Some controversy has arisen over the idea of Jacob creating a flock of speckled and spotted goats and black sheep out of a flock in which there were none simply by breeding them in front of striped sticks. Scientifically, does this make sense? Does this put the Bible in jeopardy?
First, let's start with the story, found in Genesis 30:25-43:
"As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, 'Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.' But Laban said to him, 'If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you. Name your wages, and I will give it.' Jacob said to him, 'You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?' He said, 'What shall I give you?' Jacob said, 'You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.' Laban said, 'Good! Let it be as you have said.'"
Up to this point, everything seems great. Laban has agreed to Jacob's terms. Then we read:
But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in charge of his sons. And he set a distance of three days' journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban's flock.
Essentially, Laban just ran off with Jacob's wages and made the prospect of any other speckled or spotted goats or black lambs quite unlikely.
Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and pealed white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flacks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. he put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban's flock. Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban's and the stronger Jacob's. Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
At first glance everything seems top-shelf, but some are quick to point out an issue. How did Jacob make an entire flock of speckled and spotted goats and black lambs out of a flock devoid of them just by using colored sticks? Everything else makes sense. Shepherds would have understood that breeding strong animals produces other strong animals and would have known when their animals were ready to breed. However, the principle that the animals' coloring could be affected by visual aids is simply not possible from a scientific aspect.
So why did Jacob do it? And why did it work? As to Jacob's methods, they were probably derived from the traditions of farmers in the area. The IVP Bible Background Commentary states:
The stripped rods which Jacob places before the troughs of the sheep cannot genetically affect the sheep. This type of sympathetic magic is found in many folk traditions (including modern tales of colors worn by a mother determining the sex of her child). It plays a part in the trickster theme of this narrative and is reflective of a culture which depended on a mixture of magical and commonsense methods to produce results.
Perhaps Jacob was covering his bases and decided to follow some of the local magical traditions. Maybe he was talking with some other shepherds who suggested it to him and, upon seeing it working, decided to keep it up. However, the true reason for its effectiveness is found in Genesis 31:10-13
In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob,' and I said, 'Here I am!' And he said, 'Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'"
In the grand scheme of things, the naysayers' focus on the unscientific use of the striped rods has caused them to overlook the answer to their alleged problem: the sticks are not mentioned as the true cause for Jacob's success in breeding. Rather, God has been with Jacob and caused his foolish human efforts to succeed in order to bless him!
Sometimes we can get caught up on a confusing detail that a little further reading of the context will make clear. I hope this has enriched your reading!
--Pastor Stephen Valcourt