25 As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.” 27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you. 28 Name your wages, and I will give it.” 29 Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. 30 For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?” 31 He said, “What shall I give you?” Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: 32 let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. 33 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.” 34 Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.” 35 But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons. 36 And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock.
37 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38 He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39 the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. He put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, 42 but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys. – Genesis 30:25-43 ESV
Years earlier, when Jacob had left Beersheba in search of a wife, God had made promised to remain with him. In a vision, God had declared to him, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And the story that Moses records clearly reveals how God had been keeping that promise. Jacob had left home as an unmarried man and now he had two wives, an equal number of concubines, and 11 sons. But even Jacob knew that it was time for him to come out from under his father-in-law’s control and return home. He had spent the last 14 years earning the right to marry Rachel and now, after a long delay, she had delivered him a son.
But leaving his father-in-law’s employment would prove to be more difficult than he thought. Laban was resistant to letting go of his two daughters, 11 grandsons, and hard-working son-in-law. He even admitted to Jacob, “I have become wealthy, for the Lord has blessed me because of you” (Genesis 30:27 NLT). It’s difficult to decipher whether Laban was sincere or simply trying to persuade Jacob that his stay in Haran had been a “God thing.” There is no indication that Laban was a religious man or that he worshiped Yahweh. But he knew that Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, was committed to God. So, he tried to persuade Jacob that God had ordained his time in Haran. This was true, but it is not clear that Laban had received that message directly from God.
God’s involvement in the entire affair is without question. He had promised to remain with Jacob and bring him back safely to Canaan. In the meantime, God had been protecting Jacob, turning Laban’s deception into a blessing. While Laban had deceived Jacob into marrying Leah, it had resulted in eight of his 11 sons, including Joseph, who would later play an instrumental role in the preservation of Jacob’s family. God had been at work, providing for Jacob’s needs and protecting his life.
The day came when Jacob knew it was time to go. There is no indication that he received a message from God, but it seems that he had finally grown tired of living under another man’s roof and control. So, he approached Laban and said, “Please release me so I can go home to my own country. Let me take my wives and children, for I have earned them by serving you, and let me be on my way. You certainly know how hard I have worked for you” (Genesis 30:25-26 NLT).
It seems that Laban believed Jacob was upset about the way he had been treated and was looking for some kind of compensation for all his labor. For more than 14 years, he had been little more than a slave to Laban and helped make him a wealthy man. And Laban was not ready to give up this valuable resource, so he told Jacob to name his price. What would it take to get him to stay? And Jacob acknowledged that he felt slighted by Laban.
“You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done. But now, what about me? When can I start providing for my own family?” – Genesis 30:29-30 NLT
But Jacob wasn’t interested in staying. He was ready to leaven Haran and Laban behind. Yet, he decided to take Laban up on his offer and proposed a suitable form of compensation.
“Don’t give me anything. Just do this one thing, and I’ll continue to tend and watch over your flocks. Let me inspect your flocks today and remove all the sheep and goats that are speckled or spotted, along with all the black sheep. Give these to me as my wages.” – Genesis 30:31-32 NLT
Jacob asked to be paid in sheep. He proposed that he be allowed to take all the non-white sheep from among Laban’s flocks. The spotted and dark-colored sheep would have been in the minority, leaving Laban with a greater number of pure white sheep which were of greater value. In a sense, Jacob was asking to receive the dregs of Laban’s flocks.
The always wily Laban agreed to Jacob’s offer, but immediately took measures to protect his assets. Before Jacob could have a chance to make his selection, Laban ordered his sons to remove all the spotted and speckled sheep from among his flocks and take them 3-days journey away. He cheated Jacob again. And it seems obvious that Jacob would have seen through this charade. But rather than complain, he took decided to give Laban a taste of his own medicine. What happens next is difficult to explain. Jacob’s actions seem to be based more on superstition and folklore than anything else.
He came up with a rather strange plan that involved the use of “fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees” (Genesis 30:37 ESV). He then peeled off strips of the bark, revealing the lighter-colored interior. “Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated” (Genesis 30:38 NLT). What happens next is inexplicable. It seems that when the sheep mated “in front of the white-streaked branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted” (Genesis 30:39 NLT).
There is no scientific explanation for what occurred. It’s likely that Jacob was utilizing what was nothing more than an old wive’s tale. But for some unknown reason, it worked. As the sheep mated, they produced spotted and speckled lambs. When mating season came around again, Jacob reintroduced these spotted sheep into the flock and the result was more of the same. Over time, he used Laban’s non-spotted sheep to produce a flock that was predominantly spotted, speckled and black. And, as if to add insult to injury, Jacob removed all the weak and feeble sheep when it came time to mate, ensuring that all the lambs that were born were healthy and disease-free. And Moses states that Jacob’s rather strange process produced outstanding results.
As a result, Jacob became very wealthy, with large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys. – Genesis 30:43 NLT
This entire process and the results it produced would have required multiple seasons. So, it extended Jacob’s stay but helped transform him into a wealthy and influential man. He was able to parley his sheep-mating venture into a lucrative business that allowed him to buy servants, camels, and donkeys. He would be returning to Canaan as a very rich man.
But, as always, this story is meant to highlight the sovereign power of God. The only explanation for Jacob’s success is Yahweh. Throwing black and white tree branches into the watering troughs at mating time had nothing to do with anything. Jacob may have been convinced that his efforts had produced the outcome he enjoyed, but it was all the handiwork of God. Jacob could attempt to take credit for his own success, but Moses would have his readers understand that God was the actual hero of the story. What had taken place was a miracle. It was no different than when Moses used a staff to part the water of the Red Sea. God used something common and ordinary to do the uncommon and extraordinary. And in a way, the imagery of the speckled and spotted sheep is a fitting metaphor for the people of Israel. God was going to set apart the small, insignificant, and flawed family of Jacob in order to produce a mighty nation. He would take what others considered to be the rejects and transform them into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV). But that is a story for another day.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.