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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 30

Verse 1

XXX.

(1) Give me children, or else I die.—There is an Oriental proverb that a childless person is as good as dead; and this was probably Rachel’s meaning, and not that she should die of vexation. Great as was the affliction to a Hebrew woman of being barren (1 Samuel 1:10), yet there is a painful petulance and peevishness about Rachel’s words, in strong contrast with Hannah’s patient suffering. But she was very young, and a spoiled wife; though with qualities which riveted Jacob’s love to her all life through.

Verses 1-43

THE TÔLDÔTH ISAAC (Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 35:29).

THE BIRTH OF ISAAC’S SONS.

Abraham begat Isaac—The Tôldôth in its original form gave probably a complete genealogy of Isaac, tracing up his descent to Shem, and showing thereby that the right of primogeniture belonged to him; but the inspired historian uses only so much of this as is necessary for tracing the development of the Divine plan of human redemption.

The Syrian.—Really, the Aramean, or descendant of Aram. (See Genesis 10:22-23.) The name of the district also correctly is “Paddan-Ararn,” and so far from being identical with Aram-Naharaim, in Genesis 24:10, it is strictly the designation of the region immediately in the neighbourhood of Charran. The assertion of Gesenius that it meant “Mesopotamia, with the desert to the west of the Euphrates, in opposition to the mountainous district towards the Mediterranean,” is devoid of proof. (See Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1, p. 304.) In Syriac, the language of Charran, padana means a plough (1 Samuel 13:20), or a yoke of oxen ( 1 Samuel 11:7); and this also suggests that it was the cultivated district close to the town. In Hosea 12:12 it is said that “Jacob fled to the field of Aram;” but this is a very general description of the country in which he found refuge, and affords no basis for the assertion that Padan-aram was the level region. Finally, the assertion that it is an ancient name used by the Jehovist is an assertion only. It is the name of a special district, and the knowledge of it was the result of Jacob’s long-continued stay there. Chwolsohn says that traces of the name still remain in Faddân and Tel Faddân, two places close to Charran, mentioned by Yacut, the Arabian geographer, who flourished in the thirteenth century.

Isaac intreated the Lord.—This barrenness lasted twenty years (Genesis 25:26), and must have greatly troubled Isaac; but it would also compel him to dwell much in thought upon the purpose for which he had been given to Abraham, and afterwards rescued from death upon the mount Jehovah-Jireh. And when offspring came, in answer to his earnest pleading of the promise, the delay would serve to impress upon both parents the religious significance of their existence as a separate race and family, and the necessity of training their children worthily. The derivation of the verb to intreat, from a noun signifying incense, is uncertain, but rendered probable by the natural connection of the idea of the ascending fragrance, and that of the prayer mounting heavenward (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4).

The children struggled together.—Two dissimilar nations sprang from Abraham, but from mothers totally unlike; so, too, from the peaceful Isaac two distinct races of men were to take their origin, but from the same mother, and the contest began while they were yet unborn. And Rebekah, apparently unaware that she was pregnant with twins, but harassed with the pain of strange jostlings and thrusts, grew despondent, and exclaimed—

If it be so, why am I thus?—Literally, If so, why am I this? Some explain this as meaning “Why do I still live?” but more probably she meant, If I have thus conceived, in answer to my husband’s prayers, why do I suffer in this strange manner? It thus prepares for what follows, namely, that Rebekah wished to have her condition explained to her, and therefore went to inquire of Jehovah.

She went to enquire of the Lord.—Not to Shem, nor Melchizedek, as many think, nor even to Abraham, who was still alive, but, as Theodoret suggests, to the family altar. Isaac had several homes, but probably the altar at Bethel, erected when Abraham first took possession of the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7), and therefore especially holy, was the place signified; and if Abraham were there, he would doubtless join his prayers to those of Rebekah.

Verse 3

(3) Behold my maid Bilhàh.—Rachel had little excuse for this action; for there was no religious hope involved, as when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham (Genesis 16:2), but solely vexation at her own barrenness, and envy of her sister. All that can be said in her defence is, that the custom existed, and, perhaps, because it was distasteful to the wife, was looked upon as meritorious (Genesis 30:18).

She shall bear upon my knees.—So in Genesis 1:23, it is said, in the Hebrew, that “the children of Machir were born upon Joseph’s knees,” not borne, as in our margin. It appears that there was a custom of placing the new-born child upon the knees, first of the father, who, by accepting it. acknowledged the infant as his own; and secondly, upon those of the mother. In this case, as Bilhah’s children were regarded as legally born of Rachel, they would be placed upon Rachel’s knees. Probably, too, the children of Machir, by being placed upon Joseph’s knees, were in some way adopted by him.

That I may also have children by her.—Heb., be built by her. (See Note on Genesis 16:2.)

Verse 6

(6) God hath judged me.—Rachel has no misgivings herself as to the rectitude of her conduct, and by the name she gives the child, she affirms that God also had given a decision in her favour; for “Dan” means judging. While, too, Leah had spoken of Jehovah, Rachel speaks of Elohim, not merely because she could not expect a child of Bilhah to be the ancestor of the Messiah, but because she was herself half an idolater (Genesis 31:19). When, however, she has a child of her own, she, too, taught by long trial, speaks of Jehovah (Genesis 30:24).

Verse 8

(8) With great wrestlings.—Heb., wrestlings of God, but the Authorised Version undoubtedly gives the right sense. (See Note on Genesis 23:6.) By wrestling, some commentators understand prayer, but the connection of the two ideas of wrestling and prayer is taken from Genesis 32:24, where an entirely different verb is used. Rachel’s was a discreditable victory, won by making use of a bad custom, and it consisted in weaning her husband still more completely from the unloved Leah. Now that Bilhah and children were added to the attractiveness of her tent, her sister, she boasts, will be thought of no more.

Verses 9-13

(9-13) Leah . . . took Zilpah . . . —By ceasing to bear, Leah had lost her one hold upon her husband’s affection, and to regain it she follows Rachel’s example. The struggle of these two women for the husband gives us a strange picture of manners and morals, but must not be judged by our standard. Leah herself regards the bestowal of her handmaid upon Jacob as a deserving act of self-sacrifice (Genesis 30:18). The names, moreover, which she gives to Zilpah’s children show that the happier frame of mind to which she had attained when she called her fourth son “Judah,” praise, remained unbroken. On the birth of the first, she says, “With good luck!” and calls his name “Gad,” that is, luck. The Jews read, in their synagogue, Luck cometh, whence the rendering of the Authorised Version, “A troop cometh;” but there is no justification for the change. With regard to the meaning of the word “Gad,” all the Versions render it prosperity, good fortune. Nor is the Samaritan, as has been alleged, an exception; for though the worthless Latin translation of it has “a troop cometh,” the Samaritan itself has with good luck. In Isaiah 65:11 we find Gad used as the name of an idol. Zilpah’s other son is called Asher, that is, happy, in Latin Felix, and Leah says, “With my happiness,” using just the same turn of speech as before. The first child came bringing her good luck; the second brought her happiness.

Verse 14

(14) Reuben went . . . —When Leah ceased from bearing, there would be a considerable interval before she and Jacob gave up all expectation of further seed by her. Slowly and unwillingly she would substitute Zilpah for herself, and there would then be a further period of three or four years, to give time for the birth of Gad and Asher: and as Jacob at this time utterly neglected Leah, we do not know but that even a longer space intervened. Moreover, Jacob had other daughters besides Dinah (Genesis 37:35), and probably by these handmaids. We may well believe, therefore, that Reuben at this timewas from fifteen to twenty years of age, and might be trusted to wander at his will over the wild uncultivated waste.

In the days of wheat harvest.—This is mentioned to fix the time, namely, early in May. As Laban led a settled life, he may have grown wheat, as Jacob did in Canaan (Genesis 37:7), but mandrakes would most assuredly not be found on tilled land.

Mandrakes.—Heb., love-apples. It is generally agreed that the fruit meant is that of the Atropa mandragora, which ripens in May, and is of the size of a small plum, round, yellow, and full of soft pulp. The plant belongs to the same family (the Solanaceœ) as the potato, and the egg plant, the fruit of which is largely used as a vegetable in North America.

The mandragora has a long carrot-shaped root, from which grows a mass of leaves of a greyish colour, not unlike those of the primrose, but larger, and which lie flat upon the ground, and from among them rise blossoms, singly, of a rich purple colour. Canon Tristram (Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 467) says that the fruit is not unpleasant, and that he has often eaten of it without experiencing any soporific or other bad effect. But in the East it has been, and is, the subject of many superstitions, and its Hebrew name arose from the popular belief that it was a specific against barrenness. Rachel, therefore, who still hankered after children of her own, was anxious to obtain some of the fruit, and Leah consents only upon the proffered condition that Jacob shall spend the night in her tent.

Verse 18

(18) Issachar.—Heb., there is hire. As is so often the case in Hebrew names, there is a double play in the word: for, first, it alluded to the strange fact that Jacob had been hired of Rachel by the mandrakes; but, secondly, Leah gives it a higher meaning, “for God,” she says, “hath given me my hire.” In her eyes the birth of her fifth son was a Divine reward for the self-sacrifice involved in giving her maid to Jacob, and which had been followed by years of neglect of herself. As, too, it is said that “God hearkened unto Leah,” we may feel sure that she had prayed for God’s blessing upon her re-union with her husband; for Calvin’s objection that prayer would scarcely accompany such odious courses has little weight. Leah and Rachel were uneducated and untrained country women, whose sole anxiety was to have offspring. Leah was the most religious and best disciplined of the two; and the shame ideally was that she should have been forced thus to buy her husband’s attentions.

Verse 20

(20) Zebulun.—Leah is more than usually obscure in the reasons she gives for this name; for she plays upon two words, which probably both belonged to the Mesopotamian pato is: and as this was a Syriac dialect, we must look to that language for their explanation. The first is zebed; and here there is no difficulty. It means such presents as a father gives his daughter on her marriage, over and above those enumerated in the marriage contract. Of the second, zabal, there is no trace. Nor do the Syro-Arabic lexicons acknowledge in the word “Zebulun” such a sense as that of dwelling, given it in our margin. Bar-Ali explains it as meaning “salvation of the night, or a good dowry,” and Bar- Bahlul, “a dowry of the night,” both deriving it from zebed, a dowry, and lun, to pass the night. The derivation is wrong as far as concerns lun; for the word Zebulun is formed simply from zebed, the final d of which is changed into I for mere reasons of euphony. The Versions take the word zabal as mean ing, “to be with,” Vulg.; “to choose,” LXX.; “to cleave to,” Syriac. It occurs nowhere else, but the substantive zebul is not uncommon, and means dwelling, station.

As a woman’s value in the East rises with each son, Leah now hoped for more love from her husband. Nor does she seem to have been disappointed.

Verse 21

(21) Dinah.—That is, judgment. (See Note on Genesis 30:6.) The birth of Dinah is chronicled because it led to Simeon and Levi forfeiting the birthright. Jacob had other daughters (Genesis 37:35; Genesis 46:7), but the birth of a girl is regarded in the East as a misfortune; no feast is made, and no congratulations offered to the parents.

Verses 22-24

(22-24) God remembered Rachel.—Rachel’s long barrenness had probably humbled and disciplined her; and, cured of her former petulance, she trusts no longer to “love-apples,” but looks to God for the great blessing of children. He hearkens to her prayer, and remembers her. (Comp. 1 Samuel 1:19.) In calling his name Joseph, there is again a play upon two words, for it may be formed from the verb used in Genesis 30:23, and would then mean he takes away; or it may signify he adds, which is the meaning made prominent by Rachel. And God did add to her another son, but the boon cost her her life. As Joseph was born six or seven years before Jacob left Padan-aram, Rachel had been barren for twenty-six years. We must add that in her joy at Joseph’s birth there is no trace of the ungenerous triumph over Leah so marked in her rejoicing at the birth of the sons of Bilhah; and in her trust that “Jehovah would add to her another son,” she evidently had in mind the covenant promises, which a son of her own womb might now inherit. As a matter of fact, the long struggle for supremacy lay between the houses of Joseph and Judah; and Judah finally prevailed.

Verse 25

JACOB SERVES LABAN SIX YEARS FOR WAGES.

(25) Jacob said unto Laban, Send me away.—After Jacob had served Laban fourteen years for his two daughters, he continued with him for twenty years without any settled hire, receiving merely maintenance for himself and family. During most of this time he would be too encumbered with pregnant wives and young children to wish to take so long a journey. (See “Excursus on Chronology of Jacob’s Life.”) In these thirty-four years of service there would be time for the vast increase of Laban’s wealth referred to in Genesis 30:30. But at length Joseph is born, and as his other sons were most of them grown to man’s estate, as soon as Rachel was fit for the journey Jacob desired to return to his father, if for no other reason, yet because now it was time to provide for his children, and at Isaac’s death he was joint heir of his property.

Verse 27

(27) I have learned by experience.—Heb., I have divined. The verb means, to speak between the teeth; to mutter magical formulœ. Others wrongly suppose that it signifies “to divine by omens taken from serpents;” and some imagine that Laban had consulted his teraphim. Words of this sort lose, at a very early date, their special signification, and all that Laban means is—“I fancy,” I conjecture.” His answer is, however, most Oriental. It is courtly and complimentary, but utterly inconclusive. “If now I have found favour in thine eyes, I have a feeling that God hath blessed me for thy sake.” It, of course, suggests that he would be glad if Jacob would remain with him. In Genesis 30:28 Laban comes to the point, but probably this was reached by many circuitous windings.

Verse 30

(30) It was little.—The Rabbins see proof of this in Laban’s sheep being kept by a young girl like Rachel (Genesis 29:9).

It is now increased.—Heb., broken forth, spread itself abroad with irresistible might. (Comp. Exodus 1:12.)

Since my coming.—Heb., at my foot. This answers to “before I came” (Heb., before me) in the first clause. “It was little that thou hadst before me, and it hath broken forth into a multitude, and God hath blessed thee behind me.” Wherever I have gone, prosperity has followed in my footsteps.

Verse 32

(32) The speckled and spotted cattle (sheep).—In the East sheep are generally white, and goats black or brown. Jacob, therefore, proposes that all such shall belong to Laban, but that the parti-coloured should be his hire. By “speckled” are meant those sheep and goats that had small spots upon their coats, and by “spotted,” those that had large patches of another colour. Besides these, Jacob is to have all “brown cattle,” that is, sheep, for the word “cattle” is usually now confined to kine, which was not the case 200 years ago. This translation is taken from Rashi, but the word usually signifies black. Philippsohn says that black sheep are seldom seen in the East, but that sheep of a blackish-red colour are common. In Genesis 30:35 we have another word, “ring-straked,” that is, having the colours in stripes. This is never the case with sheep, but goats often have their coats thus definitely marked.

Verse 35

(35) And he removed.—The question has been asked whether it was Jacob or Laban who made the division, and whether Jacob was to have all such sheep and goats as were parti-coloured already, or such only as should be born afterwards. The authors of the Authorised Version evidently thought that Laban himself removed all speckled sheep and goats, and kept them; but the Hebrew is by no means so much in favour of this view as their own translation. Thus, in Genesis 30:32 they insert “of such” in italics; the Hebrew distinctly says, And it shall be my hire: that is, every one speckled or spotted shall be mine, the singular number being used throughout. Next, in Genesis 30:33 they translate, in time to come: according to this, if the particoloured sheep and goats at any time produced white or black lambs, as they generally would, such would revert to Laban; the Hebrew says, My righteousness shall answer for me to-morrow. Jacob was to make the selection at once, but the next day Laban was to look over all those put aside, and if he found among them any white sheep, or black or brown goats, he was to regard them as stolen—that is, not merely might he take them back, but require the usual fine or compensation.

And gave them into the hand of his sons.—It has been assumed that these were Laban’s sons, on the ground that Jacob’s sons were not old enough to undertake the charge; but as Reuben was twenty-six, this was not the case. Jacob’s flocks would have fared but badly if they had been entrusted to Laban’s sons, nor could he, six years later, have escaped, had his property been in their keeping, without Laban being immediately aware of it.

Verse 36

(36) He set three days’ journey betwixt himself and Jacob.—This means that Laban required that there should be an interval of between thirty and forty miles between “himself,” that is, his flocks, and those of Jacob. His wealth in sheep and goats must have been enormous to require so large a separate feeding-ground; and this we learn from Genesis 30:30 had been the result of Jacob’s care. The words “and Jacob fed,” &c., are added to correct the natural supposition that he would at least give some part of his time and care to his own flocks, whereas it was his personal duty to attend only to those of Laban. The verse, nevertheless, is awkward, and the Syriac has probably preserved the right-reading: “And he set three days’ journey between himself and Laban: and Jacob fed the flock of Laban that was left.” The Samaritan and LXX. read, “between them and Jacob.”

Verse 37

(37) And Jacob took him rods . . . —Jacob’s plan was to place before the ewes and she-goats at breeding time objects of a speckled colour, and as he put them at their watering-place, where everything was familiar to them, they would, with the usual curiosity of these animals, gaze upon them intently, with the result, physically certain to follow, that many of them would bear speckled young.

Poplar.—Really, the storax-tree (styrax officinalis). “This,” says Canon Tristram, “is a very beautiful perfumed shrub, which grows abundantly on the lower hills of Palestine.” The word occurs elsewhere only in Hosea 4:13, and the idea that it was the poplar arises solely from the name signifying white; but this epithet is even more deserved by the storax, “which in March is covered with a sheet of white blossom, and is the predominant shrub through the dells of Carmel and Galilee” (Natural History of the Bible, pp. 395, 396).

Hazel.—Heb., luz (Genesis 28:19), the almond-tree (amygdalus communis). Dr. Tristram (Natural History of the Bible, p. 358) says that he never observed the true hazel wild in Southern or Central Pales·tine, nor was it likely to occur in Mesopotamia. The almond is one of the most common trees in Palestine.

Chesnut tree.—Heb., armon, the plane-tree (platanus orientalis). “We never,” says Dr. Tristram (p. 345), “saw the chesnut in Palestine, excepting planted in orchards in Lebanon; while the plane-tree, though local, is frequent by the sides of streams and in plains.” The tree is mentioned again in Ezekiel 31:8.

Verse 38

(38) In the gutters . . . —Heb., in the troughs at the watering-places. So virtually all the versions; and see Exodus 2:16, where the word rendered here “gutters” is rightly translated troughs. The idea that there were gutters through which to pour the water into the troughs is utterly modern, but all travellers describe the fixed troughs put for the convenience of the cattle round the wells.

Verse 40

(40) Jacob . . . set the faces of the flocks toward . . . —As the speckled lambs and kids would for some time remain with Labau’s flocks, this may perhaps mean that, when driving them to water, Jacob placed all the striped kids and dark lambs together, that, by being in a mass, they might work upon the imagination of the ewes and she-goats. Finally, after these had conceived he drove the parti-coloured young away to his own flocks.

Verses 41-42

(41, 42) The stronger cattle . . . when the cattle were feeble.—The words for “strong” and “feeble” are literally bound and covered, so that evidently we have technical terms, which Onkelos and the Syriac explain of the females at the two breeding seasons. The ewes in the spring, after the cold season, are bound, firmly knit together, and the lambs strong and healthy. The other word, covered, seems to mean seeking concealment, hiding away (Job 23:9); and therefore faint, its meaning in Psalms 61:2, Psalms 102:0, title (Authorised Version, overwhelmed), and Isaiah 57:16 (Authorised Version, fail). The autumn-born lambs are of no great value, and Jacob left them to the course of nature.

Verse 43

(43) The man increased exceedingly.—Heb., broke forth, as in Genesis 30:30. Wool, as the chief material for clothing, is a very valuable commodity in the East, and by the sale of it Jacob would obtain means for the purchase of male and female servants and camels. The latter were especially valuable for purposes of commerce, in which Jacob evidently was actively engaged, and whence probably came his chief gains.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 30". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-30.html. 1905.