After Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob thought about leaving, but Laban asked him what wages would persuade him to stay. In reply, Jacob said: “I will pass through all your flock today, to take away from there all the speckled and spotted livestock, and all the black livestock among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they will be my wages. And my righteousness will answer for me at a later time, when my wages come before you. All of the goats that are not speckled and spotted, and black from the sheep, will have been stolen by me.” 1
Laban agreed to this, and “in that day, he took away the striped and spotted male goats, and all of the speckled and spotted female goats, all with white in them; and all the black among the sheep, and he gave them into the hand of his sons. And he put a distance of three days between him and Jacob; and Jacob fed the remainder of Laban’s flock.” 2
I propose that this is meant to be an analogy for the transcription process that converts DNA into mRNA, with the “striped and spotted male goats” and the “speckled and spotted female goats” representing the four bases.
In transcription, DNA is first unzipped into two strands, which would perhaps explain why Laban separates the male and female goats. The DNA bases also fall into two categories, called “purines” and “pyrimidines.” The bases adenine (A) and guanine (G) are purines, while cytosine (C) and thymine (T) are pyrimidines. A purine base pairs up with a pyrimidine base, so comparing them to male and female would make sense.
Furthermore, one of the DNA bases, thymine (T), is switched to a different base, uracil (U), in RNA. Remarkably, this is also what happens in our analogy. Jacob asks for “speckled and spotted” livestock, but Laban actually gives him “striped and spotted” male goats, even though Jacob never asked for striped ones. As if to reinforce the analogy, the Hebrew words for “speckled” (nqd) and “striped” (oqd) are very similar, except one letter has been switched.
What about the black sheep? Since they are contrasted with those that have white in them, the black sheep could represent stop codons. They tell the ribosome when to stop making the protein. However, they are transcribed into mRNA along with the sections that code for the protein.
Once an mRNA strand is made, in human and animal cells it is usually transported outside of the cell nucleus. Similarly, once Laban had paid Jacob his wages, he “put a distance of three days between him and Jacob.”
The processes of transcription and translation take place in specific directions, based on ends of the strand that are labeled “3 prime” and “5 prime” by biologists, for reasons of chemistry that I won’t go into here. The direction toward the 5 prime end is referred to as “upstream” and toward the 3 prime end is said to be “downstream.”
The mRNA strand is formed in the 5 prime to 3 prime direction, and is also translated into a protein in the same direction. Therefore, the “three days” distance could also represent the 3 prime direction. Also, one of the last things to take place in transcription is a process called “polyadenylation,” where a tail is added to the mRNA strand at the 3 prime end. The “three days” might also allude to this.
What happens next in Jacob’s story matches up remarkably well with the process of translation, where the mRNA strand is converted into a protein by the ribosome molecular machine.
The account continues: “And Jacob took for himself a fresh stick from the poplar and almond and plane trees, and he peeled white peelings in them, to expose the white that was on the sticks. And he put the sticks which he had peeled into troughs, into the drinking basins of the waters ahead of the flock, so that the flock would come to drink, and would conceive as they came to drink. And the flock conceived before the sticks, and the flock gave birth to striped, speckled and spotted ones.” 3
Jacob clearly knew a thing or two about biology. Presumably the sight of sticks with some of the bark peeled away got the flocks aroused, so they would conceive. Mixed genetic traits would appear again in Laban’s flock, and the offspring with striped, speckled or spotted traits would become part of Jacob’s wages!
However, I propose that this was also orchestrated to be an analogy for what the ribosome does, in making a protein from an mRNA strand. In fact, the analogy is so accurate that, given the previous connections we have already made to DNA, along with the biological context, it can hardly be just a coincidence.
In an mRNA strand, three bases can contain information for one amino acid, which would make them a “codon.” The “poplar and almond and plane” sticks together represent one codon.
Peeling the bark would represent the preparation of newly transcribed RNA into mRNA, ready to be processed by a ribosome. Exposing the white on the sticks would correspond to making the information in the codon accessible. This would give additional meaning to the distinction between “all with white in them,” and the black sheep. Those with white in them could code for amino acids and therefore proteins, while the black ones could also represent non-coding sequences. The “troughs” represent ribosomes, and the “drinking basins” represent the three binding sites in the ribosome. In this analogy, the “flocks” represent amino acids.
In a cell, amino acids are brought to the ribosome by tRNA transfer molecules, and each tRNA features what is called an “anticodon,” a sequence of three bases that complements a codon in the mRNA strand.
Let me remind you of how the process of “translation” works. As the ribosome moves along the mRNA strand, one codon at a time is exposed. A tRNA molecule brings along the amino acid matching up with the codon, and it moves into the first binding site in the ribosome. It then moves to the second site, and the amino acid it carries is attached to a growing chain of amino acids, which will become the protein. The empty tRNA vessel then leaves the ribosome from the third site.
In other words, in the language of the drama performed for us by Jacob, the codon “sticks” are exposed in the binding sites or “drinking basins” of ribosomes or “troughs.” The “flocks” of amino acids “come to drink” in the ribosome, and “conceive” the protein as they do so, giving birth to “striped, speckled and spotted ones,” which here represents a protein, or at least one part of a protein chain. I think Jacob’s performance with the sticks was also meant for us thousands of years later, to show off the biological process of translation.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting here the descriptions of the sticks. They are described as “fresh,” from the Hebrew word (lk) which is pronounced somewhat like “luck” or “lack.” The “poplar” (lbne pronounced “liv-neh”) is similar to the word for “Laban” (lbn), which in turn is the same word for “white.” The “almond” is actually the word “Luz” (pronounced like “lose”) which is the name of the place where Jacob had his dream of the ladder, and which he renamed Bethel, meaning “house of God.” The “plane” is ormon in Hebrew. I think these have a deeper meaning in regard to biology and evolution, which I will explore in the second half of this letter.
1 Genesis 30:32,33. 2 Genesis 30:35,36. 3 Genesis 30:37-39.