This article is part of a series of articles that resulted from my time preaching through the book of Genesis. The commentary on the passage is my own, resulting from hours of research and exegetical study. It is my intent to draw a biblical theology chapter by chapter through the book of Genesis that places the events of the narratives into the broad picture of the entire Bible, demonstrating the progressiveness of theology and the sufficiency of every Word of Scripture. It is my prayer that these articles are helpful to those seeking a better understanding of the book of Genesis and of the Bible as a whole. The sermon series and other resources can be found at www.fbcroxana.com.
1 Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.”
Though she was Jacob’s favored wife, she desperately wanted children. Rachel went to Jacob and demanded children from him, dramatically implying that she would die if he withheld them from her. Sarah and Rebekah before her had been barren for decades before the LORD blessed them with childbirth, and it is never recorded that they made any such demands (though they surely struggled with their barrenness). Rachel had a long way to mature and learn to walk with God.
2 Then Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Jacob too demonstrates a character that still needs much refinement. This outburst is in contrast to the faithful prayers of Isaac over twenty years concerning Rebekah’s barrenness. Though Jacob was not in the place of God, he had the ear of God. But he refused to pray for his wife.
So Rachel resorted to the same plan that Sarah had at one time:
3 She said, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.” 4 So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. 5 Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan.
Jacob becomes a passive character in this narrative, reduced to a stud impregnating (eventually) four women. Rachel’s plan worked, and she became a mother through Bilhah, her maid. She declared God’s vindication of her, showing that she viewed her marriage as a struggle to maintain Jacob’s love in spite of her sister’s intention to win him over through childbirth.
7 Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 So Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have indeed prevailed.” And she named him Naphtali.
Naphtali means ‘struggle’ or ‘wrestlings.’ She declared that she had wrestled with God (mighty wrestlings), and in doing that had wrestled with her sister. By the birth of Naphtali, she felt that she had won the struggle.
9 When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “How fortunate!” So she named him Gad. 12 Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “Happy am I! For women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher.
Leah rejoins the contest with her sister by the same tactic that Rachel had used. She gave her maid to Jacob, and obtained two more sons.
14 Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went 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.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then 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.” So he lay with her that night. 17 God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar. 19 Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. 21 Afterward she bore a daughter and named her Dinah.
Now Jacob’s status has fallen from stud to man-for-hire. In her struggle for Jacob’s affection, Rachel bought Reuben’s mandrakes from Leah, and gave Jacob to Leah for the night in exchange. The mandrakes were perhaps an aphrodisiac that were thought to aid conception (the Hebrew term for mandrake is ‘love fruits’). Having seen Leah’s barrenness, Rachel bought the mandrakes so that she would gain the upper hand in their contest. Ironically, God opens Leah’s womb instead of Rachel’s, and Leah gave Jacob two more sons (for a total of six). She also gave him another daughter (the rest are unmentioned) who would be pertinent in upcoming narratives.
22 Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. 23 So she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” 24 She named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me another son.”
Some years later, God was gracious to answer Rachel’s prayer, and gave her a son. She named him Joseph as a prayer that God would add to her another son. Despite all of her tactics, she finally acknowledged that it was God alone who gave her children.
25 Now it came about when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my own country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me depart; for you yourself know my service which I have rendered you.” 27 But Laban said to him, “If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account.” 28 He continued, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.”
Jacob had sojourned outside the Promised Land for many years. His mother had sent him away with the promise to call him after a few days, but that call (as far as the Scriptures are concerned) never came. In his old age (cf. 37:3), Jacob was concerned to return his family to the Promised Land, lest they remain in Paddan-Aram. Laban, however, wanted Jacob to stay, not because he was loathe to let his children and grandchildren go, but because he did not want to let the blessing go which Jacob’s presence had brought. Like Abimelech, Laban discerned that God was with the covenant family to bless them in all they did.
29 But he said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you and how your cattle have fared with me. 30 For you had little before I came and it has increased to a multitude, and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now, when shall I provide for my own household also?” 31 So he said, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: 32 let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep and every black one among the lambs and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. 33 So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.”
In naming his wages, Jacob dedicated himself to work for Laban for several more years. For his wages, Jacob did not ask the normal twenty percent of the flock. He asked Laban for the abnormally colored part of the flock, which would normally be much less than twenty percent of the flock.
34 Laban said, “Good, let it be according to your word.” 35 So he removed on that day the striped and spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, every one with white in it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and gave them into the care of his sons. 36 And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.
Immediately, Laban changed the terms without so much as a word. Jacob had asked to take the abnormally colored goats and sheep that day as his wages. But Laban separated all the abnormally colored animals from the flock, and put them into the care of his sons. He then gave Jacob the normally colored flock to work with, thinking that he had put Jacob at a disadvantage.
37 Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white which was in the rods. 38 He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. 39 So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40 Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41 Moreover, whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods; 42 but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys.
It is unclear what purpose the rods played. Jacob, at least, seems to have thought that the rods would cause the flocks give birth to abnormally colored animals. Thus, he was able to choose which offspring would be his, allowing him to breed his abnormally colored flock to be strong and Laban’s normally colored flock to be weak. Some have speculated that this was a long-lost method of breeding. Others have speculated that this was Jacob’s attempt at using magic. Still others have speculated that God had told Jacob to use the rods. The point of the narrative is that Jacob’s flock made him rich, and he was able to buy servants and camels and donkeys. It is also apparent that Laban had changed the deal again, for Laban’s flock had striped and black sheep and goats, contrary to the established deal.
Jacob had wandered into the land of Haran with nothing but his staff, and God had prospered him beyond his imagination. God had also sanctified Jacob and his family throughout their years of struggle. They were by no means perfect, but they were well on their way to understanding the promise of God to Abraham. Now, they needed to return to the Promised Land so that they would not be stuck in Haran.
Through Jacob and his wives and concubines came the nation of Israel, who would inherit the covenant that God gave to Abraham. Through them, God sent the Messiah, His Son Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, and died as a sacrifice for sins. Through that sacrifice, God made peace with all who call on His name. And through Jesus, the world will be blessed, for He will return to rule forever among His people.