Let me take a minute to recap where we are in our story: Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the birthright over his brother Esau. As a result Jacob is forced to flee his home on account old Hairy now wants to kill him. Isaac and Rebekah decide it’s best to send Jacob to Haran to stay with his Uncle Laban - at least until Esau calms down.
What was to be a temporary stay ends up becoming a permanent layover - which doesn’t exactly bother Jacob as he immediately starts crushing on his hot cousin Rachel. Because Jacob obviously needs a place to stay and ultimately wants to marry Rachel, he and Laban reach an agreement where he’ll work seven years for her hand.
On the wedding night Laban then tricks Jacob into marrying Rachel’s ugly, older sister Leah. Tragically, instead of trusting God with his circumstances and learning to love Leah, Jacob impulsively agrees to retroactively work another seven years so he can also marry Rachel.
As a result of having sister-wives Jacob’s home is filled with dysfunction. Though he loves Rachel, we’re told she’s unable to have children. In contrast, deeply desiring loving affection from the husband tricked into marrying her we read that the Lord compassionately opens Leah’s womb and she bears Jacob four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.
Note: As wedding gifts Laban gave Rachel a handmaiden named Bilhah, and to Leah he gives Zilpah. I mention this because these two women will also contribute to the dysfunction.
From a macro-perspective what makes the last few verses of Genesis 29 and chapter 30 significant is that it documents the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons. This is noteworthy because, by the time Moses complies the Genesis record, the families of these sons will have grown to be twelve unique tribes. Later on in our travels we will see God change Jacob’s name to Israel which is why we have the twelve tribes of Israel or literally the twelve sons of Jacob.
Genesis 30:1-2, “Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die!’ And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’”
I tell you this Jacob is quite a guy! He marries two sisters (Rachel who’s a babe and Leah who’s isn’t). Then to compound his problems Jacob makes no bones about how deeply he loves Rachel with the Scriptures affirming that poor Leah was unloved.
And yet, by the time Leah finally provides Jacob his fourth son, Rachel begins to see the tide turning. We’re told, for probably the first time in her life, “Rachel envied her sister” Leah.
There is no doubt Rachel was still Jacob’s arm-candy - she was clearly the trophy-wife; that said, upon seeing the joy Jacob was having with Leah and their boys, her motherly instincts take over. In what we can assume to be a private moment between them, Rachel’s raw emotions over her barrenness come flooding out to Jacob… “Give me children, or else I die!” Rachel is distraught. She’s overcome. More than anything else she wants to have children.
Sadly, instead of listening to the genuine cries of his wife, calming her angst, reassuring his love and commitment… Instead of bearing Rachel’s burdens, reminding her that it wasn’t her fault, exhorting her to place her faith in the loving God - how does Jacob respond?
First, the text tells us Jacob gets angry. For years Rachel was the chill sister wife… She was no drama… Fun to be around. I imagine the nights he spent with her were a huge relief - a vacation of sorts when you consider he was always dealing with needy Leah. Now that things seem to have settled down with Leah to Jacob’s surprise Rachel starts nagging!
Look again at what Jacob says to her in his anger… He says, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” In a sense Jacob lashes out at Rachel by saying, “Why are you getting onto me? What can I do about it? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I don’t seem to be having any problems procreating! The problem isn’t with me - It’s you!”
Genesis 30:3-6, “So Rachel said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.’ Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son.’ Therefore she called his name Dan.”
As we’ve noted before, this practice of a having a surrogate wasn’t abnormal. In fact, when a woman was unable to bear children, such an approach was culturally accepted. Note: Though Jacob would inseminate Bilhah, the child that resulted would be legally Rachel’s - at least theoretically. As such Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son named Dan.
Genesis 30:7-8, “And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, ‘With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed.’ So she called his name Naphtali.”
Since the first go around had been successful, Rachel wants Jacob to sleep with Bilhah again - he happily obliges - and she bears him a sixth son named Naphtali. Sadly, Rachel’s reaction to the good news reveals a deep fissure had grown between her and Leah. These two sisters have now gotten into an obvious competition vying for Jacob’s affections.
Genesis 30:9-13, “When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took Zilpah her maid and gave her to Jacob as wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, ‘A troop comes!’ So she called his name Gad. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, ‘I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.’ So she called his name Asher.”
Seeing that Rachel was catching up to her on the baby front and figuring she was no longer able to conceive herself, Leah takes a page out of Rachel’s playbook by offering to Jacob her handmaiden Zilpah. As a result, she gives Jacob sons seven Gad and eight Asher.
Genesis 30:14-15, “Now Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But Leah said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said, ‘Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’”
Dang! You can feel the relational strain and animosity. You could have cut the tension between Rachel and Leah with a knife. According to our text, Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn son) stumbles upon some mandrakes in the field and brings them to his mother Leah.
The reason this is significant is that mandrakes (and more specifically the root of this plant indigenous to the Mediterranean) were widely seen in ancient cultures as being medicinal and were used to treat infertility. Since Leah was presently unable to conceive, young Reuben is doing this as a kindness to his mother. He’s taking care of his mom.
Well… When Rachel catches word that Reuben has brought Leah some mandrakes she obviously wants in on the action in order to treat her infertility as well. Keep in mind, unlike Leah, Rachel has yet to have any children without the aid of a surrogate. Notice Leah’s reaction to her sister’s request… “You took away my husband!” Oh man the truth comes out.
Sensing Leah was not going to show her any kindness, Rachel proposes a trade… “If you give me the mandrakes, I’ll make sure Jacob sleeps with you instead of me tonight.” Rachel is so desperate to have children of her own she’s willing to prostitute her own husband.
Genesis 30:16-21, “When Jacob came out of the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, ‘You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you 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. Leah said, ‘God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.’ So she called his name Issachar.
Then Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. And Leah said, ‘God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.’ So she called his name Zebulun. Afterward she bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah.”
Much to her chagrin Rachel’s plan totally backfires. Leah sleeps with Jacob and conceives to bears him two more sons (her 5th Issachar and 6th Zebulun). Note: This brings Jacob’s total number of sons to ten. We’re also told after all of this Leah “bore a daughter and called her name Dinah.” The reason Dinah is recorded will play itself out in a future story making it entirely likely there had been an unspecified number of girls born to Jacob than just this one.
Genesis 30:22-24, “Then 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.’ So she called his name Joseph, and said, ‘The Lord shall add to me another son.’
How interesting that “God remembered Rachel?” Note: This word doesn’t imply God had forgotten about her. The implication of this word “remembered” is that God’s attention now centered upon His work in her life. What the word tells us is that now the time was right for God to work. We must consider what change prompted God’s intervention?
As it pertains to the flow of the text, now that the mandrakes have failed, Rachel reverts to the only thing she hasn’t tried… She prays! Keep in mind, in stark contrast to the faith of Leah, this is the very first time we see any type of spirituality stemming from Rachel.
Within our text we find Rachel using two different names for God. First, in this statement “God has taken away my reproach” Rachel is using the classical title for God or “Elohiym.” What makes this interesting is that, in addition to being a masculine noun, it’s a plural word being used in a singular context. There is but one God existing in three persons. Note: This is significant for Rachel grew up in a culture mired in polytheism.
Secondly, in this statement “the LORD shall add to me another son” Rachel is using the personal name for this God - Yahweh or Jehovah. Whereas “Elohiym” spoke of God’s eternal nature, Yahweh was the term by which God revealed Himself to humanity. It’s relational.
I’m under the impression that what changed in Rachel’s life… The very development that prompted God to “open her womb” so that she’d conceive and bear a son was her decision to place her faith in Jacob’s God and turn to the LORD in her distress. As we’ll see with Joseph it’s likely Rachel ends up leaving her son quite a powerful spiritual heritage.
Understand, spiritual barrenness is the status quo for all those separated from God by sin. You see apart from the direct involvement of God you will never be fruitful. Leah bore fruit because she had a relationship with God. Rachel was barren because she did not.
Rachel did everything she could to yield life. She even used her husband to barter with Leah for mandrakes only to then watch her sister conceive again! Maybe it was in this moment Rachel came to recognize it was Leah’s relationship with God that was making her fruitful. Leah conceived not because of mandrakes, but on account that “God listened to her.”
Friend, if your life is fruitless - if you aren’t seeing a greater Godliness emerge - if you aren’t seeing the development of spiritual vitality - if you aren’t growing more into the image and likeness of Jesus - if you’re barren, please reject the mandrakes of religious moralism that peddle things for you to remedy the problem and instead cry out to the God who listens!
Remember in Galatians 5:22-23 we’re told it is “the fruit of the Spirit” that yields in us “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Genesis 30:25, “And it came to pass, 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.’”
For context Jacob has been working for Laban for approximately twenty years. Not only did he labor fourteen years for his wives, but Jacob continued to work six additional years. It’s interesting, but while we don’t know what sparked his desire to leave, the text does imply there was something about Joseph’s birth that stirred this desire within Jacob.
Genesis 30:26-28, “Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service which I have done for you.’ And Laban said to him, ‘Please stay, if I have found favor in your eyes, for I have learned by experience that the Lord has blessed me for your sake.’ Then he said, ‘Name me your wages, and I will give it.’”
Though Jacob is expressing his desire to leave immediately, Laban rightly understood Jacob had been good for business. This statement, “I have learned by experience that the LORD has blessed me for your sake” is interesting. Don’t forget Laban wasn’t a believer. He was a pagan idolater. Laban was a polytheist and believed in a pantheon of false gods.
By using this personal name “LORD” for Jacob’s God, Laban is admitting that through his “experience” with Jacob he’d come to recognize that his God was real, that God’s hand was clearly on Jacob’s life, and that the blessings Laban himself was enjoying came as a byproduct. Blessings had come to Laban’s home because of God's presence in Jacob.
May I ask you a question? What does your life say about Jesus? Do people see Jesus manifesting through you? When they interact with you do they experience a measure of the divine? Do they see the fruit of His Spirit? Are the people around you witnessing a transformation so radicle it can only be attributed to a supernatural influence? Do they concede God must be real for His presence in your life is undeniable? Are you salt and light?
Consider what reality in Jacob’s life was so apparent Laban had to concede God was real? Was it Jacob’s obedience? Was it his vast understanding of the Scriptures? Was it the way he treated his wives or family? Was it anything Jacob had done or was presently doing? No! Laban knew Jacob well. He knew what kind of man Jacob really was. And yet, it was God’s grace demonstrated to Jacob in spite of him that had made a powerful impression on Laban.
With all of this in mind, you can understand then why Laban proceeds to tell Jacob to “name his wages.” While Jacob felt a calling to leave, Laban does everything he can to entice Jacob to stay. Ironically, this is the second time Laban has presented Jacob with a “name-your-price” proposition, and let’s just say the first time didn’t work out so well.
Genesis 30:29-31, “So Jacob said to him, ‘You know how I have served you and how your livestock has been with me. For what you had before I came was little, and it has increased to a great amount; the Lord has blessed you since my coming. And now, when shall I also provide for my own house?’ So Laban said, ‘What shall I give you?’ And Jacob replied, ‘You shall not give me anything. If you will do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep your flocks…”
Laban is desperate to retain his son-in-law’s services for purely selfish reasons, and Jacob is correct that it was indeed time he began to make money for his own families security and legacy. Clearly these two realities give Jacob the upper hand in his negotiation with Laban.
Genesis 30:32-34, “Let me pass through all your flock today, removing from there all the speckled and spotted sheep, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and these shall be my wages. So my righteousness will answer for me in time to come, when the subject of my wages comes before you: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs, will be considered stolen, if it is with me.’ And Laban said, ‘Oh, that it were according to your word!’”
Instead of pay Jacob wants a part of Laban’s flock he can use to create his own. Knowing purebred goats were black and lambs white making them more valuable, Jacob asks Laban to give him the lesser valued “speckled and spotted” from among the herd as his wage.
Genesis 30:35-36, “So Laban removed that day the male goats that were speckled and spotted, all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had some white in it, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and gave them into the hand of his sons. Then he put three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.”
Now that the terms have been agreed upon and the flocks separated, it appears the terms stipulated that Laban’s sons would care for Jacob’s flock of “speckled and spotted” sheep and goats while Jacob would continue to care for Laban’s herd of purebreds.
From that day moving forward anytime a blemished goat or sheep was born in Laban’s herd it would be given to Jacob as his wage. No doubt this particular arrangement provided an incentive for Jacob to try and figure out a way to tweak the offspring to his favor.
Genesis 30:37-43, “Now Jacob took for himself rods of green poplar and of the almond and chestnut trees, peeled white strips in them, and exposed the white which was in the rods. And the rods which he had peeled, Jacob set before the flocks in the gutters, in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, so that they should conceive when they came to drink.
So the flocks conceived before the rods, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted. Then Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the streaked and all the brown in the flock of Laban; but he put his own flocks by themselves and did not put them with Laban’s flock.
And it came to pass, whenever the stronger livestock conceived, that Jacob placed the rods before the eyes of the livestock in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods. But when the flocks were feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. Thus the man became exceedingly prosperous, had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys.”
Obviously Jacob wants these purebred goats and sheep to yield speckled and spotted offspring so he can keep them. Not only did placing these branches into the watering troughs seem to increase the results he desired, but selective breeding also contributed.
Regardless of how any of this actually worked scientifically, the chapter ends with Jacob clearly experiencing the blessings of God. Not only had he been blessed with eleven sons and an untold number of daughters, but we read “the man became exceedingly prosperous.” In the ancient Hebrew this verse reads, “The man burst out exceedingly exceedingly!”
In closing… Please consider the story arch of Jacob. Though chosen by God to receive the birthright, Jacob felt inclined to purchase it from Esau for a bowl of soup. Though ordained by God to receive the blessing, Jacob hatched a deceit to steal it from his father.
While we can assume God had a wife in mind for Jacob, instead of trusting the Lord to provide Jacob set out to earn one by working seven years for Laban. Then when this plan took an unexpected turn, Jacob failed to recognize the providence of God and foolishly chooses to labor another seven years so that he can marry Rachel in addition to Leah.
Though likely God wanted to bless Jacob with many sons, instead of letting God work His way and in His timing Jacob capitulates to feuding wives, sleeps around with four women, which only compounds the dysfunction in his home. Beyond this… When he should have obeyed the Lord’s stirring and left Laban trusting that God would provide for his needs, Jacob hatches another scheme to attain great wealth via human ingenuity.
If Abraham’s life illustrates how God’s grace remains sufficient in the presence of overt human failure, Jacob’s illustrates how God’s grace remains sufficient in the presence of unnecessary human involvement. In a sense Jacob represents religion… A human scheme to earn the blessed life God intends to bestow via the mechanism of His grace.
Don’t forget this had been the entire purpose of the dream Jacob had been given at Bethel. God was trying to tell Jacob that he didn’t need to strive to attain a blessing God wanted to give him. Tragically, the notion God didn’t need Jacob’s help to accomplish His will in his life was something Jacob still failed to understand.
And while at this point in our story there is no doubt God has blessed Jacob in spite of him and not because of him (as C.H. Mackintosh wrote, “The more man sinks, the more God’s grace rises.”) the truth we should not fail to recognize is that because Jacob can’t let go and simply let God work, his life (while blessed) is a complete mess…
Jacob has ruined his relationship with his brother Esau, alienated himself from his mom and dad, been forced to flee the Promised Land, created a completely dysfunctional home life, and as we’ll see next Sunday eventually tarnishes his reputation with Laban.
Friend, while it’s true your life is blessed because God’s grace always remains sufficient, you can minimize the messes if you stop trying so hard to be the person only God can make you! Please understand… God doesn’t need your help! And if you, via pride, choose to wrestle with God, as we’ll see next Sunday God is more than willing to wrestle right back.
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