Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Robert Clifton Robinson on Laban’s Sheep

In Genesis 30, after the birth of his penultimate son Joseph, Jacob asks his father-in-law Laban to give him leave so that he can take his wives and children back to his “own home and country” (v. 25, NRSV).[1]Laban replies by asking Jacob for the terms of his release – “[N]ame your wages, and I will give it” (v. 28). And so, Jacob does: “[L]et 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 such shall be my wages” (v. 32). But Laban had other plans – he removed from the flock all the goats and lambs that Jacob had asked for and then put a three-day’s journey between him and his son-in-law. Consequently, Jacob was left to tend the normally colored sheep (white) and goats (black). Were he to choose the sheep he wanted from this flock, Jacob’s “wages” would be exactly zero.

But you can’t out-trick a trickster (cf. Genesis 27:35-36) and Jacob has one up his sleeve. He takes rods from trees, peels them so that white streaks emerge, and then sets those rods in the watering troughs where the normally colored livestock would drink. “And since they bred when they came to drink,” the biblical texts reports, “the flocks bred in front of the rods, and so the flocks produced young that were striped, speckled, and spotted” (vv. 38-39). Jacob continues this process, taking the “strong of the flock,” setting them in front of the peeled rods, and thereby producing a stronger livestock that were not the normal colors Laban preferred. In a twist of dramatic irony, Laban – whose name means “white” – ends up with the white sheep and black goats that were weak while Jacob ends up with speckled, spotted, and black livestock that were stronger. “Thus the man [i.e., Jacob] grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys” (v. 43). 

This pericope is as entertaining as it is perplexing. It highlights both the tumultuous relationship between Jacob and Laban as well as how deceptive both of them could be. But what stands out here for many readers is Jacob’s breeding plan. To produce from a flock of white sheep and black goats livestock that were striped, speckled, and spotted, he uses white-striped wood. According to the text, the normally colored sheep and goats see the striped wood while breeding and produce the desired offspring. But if there is one thing we know about breeding, that isn’t how it works. So, what is going on here in this story? 

Folklore and Magic

Prior to the scene in Genesis 30:25ff, we find a story (vv. 14-21) wherein Rachel asks Leah (both wives of Jacob) for some of Leah’s son Reuben’s mandrakes. In his commentary on the passage, Gordon Wenham notes that the plural “mandrakes” in Hebrew, dûdāʾîm, looks very similar to a term used for love, dōdîm (e.g., Proverbs 7:18). This is fitting since, he writes, “[i]n ancient times, mandrakes were famed for arousing sexual desire (cf. Cant. 7:13) and for helping barren women to conceive.”[2] It was, in essence, a fertility drug.[3] Rachel’s desire for them was rooted no doubt in her own barrenness (Genesis 30:1), and so she proposes a trade to Leah who did not want to give up the plant: “Then Rachel said, ‘Then he [i.e., Jacob] may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes” (v. 15). To Rachel’s chagrin, Leah’s liaison with Jacob results in yet another pregnancy (v. 17), and more after that (vv. 19-21). Thus, in her bid to repair her infertility, she allowed her veritable reproductive rival Leah to conceive all the more. 

The belief that certain plants have the power to repair infertility in this way may be foreign to many of us, but it was not uncommon in the ancient Near East. For Rachel, the mandrakes were ineffective as only God could open up her womb (v. 22). But this story does illustrate the fact that ancient peoples believe in all sorts of magical things.[4] This gives us some purchase on the scene with Jacob and Laban. When Jacob sets the rods before the mating animals and, upon seeing them, the creatures bear striped, speckled, and spotted offspring, he is revealing a belief in folklore and magic. As Gerhard von Rad explained in his commentary on Genesis, “His plan is based on the ancient and widespread belief in the magical effect of certain visual impressions which in the case of human and animal mothers are transferred to their offspring and can decisively influence them.”[5]

Apologetic Reactions 

To most readers of the Bible, this information seems innocuous. It is not the least bit surprising that we find in these ancient texts some “scientifically dubious”[6] ideas. But for evangelicals committed to inerrancy, an explanation has to be devised to avoid such an outcome. For example, Bruce Waltke in his commentary on Genesis written with Cathi Fredricks writes that although Jacob appeals to sympathetic magic in his attempt to create his unique flock, his “scheme works because of God’s sovereign grace, not because of pagan magic or the fallacious assumption of prenatal influence on inheritable characteristics.”[7] A more terse rejection is offered by T. Desmond Alexander in his notes for The ESV Study Bible: “The text should not be understood to imply any causal relationship between the sticks and the newborn animals.”[8]

Another response comes from self-proclaimed Bible scholar Robert Clifton Robinson in a recent post entitled “How Science Confirms the Texts of the Bible: Genesis Chapter 30.”[9] In it, Robinson claims that the story in Genesis 30 makes perfect sense in light of what we now know about genetics. He writes, 

Diet and exercise may drastically affect epigenetic changes that result in the types of physical appearances we see in the sheep of Jacob, when he accessed chemical compounds found in the bark of various trees stated in Genesis chapter 30. 

Jacob’s use of branches in which he peeled back the bark exposing the chemical compounds found in these trees, caused heritable changes in the expression of genes in these animals, resulting in physical changes in the subsequent sheep that were born.

This is, as you might have guessed given that Robinson wrote it, entirely wrong. 

First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that any compound in the trees mentioned in Genesis 30 have the ability to produce altered fur in newborn sheep and goats, nor does Robinson produce any. He notes that salicylic acid, a chemical found in pain products like Aspirin, can be found in the bark of Aspen trees. But what is the argument here? Because a tree contains an ingredient useful for one thing (pain reduction) that the trees mentioned in Genesis 30 are useful for another (genetic alteration)? This is what we call a non-sequitur. Moreover, where is the evidence that these trees produce chemicals such that when ingested by mating and pregnant female sheep that they produce striped, speckled, or spotted offspring? To my knowledge, there is none. Additionally, as Siddhartha Mukherjee notes in his book The Gene: An Intimate History, epigenetic changes to genes do happen but are “limited, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable,” and a lot of it is “used to justify junk science,” like the idea that “[d]iets, exposures, memories, and therapies” can “alter heredity.” Mukherjee writes, 

These glib notions about epigenetics should invite skepticism. Environmental information can certainly be etched on the genome. But most of these imprints are recorded as ‘genetic memories’ in the cells and genomes of individual organisms – not carried forward across generations. A man who loses a leg in an accident bears the imprint of that accident in his cells, wounds, and scars – but does not bear children with shortened legs. Nor has the uprooted life of my family seem to have burdened me, or my children, with any wrenching sense of estrangement.

Despite Menelaus’s admonitions, the blood of our fathers is lost in us – and so, fortunately, are their foibles and sins. It is an arrangement that we should celebrate more than rue.[10]

I am hesitant to continue along this thread since I am woefully unqualified to talk about genetics and epigenetics. But my point should be clear: what Robinson proposes to account for the details in the story simply doesn’t work. 

Second, and more telling, Robinson quietly alters the narrative in Genesis to accommodate his apologetic. He writes, “When pregnant animals drank from the watering troughs provided by Jacob, which had the branches of these trees in the water, ‘they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted.’” For someone who so adamantly believes in the sufficiency of scripture, Robinson sure does act like he doesn’t. While it is true that Jacob put the rods (or branches) in the watering troughs, the connection between them and the production of the altered offspring isn’t to be found in their drinking from the trough. The troughs were a convenient place to put the rods because, v. 38 notes, the livestock tended to breed where they drank. Verse 39 says that “the flocks bred in front of the rods, and so the flocks produced young that were striped, speckled, and spotted.” Implied here is that they saw the rods and thus produced their unique young. It is even more explicit in v. 41 which reads that “Jacob laid the rods in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the rods.” The emphasis is on sight, not consumption. Robinson, in a bid to rescue the text from sounding superstitious, inserts an element that simply isn’t there, namely that drinking the water wherein the rods were placed is what caused the striped, speckled, and spotted offspring. That isn’t how the text reads, but it is what Robinson needs it to say. 

Evangelical Eisegesis

The Bible is a collection of ancient documents and should be treated as such. It isn’t prescient, endowed with scientific insights from future generations. It is a product of its own time and place. When interpreters like Robinson try to turn it into something other than what it is, they do us all a great disservice. And when they do it in the way Robinson does here, by appealing to a science they don’t understand and altering the text of the story to fit their own interpretation, they reveal just how desperate and foolish the apologetics enterprise tends to be. 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 246. 

[3] Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 247.

[4] This isn’t to say that ancient people were stupid or naïve. Given their levels of knowledge about the world, they not only survived but at times flourished. Truth is not a precondition for survival. 

[5] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, revised edition, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 301-302. 

[6] Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, fourth edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 100.

[7] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 420.

[8] T. Desmond Alexander, “Genesis,” in The ESV Study Bible, edited by Lane T. Dennis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 103. 

[9] Robert Clifton Robinson, “How Science Confirms the Texts of the Bible: Genesis Chapter 30” (1.9.23),

[10] Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (New York: Scribner, 2016), 406-407. 

2 thoughts on “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Robert Clifton Robinson on Laban’s Sheep

  1. Well, obviously you’ve been hoodwinked by secular progressive so-called “researchers” who lack RCR’s expertise in genetics and animal husbandry (not to mention history, archaeology, math, Greek, Hebrew, the law, etc., etc., etc.) 😉

    If there were any serious scientific basis for the influence of “poplar and almond and plane” rod placement on livestock coloration, RCR and like-minded apologists would surely be able to replicate the process. Indeed, they’d have every incentive to do so, to empirically corroborate a detailed biblical episode that skeptics classify as an idiosyncratic and possibly symbolic tall tale involving trickery and folk magic.

    But of course they can’t, so they haven’t and they won’t. Instead, we get ad hoc, pseudo-scientific flapdoodle that’s so simplistic and misguided it’s almost adorable.

    It’s also weirdly unnecessary and arbitrary. The books of the Bible are filled with miracles, big and small, that RCR and other believers generally credit. But this brief episode is an example of natural science in action? Whether one believes the narrative or not, it makes far more sense as a quirky little miracle story about God intervening for Jacob (as Jacob himself actually states in Gen 31:9) than as a depiction of a genuine technique to breed animals with specific colorations and patterns.

    Liked by 1 person

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