Goats, Inerrancy, and Genesis 30
Scott J. Kaczorowski | February 3, 2023
In Genesis 30:37-43 we encounter the story of how Jacob placed peeled sticks in front of his goats while they were breeeding to try to produce off-spring with streaks of color in their coats rather than coats of pure white. He took this course of action because he had agreed with his uncle Laban that all the white goats would be his while all the streaked ones would belong to Jacob (Gen 30:31-34). Genesis records that the attempt worked (Gen 30:39, 42) but modern readers who are familiar with Mendelian genetics may wonder if this passage poses a challenge to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the scientific realm.A friend first asked about this particular passage and its relationship to genetics and inerrancy. What follows is a lightly edited version of my reply to this inquiry.
As we tackle this question, the first thing we have to ask is what would be required of the passage for inerrancy to be true. This is an important question that I think we side step sometimes in our discussion. We can look at this at a surface level and then deeper. At a surface narrative level, the only thing that would be required for this passage to be inerrant would be that the story actually happened as recorded. If Jacob and Laban made this deal (as recorded) and Jacob stripped these sticks (as recorded) and the flocks brought forth more speckled and spotted offspring (as recorded), at a narrative level there are no errors in the text. This would be like someone saying, “He did a rain dance. And then it rained.” Is that an inerrant statement? If the events proceeded as described, then yes. So we might claim that that is all that is necessary for the inerrancy of the passage to be maintained.
But it is at a deeper level that the “issues” seem to arise, because when we read this text we feel like it implies that there was a causal connection between what Jacob did with the sticks and the breeding that resulted in the flock. And our translations in some cases seem to make this explicit. For example, the ESV renders, “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” (Gen 30:38-39, emphasis mine). This would be a little like taking our statement above and changing it to, “He did a rain dance, and so it rained.” But the Hebrew of this text is much more like the first statement above: “This happened. Then that happened.” The NASB is a little more literal here: “He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted” (italics original). In the NASB translation at least at the grammatical level it does not look like causation is necessary implied. And if it is there, it’s just that—implied rather than explicit.
But let’s assume, worst case scenario, that the author does intend to imply that there was a causal relationship here. (As an aside, I think that what Jacob may have thought about this is irrelevant to the idea of inerrancy. What matters is the posture of the text towards the situation/issue.) At this second level of analysis do we have a problem with inerrancy? I am still not sure. We could argue that the only thing that would be required even at this deeper level is that there was some kind of causal connection in this particular situation. Going back to our illustration of a rain dance, what would be required of the statement, “He did a rain dance and that caused it to rain” to be inerrant? Well, on a basic level, if in that particular instance a person did a rain dance and God responded by giving rain! And in the case of the text in Genesis, we could say that yes, in this particular instance God responded favorably to a method of Jacob that we “know” (the scare quotes here are intentional; I will return to this later) is not “scientific.”
But we can try to go a little deeper here. What if our statement about rain dances is meant to imply not just that a rain dance brought rain in this particular situation but something more like: “He did a rain dance and that caused it to rain [implication: as rain dances tend to do.] At this point a modern scientist might say, “Hey, I gotcha. We know that rain dances don’t do this.” Now I would say that if: (1) a text affirmsOn the question of what the biblical text is affirming see Mark D. Thompson, “Toward a Theological Account of Biblical Inerrancy,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal … Continue reading that rain dances are generally causally efficacious and (2) they are not in fact efficacious in this way, then we have at that point reached clear errancy. But we need to ask whether our text is really intending to go this deep. Part of the problem is that we don’t know how “deep” the author is intending the statement. If we were to ask him, “Are you merely describing what Jacob did (with the implied caveat that God blessed it) or are you intending to endorse general principles of animal husbandry? If someone else (say Laban!) used this same method, would it work again?” I’m honestly not sure what he would say. But again, for the sake of argument let’s take this last option as our assumption and see what happens: the human author means to say that this method of breeding would generally work.
Have we at that point proven that the Bible is errant? Not necessarily. Because there is so much that we don’t know yet—even about genetics.Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), 475 (similar). I read an article a few years ago that illustrates this point. An experiment was done in which a mouse was traumatized. Scientists took some of the mouse’s sperm and bred the mouse via artificial insemination. The traumatized mouse’s progeny resulting from this process came out “largely normal.” But when they mated the mouse in the normal way with a female mouse, the offspring came out…a little bit neurotic. Something here is affecting the offspring in a way that simple genetics alone does not account for. Judith Shulevitz, “Why Fathers Really Matter,” The New York Times (September 8, 2012), available at … Continue reading Results like this need to give us a little more epistemic humility when we approach questions like this.
From a scientific standpoint we do know that the striped sticks could have had at least one affect on the mating flock. This type of wood contains a chemical (it has been argued) that can act as an aphrodisiac.Morris, The Genesis Record, 476. If this is correct, I can’t help but feel that that is in some way significant to this passage.
But let’s say that we ultimately find no scientific connection here at all. Is that the end of the story? Again, I think not. Because scientific causal connections are not the only kinds of causal connections there are in our universe. We have been so influenced by Western thinking on this point, that we can easily forget this.
There is something else that Jacob does that modern critics don’t seem to pounce on in the same way they do the striped sticks: “Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban…” (Gen 30:40, NASB). Most Western readers would label and action like this superstitious. And from a scientific standpoint that would be correct. But within the thought world of the Old Testament (and in many other parts of the world today) actions like this were considered significant and it was believed that God responded to them. If you study missions for any appreciable time, you will become aware that many of the things that modern science would label simple superstition actually do have some kind of (spiritual) power behind it (in the case of these other religions, a dark spiritual power). There are scientific causal connections. In that case, rain dances clearly don’t produce rain. But there are also spiritual causal connections. In those cases, can a rain dance produce rain? Well, maybe. Can prayer produce rain? Definitely. Not in a scientifically causal way but certainly in a spiritually causal way as God responds to the entreaties of his people. And the ancient Israelite would not have even been working from the modern Western mindset that would draw a distinction between scientific causality and God’s active involvement in the world. If Jacob made his flocks face the spotted and streaked flocks of Laban and he used striped sticks to try to produce speckled offspring and God made it work…great!Another writer or speaker may have also made this point; cf. also Morris, The Genesis Record, 479-480.
A final point. When we speak of what a text implies, etc., we need to remember that it is what the text implies that really matters for inerrancy, not what the human author may have thought. What the human author thinks the implication of his text is might be different than the implication of the divine author.My friend suggested this point in their initial inquiry. There are many examples of this. The author of Joshua surely assumes as his worldview that the world is flat, but that does not have to mean that the implication of “the sun stood still” has to teach geocentrism. Paul seems to think that the Lord would return in his lifetime, but the text he wrote does not have to imply that. So even if the human author of Genesis 30 thought that this was a good general principle of animal husbandry—again, not sure if he would have even thought in those categories—this does not have to mean that the text he wrote necessarily carries that implication with it. When we speak of inerrancy, we are speaking of the text of Scripture not all of the beliefs and assumptions of the original author. If that were the case then no text could ever be inerrant—at least not one that involved a fallen human being in its production—because no fallen human being has a one hundred percent perfect worldview.
|A friend first asked about this particular passage and its relationship to genetics and inerrancy. What follows is a lightly edited version of my reply to this inquiry.
|On the question of what the biblical text is affirming see Mark D. Thompson, “Toward a Theological Account of Biblical Inerrancy,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 82-83.
|Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), 475 (similar).
|Judith Shulevitz, “Why Fathers Really Matter,” The New York Times (September 8, 2012), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/why-fathers-really-matter.html?pagewanted=2&partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed December 21, 2017). The phrase “largely normal” is Shulevitz’s.
|Morris, The Genesis Record, 476.
|Another writer or speaker may have also made this point; cf. also Morris, The Genesis Record, 479-480.
|My friend suggested this point in their initial inquiry.