Of course, the Genesis text doesn’t claim that the sticks had “magical influences” on the animals. It only states that Jacob thought the sticks would have that effect.
The idea that pregnant animals (even human females) can see things which will cause their offspring to change in a certain way or even be tragically harmed is a common folk belief in many cultures, including various societies in our day. So it is hardly surprising that scheming Jacob would try to get the advantage by utilizing ancient “folk science!”
As for God’s part, it had already been prophesied that God was going to bless Jacob. So the use of the sticks was entirely superfluous! God alone was responsible for Jacob’s prosperity, but it was entirely appropriate that the story of Jacob would describe examples of Jacob’s scheming ways to help himself to come out on top! (Certainly, his pride led him to think that he was the master of his prosperity. But the story tells us otherwise.)
Where does the text say that YHWH put the idea of the sticks into Jacob’s head? This kind of manipulative folk magic was probably thousands of years old even in Jacob’s day!
Frankly, I grew up in rural, agrarian America and you’d be amazed how many of the oldest old timers I knew still had memories of various “folk traditions” they had learned from their ancestors, passed from father to son and mother to daughter. (Of course, the latter were often discounted as “old wives’ tales.”) Such tales and practices were common to Europe in the Middle Ages and we would expect them to make their way to America with the early Colonists.
Keep in mind that most of the old farmers I knew would laugh about these old folk traditions, but there were a few who would tell me, “You younguns can laugh all ya want but take it from me: this is for real!”
I haven’t thought about those old tales in years but here are a few which I can still recall:
(1) If your cow’s milk is going sour and she’s prone to mastitis, it’s because she saw a black cat cross her path on the day she was mated. But if you put a silver coin in her water trough for three days, that will clear it up. Some also said that the milk would last twice as long before spoiling if you put a silver coin in the bucket you used to milk her. (Some said copper coins were the key. No consistency!)
(2) If a cow sees an owl before the sun goes down, her calf will be stillborn. (I asked the old guy, “How many owls have you ever seen before sundown?” He replied, “None. And that’s a good thing cuz it’s bad luck!”)
(3) I vaguely remember some superstition about not allowing a pregnant women to see cloth that was striped black-and-white and shaken up and down… That’s all I can remember.
(4) I also remember some superstition about how to grow your herd faster by encouraging the birth of twins. The procedure is lost to my memories.
(5) There were also stories about tying special poultices around an animals neck, usually as cures but sometimes for other things like if the new mother animal’s milk hadn’t come in soon enough.
Does anybody really think that folk tales/magic/science/tradition were any less common in Jacob’s day?
P.S. There were criminal penalties in some areas of medieval Europe for a “deformed person” (especially one with a hideous face) to be seen by a pregnant woman—because the frightening sight was thought to cause miscarriage or cause the baby to be born with a birth defect or at least an ugly birthmark on its face! Thus, deformed people often had to wear shawls or robes to cover up.