Chapters 30–31 of Genesis have often come under attack and touted as being an example of folklore, superstition, and primitive veterinary understanding. But when recognizing that divine providence was at work, coupled with astute botanical knowledge, the picture rapidly changes. Research into botanical and herbal remedies over the past few decades has exonerated the methodologies which Jacob used with Laban’s flocks. Indeed, some of the same botanical specimens Jacob utilized are now being used to supplement livestock feed and are used as veterinary treatments on several diseases and conditions.
Genesis 30:37–31:16 is a section of Scripture often held up to ridicule by skeptics, and even some of those committed to biblical inerrancy and authority struggle with understanding and explaining to others. So many questions have been raised: Does Jacob’s “peeled bark” practice have any bearing on how sheep and goats breed? Does it offer any health or reproductive value? Did God instruct Jacob in this practice? Was it his intention, and if so was it deceitful for Jacob to seek to appropriate the flocks of Laban, his father-in-law? Was this an entirely natural phenomenon, or was there a large dose of providential direction involved?
Before we delve into this section, it is important to look at previous verses for context. Starting in Genesis 30:25 we see that Jacob is wanting to leave the service of Laban and return to his homeland. But recognizing that God has blessed him because of Jacob’s presence, Laban asks Jacob to stay and continue to manage his flocks—and Laban promises to let Jacob name his wages. Jacob proposes a solution in which he would stay and tend Laban’s flocks for what seems like a paltry fee, and one which is impossible to cheat on.
“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.” 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 the 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. (Genesis 30:32–36)
It is evident from the text and Laban’s reaction that this proposal appeared to be lopsided in favor of Laban: most likely the majority of Laban’s flocks were pure white sheep and pure white or black goats, with very few spotted, speckled, or striped animals. Since the majority of Laban’s flocks had solid coat colors, he figured that his flocks would continue to breed true to their solid color coats. After removing Jacob’s small flock (which he had his sons keep from Jacob), he believed they could not, therefore, influence his own remaining flock by breeding with them. To Laban, it looked like Jacob would leave with at best a few mottled, striped, and streaked sheep and maybe goats, while he would continue to gain flocks and pay extremely cheap labor rates for their care.
Now as we initially read this passage, we come across Jacob deciding on a rather peculiar methodology for what appears to be selective breeding of sheep and goats. This section (Genesis 30:37–43) is the one which is most heavily criticized as being superstitious folklore and “snake oil” medicine, “proving” that the Bible is full of fairy tales and that the writer (Moses) was ignorant of any real medical knowledge. The charge is made that these goat-herders in Canaan obviously knew nothing about genetics and so believed in an almost Lamarckian prenatal influence or even fertility magic.1
However, when one closely follows the Genesis 30:37–43 passage it becomes apparent that a “sight-based” breeding trick is not what Jacob had in mind or attempted. Now let’s read the passage in question.
Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane [or chestnut or sycamore] trees, and peeled 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 flocks 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. (Genesis 30:37–43)
Most people tend to focus on verses 40–41 which (in English) use the phrases which are translated as “set the faces of the flocks toward” and “before the eyes of the flock” and conclude that Jacob’s breeding program relied on getting the flocks to look at the peeled branches (sticks). But they miss the importance of verse 38 which states that Jacob put the peeled sticks in the watering trough and that the flocks bred right near those troughs. In fact, what is probably being alluded to is the fact that as the females drank water from the troughs, the males would come up behind them to mate. The lambs were likely placed in front of the watering troughs to keep the female animals focused in front of them while the males came up from behind and bred with them. Now the issue which then arises is that since Laban took all the striped, speckled, and mottled animals out of the flocks, how could the pure-color coated flocks start producing nothing but spotted and striped animals? This is where providential direction, medicinal herbs, and actual genetics comes into play.
If things were to work out the way they did, Jacob needed to have those animals with the genetic traits for stripes, spots and mottling to outbreed the single-color coated flocks.
First of all, we must remember that the original spotted/striped animals did not come about in a vacuum. There obviously was the genetic information for at least some of the animals to have spotted/striped coats. Taking the text at face value, it appeared to be a recessive trait compared to the number of pure-color coated flocks, which dominated the flocks.2 If things were to work out the way they did, Jacob needed to have those animals with the genetic traits for stripes, spots and mottling to outbreed the single-color coated flocks. This would require three things, intricate knowledge of the animals feeding and mating behaviors, medicine to keep such animals healthier, and an understanding of which animals had the genetic traits he needed to produce. We’ll tackle the medicinal herbs later, but for now, let’s consider the genetics. Fortunately for Jacob, he did not need to know anything about genetics, all he had to do was obey God.
We find out later in the extended narrative that Jacob benefitted due to visions from God. The whole context can be found in Genesis 31:7–18, but the basics can be found in Genesis 31:10–12.
“When the flocks were breeding, I saw in a dream that the streaked, spotted, and speckled males were mating with the females. In that dream the Angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ and I said: Here I am. And He said, ‘Look up and see: all the males that are mating with the flocks are streaked, spotted, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you.” (Genesis 31:10–12 HCSB).
Jacob was given advance knowledge of which animals would be born due to which animals were breeding. But wait, how could there be any spotted/striped animals to breed when they had already been removed by Laban? We need to keep in mind that this was a vision and that the striped/spotted animals were most likely God showing Jacob the underlying genetic makeup of some of the flock. All Jacob did to perhaps “help” God’s providential breeding program was to ensure that either he gave certain animals herbal medicines to make them healthier and/or whatever animals seemed physically stronger were given the herbal remedies and extra feed (yes, the sticks could be consumed as feed by the animals) at breeding season and apparently solid animals (but which still contained the genetic information for stripes and spots) providentially produced more spotted ones.
The overarching answer to the questions about this passage is that there was a providential means by which God allowed Jacob to prosper, even though Laban was trying to cheat and defraud him (Genesis 31:7–8). Laban started to see that God was blessing Jacob’s flocks and so he changed the terms of the bargain indiscriminately and repeatedly. As we read through this passage, we need to keep in mind that Jacob wasn’t cheating Laban, God was counteracting Laban’s cheating on him. Apparently, God had come to Jacob in a dream and told him what to do, and then God directed the birth of the sheep and goats to produce whatever Laban had forced Jacob to take out of the flocks. We are not told in Scripture if God miraculously changed the genetic makeup of the flocks or whether he just divinely guided those with the genetic information for stripes, spots and/or mottling to outcompete the other animals. But either way, this was providentially directed.
The method itself has often been characterized as nothing and therefore unimportant (but see the discussion on the natural properties of some of these things in the next section), except that it was probably a command of God to Jacob to test his obedience. Therefore, many theologians make a point of advising not trying it as a selective breeding research project. Unless God supernaturally intervened, it probably would not have worked out the way it did. It was supernaturally produced (although it is not unreasonable that the process was aided by herbal medicinal properties). Since God sent the dreams to Jacob, it is possible that he also directed Jacob in the actual methodology itself.
Several sources claim the poplar and almond trees have medicinal properties for both humans and livestock. There are several scientific journal papers that mention that the particular trees from which Jacob peeled sticks supposedly cure urogenital problems, reduce fevers, work as anti-inflammatories and aid in reducing reproductive disorders. All of these would make an animal healthier, and more likely to produce healthy offspring.
Many of the chemical compounds would still be beneficial even by simply steeping in water.
Several studies have been done on poplar and almond tree bark, leaves, nuts, and twigs (small diameter branches, or what Scripture called “sticks”), and they mentioned that sheep would eat these and that ewes especially benefitted from them. Also, many of the chemical compounds would still be beneficial even by simply steeping in water. Some of those benefits are highlighted below.
It has also been proposed that willow and poplar trees provide forage for livestock of moderate nutritive value. Feeding of willow leaves or trimmings to ewes during mating resulted in reduction of live weight loss and increase in reproductive rates.3
[P]oplar supplementation increased ewe reproductive rate by approximately 20 and 30% units for the low and high treatment groups, respectively, compared to the control group. . . . The increase in reproductive rate in supplemented ewes was due to increases in both conception rate and fecundity, with a higher proportion of pregnant ewes, and a higher proportion of multiple pregnancies, in the supplemented groups.4
Increased concentrations of total N [nitrogen], CT [condensed tannin] and water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) in the diet of supplemented ewes would also be likely to increase outputs of undegradable dietary protein and microbial protein from the rumen, per unit of CP [crude protein] consumed. A combination of these mechanisms, especially the likely increased absorption of protein, probably explains the increased ewe reproductive rate from poplar supplementation.5
The study showed that both the high and low rates of poplar supplementation (as compared to the control) raised the reproductive rate. The lambing percentage was increased in the high treatment group, with the increases being 41 and 34%, respectively, relative to the control ewes (which were not fed a poplar-supplemented diet). Even the lower poplar treatment increased actual lambing percentage by 20%, relative to the control group. These treatment effects persisted and the lambs were healthier even after being weaned.6
Conception rate was higher for the high treatment group, compared to the control; 100% versus 92.9% . The proportion of ewes giving birth to multiple lambs was higher for both the high and low treatment groups, compared to the control. Poplar treatment had a significant effect on mean lambing date , with ewes in the high treatment lambing 4 days earlier than control ewes.7
Poplar trees are known to contain significant concentrations of the secondary compound salicin, and other phenolic glycosides, which may be a factor in the increase in reproductive rate in ewes supplemented with poplar tree cuttings.8
A major difference between the chemical composition of poplar and willow forage and summer pasture is the presence of secondary chemicals. The main secondary chemicals present in poplar and willow forage are phenolic glycosides (e.g. salicin) and condensed tannins. The effects of condensed tannins on sheep performance are beginning to become apparent, and include increased protein utilisation from the forage, and an increased lambing percentage in some circumstances.9
Sweet Almond has also been shown to have several benefits for ruminants in treating urogenital diseases and disorders.
Sweet almond is very effective in vesicle ulcer as well as in renal and vesicle [kidney and bladder] stone. Hence, it helps relieve dysuria, nephralgia, burning micturition [all painful urinary tract infections], and urinary retention. Bitter almond is also useful for these ailments. It is also useful in uteralgia [difficulty or pain in the urinary tract], inflammation and hardness of uterus. . . .10
The next reference also states that Jewish people have used almond tree bark to increase the production of mothers’ milk and to decrease birth pangs in livestock.
Yemenite Jews used almonds externally to treat hemorrhages. And internally to treat kidney stones, spleen, sore throat, and cough. Traditional medicine among the Jews of Iraq makes extensive use of the almond tree and its products to treat eye diseases, dysentery, and earache; to relieve birth pangs and to increase mother’s milk.11
One last tree is mentioned in Genesis 30:37, and is variously translated as Chestnut, Plane or Sycamore in English versions. It is almost certain that this is the Platanus orientalis or Oriental Plane tree. This tree also has some documented medicinal benefits, and incidentally, it is mentioned that its anti-inflammatory properties are best extracted by having the wood in water.
Anti-inflammatory activity of Platanus orientalis showed that aqueous wood extract of Platanus orientalis showed maximum activity in contrast to other extracts. Conclusion: These finding provides some biological value of different extracts of Platanus orientalis for the use as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents.12
The plane leaves commonly known in Iran as “Barge chenar”, have been used in concentrated aromatic liquids, herbal remedies and Iranian traditional medicine to treat several disorders. They are used in Iranian folk and traditional medicines for treating some dermatological, gastrointestinal, rheumatic and inflammatory diseases.13
In this study, it was found that it is the wood of Platanus orientalis which showed the whole activities in maximum, so it is to be concluded that most of the bioactive materials are concentrated in the wood whatever the solvent system.14
In addition to the health benefits to ewes mentioned earlier, a healthier male animal is more likely to be seen as a potential mate by the female, and thus increase the likelihood of passing along his genes. So anything which is of medicinal benefit, such as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and urogenital and gastro-intestinal aid (as in the almond and plane trees) would benefit any and all animals in the flocks kept by Jacob. Therefore, there may be something to this procedure which Jacob utilized. Many of the most common internal remedies were made by steeping the bark of poplars, planes, or almonds in water, which is exactly what Jacob did. He cut strips in the twigs, which exposed the tannins in the bark, then he put them in the water troughs, and solar heat probably warmed them up enough to release the chemical compounds into the water.
Would the methodology of Jacob work without the aid of divine providence?
So the methodology of Jacob, whether he was told by God directly or whether he had some herbal medicine knowledge, does seem to have some potential health benefits, and with God quite probably increasing the fertility of the flocks Jacob was given by Laban, the “breeding program” results were extremely beneficial to Jacob. Would the methodology of Jacob work without the aid of divine providence? It is difficult to say, but with any type of advantage given by the herbal remedies, it seems that some breeding success would have been inevitable (perhaps just not as rapidly or as numerically advantageous as it turned out with God directly intervening).
Rather than being an example of superstitious folklore and “fertility magic,” the account in Scripture is backed up by botanical and pharmacology studies, is being practiced today, and is being studied in more detail. The benefits of herbal remedies compared to some antibiotics, which bacteria and parasites are becoming resistant to, is being looked into by many at in the animal husbandry industry as a welcome addition to veterinary practice. Once again, the critics find that Scripture teaches sound science and, more importantly, that the answers were in Genesis all along.