Questions From Readers
● Does the Bible support the idea that what a mother sees or experiences during pregnancy may mark her offspring in some way? Some argue that it does, citing as proof Genesis 30:37-43.—T. C., Pennsylvania.
When Jacob wanted to leave his father-in-law Laban’s service, Laban wanted him to stay and accept wages, asking, “What am I to give you?” “Nothing at all,” said Jacob; “let me go on feeding and tending your stock, if you will simply do this for me: to-day, as I go over all your stock, I will set apart all the speckled and spotted animals, and my pay shall consist of any black sheep or any speckled and spotted goat hereafter born.” Laban agreed, and the record continues: “Then Laban that very day set apart the striped and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats—every animal that had a white tinge, and all the black sheep; he put them in charge of his sons, at a distance of three days’ march from Jacob. The rest of Laban’s stock was fed by Jacob. But Jacob took fresh boughs of poplar, almond, and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the boughs. These peeled sticks he laid in front of the flocks, in the runnels of the watering-troughs at which the flocks drank; they bred when they came to drink, and as they bred in front of the sticks they brought forth young that were striped, speckled, and spotted. These lambs Jacob kept separate [turning the faces of the flocks to the striped and black animals in Laban’s flock], he kept his own droves apart, instead of adding them to Laban’s stock. Jacob also used to lay the sticks in the runnels only when the stronger animals came to breed, that they might breed in sight of the sticks; when the weaker animals came, he did not put in the sticks. In this way, the weaker lambs fell to Laban, the stronger to Jacob.”—Gen. 30:25-42, Mo.
This would seem to support the theory of prenatal influence or maternal impressions, but scientific experiment has been unable to duplicate or confirm Jacob’s experience. The fact that there is no nerve connection between the mother and unborn young makes it difficult to believe that maternal impressions could mark or physically alter the offspring to come. Of course, during pregnancy the mother’s health is “the most important factor determining whether the fetus will be carried to term and delivered in a viable and healthy condition”, but “the myth of marking a fetus by accident or by emotional upset should be dispelled”, according to the Textbook of Pediatrics, 1950 edition, by Nina A. Anderson.
Dr. Palmer Findley, in his book The Story of Childbirth, agrees, and in a section on maternal impressions shows that the idea of prenatal influence was anciently believed. “In the law of Lycurgus it was decreed that Spartan women should look upon the statues of Castor and Pollux in order that strength and beauty might be imparted to their offspring.” “Hippocrates taught that strong emotions experienced by the pregnant woman could give rise to deformities in the child.” Aristotle believed this ancient idea, said many women brought forth children with harelip after seeing a hare, and ascribed other deformities in children to “the imagination of the mother, who has cast her eyes and mind upon some ill-shaped creature”. Egypt’s sacred bull of Memphis, with one or two eagle-shaped figures on its back and a crescent on its forehead, had to be killed when it was twenty-five years old; but before doing so the priests had to supply a similarly marked successor. In an effort to obtain a young bull properly marked, during conception Egyptian cows were surrounded by appropriately shaped and colored objects.
Hence it is clear that belief in prenatal influence is ancient, and we can understand how Jacob also would accept that general belief of his time. But did it work for Jacob? It is true that Jacob prospered when he employed his scheme based on prenatal influence, but the Bible does not specifically say that that was the cause for his success. In fact, the Bible ascribes a different reason for the uniformly colored goats bringing forth spotted and speckled and ring-streaked offspring. In the next chapter Jacob tells his wives, Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, why he prospered. Please note that he does not give the credit to his scheme based upon the theory of prenatal influence: “In this way God has taken the stock from your father and given it to me. When the stock was breeding, I raised my eyes in a dream and saw that the he-goats that leaped on the she-goats were striped, speckled, and mottled. The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Yes,’ said I. And he said, ‘Raise your eyes, look! all the he-goats that leap on the she-goats are striped, speckled, and mottled.’”—Gen. 31:9-12, Mo.
Jehovah God here gave Jacob instruction in the modern science of genetics. There were no spotted goats in the flock Jacob tended, yet the vision disclosed spotted goats. How could this be? It is apparent that the spots were not visible, yet their presence in these solid-colored animals was supernaturally revealed to Jacob and doubly impressed upon him by what he saw in the dream and by the angel’s specifically calling his attention to them. Apparently these plain-colored goats were hybrids, that is, they were the result of a cross between the spotted goats and plain goats that ran together in Laban’s flocks. Though these hybrids were uniformly colored themselves, they carried in their germ cells the hereditary factors for spotting and speckling, and, in accord with the laws of heredity discovered by Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century and clarified and enlarged in this twentieth century, many of the offspring of these solid-colored hybrid goats were spotted and speckled. By the vision God opened Jacob’s eyes to the naturally invisible presence of the hereditary factors for spotting and speckling that were in the plain-colored hybrid goats, and Jehovah could well cause the proportion of spotted offspring to run heavy. Both Laban and Jacob acknowledged Jehovah’s interest in this matter. (Gen. 30:27-30; 31:5, 7, 9, 16) As for the point raised by Genesis 30:41, 42 that the stronger offspring were Jacob’s, it should be remembered that all the speckled and spotted would come from the hybrids, and it is a modern biological truth that hybrids are stronger than uncrossed breeds. Not all the goats in the flock Jacob tended were hybrids, and these feebler ones, without the hybrid vigor, would breed true and produce only solid-colored offspring, and which feebler kids would be Laban’s.
Hence it appears that the Bible does not support the idea that what a mother sees or experiences during pregnancy may mark her offspring. Jacob thought so at the outset of his experiment, but he changed his mind when later instructed otherwise by God. Jacob had God’s approval, and may be commended for acting according to the knowledge he possessed and doing all in his power to effect a good result, and God blessed Jacob. But the manner in which the good result was brought about was revealed by the inspired dream, and not by Jacob’s breeding methods.