Jacob and Laban

Sermon preached on Genesis 30:25-31:16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/11/2024 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We pick up our series in Genesis and in the life of Jacob with seeing his desire to return to his own home and country. That’s his stated desire at the beginning of the passage. That’s what he set out to do at the end of our passage. In between, he spends another six-some years in further serving of Laban (we’ll learn that it was six years in the next passage). As we consider this period of Jacob’s life, two things will be seen. One, we will see evidence of his spiritual growth. Two, we will see evidence that he still has certain chronic struggles with his own sin. Let us dig in and learn what God would have us to learn again today.

Let’s begin in our first point looking at the favor Jacob finds from Laban as he desires to return home. This is the first section of passage, verses 25-34. It starts out with Joseph having been born to Jacob and Rachel, verse 25. So, by this point Jacob has served Laban for more than 14 years. And in verse 25, he requests Laban’s blessing for him to now leave and return home. In other words, he wants to take his now large family and go back to the Promised Land where he had come from.

But, we see that Laban is doesn’t want him to go. Jacob has found favor in Laban’s site, as chapter 31:2 implies. Laban approaches Jacob very respectfully, saying that if he has found favor in Jacob’s site, for Jacob to stay, and for them to negotiate an appropriate wage. God has been prospering Jacob’s work for Laban, which in turn has been greatly blessing Laban, and Laban wants him to stay. Laban himself expresses that in verse 27 when he says he has somehow learned by divination that the LORD has blessed him because of Jacob. Divination is typically thought of as pagan practice of telling the future, so it is interesting to see it connected here with the name of the LORD. Then again we’ll see that Laban also had idols, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Laban might blend both true and false religion. But the point is, Laban foresees that God’s blessings upon Jacob will be good for Laban if Jacob keeps working for him. For Jacob’s part, he doesn’t disagree with this assessment. In verse 29, Jacob even boasts of how the LORD has so blessed his labors to Laban’s benefit. In verse 30, Jacob says that before Laban just had little livestock before, but now with God’s blessings his flocks have increased abundantly.

Let us appreciate Jacob’s growth here. You might recall that last chapter, I repeatedly compared Jacob to Abraham’s servant who went to find Isaac a wife. I mentioned how that servant kept acknowledging to everyone the blessings of God. That it even got Laban talking about God, back then. I mentioned in contrast how we didn’t see Jacob doing the same thing under similar circumstances. And yet now, some fourteen years later, we see not only Laban now mentioning God because of what he’s seen happening with Jacob, but we see Jacob himself giving credit to God for his prosperity. This is definitely positive development in Jacob.

So then, despite Jacob originally wanting to leave for home, he agrees to Laban’s request to negotiate a fair wage and to thus stay and continue to serve Laban. We note the monetary concern that Jacob mentions is related to this, as we see in verse 30. Jacob raises the concern that his labors just make Laban’s house wealthy, and that he needs to start attending to his own house’s financial wellbeing. We see then Jacob’s interesting proposal. While Laban had suggested Jacob name a wage, in other words an amount you would pay an employee, yet Jacob’s proposal is more of a partnership. Jacob proposes that Laban won’t have to pay him an actual wage, but instead his pay would be of the off-colored animals of the flocks. Specifically, he would get the speckled and spotted sheep and goats, as well as the black lambs. It’s probably fair to assume that these would have been presumed to be the smaller minority among the typical colorations of these animals, so that Jacob was probably asking for just a smaller subset of the flocks as his portion of the profits. So then, they agree in verse 34, and so our first section ends with Jacob remaining for now in the land, with this partnership of sorts arranged in what appears to be something that would be mutually beneficial.

Before we finish this first point, let us appreciate that Jacob explains the motivation for his specific proposal in verse 33. He says, “So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” So, Jacob basically claims to be an honest man and that this would help to prove his honesty if ever questioned. That’s an interesting case coming from Jacob who has at least some history of dishonesty. Of course, he is dealing with Laban who also has some history of dishonesty.

This brings us now to our second point to consider this second scene in verses 35-43. Here, I’ve summarized this as Jacob’s and Laban’s wrestlings with each other. Both are seen here trying to out-maneuver each other and get the better hand. Laban takes the first strike right away in verse 35. It seems like no sooner have they sealed their agreement, that Laban goes and tries to cheat Jacob. Basically, he right away preemptively separates all the animals that would have been Jacobs, and spins them off into their own flock that he entrusts to his sons’ cares. He then has his sons keep their distance from Jacob’s flocks, so that the properly colored flocks in Jacob’s flock won’t be able to mate with the off-colored flocks under his sons’ cares.

All things being equal, this would have severally hindered the flock under Jacob’s care to produce mcuh off-colored offspring. Think about the basic genetics of it. Assuming that the off-colored animals were that way due to recessive genes, if you remove all of them from the start, that is going to significantly limit how many such off-colored animals will be born in the future. For example, take eye color among humans, which is a recessive-gene compared to brown eyes. If two blue-eye people have offspring, they are almost guaranteed to have just blue eyed children. But if you remove all the blue-eyed people from the mating population, then the chances of having blue-eyed people from brown-eyed parents is anywhere from 0 to 25% at the most. And so, the deal with Laban presumably would have already favored Laban from the start, assuming the normal-colored genes ones are the dominant ones. But with Laban starting things off with all the off-colored ones removed, then that sets things up to profit him even more over Jacob.

Yet, Jacob is not easily deterred. What we then have in verses 37-42 is Jacob’s attempt to grasp out at Laban and take as much as he can. While Jacob had made the gracious offer to take the presumably less common off-colored flocks, we see Jacob employing a multi-pronged breeding strategy to both increase the production of the off-colored animals, and also to make them the strongest of the heard.

Now let me pause and address the question that we get when we read this. We wonder, what in the world is going on here? What is Jacob doing with these sticks and everything. And what is the Bible saying here about it? Well, before I really answer that question, let me begin by saying that the details here are very brief. It’s hard to understand precisely what Jacob is being described as doing here in these verses, but there is certainly enough to get the big picture. Jacob is doing these special breeding practices hoping to increase the number and strength of the flock that would belong to him, at the expense of making the flock that would belong to Laban lesser and weaker.

So then one strategy that Jacob employes is in verses 37-39. Jacob takes some poplar, almond, and plane trees, and peels them in way that they get exposed white streaks in them from the parts of the bark that have been pulled back. The imagery of the coloring of the sticks gets you to think of the desired off-coloring offspring of the flocks that Jacob would like to have. He puts these sticks into the water at the spot where the animals would normally mate. The text describes how ultimately there are then a bunch of off-colored animals born to the flocks.

Then another strategy Jacob employs is found in verse 41. Here he attempts to engineer things so that the off-colored ones are the strongest. Basically, he would only put the sticks in the water for the stronger ones, and not for the weaker ones. The text then speaks of how ultimately Jacob’s flock grew stronger and Laban’s weaker.

So, again, the question is, what is going on? There are various interpretations, which are basically only educated guesses given the limited detail here and the limited knowledge about possible breeding strategies at that time. But among the interpretations, two main approaches especially emerge. Many think that this is Jacob employing using some erroneous folk-science at the time that thought embryos could be influenced by what their mating parents saw when they were mating. I’ve yet to find an ancient source for that, but often commentaries think that is what is happening. If so, this might be like how we saw last chapter that Rachel wanted those mandrakes and probably because she thought they could help her with fertility. Now another very different view that is out there, is that these practices by Jacob did actually aid in his achieving his goal, though not necessarily through an effect on the offspring because of what the flocks saw when mating. Various other suggestions have been made, for example, that these kinds of woods soaked in the water could have had certain herbal properties that when drunk contributed to increase reproduction rates and maybe other benefits. Other suggestions have also been offered at how what Jacob did might have actually helped his cause. Yet, with the details here being so sparse, it is hard to be dogmatic. The bottom line is that some scholars see Jacob as this foolish practitioner of superstitious husbandry practices, while others see him as a rather ingenious pioneer of innovative breeding practices. Either option, if true, would give room for some useful applications.

However, when faced with a question like this, we should ask, what does the context of the passage tell us? While I don’t see it answering this specific question, it does draw our attention to two important conclusions we can take from this. Sometimes we want a text to answer a certain question for us, when really, God has the passage in the Bible to tell us something else. That seems to be the case here, because there are at least two things that we can learn from this passage. First, we are to conclude that however effective or not Jacob’s practices were in growing his flock, we are supposed to see that it is ultimately God who prospered him. The text gives us that conclusion when we get into chapter 31. Look at 31:7, for example. It says that despite what Laban tried to do to Jacob in this business arrangement, God wouldn’t permit Laban to harm him. There, we learn more of the story, that Laban even kept changing how Jacob would get paid. Presumably as one type of animal prospered or the other, he kept changing the terms to his advantage. For example, in verse 8, it says that if Laban said, “The spotted shall be your wages,” then God had the flock bear spotted. And if Laban said, “The striped shall be your wages,” then all the flock bore striped.” So, do you see how that answers the question about Jacob’s interesting breeding practices? Whether or not they were actually effective in any way is beside the point, for the text tells us that it was ultimately God who saw the flocks bore what Jacob needed. The dream that God gave Jacob in verse 10, also makes this same point and it would have encouraged Jacob. So, this is one conclusion we can take from Jacob’s breeding practices, that it was still God who gave the bounty.

But the second big conclusion we can draw from Jacob’s breeding techniques is it shows that he still struggles with wrestling with humans. While Laban definitely tried to cheat Jacob, Jacob is not innocent either. Why did Jacob do what he did with these sticks and these breeding practices? It seems clear that he was also trying to make his flock bigger and stronger at the expense of Laban. A servant should seek the welfare of his master’s business. That is part of love for neighbor. But all Jacob’s life, he has been grasping to take from others what belongs to them. He was literally wrestling with his brother Esau along these lines even while in the womb. He wrestled with Esau like this all growing up. And now he is out in Paddan-aram, far from home, and he has found someone else to wrestle with. And in so many ways, Laban is a great match for Jacob and his wrestling desires.

Let us turn now briefly in our final point to consider this final section of our passage, chapter 31, verses 1-16. There, we see that Jacob has now lost favor with Laban, and ultimately is told by God to leave and return home the Promised Land. We start in verses 1-2 to see that Jacob hears word that talk is going around about him. He hears that Laban’s sons are saying that Jacob has stolen everything from their father and thus from themselves as the heirs. Six years prior, when Jacob and Laban agreed to this partnership, Laban loved having Jacob there. Now, Laban has grown to resent Jacob. Laban originally saw dollar signs with Jacob, thinking Jacob would make him rich. But in Laban’s efforts to cheat and steal from Jacob, God made it so that Laban was the one who lost so much. Laban, in a sense, made Jacob rich, in his greed. In this round of Laban and Jacob wrestling, Jacob came out on top.

But, of course, we know that it was God’s grace that prospered Jacob. We see that told so clearly here in this final section. Jacob has this dream where God again appears to him. God’s recorded there in verse 13 saying, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me.” For Jacob’s part, he still refers to God as the “God of my father”, verse 5. But clearly, God has been teaching and growing Jacob here. God makes it clear to Jacob how he has been with him to protect him from Laban’s schemes.

He explains these things to his wives. In verse 14, they voice their solidarity with him over their father. It is clear they feel that Laban used them too. And they recognize that God has taken away the riches of Laban to give it them. So, they see no reason to stay. In beautiful words, they conclude by telling Jacob, “Whatever God has said to you, do.”

And indeed, he now has instructions from God. God here tells him to leave Laban and Paddan-aram and return home to the Promised Land. Think about this. Six years prior, Jacob had been ready to leave. But presumably he did not receive a word from God to go home. In fact, remember that the original game plan was that he would get word from his mother when it was safe for him to return. But after some fourteen years at the start of this passage, he hadn’t apparently heard from mom. And presumably now after another six years, he still hadn’t. But he does here hear from God. God tells him it is time to go home, as well as implying that he needs to stop at Bethel on the way back in order to fulfill his vow. But what I want us to recognize is that God didn’t have him go home six years before when Jacob at first wanted to. That means that God had a purpose for Jacob to be there for those six more years that we’ve considered today.

Again, think of why God had him there for those six years. There were several things at work. First, God uses these six years to continue to work on Jacob’s heart over his inclination to wrestle everyone. Jacob’s continued wrestlings with others is not just a besetting sin but an internal struggle where he feels the need to lie, steal, and cheat to get ahead, instead of looking to walk in faith, trusting the LORD. By allowing Jacob to face his match in Laban, God is teaching him that he needs the LORD to prosper him. This is the truth we continue to find in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can’t save ourselves. That’s why we need Jesus to save us. Likewise, we shouldn’t try to wrestle the world on our own. We need Jesus to be with us and to find our victory as he is at work in our life, and in what Jesus considers victory. This is the first lesson Jacob was essentially learning here.

Second, God uses these six years to make Jacob a wealthy man. Jacob left the Promised Land with nothing and he comes back full. Yes, if he had left six years ago, he would have left with a full family. But now he will also leave with so much wealth, and he has to realize it was because of God, and not the result of his own sinful wrestlings . Third, God reminds Jacob through the reference to Bethel, that all that has gone on, has been what God promised back there at Bethel to him some 20 years prior. Fourth, God now sets the stage for him to not only return to Bethel so he could worship him and tithe a tenth of all that God had given him. But he is setting up Jacob to recognize that God was not only his father’s God, but in fact God has been his God this whole time. His God has been watching over and caring for him and blessing him, even when Jacob hadn’t been quick to recognize it. God had Jacob remain longer there working for Laban so he could continue to grow in these ways.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, let us look for the lessons, big and small, God is teaching us through the providential circumstances of his life. We had a chance to think of just some of the several things God was doing through a period in Jacob’s life. As you look back on your life, let us consider what God may be teaching or doing in your life. And let us recognize how Jesus is with us the entire time, no matter what we are facing in life. So that even if the world should treat us badly, we see it as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings, while entrusting our souls to our faithful God. Finally, as you look to the future, remember, that there will come a time when Christ finally calls you home. Let us be ready for that call, but until then look to serve him faithfully.


Copyright © 2024 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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