Monday, November 02, 2009

Jacob Grows His Own Flocks -- Genesis 30:37-43

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. 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. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 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. 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; but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys.

This passage is one that you either get right away or you need help in understanding it. I have always, and still do, need the help. So let’s take it one step at a time. Jacob takes branches or rods from poplar, almond and plane trees. A ‘plane-tree’ is said to refer to either very tall trees, hence the name, or trees that are already stripped of their bark. Another expositor interprets them as chestnut trees. For purposes of this passage, the first and last interpretations are the better translations. From these trees, Jacob peels off bark in vertical lines in such a way that the whiter color of the tree is exposed in vertical rows, alternating with rows of bark having a darker color. He then takes these striped rods and sets them in front of the flocks where they are watering.

The text then says, “and they mated when they came to drink.” While there is a temporal connection between what Jacob did and the fact that the animals mated, we are not certain as to whether there is a cause and effect one. The text also says that the result of their mating was indeed “striped, speckled, and spotted” offspring. Is it possible that the power of imagination associated with staring at those multi-colored sticks might influence the type of young that they have? Some believe this custom was common to the shepherds of the area at the time if they wanted to have cattle of a motley color. Whatever the phenomenon behind all this, we do know that we are called to become proficient in the trades that we apply ourselves to. To learn as much about it as we possibly can and to apply what we have learned with great diligence to improve our products and services for the good of mankind. This is exactly what Jacob was doing.

What happens next is not perfectly clear but here is the version I have put together based on my understanding of the text and the reading of some bible commentators. Once Jacob’s flocks (or sheep) started getting the motley offspring he was hoping for as a result of his little experiment with them, he continued the practice, this time with the new lambs. He separated the lambs and made them face the striped and all black sheep that he had acquired from Laban’s flocks, so they too would be influenced by what they saw and keep reproducing similar spotted and speckled offspring. He also kept any of his own herd’s offspring that were all white away so they would not influence the mating of the others. At the same time, he always made sure all his flocks were kept separate from Laban’s personal herds.

Perhaps it is important to stop for a moment and point out that the text implies that, at least for the animal kingdom, the eyes are very impressionable. That is what the animal sees can influence his or her behavior. It strikes me that as humans, we were created in a similar manner as far as this goes. It behooves us therefore to be careful as to what we set before our eyes but also to guard what we set before the eyes of our young children and grandchildren. There is no doubt they will very clearly be impacted by it.

So, by using a form of selective breeding as well as physical stimuli, Jacob became very good at his job and God blessed his repeated efforts to end up with a much stronger herd than Laban. He continued repeating the process using the striped rods when the stronger of his herd were mating and didn’t use them for the weaker one’s who ended up being Laban’s.

It does not take rocket science to figure out that ultimately Jacob becomes exceedingly prosperous with some of the largest flocks around, and very large numbers of both male and female servants, and camels and donkeys to transport all his people and goods. The man had definitely arrived. And he did this relatively quickly.

Was it just his skills at husbandry? I would suggest that he kept his deal with Laban honestly, but applied his own special skills to his own herds. However, as a good steward and as the head shepherd of his boss’s flocks, did he have an ethical responsibility to have applied similar techniques to them? I believe he did. I believe that if God places us under the working authority of someone else, we have a responsibility to be as diligent in our work for them as we do in our own industrious endeavors, especially if those endeavors have initially been made possible by our employer. At the same time, others look at this passage of scripture and feel that God blessed Jacob because of the very fact that he was faithful to Laban and his property for all those years. I do not disagree that he was and that indeed, this possibly played a part in what God did for Jacob, but that does not deny the fact that he had a responsibility, as long as he remained in Laban’s employ, to develop all his herds in the same manner.

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