The craziest deal ever. Part 5 - Balaam's curse

Jacob complained no more about his bride Leah who had cheated him, point by point, as he had cheated his blind father. Laban too had cheated, but he was a different matter. Laban dishonored a fair and square contract. He made Jacob slave for Rachel and gave him Leah. There was no excuse, at least not according to Jacob. According to Laban he had the best reason in the world for upstaging the starry-eyed, hardworking Jew. “In our culture,” he told Jacob, “it is simply not done to marry off a younger daughter before the firstborn. I cannot be responsible when it is forbidden, not only by custom, but by law. Had I tried, the authorities would have stopped me.”
How subtly Laban, who’d heard about Jacob’s ruse to steal Esau’s birthright, taunted the newlywed. Laban was telling him that in decent society behavior like that of Jacob’s was not acceptable. Jacob might think nothing of stealing a brother’s birthright, but he mustn’t expect Laban to steal it from his own daughter. “Decent folk over here don’t do such things,” he told his in-law in the tones of a moral father. “But no harm done,” he added. “Wait for the end of the seven day wedding feast and I promise I will give you Leah’s sister. We have to wait, don’t we? I’m well aware of your Judaic law: two wedding celebrations may not be mixed. Don’t be mad, you’ll marry your Rachel. All you need do is work seven years for her, the same as you worked for Leah. What’s fair is fair, don’t you agree.”
What was Jacob to do but go along with his uncle’s horrific arrangement. Came the end of Leah’s bridal week, he wed Rachel, and then began another seven years of hard labor. And though swindled on the first contract, Jacob worked for Laban day and night, still finding time to father eleven sons and twelve daughters and keep two sister-wives happy. The last baby came on the last day of the seventh year, and right off Jacob went to his crafty uncle. “Sir,” he said, “Let me go home with my two wives and all my children. You know how hard I worked for you. What did you have before I came – seventy one sickly sheep and two unmarried daughters. Now look. Every year for fourteen years a thousand rams, goats and lambs were born. Not to mention your three sons. You’re a wealthy man, sir. But look at me: a king size household to keep and no means for keeping it. Is it not time I started working for my family. I want to take them home and start a new life. Look sir, I ask for your permission out of respect. If you don’t give it I shall go anyway.”
When he heard this, Laban, an actor of many parts, played the deserted victim. “You wouldn’t leave if you loved me,” he whined hoping to make Jacob feel guilty. “You know what will happen, don’t you; the blessings that came with you will go with you. There will be a disastrous fall in my fortunes. Look, why don’t you stipulate your terms. From now on you shall work as paid labor, only better. You’ll earn more working for me than you would for yourself. Go on, name your price.”
Jacob thought deeply. Knowing his in-law’s conniving ways he understood that, one way or another, he'd come out penniless; again. No one got the better of Laban in a straight deal. But what if a deal was not straight? What if it was so utterly ridiculous and biased in Laban’s favor that he’d jump at the chance of upstaging, yet another time, an oh-so gullible Jew? And the more he thought of it, the more the idea appealed. So it was that Jacob cooked up what must be the craziest scheme ever.
The most brilliant minds differ on the exact details. The scheme was that convoluted. “I don’t want money,” he told Laban. “And I don’t want any property of yours.” Laban, taken aback, wanted to know just what he did want. “Odd-colored sheep and goats that are born – that will be my wage,” Jacob answered. The conniving deal breaker who knew every trick in the book, and some others, had never heard anything like it before. Had the sun, after fourteen years of herding, driven the family Jew mad?
“My man, tell me what you have in mind,” Laban said with a poker face.
“Today,” answered Jacob, “you and I will go through your herd and pick out any spotted, speckled or dark sheep and goats. They will belong to you. The normal white ones will stay with me and I will herd them for you. Should they, under my care, produce any spotted, speckled or dark varieties, those will belong to me. Entirely white ones will be your property. There – you asked me to name my price. If I’m to work another six years for you, you have my price.”
Laban, as you may imagine, was stupefied. He smelled a rat. The Jew might be gullible, but he wasn’t stupid. To find out more he said, “How do I know that when you get the chance you won’t take discolored sheep and goats from my herd and sneak them into your lot? Ha ha, of course you would never do such a thing. But what if your herd mingled and mated with mine? Do you see the problem? I’ll tell you what. The herd you tend must be three days’ journey away from the herd my sons will tend. That way we can be certain my odd colored ones did not play any part in the births in your flock.” Jacob ignored these bare faced taunts, and agreed.
That very day Laban went through the herd and segregated all non-white sheep and goats and gave them to his sons to look after. Entirely white animals remained in Jacob’s care – or should have remained, according to the terms agreed. But taking no chances, Laban removed every fat, healthy animal from Jacob, white ones included. The sheep and goats he left were old and sick. The Jew would have to work miracles just to keep them alive, never mind breed with them. Laban chuckled to himself. Even so, before the deal was done he thought of details and loopholes he might have missed, and made provision for them. Every time they were about to sign, he thought of something else. By the time the ink was dry Laban had changed his mind ten times.
While forbidden to steal or lie, a Jew may protect himself against thieves and connivers. To outwit his crafty uncle Jacob resorted to craftiness of his own. If there are no objections I fancy the rod method as a name for Jacob’s scheme. What he did was to fashion colored rods by peeling poplar sticks, and brown rods by leaving the bark on other sticks. The ones he peeled were spotted or striped. Now comes the brilliant part, how Jacob used the rods. When sheep or goats came to drink by the trough Jacob would wave at the females, sometimes a spotted or streaked rod, sometimes a brown rod. The females would start, step backwards and, at that moment the males would mount them. When Jacob waved a mottled or striped rod in front of a mating couple, lambs and kids would be born with black spots or narrow stripes; and when he waved a brown rod, brown lambs and kids would be born. According to the rod’s markings so were the markings on animals conceived when he waved the rod.
Lest you think that offspring, by the laws of nature, must resemble the parents, let me tell you about a certain Negro couple and a wise Rabbi named Yehudah the Prince. I heard the story from a Yidon. A white baby was born to the couple, and the man came to the rabbi to complain. “This is obviously not my child,” he said. “We are both black, so how could our child possibly be white? My woman must have been unfaithful.”
“Have you any pictures in your house?” asked the Rabbi.
“Are they of white or black people?”
“They are pictures of white men.”
“When you coupled your woman must have looked at the pictures. It is very similar to what Jacob did with his goats and sheep.”
Devising his method Jacob would have understood this power of mind over matter. Distracted thoughts may supplant nature. By segregating lambs and kids born with markings and not let them mingle with Laban’s white ones, Jacob formed herds of his own. In time the herds grew until it became impossible for one man to wave rods before every couple. What Jacob did was to lead the marked sheep in front so that followers would look at them and give birth to marked lambs. He also improved the reproductive rate. When he saw aggressive ewes he waved the rods in front of them. When old and feeble ewes passed by he did not wave rods, so that their offspring was entirely white, and feeble. These poorly animals he put into Laban’s flock.
Jacob’s herd of freakish animals reproduced at a cracking rate. Sheep and goats have a gestation period of five months, and therefore drop two litters annually. They mate in springtime and fall. Animals born in the fall are normally stronger and more aggressive, while those born in late winter are much weaker. Jacob would therefore wave his rods only in springtime. In the fall he would cease to wave, so that his herds were uniformly strong and fertile. It wasn’t long before the news of his large litters spread. People came from all over to purchase livestock from Jacob, and his breeds fetched a premium price. With the money Jacob bought camels and donkeys, slaves and gold. Soon one was unable to count his livestock or his wealth. His in-laws grew pale with envy. Laban’s three sons felt the hurt keenly. It was not only the way Jacob had prospered, but how he’d contrived, despite Laban’s best efforts, to get the better of the deal. They felt ashamed for their father. “Just as you swindled others, Jacob has swindled you,” the sons told him. “No one saw his tricks coming.”
Laban’s fury and exasperation knew no bounds. He had tried everything. At first, the agreement was that all newly born spotted animals would be Jacob’s. When Laban saw how many there were, he had gone to him and explained his error. “I really meant that you would have the animals with large ring markings,” he said. Therefore all the spotted ones belong to me.” Then Jacob fashioned a rod with ring markings, and all the lambs and kids were subsequently born with rings on their coats. Laban came back and swore that he actually meant rings with spots. “Therefore all the ones with entirely dark rings belong to me,” he said. So Jacob fashioned new rods with dark rings and spots, and animals were born with that marking. So it went on. Laban meddled with the terms a hundred times over and, pushed too far, Jacob finally took his family and his property and fled while Laban and sons were out tending their herds. Even before he came home to an empty nest Laban knew, from the way that wells suddenly stopped overflowing, that Jacob had quitted Charan and, assembling a band of armed men, he rode after the escapees.
“You took my daughters and grandchildren like prisoners of war,” he told Jacob when they caught up.”Someone taught you how to dupe people! Now I realize you took advantage of your brother Esau. From what I see of you, I know that you’re as bad as he makes out.” Jacob, looking at the murderous band his uncle had brought along, began to protest respectfully. Laban interrupted.
“It’s damn lucky for you that the God of your fathers appeared to me last night and told me not to speak badly to you. He warned me not to employ my occult arts on you. A curse from me would have killed you instantly. I don’t have the heart to do it. You went away because of a yearning to return to your father’s house. Nothing is wrong with that. But why steal from my house when my back is turned?”
Jacob froze. He knew then that two clans would forever be at daggers drawn. When a later generation wandered through the desert, they’d vividly recall Laban’s threats as they confronted his viperous grandson, than whom no better equipped curser ever lived.