What does Genesis chapter 30 mean?Genesis 30 is characterized by sibling conflict between Jacob's wives, the birth of many more children under the blessing of God, and Jacob eventually achieving great wealth after striking an unusual bargain with his father-in-law.
Chapter 29 described the treacherous circumstances of Jacob's marriage to a pair of sisters: Leah and Rachel. Expecting to marry Rachel after seven years of free labor, Jacob was stunned to find that his father-in-law had switched sisters during the wedding night. The end result of this ploy was Jacob being married to two women, and with another seven years of labor ahead of him. In response to Jacob's understandable resentment of Leah, God allowed her to conceive sons, while Rachel remained barren.
This chapter begins with a despondent Rachel declaring to Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!" Not only is she desperate to become a mother, she envies her sister Leah who has already born four sons to Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, but he rightly corrects her that God alone is the giver of children (Genesis 30:1–2). This will become a theme of the chapter, one explored both in human and animal examples.
In response to her infertility, Rachel follows the unfortunate example of Jacob's grandmother Sarah (Genesis 16:1–4). She gives her own servant woman to Jacob as a wife. By customs of the time, any children borne to that servant would have been considered those of the wife. Bilhah soon bears Jacob two sons, Rachel's sons by proxy. Rachel names the boys for her circumstances and feelings at the time they are born (Genesis 30:3–8).
At the same time, Leah has stopped becoming pregnant, perhaps because Rachel's influence is keeping Jacob from sleeping with her (Genesis 30:15). She now follows Rachel's example and gives her servant woman to Jacob as a wife. Zilpah, in her turn, gives birth to two sons. These belong to Leah by proxy, and she gives them happy names (Genesis 30:9–13).
None of these births, though, have ended the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Both know that Rachel remains barren and that Leah remains unloved by Jacob. Their conflict flares to the surface when Leah's son Reuben brings home some rare mandrake plants he has found. Mandrakes were thought to help with arousal and infertility. When Rachel asks Leah for the plants, likely hoping they will help her to get pregnant, Leah lashes out that Rachel has taken her husband and now wants to take her mandrake plants. Rachel, apparently desperate, offers to give Leah one night sleeping with Jacob in exchange for the plants. Rachel, apparently, held great power over Jacob in the family dynamic (Genesis 30:14–16).
Leah begins to bear children again, having another two boys and a girl, naming them all for God's provision in her life. Rachel, too, finally bears her first son, Joseph. Her name for him amounts to a prayer for another son to follow (Genesis 30:17–24).
The narrative then shifts to inform us that Jacob's 14 years of service to Laban in exchange for his two wives has come to an end. He demands that his father-in-law send him away so he can return home to his own people. It's possible Laban retained some legal right to not release Jacob. In any case, Laban says plainly that he has become wealthy because of the Lord's blessing on Jacob. He asks Jacob to name new wages to continue to work for him (Genesis 30:25–28).
Jacob's terms seem unusual. Instead of asking for a flat wage or even a percentage of Laban's flocks, Jacob asks to keep any newly born goats or lambs that are off-color. Most of the sheep in Laban's flock are white, and most of the goats are black. A small percentage of the goats are speckled, striped, or spotted, and some sheep are black. After agreeing to Jacob's deal, Laban immediately removes all of the off-color animals from the flock three-day's journey away from the main group. It looks like Jacob's deal will go bust (Genesis 30:29–36).
Instead, the Lord supernaturally blesses Jacob's unconventional efforts to cause white sheep to produce black lambs and black goats to produce mixed-color offspring. While we aren't told, yet, Jacob has apparently been informed in another dream that God intended to correct Laban's cheating of Jacob (Genesis 31:7–12). So, while this chapter only mentions Jacob's use of striped poles, there is no confusion that God, and not the poles, causes the change in the animals' color. In addition, Jacob breeds the flock to produce strong, off-color animals for him and weak, solid-colored animals for Laban (Genesis 30:37–42).
Jacob grows enormously wealthy. With the Lord's blessing, he has overcome Laban's scheme to keep him poor and dependent on his father-in-law (Genesis 30:43).