Verse 25 of chapter 30 begins a peculiar story that very few seem to understand. But understanding Jacob's reasoning in his strange deal with Laban can help us to better see Jacob's character development.
Jacob had served Laban 14 years. Now he wished to depart and return to his father in Canaan. Laban, however, was eager to have Jacob remain, for God had blessed everything Jacob did while in Laban's household, and Laban had grown rich. "Name me your wages, and I will give it," Laban said (verse 28), hoping to entice Jacob to stay. "You shall not give me anything," Jacob replied. This is essential to understand, for an inattentive reading of the story can make it seem as if Jacob separated the colored and spotted sheep from Laban's flock and took them for his payment. He most emphatically did not. Jacob took out the colored and spotted sheep and gave them to Laban, whose sons took them away a distance of three days' journey (verse 36). This left Jacob with only the pure white sheep.
The last clause of verse 32, "and these shall be my wages," is a little confusing. The Hebrew literally says, "it shall be [i.e., in the future] my wages." Jacob was not saying that the spotted and colored sheep he removed from the flock would be his wages. Instead, "You shall not give me anything," were Jacob's words. The spotted and colored sheep were given to the sons of Laban, who drove them three days' journey away. Instead, Jacob was saying that in the future any spotted or colored sheep born in the flock that Jacob would tend would be his wages. But this seemed impossible to LabanJacob was left with only the white sheep! How could white sheep bear spotted and colored sheep? That is why Laban so hastily agreed to the deal: "Oh, that it were according to your word!" (verse 34).
Now, the beginning of verse 33 is most important. "So my righteousness will answer for me in the time to come, when the subject of my wages comes before you...." This telling declaration marks a profound advancement in Jacob's character development. When Jacob arrived in Padan Aram he was a grasping manipulator who relied upon his own innate abilities and craft to obtain what he wanted. But 14 years of service for Labanduring which Laban consistently outwitted him, and during which God blessed him in all that he didhad produced a change in Jacob. He had now progressed to the point where he relied upon his righteous conduct to secure blessings and prosperity from God. That is a dramatic change of heart, a major development in right character!
Verse 37 begins the equally odd business of the poplar, almond and chestnut branches. Many commentators suggest some kind of magic practice, or that the peeled rods were intended to cause the sheep to imitate the partly colored rods by bringing forth partly colored sheep. Yet this is certainly not what Jacob was engaged in here. Notice verse 38: "And the rods which he had peeled, he 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." The word "conceive" is translated from the Hebrew yacham, literally meaning "to be hot," and which, when speaking of animals, can mean "to be in heat." By peeling the fresh cut rods (verse 37), Jacob caused the sap-filled meat of the rods to be exposed, thus possibly allowing the sap of the rods to mingle with the water in the watering troughs. Perhaps he believed this additive in the water would help to bring the animals to heat. It has also been suggested that the peeled rods were used as a sort of corralling fence, set up when the flocks came to drink to keep them together longer for mating. Verses 41-42 also inform us that Jacob practiced selective breeding, ensuring that the best of the flock would be subject to his treatment of the water.
But all this did not produce the spotted and colored sheep. These actions only aided Jacob in selecting which sheep would breed at what time. God caused the unusual coloration of the sheep. As Jacob said: "My righteousness will answer for me." The production of colored sheep was God's response to Jacob's righteousness. Indeed, we later find out that Laban, seeing the results, kept changing the deal about which sheep Jacob would getand, in every case, God followed suit with the coloration of sheep produced. Jacob explained to his wives: "God did not allow [Laban] to hurt me. If he said thus: 'The speckled shall be your wages,' then all the flocks bore speckled. And if he said thus: 'The streaked shall be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked. So God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me" (31:7-9).
Jacob had matured tremendously while in service to Laban. He had moved away from his grasping, manipulative ways and had come to the point where he understood that prosperity and protection are dependent on righteous conduct before God. And for that, God rewarded and prospered him. Jacob's character, however, was to be further developed.