A New Contract
In the previous study we saw Jacob’s status reduced by his uncle, and the deception of Laban with regard to Rachel and Leah. We concluded by looking at the birth of Jacob’s children as the first movement towards the turning around of his situation. While for much of the recent narrative Jacob has been in the background of the narrative, with the text focusing upon his wives, we now see him come to the foreground once again.
After the birth of Joseph, fourteen years into his sojourn with Laban (cf. 31:41), Jacob requests to be sent back to his own country (30:25-26). He requests an end to his labour for Laban, in a manner that suggests that their relationship is more contractual than familial by this point. The language used is similar to that of the Exodus, with its references to service and appeal for release.
Laban asks Jacob to stay, pointing out that YHWH has blessed him through Jacob’s service. He offers Jacob a new ‘contract’, suggesting that Jacob name his own wages. Drawing attention to the way that Laban’s possessions have been multiplied through his labours, he declares that he now needs to provide for his own household (30:30). While Laban offers to give Jacob something, Jacob refuses (30:31). Rather than receiving a gift from Laban’s hand and becoming bound to him, Jacob requests that he be given all of the speckled and spotted sheep, all of the brown lambs, and the spotted and speckled goats, and that these should be his wages.
By setting such terms and refusing to receive any gift from Laban’s hand that might leave him obliged or in any way beholden to him, Jacob maintains a distance in his relationship with Laban, who will not now be seen as the cause of Jacob’s prospering (cf. 14:21-24). Jacob will owe Laban no return gift. The wages that Jacob will receive will be determined by his own cunning and divine providence, as YHWH gives him his due of Laban’s possessions. Jacob knows all too well that Laban is a double-dealing crook and so this arrangement provides a way to avoid Laban having much leverage over him and also provides a clear basis for arbitration between them, so that he cannot be falsely accused (30:33). It also means that YHWH can decapitalize Laban, without Laban giving the wages himself: the wages are rather being rightfully taken from him.
Laban immediately breaks the spirit of the new arrangement, giving many of the animals most likely to produce Jacob’s payment to his sons (30:35). Incidentally, while seldom coming to the forefront of the narrative, the sons of Laban seem to be abetting and supporting him in his trickery and false dealing throughout the story (29:27; 30:35; 31:1). Laban then puts three days journey between the main part of his flock and the rest, which Jacob is caring for.
False Phalluses and the Lex Talionis
Jacob then performs what initially appears to be an odd piece of nature magic or pseudoscience, using rods of green poplar, almond, and plane-tree and exposing the white within them. He then sets these before the flocks, where they came to drink. When the flocks conceived, they all bore streaked, speckled, and spotted. He then set these lambs upon the streaked and the brown in Laban’s flocks (v.40). Finally, he used the rods only in the case of the stronger animals of Laban’s flock. The flocks then gave birth to feeble animals.
I don’t actually think that Jacob is trying some pseudoscientific fertility magic here. There is a more straightforward explanation (drawing upon this article). Jacob’s plan was quite a bit more cunning than this. The rods were false phalluses, which he used for the females of the flocks unlikely to produce speckled and spotted. These animals would mate against the false phalluses and produce no actual offspring, while those most likely to produce Jacob’s wages would mate freely. Jacob would then use the animals produced upon the brown and the streaked in Laban’s flock (v.40 – ‘putting the faces of the flocks towards’ here refers to mating). While doing this, Jacob would get the strong of Laban’s flock to use the rods, while with the feeble he wouldn’t.
We should also relate this to the similar account of ‘fertility magic’ earlier in the chapter, where the phallus-like mandrakes are given to Rachel by Leah in exchange for a night with Jacob. Thus the ‘ewe’ Rachel (remember the meaning of her name) receives a false phallus, while Leah gets … ahem … the real thing.
This whole scene involves an advanced application of the lex talionis, the eye for an eye judgment upon the wrongdoer. Laban had tricked Jacob earlier concerning his wives. The beautiful ‘ewe’ Rachel wasn’t given to him, but, after he had drunk, the symbolically speckled and spotted Leah was given to him instead. The speckled and spotted proved fruitful, while the beautiful ‘ewe’ bore no children until YHWH finally opened her womb. The stronger had been kept away from him, while he had been made to go into the weaker (cf. 29:17). Jacob performs Laban’s trick back upon him with his flocks.
The way that Jacob outwits the deceiver is underlined in other ways. A couple of studies ago, I discussed the account of Jacob’s deception of Esau with the stew. I observed the emphasis upon the red colour of the stew and its connection with blood. However, in the immediate connection, Esau is called ‘Edom’, literally ‘Red’ (25:30). The means of deception is connected with the deceived person’s name. We see the same thing here. Laban means ‘White’. Jacob takes rods of poplar (‘libneh’ – another play on Laban’s name), almond (‘luz’ – cf. 28:19), and plane tree (a play on the word ‘crafty’, I suspect), peels white – ‘laban’ – stripes in them, making bare the ‘laban’ in the rods. The strong ewes then mate with the false ‘laban’ phalluses, while the flock of Jacob multiplies. If Jacob once gained his rightful birthright by divine will from his brother Edom with the ‘red red stuff’, now he will gain the wages due to him from Laban with the ‘white’ of the white tree.
The puns on names are important throughout these narratives. The hairiness of Esau is connected with the word ‘Seir’, his redness with ‘Edom’. Likewise, the name of Laban the Aramean may be connected with ‘Lebanon’ – the ‘White’ Mountains. As archetypes, Esau and Laban are never merely individuals in a narrative, but always stand for larger relationships and realities that exceed them. For instance, Esau’s ‘blessing’ in 27:39-40 anticipates the event of 2 Kings 8:20-22.
All of this is very important for our theme of exodus. As we look through the narrative of Exodus we shall see that powerful applications of the lex talionis can be a key dimension of them. YHWH, through his providence and the wiliness of his people, gives back into the lap of the wicked the evil that they have dealt to others. The waters of the Nile that served as the grave of Israelite boys turns to blood; the sons of Egypt are drowned in the waters. As Job 5:13 declares, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the counsel of the cunning comes quickly upon them.’
Jacob’s Flight from Laban
By this time Jacob, who had come to Laban with nothing, was enormously wealthy, with ‘large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys’ (30:43). All of these had been taken from Laban as his wages, rather than given to him. Seeing this, Laban’s sons realized that Jacob had taken away all of their father’s possessions, leaving them with little or no inheritance (31:1). Jacob sees this, and also that Laban is now hostile towards him (v.2, cf. Exodus 1:8-14). YHWH then tells Jacob to return to the land of his kindred, promising to be with him (v.3).
Jacob summons Rachel and Leah and speaks to them about the most hostile aspect that the situation has taken on. The countenance of their father is unfavourable towards him, but the God of his father is with him. He draws attention to his faithfulness throughout the situation, to the fact that he served their father with all of his might. Laban had deceived him and changed his wages ‘ten times’ (v.7 – the reference to the ten changes of wages recalls the ten plagues by which Egypt would later be decapitalized; see also Numbers 14:22), yet God had protected him from harm. However Laban changed the terms of his agreement with Jacob, through YHWH’s protection and Jacob’s shrewdness, it came out in Jacob’s favour, while Laban was progressively hardened and judged. The final result was that God had taken the livestock of Laban and given them to Jacob (v.10). The multiplication of the righteous, the progressive despoliation of the tyrant, and the giving of riches into the hands of the righteous all anticipate the growth of Israel in Egypt, the plagues, and the plundering of the Egyptians at the Exodus.
The Angel of God appeared to Jacob in a dream (presumably the same event as that mentioned in verse 3), which he recounts to Rachel and Leah. Within the dream all of the rams leaping on the flocks were streaked, speckled, and spotted, a sign that YHWH was given the flocks of Laban into Jacob’s hands. God declares that he had seen the way that Laban was oppressing Jacob and that he was upholding Jacob’s cause and judging Laban as a result. God makes known his identity as the God of Bethel, the place where Jacob made a vow and anointed the pillar (v.13). As we shall see, God’s revelation of his identity in association with exodus events is a recurring theme. He then tells Jacob to return to his kindred’s land.
The parallels between this appearance of the Angel of YHWH to Jacob and the appearance of the Angel of YHWH to Moses in the burning bush should be immediately apparent. Both are addressed in a similar manner (31:11; Exodus 3:4). Both Moses and Jacob are assured that YHWH has seen the oppression of the tyrant and their suffering and are called to depart (Genesis 31:11-13; Exodus 3:4-10) from the land of their exile, where they are herding their father-in-laws’ flocks, to return to a land that they once fled from a threat to their lives.
Rachel and Leah answer Jacob by pointing out that Laban had squandered their bride prices, which should have been held in trust for them (vv.14-15), an action by which he despised them and left them with no portion in their father’s house. The riches that God had taken from Laban and given to Jacob were really Rachel and Leah’s by right, so whatever God had told Jacob to do, he should do it. Here again we see the lex talionis at work. Because Laban had despised his daughters’ inheritance when giving them to Jacob in marriage, his sons were now left without inheritance (v.1). This passage is the point where Rachel and Leah share in the Abrahamic calling to leave their father’s house.
Jacob then takes all of his possessions and livestock, sets his family on camels, and fled from Laban, who was shearing his sheep, and knew nothing of what was taking place. Rachel also stole Laban’s household idols, a theme to which we will return in our concluding study of Jacob’s exodus. The fact that this occurred at the time of the shearing of sheep is interesting, given the way that theme functions elsewhere in Scripture (I might comment on the parallels between the Jacob narrative and that of Abigail and Nabal in the next post). The suggestion that the shearing of sheep was associated with Passover would also underline the strong exodus themes at work here.
They flee with all of their possessions, cross the river, and head toward the mountain (singular) of Gilead. This pattern should be familiar to us by now, although the water-crossing (while present in the Flood narrative) comes into play in the Jacob narrative, while it was absent in most of the earlier exodus patterns. Fleeing or travelling towards the mountain is a repeated theme (8:4, 12:8; 19:17). Later, Israel will cross the water (of the Red Sea) and head towards the mountain (of Sinai).
Within this portion of Jacob’s exodus from Laban, we see Laban’s continued mistreatment of Jacob, but YHWH’s blessing and protection of Jacob throughout, just as he had promised (28:15). Jacob and Laban enter a relationship where wages are taken rather than given, and YHWH despoils Laban’s possessions. The oppressor Laban suffers the full judgment of the lex talionis, as Jacob’s serpentine shrewdness and YHWH’s providence deal back to him what he had dealt to Jacob. The Angel of YHWH then appears to Jacob in a dream, assuring him that he had seen the wickedness of Laban and was blessing and protecting him, telling him to depart from the house of Laban and return to him homeland. Jacob then flees, departing in haste, much as the Israelites would do when leaving Egypt, crossing over the river (Euphrates) and heading towards the mountain, most probably at Passover time.
Awesome. Keep writing…
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My children and I are studying just this chapter this week. Jacob’s breeding techniques have always puzzled me. This is the best explanation I have read so far. Now to find a ‘tasteful’ way of explaining this to my middle and high school boys 🙂
If you find a good way, please share it with the rest of us! 🙂
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Does this make Laban a type of fleshly Israel, whom the kingdom was taken from and given to another? In the type, who do Leah and Rachel represent?
The figural relationships are multiple and musical, with inversions of the motif too. Various Scripture passages play with the themes here. Just a few examples: Saul is Laban, Michal is Rachel, David is Jacob; Jethro is Laban, Zipporah is Rachel, Moses is Jacob; Pharaoh is Laban, Israel is Rachel, Moses is Jacob; Nabal is Laban (notice the name is reversed), Abigail is Rachel/Jacob, David is Jacob/Esau, etc. There are definitely relationships with unfaithful Israel, as Laban and his sons are dispossessed and faithful Israel, with the aid of shrewd faithful women, receives the inheritance.
It depends on the context. Rachel is by far the more prominent in the figural references to the passage. She is the one who is first met by Jacob, like the other patriarchal meetings. She is the one who has her womb delivered from barrenness. She is the one who bears the beloved son, Joseph. She is the one who deceives her father. She is the one who dies in childbirth and who is wrapped up with the biblical narrative of the fate of the tribe of Benjamin.