The text of Genesis 30-32 as it now stands is actually a compilation of two different tellings of the same story. These different versions (the Yahwist and the Elohist) have been carefully stitched together by later editors that they past undetected by the casual reader. Nevertheless, attentive readers and scholars have long noticed narrative inconsistencies, contradictions, and differences in style, theological emphasis, and the portrait of Jacob, which in the end have revealed two independent versions of the story of Jacob’s conflict with his uncle Laban and his brother Esau. Let’s start with the Jacob-Laban story.
The context of the story is Jacob’s departure from his uncle Laban after serving him for 20 years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachael. This story seems to be responding to the question of what are Jacob’s rightful possessions that he can take with him on his departure. One version of this story narrates how Jacob deceives his uncle Laban into gaining the best and the largest portion of his uncle’s flock. It is a story about a trickster, how cunningness and deception won the day.
Laban asks Jacob “What shall I give you?” (30:31) for having labored for me for these many years. Jacob replies nothing, except “every speckled and spotted lamb and every brown lamb among the sheep and every spotted and speckled one among the goats—that will be my pay” (30:32). In other words, Jacob responds by saying, look I will take the meager portion of the flock, the defective ones. Yet all along Jacob is planning to deceive Laban.
Through the principles of sympathetic magic, Jacob procures for himself a very large flock of spotted and speckled lambs and goats, by inducing them to give birth to spotted and speckled offspring by the presence of Jacob’s spotted and speckled rods that he has set up by the watering troughs.
And they copulated when they came to drink. And the flock mated at the rods, and the flock gave birth to streaked, speckled, and spotted ones. And Jacob separated the sheep and had the flock face the streaked and every brown one among Laban’s flock. And it was whenever the fittest would copulate Jacob would put the rods in the channels before the sheep’s eyes so that they would copulate by the rods, and when the sheep were feebler he would not put them in, so the feeble ones became Laban’s and the fitter ones became Jacob’s. And the man expanded very very much, and he had many sheep and female and male servants and camels and asses. (Gen 30:38b-43)
We should note that in this version of the story Jacob devises the plan, employs magical techniques that procure the desired results, and puts forward only the healthiest sheep and goats for his plan, thus leaving Laban with a feeble flock. It’s a great story. Laban is portrayed as the villain, and Jacob is the clever trickster who beats the villain at his own game. The audience cheers and grins. This is the father of Israel. Look how he swindled the Arameans.
Now the storytellers of the north (of Israel proper) apparently told this story differently, and this version was also collected and preserved in what would later become labeled as the Bible. In the Elohist version Jacob does not think of, nor perform, the multiplication of the flock trick. God does! The Jacob of the northern version is a passive participant to the whole affair. In other words, God is the actor of this story, not Jacob. In this version of the story, Jacob merely has a dream—a common feature of the Elohist tradition—wherein the god of Bethel reveals to him what he, God, has already done. Second, in the Elohist account it is Laban who presents the idea of Jacob’s wages being the spotted and speckled sheep and goats, and this is presented as part of Laban’s deceitfulness all along (31:7-8). Finally, the Elohist’s Jacob is presented as morally inoffensive. God is the actor and deviser of the spotted-speckled sheep and goat plan. This is even re-enforced in the Elohist account by presenting Jacob as the narrator, who merely narrates the events that have happened to him:
If he [Laban] would say this, “the speckled will be your pay,” then all the flock gave birth to speckled. And if he would say this, “the streaked will be your pay,” then all the flock gave birth to streaked. And God has delivered your father’s livestock and given them to me. And it was at the time of the flock’s being in heat, and I raised my eyes and saw in a dream: and here were the he-goats that were going up on the flock: streaked, speckled, and spotted. And an angel of God said to me in the dream, “Jacob.” And I said, “I’m here.” And he said “Raise your eyes and see all the he-goats that are going up on the flock: streaked, speckled, and spotted—for I’ve seen everything Laban is doing to you. I am the god at Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to me. Now get up, go from this land, and go back to the land of your birth.” (Gen 31:8-13)
Typical of other stories from the northern Elohist tradition, this story has a theological emphasis that places God as the agent behind the birth of Jacob’s speckled and spotted flock, and an ethical emphasis that presents Jacob as righteous and morally irreproachable. The Yahwist version has neither of these features! Furthermore the narrative elements of J’s version are completely absent in E: there is no reference to Jacob’s striped rod, nor Jacob’s role as deceiver. Jacob is simply not the actor in E’s account, but rather a passive recipient of the divine graces of the god of Bethel. In the end, J’s Jacob who is described in unflattering terms, and succeeds through his own cleverness and morally questionable deception is contradicted by E’s Jacob who asserts his own innocence and uninvolvement by relating how God brought this multiplication about.
This story, which basically recounts how Jacob served Laban the Aramean and years later successfully fled with wives, sons, and livestock, was shaped from the historical period when Aram and Israel were indeed bitter rivals. In fact, Israel had been a vassal to its northern neighbor Aram in the latter third of the 9th century BC and that is most likely represented in the story as Jacob’s (Israel’s) servitude to Laban (Aram). Jacob’s flight from Laban, and the dispute over which property is rightfully Jacob’s (wives-daughters included), might in fact represent the historical period when Israel liberated itself from Aramean control in the early 8th century BC. Thus, the northerners of the Elohist tradition recounted the story of Israel’s liberation from Aram and Israel’s blessings (his possessions) as an act of God. The southern kingdom of Judah, where the Yahwist tradition originated, told this story differently. They portrayed their northern brethren, the northern kingdom of Israel, as a swindler, who, through his own cleverness, stole possessions from Aram! It’s hard to say if the southern Yahwist used this story to celebrate Israel’s cunningness and deception, or to subtly rebuke its immoral and deceptive subterfuge because legend had it that the northern kingdom of Israel had also stole the kingdom from the southern Davidids after Solomon’s death!
In either case, this story, like many of the Bible’s stories, was shaped by historical events. The story itself is not historical; rather, the interplay between Jacob and Laban, and how they are represented in each tradition most probably reflected, from varying perspectives—the Elohist and the Yahwist—how the story’s 8th-7th century BC authors (and audiences) viewed the reasons behind Israel and Aram‘s tense political relationship.