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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 30

 

 

Introduction

Jacob Prospers and Decides to Return Home (Genesis 30:25 to Genesis 32:2).

This passage is centred around two theophanies and two covenants. In the first theophany Yahweh appears to Jacob and tells him to return home (Genesis 31:3). Then Jacob, describing the theophany to his wives, amplifies what God said as the God of Bethel, emphasising the command to return home (Genesis 31:11-13). And the second is when he meets the angels of God at Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2). The passage also contains details of the two covenants made between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30:31-33 and Genesis 31:44-53). Originally separate covenant records may well have been involved.

Jacob Meets Come to His Relatives’ Family Tribe and Marries Laban’s Two Daughters (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob’s Sons are Born (Genesis 29:31 to Genesis 30:24)

This covenant narrative reflects the fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise of fruitfulness to Jacob and is based on the covenant significance of the names given to the sons. It is not just a story. The names reflect their covenant relationship with God.

But it is noteworthy that, in remarkable contrast to Genesis 24, there is no mention of God until we come to the birth of the sons. It is as though the writer is telling us that, although God’s purposes came to fruition through it, God was not directly involved in the chicanery that took place. When Abraham’s servant sought a wife for Isaac, he went about it prayerfully and waited for God to show His will through the acts of another catering to the needs of his beasts. Here we have no prayer and Jacob pre-empts the situation. The contrast could not be more stark.

Then fourteen years pass very quickly with Jacob’s pursuits not worth a mention, the only point of importance being his two marriages that lead up to the birth of his sons. It is not so much concerned with the life of Jacob as with the heirs of the promise. Yahweh first steps in at Genesis 29:31. So the text is firmly based on covenant records.


Verse 1

‘And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and she said to Jacob, “Give me children or I die.”

Rachel’s great distress at the way things have turned out is apparent. She feels she has failed Jacob and is conscious of the congratulations being heaped on Leah. Her words here probably reflect a continual period of nagging, which to someone who loved her so much became exasperating.

“Give me children or I die.” Rachel sees little point in life and is suffering mild depression. And she seek partly to put the blame on Jacob. He too is aware of a feeling of guilt. But he feels he has proved his ability to have children. The fault must be Rachel’s. The account smacks of an eyewitness account.


Verse 2

‘And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in God’s place? Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”

Rachel’s accusations stir up Jacob’s anger. He too no doubt feels frustrated. So he reacts with an outburst. He points out that it is God who is withholding a child not him. There is possibly a hint that Rachel is somehow to blame.

“God”. The word is Elohim. Failure cannot be laid at the door of God as Yahweh. Indeed from now on the whole passage uses Elohim until we reach Rachel’s vindication in the bearing of a blood child (Genesis 30:24). What happens is no longer looked on as the direct intervention of Yahweh (compare Genesis 29:31), it is more pious comment.


Verse 3-4

‘And she said, “See my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees and I also may obtain children by her.” And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid as a wife and Jacob went in to her.’

“Go in to her.” A euphemism for sexual intercourse.

“Bear on my knees”. This confirms what we earlier saw with Sarah. When the maid bears a child she does it on her mistress’s behalf. The child is Rachel’s. But as Sarah’s case demonstrated, the consequences were not always so simple when a blood child was later born. So the child does not rank fully with the true born unless fully accepted. It is to Jacob’s credit that he does not differentiate between his sons. On the other hand in his case the slave children were not the firstborn. There is not the same rivalry as with Ishmael and Isaac.

The handmaids are subsidiary wives. There is no marriage contract, they but do the bidding of their mistresses. But their status and position improves.


Verse 5-6

‘And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son, and Rachel said, “God has judged (dan) me and has also heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan.’

The depth of Rachel’s feelings comes out in her expression of vindication. She has shown that she is not morally to blame after all. He has not withheld a son through Bilhah. She sees her ‘son’ as God’s judgment passed on her situation. He has vindicated her. But there is not the intensity of feeling shown by Leah with her first four children, nor by herself when Joseph is born. Then it is Yahweh, the covenant God, Who acts, and her faith is renewed.


Verse 7-8

‘And Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, conceived again and bore Jacob a second son, and Rachel said, “With powerful wrestlings (literally ‘wrestlings of God’) have I wrestled (niphtal) with my sister and have prevailed.” And she called his name Naphtali.’

The rivalry between the two sisters comes out vividly. Rachel feels that she is having a great battle with her sister, and that she has now succeeded. The wrestlings must be seen as through prayer. She has fought for her position before God. Jacob will later be seen as wrestling with God although the Hebrew word is different (Genesis 32:24).


Verses 9-13

‘When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing she took Zilpah her handmaid and gave her to Jacob for a wife. And Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “It is fortunate (gad).’ And she called his name Gad. And Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, bore Jacob a second son, and Leah said, “Happy am I! For the daughters will call me happy (to call happy = asher).” And she called his name Asher.’

The names reflect Leah’s growing contentment. No longer torn at heart she now feels triumphant. She has done well by her husband. We note that the namings are by the two main wives. The slave wives take a secondary place.


Verse 14

‘And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said, “Give me, I beg you, of your son’s mandrakes.”

“The days of wheat harvest.” As with Abraham and Isaac these shepherd rulers also harvest the land.

Reuben is by this time just a few years old, four or five at the most. He discovers in the fields little, strongly smelling yellow fruits and he brings them to his mother. We do not know whether he knew what they were, but his mother knew immediately. They were mandrakes, well known for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities. They have been loosely called ‘love-apples’ because they look like small apples. Rachel, on seeing them, pleads for some so that she can quicken her sexual drive and effectiveness.

The mandrake is a perennial herb of the nightshade family which grew in fields and rough ground (compare Song of Solomon 7:13). It had large leaves, mauve flowers during the winter, and these were followed by the development of fragrant round yellow fruits of the type found by Reuben.


Verse 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, “He will therefore lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.”

Leah feels cast aside. Perhaps Jacob has decided she is beyond bearing. Certainly he seemingly refuses to sleep with her, preferring Rachel. So Rachel, aware of her power over him enters into a contract that if she receives the mandrakes Leah can sleep with Jacob that night. Indeed the next verse suggests that the contract may well have been in accordance with tribal custom between two wives.


Verses 16-18

‘And Jacob came from the open country in the evening and Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me for I have surely hired you (‘sachar’ - to hire for wages) with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. And God listened to Leah and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. And Leah said, “God has given me my hire (sachar) because I gave my handmaid to my husband.” And she called his name Is-sachar (hired man).’

Leah clearly has a sense of humour. Personally she sees the name as resulting from her hiring of Jacob with the mandrakes, but in God’s eyes and in the eyes of others she sees it as her reward for allowing her handmaid to bear children on her behalf.

“The open country” or ‘field’. It may well be that he had been labouring in the wheat fields where Reuben had found the mandrakes.


Verse 19

‘And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. And Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good dowry. Now will my husband dwell (zabal) with me because I have borne him six sons.” And she called his name Zebulun. And afterwards she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.’

Now that Jacob realises that she can still be fruitful he lies with Leah again and she produces a sixth son. She clearly conceives easily.

“God has endowed me with a good dowry.” The suggestion has been that the wives brought little dowry with them. But now she feels God has made amends for this by giving her six sons, twice the perfect three. She has brought Jacob better than wealth.

“Now will my husband dwell (zabal) with me.” It seems that the bearing of further sons has established her status. She is no longer put to one side, but receives the honour due as a wife. The word zabal connects with a similar word used in Assyrian marriage law.

The mention of Dinah so abruptly is noteworthy. It prepares the way for the later event (Genesis 34). But it may arise from the fact that she grew to be famous as an outstanding personality or beauty. Everyone knew about Dinah! Or the reference may stress that Jacob is a bearer of sons, with Dinah the exception, stressing his masculinity.

But more likely is that Dinah is mentioned to make the number of Jacob’s children up to twelve (see below). Twelve is seen as the full complement of tribal rulership.


Verses 22-24

‘And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph (yoseph), saying, “Yahweh add (yoseph) to me another son.” ’

The bearing of children through her handmaid has its own effect on Rachel’s body and at last she herself bears a son. Now she feels she can identify herself with Yahweh and His covenant. And in her exultation she looks to Him for more sons. Her words show once again how keenly she had felt her barrenness. It is now seven years since she was first married (Genesis 30:25).

We note in all this the stress laid on the fact the Leah’s first four sons and Rachel’s first son are from Yahweh Himself. These are the seal of Yahweh’s covenant with Jacob. And we note further that there are twelve children. Confederations of twelve are a recognised grouping of tribes in Genesis (Genesis 22:20-24; Genesis 25:12-16) and the fact that Jacob’s sons and daughter provide a full tribal confederation does not go unnoticed. He has been truly blessed.

We know from elsewhere the concept of the amphictyony, a grouping of tribes around a central sanctuary, and this was the basis of these tribal federations. We later receive fuller details of such arrangements after the Exodus when Moses formally establishes such a confederation based on association with the twelve sons of Jacob. It should be noted that however the lists of names are changed, there are always twelve names on the list in order to maintain the whole.

But it should be carefully noted that there is no reference to tribal affairs in the comments made on the names of the sons in this passage. They are purely individual. This, together with the inclusion of Dinah to make up the twelve (prior to the birth of Benjamin), is proof of the ancientness of the narrative.


Verses 25-43

Jacob Prospers and Decides to Return Home (Genesis 30:25 to Genesis 32:2).

This passage is centred around two theophanies and two covenants. In the first theophany Yahweh appears to Jacob and tells him to return home (Genesis 31:3). Then Jacob, describing the theophany to his wives, amplifies what God said as the God of Bethel, emphasising the command to return home (Genesis 31:11-13). And the second is when he meets the angels of God at Mahanaim (Genesis 32:1-2). The passage also contains details of the two covenants made between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30:31-33 and Genesis 31:44-53). Originally separate covenant records may well have been involved.

Jacob Prospers (Genesis 30:25-43).

Genesis 30:25-26

‘And it happened 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. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go. For you know my service with which I have served you.” ’

Jacob’s servitude has come to its end. Now he seeks to clarify his position with Laban and his tribal confederation. He has fulfilled his dues and should be free to return home with all he has earned. His case is a little different from the normal ‘Hebrew bondsman’ for the latter would, on completion of his servitude, be required to leave his wives behind. But in this case they are his wages, and he is a relative of equal standing.

Note how carefully Jacob words his request. He is making clear the terms of the covenant between them and his complete fulfilment of it. He recognises the rights of the tribe but stresses that he has fulfilled all their requirement and therefore has the right to leave along with his family even though they are part of the tribe.

Genesis 30:27-28

‘And Laban said to him, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, stay with us. For I have divined that Yahweh has blessed me for your sake.” And he said, “Fix what your wages will be and I will pay them.” ’

Laban does not directly dispute Jacob’s right to leave along with his family (but see Genesis 31:43. The position was decidedly unusual). But it is to Jacob’s credit that Laban does not want him to leave. He recognises the prosperity that has come to the tribe through Jacob’s presence and activities. And he acknowledges that this is partly due to the God whom Jacob worships, even Yahweh.

“Stay with us.” Not actually in the text but to be read in by implication.

“I have divined.” By means of divination Laban has become aware of Yahweh’s influence in all this. He is not a worshipper of Yahweh but as with Balaam later (Numbers 22-24) Yahweh makes His way known through those who are not His.

“Fix what your wages will be.” Negotiations begin again. Jacob can name his own price for further service and participation in tribal activity and it will be considered.

Genesis 30:29-31

‘And he said to him, “You know how I have served you, and how your cattle have fared with me. For it was little which you had before I came, and it has broken forth as a multitude. And Yahweh has blessed you wherever I have turned. And now when shall I provide for my own house as well?” ’

Jacob puts his case. His activity has turned their fortunes and their flocks and herds have multiplied. And he agrees with Laban that this is due to Yahweh his God. But now it is time for him to consider his own prosperity. He wants flocks and herds of his own for the benefit of his family.

“Yahweh has blessed you wherever I have turned.” There seems little doubt in view of this and Laban’s previous confession that we are to see Yahweh at work throughout the following narrative.

Genesis 30:31 a

”And he said, “What shall I give you?”

The bargaining begins. Laban wants to know Jacob”s terms. It may be that here there is a subtlety in Laban’s offer. Once Jacob has accepted a specific payment as ‘wages’ it may be that it would have bound him to the tribe.

Genesis 30:31 b

“And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything.” ”

Jacob is equal to his subtlety. He does not want anything specific now, he is prepared to wait for the future to decide in the terms of the bargain he will now outline. He will accept what God gives him.

Genesis 30:31-33 (31c-33)

“If you will do this thing for me I will again feed your flock and keep it. I will pass through all your flock today removing from it every speckled and spotted one, and every black one among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats. Then my hire will be of such. So will my righteousness answer for me hereafter, when you shall come concerning my hire that is before you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and black among the sheep that is found with me shall be counted as stolen.”

Jacob is not here saying that the sheep and goats he separates out will be his. He expects nothing at this point in time (Genesis 30:31 b). They can be removed from the flocks. They will go with Laban (Genesis 30:35). But he is saying that he is prepared to accept any future speckled and spotted goats and black sheep once the flocks have been first purged of the ones that are alive at present.

“So shall my righteousness answer for me --”. The righteous position in the eyes of the tribe will be that in future any speckled goats and black sheep found in the part of the flocks over which he has care will be his and his righteousness before them will be demonstrated by his only retaining these separately as his own.

Considering the fact that most sheep were white, and most goats were dark brown or black, and that, separated from the speckled and black such were unlikely to bear black sheep or speckled offspring, the bargain must have seemed a good one to Laban and his sons. Jacob seemed to be deliberately making things difficult for himself. But what Jacob does not feel it necessary to explain is that he has probably made sure that the non-speckled and spotted goats and the non-black sheep have been carefully impregnated beforehand by the speckled and spotted goats and the black sheep, and that he has thus stacked the odds in his own favour. Two master tricksters are at work.

Throughout the narrative five different words are used to designate the features that distinguished what belonged to Jacob (speckled, spotted, striped, ringstraked, grisled and so on). These were no doubt technical terms clearly recognisable to shepherds in the area who would know exactly what was indicated.

Genesis 30:34

‘And Laban said, “Behold, I would it might be according to your word.”

Thus Laban accepts the contract proposed by Jacob.

Genesis 30:35-36

‘And he removed that day the he-goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she-goats which were speckled and spotted, every one that had white in it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and gave them into the hands of his sons. And he set three days journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.’

There is no suggestion in the narrative that Laban has played false with Jacob, although he does the separating himself to make sure that it is done properly. Indeed it assumes that Laban is simply following out the terms of the contract, which must thus be read in this light (any deficiency in our understanding of it tells us more of our lack of knowledge of ancient Hebrew than of the failure of Jacob to express himself properly). The ‘three-days journey’ means a comparatively short distance while ensuring adequate distance between the flocks.

Genesis 30:37-39

‘And Jacob took him rods of fresh poplar, and of the almond and of the plane tree., and peeled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. 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. And the flocks conceived before the rods, and the flocks produced ringstraked, speckled and spotted.’

How far he thought that this was a method of actually producing speckled offspring (it would not explain the black sheep), and how far it was a red herring to disguise the fact that he was achieving his results by inter-breeding, we do not know. We know of no method of achieving this today. But there remains the possibility that something from the trees used entered the water and assisted the required effect.

It is quite clear that Jacob had developed into an expert shepherd and it may be that had observed certain things which he knew he could utilise to produce the kind of animals he wanted. We need not doubt that breeding was one of them. He may never have known what actually achieved the results but he used a successful combination. His contemporaries noted the most striking method.

“Made the white (laban) appear.” There is probably a subtle play on the word for white and the name Laban. Laban had been out-Labaned.

Alternately this may all be a device for deceiving Laban. Having assiduously made sure that the sheep had been properly impregnated perhaps he wants to be able to provide some other explanation of what would follow than his own subtlety. However, what follows suggests that he did have some faith in his white straked rods.

Genesis 30:40

‘And Jacob separated the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked and all the black in the flock of Laban. And he put his own droves apart and did not put them into Laban’s flock.’

Once the lambs had been weaned Jacob ‘set the faces of the flocks’ toward the ringstraked goats and black rams. This is a clear suggestion of a deliberate breeding policy. He did not trust to his gimmicks only, if at all.

He then maintains two flocks side by side, that which was now his and that which was Laban’s. The sentence seems a little ambiguous. The idea would seem to be that the lambs which were designated as his were kept apart, although the ringstraked he-goats (Genesis 30:35) and black rams were kept in Laban’s section to assist the work of breeding further gain to Jacob from Laban’s she-goats and sheep.

There is no real need to see this as a later addition. The writer is most taken up with Jacob’s more spectacular methods but here mentions in passing other tactics he has observed. Jacob was using every method at his command to produce speckled and black beasts.

Genesis 30:41-42

‘And it happened whenever the stronger of the flock conceived Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the flock in the gutters so that they might conceive among 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.’

The description shows with what care Jacob bred the young. He took individual care to ensure that the right males studded the right females. He trusted inter-breeding and the white rods used in connection with the water troughs. And it worked. We may recognise the inter-breeding as the important factor, but there may well have been something in the trees used which got into the water supply and assisted the process. And there may even have been something in the psychological factor which is hidden from us today. Jacob trusted the whole. But there is the underlying assumption that his prosperity was due to Yahweh’s blessing (Genesis 30:27 and Genesis 30:30).

Genesis 30:43

‘And the man increased exceedingly and had large flocks and maidservants and menservants and camels and asses.’

Jacob managed what is his efficiently. As his flocks grew he took on his own maidservants and menservants and purchased camels (a sign of prosperity) and asses, building up his own ‘household’ (family tribe). But the tribal confederation of which Laban was a part would now begin to see this as part of the confederation. Wives, sons and a few sheep and goats earned by a contract of service were one thing. But this was something else.

“The man.” This may be what he was now being called by his ‘brothers’. He was the outsider who was becoming too wealthy and was causing jealousy.

So on the one hand Jacob still saw all he now possessed as non-tribal and his own possession, while on the other others were seeing them as part of the tribal possessions. This would cause a problem when he wanted to leave, as he well knew.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 30:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-30.html. 2013.

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