For me, the most interesting attempted ‘explanation’ of Jacob’s manipulation of the flocks is that which was offered by Professor Scott Noegl of the University of Washington[ii]. His suggestion, based on a particular reading of the Hebrew terms, is that Jacob used the poplar rods as mock phalluses which lured away ewes which he did not want to have breed, thus altering the breeding patterns of Laban’s flocks. This is certainly in line with herding and veterinarian knowledge that, whilst in estrus, female sheep and goats are inclined to rub their vulvas on trees and sticks. Further support may also be drawn from the Hebrew word used for troughs, or runnels. This only appears in the Bible three times, notably in the Song of Songs where it describes a king’s obsession with a woman’s flowing hair. Perhaps therefore what Jacob was doing with the runnels was creating further mock genital features out of flowing goat hair? For the use of goat hair is a scriptural leitmotif elsewhere: for example, as we see in Jacob’s use of goat hair to deceive Isaac, and in his own deception by sons who used goat-hair to paint Joseph’s cloak. Is this another fanciful idea? Possibly. However Noegl’s argument rightly points us to the heart of this story, which is not so much about sheep or wealth as such, but about dynamics of sex, power and deceit. For it is in these that we so often wrestle with salvation, like Jacob with the angel.
For whether you agree with Noegl’s interpretation of the sheep trick, Jacob’s breeding of the sheep is integrally connected to his breeding of his women, a story which immediately precedes this one. Significant literary wordplay is also going on, including puns for example on the meaning of Rachel as ‘ewe’. By manipulating the breeding of Laban’s flocks, Jacob is thus also engaged in a powerful symbolic reversal of Laban’s breeding of his daughters. In Genesis 29 Laban tricks Jacob into receiving Leah (sometimes translated as ‘wild cow’) instead of Rachel the ‘ewe lamb’. In Genesis 30, Jacob tricks Laban into giving him the lambs of his desire. No wonder, as Noegl observed, this story has therefore become obscure. For it has a deliberately bawdy intent: it is about sex and power as well as sheep.
All of that helps us to understand this story better. Yet it remains but another ultimately sad, though interesting, tale of patriarchal conflict unless we also uncover its liberating undercurrents. For it also points us, through sheep and sex to aspects of salvation, not simply for patriarchs but for us all. Let me briefly suggest three of these: aspects which may help us with our question ’how shall we grow?’
Firstly, even though a patriarchal rogue, Jacob is, in this instance, a figure of oppression whose tricks can empower others who are oppressed. The distinguished former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put this well. Noting that Laban almost destroyed Israel’s fledgling future in oppressing Jacob, Sacks pictures him as a pioneer and paradigm of future anti-Semitism. For, he says:
‘age after age, Jews (like Jacob) sought refuge from those, like Esau, who sought to kill them. The nations who gave them refuge seemed at first to be benefactors. But they demanded a price… Wherever Jews went they brought prosperity to their hosts. Yet they refused to be mere chattels. . . . They had their own identity and way of life; they insisted on the basic human right to be free. The host society then eventually turned against them. Its members claimed that Jews were exploiting them rather than what was in fact the case, that they were exploiting the Jews. And when Jews succeeded, they accused them of theft…The fact that Jews had salvaged some self-respect, some independence, that they too had prospered, made them not just envious but angry. That was when it became dangerous to be a Jew.’
Our story thus speaks directly into our times. It offers hope and sustenance to all who live under oppression, sometimes concealed as toleration. It provides courage and inspiration to skilful, even Jacob-like, schemes of liberation. And it challenges those who hold the whip to reconsider whether it is they, not the oppressed, who are the real problem.
Secondly, this morning’s story helps us see that salvation and growth are not found by escaping our character and context but by being transformed within them. For if there is confusion and ambiguity in this story, perhaps it is because it is intentional. As Brueggemann observed: ‘in interpreting the narrative, attention should be given to the ambiguous and ambivalent character of Jacob.’[i] Jacob, God’s favoured trickster, is tricked by Laban. Laban is tricked by Jacob. As we sow, so shall we reap. The sheep, the women, we the audience, all are tricked. Jacob’s is indeed a rollicking story of outrageousness and wisdom. As we participate in his, and others’ duplicities, so we are compelled to face up to our own deceptions, our own ambiguous and ambivalent characters. In this, and not in tricks of realism, or idealism, is the grace of God and our true salvation most truly found.
For, thirdly, Jacob's story calls us to a deeper wrestling with the God of the Bible, as well as to participation in liberation and receiving grace in the imperfections of our nature. So let me give my final word to another master of rollicking stories, William Shakespeare. For his play Merchant of Venice makes striking use of Jacob’s story.[ii] In this, Shakespeare contrasts what might appear to be a Jewish emphasis on justice with a supposed Christian emphasis on mercy. The debate between the Jew Shylock and the Christian Antonio also reflects what might be represented as a realistic version of how Jacob became wealthy and an idealistic one. Shylock, sees Jacob’s acts as good business, born of his shrewdness, a gift of God to be used. Antonio instead, stresses Jacob’s later revelation of a dream of God’s assurance in Genesis chapter 31, and sees Jacob’s flourishing as entirely the work of providence. Shakespeare rightly leaves this argument in tension and this of course gives it its enduring vitality. He did not of course know of today’s source or redaction criticism which can help us understand the different emphases of chapter 30 and 31. What he saw was indeed rather a great story: not just a struggle about sheep or wealth, but also a profound wrestling with human oppression and liberation, with deception and ambiguity, and with the ambivalence of scripture. For it is not in mere material trickery, or in simplistic spirituality, but in wrestling, like Jacob, with the God of the Bible that we best grow and flourish. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Morning Prayer, 18 February 2017, St Francis College Formation Intensive
[i] The overall theme of the St Francis College Formation Intensive in which this homily was preached
[iii] Genesis, p.251
[iv] see Rabbi Herbert Basser, http://thetorah.com/shakespeare-plays-on-the-questionable-source-of-jacobs-wealth/