Two weeks ago, we talked about Jacob and his trip to Haran. We talked about the dream he had at Bethel—the dream of the ladder—and the promise he made to God there. We also talked about how he fulfilled that promise many years later when he got back to the Land of Israel.
Today we’re going to talk about the rest of Jacob’s adventure: his time in Haran and how God used that time to shape him into the man of God he later became. Because if there’s one thing we know for sure about Jacob, it’s that when he started off in life, he was trouble. Oh yes, he was a good boy, a mama’s boy (Gen. 25:27,28). But he was also a liar and a cheater; a deceiver.
The dangerous sinners are the ones in mayor’s offices, or somewhere else in the government, where they have real power. Don’t you know Satan himself shows up as an angel of light, of righteousness and of goodness. He just radiates light everywhere, with a big smile on his face. But it’s a false light, and it’s a deceptive smile. It’s like the salesman who smiles so much when he talks to you. He’s so happy. Because he knows what you don’t know, and he’s going make a lot of money from you. It’s not the smile of a friend.
So there was Jacob handing a bowl of lentils to his brother (Gen. 25:29-34). Nice, right? He’s giving some food to his poor, hungry brother, Esau. But it came at a price—his brother’s inheritance. He was true to his name: Jacob means “supplanter.” It comes from aqev, which means heel. He’s someone who puts you down under his heel and turns it.
Then Jacob took Esau’s blessing, with goat’s hair on his arms (Gen. 27:16,23). He’s clever. He’s the kind of businessman who gets rich from taking the property of orphans and widows, who has no moral compass, no compassion for others. That’s a dangerous man. But God can turn even that dangerous kind of man around, and open his eyes, and get him to wake up. And that’s what God did to Jacob.
We saw two weeks ago how God gave Jacob a dream of a ladder to heaven (Gen. 28:12-15). In that dream, the Angel of the Lord, Jesus himself, showed up. Jacob was afraid, but he wasn’t converted either (Gen. 28:16,17).
So he bargained with God: if you take care of me during this journey, then I’ll worship you (Gen. 28:20-22). It’s like some people who say, show me a miracle and then I’ll believe. Many who say that are not the least bit sincere about it. They don’t really expect anything to happen. Whether Jacob’s attitude was like that at that moment is hard to say. But we do know that there was no immediate change in his life.
From the place of his dream at Bethel, he had five hundred miles left to go before he arrived at his destination near Haran. Along the way he saw cities larger than anything he’d seen before: Damascus, Hamath, Carchemish, the Euphrates River, and finally Haran itself. The Bible summarizes this whole eye-opening journey very briefly, saying: “And Jacob lifted up his feet and walked to the land of the sons of the East” (Gen. 29:1).
Jacob Meets Rachel
The next thing we know, Jacob arrives in the area of Haran, where he sees a well . Gen. 29:2: “And he looked and he saw a well in the field, and three flocks of sheep lying there beside it, for from that well they watered the herds. And the stone on the opening of the well was large.”
We talked about these wells and their covers once before. Today, they’re usually capped with metal, but back in those days it was with stone: metal was too valuable for that. The stone was to keep out the dust and dirt. It also helped to slow evaporation, so you wouldn’t lose any of that precious water. Since the stone blocked the rays of the sun, it also stopped bacteria from growing in the water, which kept the water fresh and clean. So you can see why people were very careful to keep their wells capped.
Jacob talked to the shepherds there, and it turned out they were from Haran, and they knew his uncle Laban (Gen. 29:4,5)! And, they said, his daughter Rachel (Rakhel) was on her way (Gen. 29:6). Then he said to them, why are you here with the sheep? You should be out pasturing the flocks (Gen. 29:7). But they said they couldn’t until the well was opened and the sheep were watered. But they couldn’t do that, because the stone was so large (Gen. 29:8). They were waiting for some help to move it.
Just then, Rachel appeared with her father’s sheep. Jacob, moved to see her, flexed his muscles and moved the huge stone all by himself to water her sheep (Gen. 29:9,10). Then he kissed her, cheek to cheek as the Eastern custom is, and told her his story (Gen. 29:11,12). So he had finally arrived, and they went off to meet his relatives.
After he was there for a month, helping out with the sheep, Laban offered to pay him (Gen. 29:15). In return for seven years of labor, Jacob asked only for the hand of Rachel in marriage (Gen. 29:18). So they agreed. And because of his happiness, the years sped by for Jacob (Gen. 29:20).
Laban’s Bait and Switch
Finally the time came for Jacob to receive his wages, and Jacob spoke to Laban about it (Gen. 29:21). So Jacob gathered the men of the area for a feast. This feast, as it says in Hebrew, was a mishteh, a drinking party, just as many weddings are today (Gen. 29:22). But then, when they retired for the evening, after Jacob had become sufficiently drunk, Laban brought him Leah instead of Rachel (Gen. 29:23)!
The next morning, Jacob was understandably upset (Gen. 29:25). The deceiver had just gotten deceived. So they made a deal that he would finish the marriage week with Leah, and then he would get Rachel if he agreed to work another seven years (Gen. 29:27). Wow! That Laban was a real wheeler and dealer! The girls also each received a lady servant as a wedding gift from their dad. Leah’s maid was Zilpah, and Rachel’s maid was Bilhah.
This was, of course, not a good situation for Leah. The original Hebrew says she was hated by Jacob (Gen. 29:31). Jacob, apparently, didn’t handle the situation with much tact. But God had compassion on her, and she became pregnant, while Rachel did not.
Leah called her first child Reu-vain’ (Reuben), “because the LORD has seen my affliction (ra’ah b-onyi)” (Gen. 29:32). Can you catch the similarity in the sound of the words? Then she had another, that she named Shi-mon’ (Simon), “because the LORD has heard that I am hated (shama ki’snuah)” (Gen. 29:33). The third she named Lay-vi’ (Levi), saying, “Now my husband will become attached (yilaveh) to me” (Gen. 29:34). And for the fourth, Yehu-dah’ (Judah), she said, “This time I will praise the LORD (oden Yehuah)” (Gen. 29:35). I guess she wasn’t hated that much: she got four sons out of the deal.
By this time, Rachel was going crazy, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, and if there are none, I die!” (Gen. 30:1). Jacob’s response was not what you would call tender and loving. “And Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of Elohim [God], who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” (Gen. 30:2). So in desperation, Rachel suggested something that sounds pretty wild today: “Here is my maid Bilhah. Go in to her and she will give birth on my knees; and I, too, will be built up [as a mother] from her” (Gen. 30:3). Then again, maybe it’s not so strange: perhaps you’ve heard of surrogate mothers recently.
In the Middle East at that time, it was the custom among many different people groups, including those living in the area of Haran, that if a wife was barren, she should provide a servant girl to bear a child for her. This was even written into marriage contracts, which is how we know about it. This is just what Sarah had done earlier with Hagar (Gen. 16:1,2). According to the law, the child would legally belong to the wife, and not the servant who bore it. This is also the meaning of the phrase that Bilhah would give birth on Rachel’s knees: the child would legally be considered Rachel’s.
Bilhah conceived. And when she gave birth, notice that it was Rachel who named the child: “And Rachel said, ‘Elohim has vindicated me (danani) and also heard my voice and given me a son.’ So she named him Dan.” Why did Rachel name the child? Because legally it was her child.
Then Bilhah bore another son. And Rachel said, “With wrestlings (naphtul-lei’) of Elohim I have wrestled (niphtalti) with my sister” (Gen. 30:8). So she named the child Naphtali. Again, it was Rachel who named the child. What do you think she meant by “wrestlings of Elohim”? The root of the word means “twisted” like wrestlers that get twisted up with each other when they’re wrestling. The phrase is often interpreted as “mighty wrestlings,” but perhaps it can best be understood to mean spiritual wrestling, an expression we also see in the New Testament where Paul says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual powers and principalities (Eph. 6:12).
Have you ever done any spiritual wrestling? I think we all have from time to time. And it’s usually with the people closest to us, isn’t it? Rachel’s was with her sister. This is why marrying a woman and her sister is forbidden in the Law of Moses. It’s too much trouble and stress for everyone.
So then Leah tried the same trick and gave Jacob her maid, Zilpah as a wife. So now Jacob has four wives! You can see why polygamy is forbidden in the New Testament: there’s just too much conflict and too many jealousies.
Though it was Zilpah’s child, Leah gave the baby the name Gad, saying, “How fortunate (begad)!” (Gen. 30:11). Legally, this was Leah’s child. Then Zilpah bore again, and Leah said, “I’m blessed (b’ashri)” (Gen. 30:13). So she named the baby A-sher’ (Asher). This is the same word that Jesus would have used in the Beatitudes: “Blessed (Ashrei) are those who...” (Matt. 5:3 etc.)
The story of the birth of Jacob’s sons is interrupted by the curious discovery of some mandrakes that Reuben brought to his mother, Leah (Gen. 30:14). Mandrakes in Hebrew is dudaim (literally, “love plants”), sometimes translated “love apples.” It’s the same root as the word dodi (beloved) that appears so many times in the Song of Songs (Song 1:13,14,16, etc.) It’s also in the name David (Da-vid’ in Hebrew or Da-ud’ in Arabic). Mandrakes were quite popular in many cultures around the world in ancient times. They were considered an aphrodisiac, probably because they have hallucinogenic alkaloids in their leaves and roots, though these can be quite poisonous. They’re also remarkable for their man-shaped roots.
When Rachel found out about the mandrakes, she asked for some of them (Gen. 30:14). Why would Rachel want some mandrakes? She was probably hoping they would help her to get pregnant. At any rate, this is the traditional Jewish understanding. But Leah wasn’t just going to give them up. “And Leah said, ‘Was it such a little thing to take my husband that you also want to take the mandrakes of my son?’” (Gen. 30:15a). Leah was still angry about Jacob taking Rachel as a second wife. So Rachel proposed a deal: “And Rachel said, ‘For this he will lie with you tonight, for the mandrakes of your son’” (Gen. 30:15b). So Leah bought the night with her husband with the mandrakes.
As a result, Leah got pregnant again. She said, “God has given me my wages (saka-ri’) because I gave my maid to my husband” (Gen. 30:18). That’s a pretty strange reason to expect a reward from God! What was the child’s name? Yissa-khar’ (Issachar). This was Leah’s fifth son.
Then she got pregnant again, and said, “Now my husband will honor me (yizbelei’-ni)” (Gen. 30:20). It’s sad that she had to hope a sixth son would finally bring her honor as a wife. The child’s name? Zevu-lun’ (Zebulun). After that, Leah had a daughter: Din-ah’ (Dinah, which means “judgment,” the same root as Dan; Gen. 30:21).
Finally, God remembered Rachel, and she became pregnant. She said, “May the LORD add (yosaiph) another son” (Gen. 30:24). His name was Yo-saiph’ (Joseph). And of course, some time later, Rachel would have one more son, Benjamin, who was born after they returned to Canaan. This is when Rachel died in childbirth (Gen. 35:18). Benya-min’ means “son of the south.” He was the only one of Jacob’s sons born in the south, that is, in Canaan itself. This happened while they were on the road to Bethlehem, which we mentioned once before in connection with the babies killed in Bethlehem in the time of Jesus.
So to review, from a legal point of view (in those days), eight of the boys were Leah’s (plus Dinah), and four were Rachel’s. Six were actually borne by Leah, two by Leah’s maid Zilpah, two by Rachel’s maid Bilhah, and two (including Benjamin) by Rachel herself. To connect this with later history: King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin (son of Rachel), Moses and Aaron were descended from Levi (son of Leah) from whom came the priests and Levites, and King David was from Judah (son of Leah), from whom Jesus was descended. So not only did God honor Leah with children, he honored her with the ancestry of the Messiah.
Spotted Sheep and Speckled Goats
Finally after all that, Jacob was ready to go home (Gen. 30:25). He’d done his time for Laban. But Laban wanted him to stay longer, for which he could name his price. This is when Jacob tried to get clever again. For his wages, he asked Laban only to give him all the spotted and speckled animals from the flock, and that would be enough for him (Gen. 30:32). These marked animals were usually only a small number among the sheep and the goats, so this would sound like a really good deal to Laban. But Jacob had something tricky up his sleeve.
The details of what happened next are quite controversial. What we know for sure is that the ordinary sheep and goats would remain Laban’s, the marked ones would be Jacob’s. But after that, it’s quite difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on in this story.
And then on top of that, Jacob does something very strange. He takes the branches of some trees and peels them (Gen. 30:37). The way this is described involves a good deal of word play on Laban’s name: one of the trees is a livneh (a white-colored poplar) tree, and he peeled off white (labanah) peelings, laying bare the white (laban) on the branches. (Laban means “white.’) In other words, Jacob’s going to use something white to defeat Mr. White. But what exactly is he doing with those peeled branches?
Gen. 30:38-39: “And he set the branches that he peeled in the gutters in the troughs of the water that the flock come to drink in front of the flock, and they were in heat when they came to drink. And the flock were in heat with regard to the branches. And the flock brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted.” What’s going on here? There’s been an amazing amount of discussion about this over the years. As a result, this passage is considered a “crux” (a difficult problem) in the Bible. Some people have gotten very worked up over it. I even read about a guy who nearly lost his faith over it. Yes, over a bunch of goats and branches! So what is the big problem here?
It seems pretty clear that Jacob is putting the peeled branches (and maybe the peelings, too), into the water that the sheep and goats drink from. And it’s also clear that because of what he did, the animals had young with markings on them. But why did this make them have markings? Was it some kind of attempt at magic (as many assume), so that if they looked at something striped when they were conceiving, their young would be striped? Jacob still wasn’t right with God, and we can certainly imagine him doing something like this to try and gain an advantage. But would God honor an attempt at magic, which is something the Bible forbids? Besides, there’s no evidence of such a belief in the ancient Middle East at that time, and in fact not until hundreds of years later in Europe, that a child would be influenced by something the mother sees at the time of conception. So that doesn’t seem to be it.
Another popular idea is that the branches had some kind of aphrodisiac in them that excited the animals to reproduce. But this doesn’t match the story very well, since it says a couple of verses later that Jacob only did this with the strong ones, and not with the weak ones (Gen. 30:41,42); but this didn’t stop the weak ones from reproducing. Besides, when it’s the right time, sheep are going to come into heat. You don’t need to do anything to make that happen. It will happen. That’s just what sheep do.
Now it’s true that farmers can affect the timing of when the sheep come into heat, with teaser rams, for example. But if that’s what Jacob was doing with the peelings, it wouldn’t have helped him at all, because it wouldn’t have given markings to their young. So that isn’t it.
It seems much more likely not that Jacob was bringing them into heat by this method, but rather that he was watching for when they were in heat, and that’s when he put the branches into the water. Farmers are very alert to when their animals are in estrus as it’s called. They have all kinds of tricks to observe this, and as I said, even techniques to affect the timing of it. So he was watching for when they were in heat, and that’s when he added the branches, but only for the strong ones, not the weak ones. So how would this make their young have markings?
It seems that Jacob was way ahead of his time. Have you heard about epigenetics? This is a change in the expression of your DNA that comes from something your parents have done. For example, if a mother is very hungry when she conceives, it can actually change how the infant’s body develops—for the rest of its life. Not only that, it can change how that child’s children later develop, too.
If livestock and other animals are exposed to certain chemicals when they’re in heat, it’s now been proven that it will actually affect certain characteristics of their offspring, including things like fur color. Studies in this area have focused on the so-called Agouti gene. And it’s been found that nutritional influences at the time of conception affect the coloration of the animal. This happens when certain chemicals are absorbed by the mother, including methionine and choline. So can these be found in the branches that Jacob was using?
Sure enough, they are found in fungi that live under the bark of the trees he was using. If you peel off the bark, as Jacob did, the fungi and the chemicals in them would be released into the water. Very interesting! He also did some selective breeding with the animals that resulted (Gen. 30:40). So in the end, a large percentage of the animals were marked and became his.
Well, it didn’t take long for Laban and his sons to figure out that something was up. So Jacob decided it was time to leave. This is when he had the dream of God calling him back again (Gen. 31:13). So he and his family escaped and left for Canaan.
Rachel Steals the Household Idols
But before they left, one very important thing happened: Rachel stole her father’s household idols (Gen. 31:19). These are the teraphim (in Hebrew), small idols you could hold in your hand.
As soon as Laban found out about it, he took off after Jacob, and chased him all the 450 or so miles to Gilead, in the area that is today the nation of Jordan (Gen. 31:23). Why did he do that? Because his household idols were gone. And why was that important? The household idols represented the right of inheritance. If Jacob had them, after Laban’s death he could come back and take the inheritance away from Laban's sons.
Just before Laban caught up with them, he had a dream, in which God warned him not to say anything “good or bad” to Jacob (Gen. 31:24). So when he got there, he first made polite conversation about Jacob slipping away without saying good bye (Gen. 31:26-28). Only then did he bring up the issue of his stolen gods (Gen. 31:30).
Jacob didn’t know what Rachel had done, so he protested his innocence by giving Laban permission to look around, swearing that whoever had the idols would die (Gen. 31:32). First Laban went into Jacob’s tent, then into Leah’s tent, then into the two tents of Zilpah and Bilhah (Gen. 31:33). Why did everyone have their own tent? That was the custom back in those days. When you had a new wife, you added a new tent. That’s still the symbolism of the huppah (the bridal canopy) under which the bride and groom stand in Jewish weddings today. It represents putting up a new tent for your new wife.
And then Laban came to the tent of Rachel. She knew he was coming, so she quickly put the idols in the camel saddle and sat on it (Gen. 31:34). What’s a camel saddle? It’s a little wooden frame that rests on cloths or cushions to protect the back of the camel. Then it, too, is covered with cloths or cushions to make the ride more comfortable. And that’s where you sit when you ride the camel. When you’re not riding, you take the saddle and all its coverings off the camel and set it on the ground or, as Rachel did, in her tent.
Rachel apologized for not getting up because, she said, it was her time of “the way of women,” in other words, her monthly period (Gen. 31:35). This little ruse worked, but Laban still hadn’t found his idols. So what was he going to do? Sometime in the future, Jacob or one of his descendants could come and claim the inheritance from his sons.
So he decided to make a covenant with Jacob. "Come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and it will be a witness between you and me” (Gen. 31:44). How did they do that? “Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as a standing stone [a mazzebah]” (Gen. 31:45). So there goes Jacob with his standing stones again (as we saw last time, when he was at Bethel). In the custom of the desert, they were used not only to represent gods, but also to represent treaties between tribes and, as we see here, even between individuals. And then:
Gen. 31:46,48: “And Jacob said to his kinsmen, ‘Gather stones,’ So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap [a covenant meal].... And Laban said, `This heap is a witness between you and me this day."
Although it might seem at first like the standing stone and the heap were two separate objects, what this means is that the heap was set over the standing stone, as in the stone heaps found in that area of Gilead still today. In fact, what they did might even have been inspired by the many stone structures in that area that had been built just a few generations earlier, in the time just before Abraham, and that are still there today. The Bedouin still put up piles of stones for many different reasons today, including trail markers and boundary markers. Even the Arab farmers use piles of stones to mark off the borders of their fields, a practice that goes all the way back to Bible days (Deut. 19:14).
The standing stone with the heap of stones over it was to be a witness of their covenant (Gen. 31:48). And the meal they ate was a covenant meal “sealing the deal” so to speak (Gen. 31:54). We’ve talked before about the tremendous importance of these covenant meals at the time, like our communion service that we continue to observe as Christians today. And what was the agreement between them exactly? It was a non-aggression treaty (Gen. 31:52). They were establishing a boundary between them.
They formalized their agreement by appealing to God, “the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor judge between us, the God of their father, and Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac” (Gen. 31:53). Who is “the God of their father”? This is referring to the father of Abraham and Nahor, Terah (Gen. 11:27). Now this is very interesting. Because it tells us that Terah did end up worshipping the same God as Abraham. Jacob and Laban made the treaty in the name of their ancestors and their common ancestor, Terah. But what’s lacking? They both swore by the God of their ancestors, but never claimed him as their own God. The next morning, Laban left.
Jacob Wrestles the Angel
|The Jabbok River|
So Jacob continued until he came to the Jabbok River. The Jabbok is not very wide, depending on the season and the amount of rain. But Jacob had some kind of experience here (Gen. 32:1). The Bible just says "the messengers of God met him." But there are no details. Was this a spiritual experience with angels? Or were they human messengers, prophets of some kind? We don’t know. What we do know is that he was very concerned about meeting his brother Esau. He was about to face the consequences of his actions from so long ago.
So Jacob called the place, Mahanaim (Two Camps, Gen. 32:2). Does this refer to a heavenly camp in addition to his own earthly camp? Another interpretation is that the messengers brought him the divine inspiration to divide his own group into two companies, which he soon did, in order to protect himself against attack (Gen 32:7). This was after he had sent messengers to his brother Esau in Edom, which was straight south of Gilead, to feel out the situation, and see how angry his brother still was with him. When the messengers came back, they said that Esau was coming with 400 men (Gen. 32:6). That sounded very dangerous. So Jacob divided everyone into two groups.
That was the first time Jacob called out to the Lord to help him, and reminded God of his promises to him (Gen. 32:9,11). It seems his troubles were making his heart softer toward God. Then he sent different groups of servants and animals before him as presents to his brother, to try to diffuse his wrath as he rode north. But he still had no idea how his brother would respond.
So that night, he sent his wives and his children across the Jabbok River while he remained behind. In the darkness, the Bible says he wrestled with a "man" until daybreak who dislocated his thigh (Gen. 32:24,25). Toward dawn, this "man" blessed him and gave him the new name, Israel, which means "he who strives with God." (Gen. 32:28).
Jacob himself was clearly convinced that his strange visitor was God: he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God” (Gen. 32:30). Here’s that old idea again that meeting face to face with God meant certain death. But somehow he had seen God and lived.
Who was this man who was also God? This is one of the appearances of the Son of God, whom we now know as Jesus (Yeshua). We already mentioned wrestling as an image of spiritual combat in the book of Ephesians. Paul says, "our wrestling is not against flesh and blood" but against the spiritual forces of darkness (Eph. 6:12). But in this case, the spiritual darkness was in Jacob himself, yet he proved victorious with the help of God. This experience was a huge turning point in his life: perhaps we might even call it his true spiritual awakening. Now he only lacked taking a definite step of commitment to God. And that’s what he did when he finally made his way back to Bethel.
So what about you? Where are you in your walk with God? Is God a distant idea, as he long was to Jacob, the deceiver? Or has God been getting your attention through the troubles you’ve experienced? Or has the voice of God been getting louder and clearer lately, with maybe an occasional spiritual wrestling match or two? What a beautiful picture that is of the battle that rages over ever soul. It may seem sometimes as if we want to give up in defeat, as if we’re doomed to destruction. But then God steps in to wrestle with us: not to defeat us, but to help us have victory over the darkness in ourselves: to deliver us from destruction, and bring us to eternity.
Let’s pray: Lord we thank you so much that you care enough about us to get involved in our lives. You could just leave us and let us destroy ourselves, as we certainly would do without your help. But in your mercy and your compassion, you reach into our hearts and into our lives, to give us hope, to give us a second chance. So many of us, like Jacob, suffer from deception: deceiving others, and in the process deceiving ourselves, too. But by your power you can bring us out of our self-deception, out of our delusions about reality and about the world, and into the truth of who you are. Help us Lord. Wrestle with us if need be. But don’t ever let us go—just as you never let go of Jacob. And we thank you and we praise you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
(For more on this topic, see the index category Jacob.)