Any parent with more than one child knows that no two children have the same personality. One child will be born raring to go, eager to move on to the next stage in their life, while another child will be so laid back the parents wonder how they will ever get them to leave home. That personality affects everything in the child’s life. It affects the career they choose, who they will marry—even how they will retire. It also affects the kinds of sins they will commit and the character flaws they will have to struggle to overcome.
The very non-identical twins Jacob and Esau are a good illustration of personality differences. Esau was a man of the moment. That tendency was so pronounced that he was willing to sacrifice his future birthright (worth many thousands of dollars) for something in the present that was tiny—in fact, for nothing more than a single meal. Jacob, on the other hand, was a mover and shaker. In fact, he was a conniver. No matter the situation, he would come up with a plan to turn it to his advantage. While Esau needed to learn self-control and to value the things God valued, Jacob needed to learn that God was the one in control, not Jacob. The story in Genesis does not tell us whether Esau ever learned his lessons, but it follows Jacob’s life in great detail. God was determined to make him into a worthy ancestor of the nation of Israel. Some of God’s lessons for Jacob were quite painful. Imagine how it would feel to discover the morning after your wedding night that you had been tricked into marrying the wrong girl! Imagine ending up with two wives who were constantly competing with each other. Those were painful lessons, but God was slowly pointing Jacob in the right direction.
Jacob finally finished the 14 years of work for his father-in-law to pay for his two wives (twice as long as he had originally agreed and twice as many wives as he had ever wanted). At that point he said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country” (Genesis 30:25). Laban was just as much a conniver as Jacob, and he loved money. He could see that God had blessed him because of his son-in-law Jacob, so he urged him to stay. “Name your wages, and I will give it.” Normal wages for a shepherd in those days might have been 20% of the new lambs, but Jacob had a strange suggestion. He did not want a fixed percentage. Instead, he wanted all the lambs and kids born with unusual coloration (black sheep or spotted goats). Normally, the occurrence of unusual coloration would have been quite a bit less than 20%, but Jacob had a plan (as he always did). Laban agreed to those terms, but he also had a plan. He immediately had his sons remove all the sheep and goats that were already discolored and take them far enough away that Jacob could not use them to breed more sheep like them. Jacob was starting with pure white sheep and pure black goats. With Jacob and Laban we see two men who are determined to bend the world to their will, which put them on a collision course in this matter of wages for Jacob.
Jacob’s plan strikes us moderns as very strange. He took branches and peeled the bark off in strips to make them striped. Then he placed them so that the flocks would look at them when they mated. Before the modern science of genetics taught people differently, it was believed that what an animal saw when it was mating would affect the appearance of the baby. Jacob believed that unscientific theory and it actually seemed to work. He got lots of black lambs and speckled kids. So many, in fact, that he upset the greedy Laban. So Laban changed the rules so that Jacob would keep a different coloration of sheep and goats (sometimes striped, at other times spotted). But then, strangely enough, the sheep and goats started producing that different coloration (Genesis 31:8). Laban switched the rules several times, but each time his animals produced exactly what was needed for Jacob to be handsomely paid for his work. In fact, Jacob became rich.
How was it possible for Jacob’s plan to work when we know that genetics does not work that way? And even if striped logs did work, how could they produce different types of coloration, depending on what kind Laban assigned to Jacob at a particular time? In fact, it had nothing to do with Jacob’s tricks. God was working to protect him from Laban’s greed. I don’t know if Jacob suspected that, but finally God apppeared to Jacob in a dream and explained to him that He was the one providing all of those sheep and goats for him.
This was kind of the story of Jacob’s life. He was always working one angle or another to get what he wanted, when, in fact, what he needed was to trust God. Before he was born God had promised that he would be master over his brother, yet instead of believing God’s promise, he thought he had to trick his father into giving him the blessing. When he had to run for his life because of that trick, God appeared to him and promised to keep him safe and bring him back home. Yet instead of trusting in God he thought he had to keep working his angles to get the better of his father-in-law. He still has a ways to go before he will have learned the lesson to trust God, but God is determined that he will learn it, as we will see in the coming chapters of Genesis.
How many times are we just like Jacob, working our little tricks, even though they don’t really work, while failing to trust in God and His ways? When will we realize that everything really is up to God? Our job is to trust and obey Him.
Jacob certainly had not planned to be gone from home this long. His mother had sent him to stay with her brother for “a while, until your brother’s fury turns away” (Genesis 27:44), but a little while turned into seven years that he worked to pay for his wife, then seven years turned into 14 when he had to pay for two wives. After the 14 years he tried to go back home, but his uncle urged him to stay, so he stayed another six years while he gained flocks and herds of his own. By the end of that time his uncle and his uncle’s sons were starting to resent his good fortune. “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth” (Genesis 31:1). Then the Lord told Jacob to go back to the land of his fathers. He promised him, “I will be with you.”
God is not done training Jacob. He has learned some valuable—though painful—lessons during the past 20 years, but he still has not learned to truly trust God. So when he left, he waited until Laban was out of town, and then “Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee” (Genesis 31:20). He thought that if he told Laban he was leaving, Laban would do something to try to stop him. He did not truly believe God’s promise that He would be with Jacob.
Jacob and his family were gone three days before his father-in-law learned that he had left. Laban gathered all his kinsmen and chased after him. Apparently, he did not appreciate being tricked like that! He finally caught up with Jacob a week later. But the night before he showed up at Jacob’s tent, God came to Laban in a dream and told him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad” (verse 24). In other words, “Don’t try to persuade him to return, and don’t threaten him.” So all Laban could do was rebuke Jacob for how he went about leaving. “Why did you flee secretly and trick me?” Laban was right, though he was not the ideal person to make that protest, given the trick he had earlier played on Jacob by giving him the wrong daughter to marry.
After accusations from both sides (since both parties had sinned against the other), Laban insisted on making a covenant with his son-in-law. It was a strange covenant to make between family members. They made a pile of rocks and then promised that neither of them would pass that heap to do the other harm. After that, Jacob never went back to Haran (Laban’s city) and none of his descendants did, either. He was the last person of Abraham’s descendants to go back there for a wife.
So God had rescued Jacob from another jam of his own making. Jacob still has not truly learned that God is the one in control, but he is getting there. In the next chapter he will face the most difficult test of his life and will finally learn the lesson God wants him to learn.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible.