Jacobs Sheep

Jacobs Sheep

One interesting story in Genesis (chapters 30 through 32) concerns Jacob and the problem with his scheming father-in-law.  Jacob took care of the sheep and agreed that his father-in-law would get all the pure white sheep, while Jacob would get all the striped and spotted off-colored ones.  Jacob thought he was very clever and could cause the young sheep to be either spotted or striped.  In the centuries before modern genetic research, people believed that if a female animal saw a striped object while she was breeding, it would affect her offspring and make them striped  (file this tidbit under little known facts).  Jacob cut a striped pattern into pieces of wood and put these objects in front of the female sheep at their drinking troughs during the breeding season.  He thought this would cause the females to have striped offspring.

Obviously, this story is sometimes cited as evidence that the Bible teaches erroneous ideas.  Anybody who would make that claim did not read far enough— the very intriguing part of the story is in Genesis 31.  After Jacob had become quite successful with his sheep, he had a dream.

But first before we discuss the dream, let us consider some basics of the genetics of sheep coloration. Modern knowledge of genetics indicates that the unusual characteristics of Jacob’s sheep are recessive traits.  If a sheep receives a (recessive) gene for spots from one parent and a (dominant) gene for white wool from the other parent, the sheep will be pure white because the dominant gene “overrules” the recessive one.  Even though Jacob’s father-in-law took all the off-colored sheep out of Jacob’s initial flock, some individuals remaining with Jacob would have the recessive gene for nonwhite wool, although there would be no visible evidence of it on the sheep.  Since the genes for plain white sheep were genetically dominant, Jacob should have received far fewer sheep than his father-in-law.  Jacob thought the sheep were bearing so many off-colored lambs because of his striped sticks.

However, in his dream, God told him that he was not as clever as he thought.  He was shown that the males mating with the females were striped and streaked.  Remember, though, that Jacob’s father-in-law had taken away all the males that had any visible evidence of stripes or other recessive traits.  As far as Jacob (or anyone else before the nineteenth century A.D.) knew, none of the sheep in Jacob’s flock had these characteristics.  How would anybody at that time know that the recessive genes for striped coloration were lurking inside of the males doing the mating?  The Bible says that God showed him that the ones that were mating were striped and streaked.  Someone might argue that we cannot demonstrate that God actually did speak to Jacob or give him that dream, but it really does not matter.

The point is that somebody who wrote the story of the dream knew that something invisible was inside those seemingly pure white sheep that made them not all white.  Somebody knew that three thousand years before Gregor Mendel did any of the first classic genetics experiments in the late 1800s. That is evidence upon which we can base our faith.  If God communicated to Moses about health laws and to Jacob about striped sheep, perhaps it is reasonable to believe He also might have communicated the other concepts found in Genesis.

 

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