Strife and competition between sisters. Deceit and accusations between uncle and nephew. A daughter hiding things from her father. Pending confrontation between brothers. No, I’m not talking about Thanksgiving dinner with the family. This is Jacob’s time in Haran.
Our passage tells of the birth of eleven of the twelve sons of Jacob, who will become the tribes of Israel. We see history repeat itself in this narrative yet again. We have a barren wife who takes matters into her own hands and gives her servant to her husband to have children with her. And we see that this serves to cause more strife within the family.
In 30:14, the competition between the sisters for bearing offspring to Jacob becomes overt. These mandrakes are root vegetables and were widely used in medicinal and superstitious practices all the way through the first century. One of the medicinal/superstitious beliefs was that the mandrake promoted fertility in women. In verse 9, we are told that Leah no longer bore children. She intended the mandrakes to improve her fertility, and Rachel is bargaining to get them for the same reason, and offers up Jacob for a night in exchange. The cosmic irony is that the mandrakes, in a sense, result in Leah conceiving. Finally, after six sons by Leah, and four combined from his wives’ concubines, Jacob has a son with Rachel.
As soon as Joseph is born, Jacob, having completed his years of service and then some, wants to go home. Laban, though, has learned through pagan divination (or the obvious fact) that he has prospered since Jacob has served him. And the two bargain – and deceive – to get what they want. Laban has his sons steal away the sheep and goats he promised to Jacob. Jacob tries to turn all of Laban’s goats spotted and striped (ancient superstition held that whatever a ewe looked at during conception would evidence itself in the coat of her lambs, thus the sticks Jacob laid in front of them). Then, Jacob bred all the strongest animals with the striped, spotted, and black flocks.
Jacob’s uncle and cousins become bitter towards him because he prospered more than they did. God tells Jacob to flee and go back to his homeland. When Laban pursues Jacob, God tells him to leave Jacob alone. When Laban looks for his household idols, Rachel hides them and lies to him. Ultimately, Jacob and Laban agree to never see each other again.
Lies. Superstition. Idolatry. Robbery. Bitterness. Anger. Yet God’s purposes stand. Leah may have believed that a magical root could help her conceive, but only God can do it (30:17). Jacob may have believed silly superstitions about ewe’s bearing spotted lambs, but only God can do it (31:9). Sisters can bargain and sons can be born, but God will choose who will save His people (Joseph), and from whom the Savior will come (Judah).
Indeed, God’s sovereignty knows no limits. In Chapter 32 we are told that Jacob was coming to Esau in “the country of Edom.” God has, as we will see, prospered Esau. He declares this to Israel before they enter the promised land (see Deut 2:4-5). Moses records this preparation by Jacob to meet his brother to encourage the people of Israel to treat the people of Edom in a like manner.
Our passage ends with Jacob’s encounter with God. This is another appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. He symbolically wrestles with Jacob to symbolize his journey – not from his homeland to Haran and back – but from unbelief to faith. Thus, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel (“strives with God”). He also wounds Jacob’s hip, an ailment he lives with the rest of his days. This both symbolizes that our walk in this world as Christians is not without wounds, but also that in our weakness, God is strong.*
We need to remember, when circumstances in this life are far from ideal…when sin abounds all around us and within us…when we need something, want something, or get something…only God can do it. It may seem otherwise, but only God can do it. We may bargain, but only God can do it. We may turn to other means, but only God can do it.
*As John Calvin put it: “For we know that the strength of God is made perfect in our weakness, in order that our exaltation may be joined with humility; for if our own strength remained entire, and there were no injury or dislocation produced, immediately the flesh would become haughty, and we should forget that we had conquered by the help of God.”