traits he was looking for. What started out as a 90-10 ratio (after the first breeding season) would change very quickly under his direction.
Genesis 30:41-43 And it came to pass, whenever the stronger livestock conceived, that Jacob placed the rods before the eyes of the livestock in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods. 42 But when the flocks were feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 Thus the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
Continuing the selective breeding program, Jacob expanded it to account for traits having to do with strength and size. Only the strong were allowed to be part of his breeding program, and so over time, the traits for strength and size were concentrated in the speckled, spotted, and brown animals. Laban’s flocks and herds began to have an increase in the number of weak and small animals, and so over a few generations would have lost many of those traits and became weaker overall.
Some researchers applied the principles of Mendelian inheritance and incorporated what is known about which chromosomes carry the visual traits which were of interest to Laban and Jacob. What they discovered is that in as little as six generations, Jacob could have easily taken Laban’s all-white flock and produced a flock which contained more than 80% brown, just by using the technique I described above. When we consider that God was blessing Jacob along the way, it is easy to see how Jacob came out way ahead, both in numbers and in strength, and how Laban ended up with a weak flock.
By the way, there is uncertainty about the significance of Jacob’s peeled rods, which were likely branches with strips of bark peeled off to expose the white colored wood underneath. Before animal husbandry was defined scientifically, some ancient peoples believed that traits could be influenced by what the scenery or environment looked like to the mother during the moment of conception. Perhaps Jacob had learned his “breeding science” in such a way as to incorporate these visual methods. He knew nothing about genes, of course, and we know that his successful breeding program can be easily explained by Mendelian inheritance without relying on some weird “waving a stick in front of the cow” ritual. Maybe Jacob waved that stick, thinking that is what made his system work. Ultimately, though, what made his system work was God blessing the work. That is a pretty good rule to live by, no matter what work we are involved in!