INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND ON THE LESSON
This week’s lesson explores the aftermath of Jacob’s deceitful ways. After bartering Esau out of his birthright and stealing Esau’s blessing, Jacob is now forced to flee from home because Esau’s fury and hatred is quickly escalating into pre-meditated murder. Rightfully fearing for his life, Jacob flees Beersheba, headed toward Paddan-Aram and the safety of the household of Rebekah’s brother, Laban. For the first time in the Genesis stories about Jacob, he is all alone. And, without the protection of his mother, Jacob must now finally begin to deal with the consequences of his actions. While Jacob gained the blessing he coveted, he is forced to leave that blessing behind because he cunningly schemed to acquire it.
Genesis 28 does not indicate Jacob’s thoughts or feelings as he journeys toward Paddan-Aram. Is he sorry that he deceived his father and cheated his brother? Is he guilty that his behavior caused him to leave his mother and the only home he has ever known? Does he even recognize the damage he has caused his already dysfunctional family? Whether he realizes it or not, Jacob is in crisis—likely at the breaking point. Further, the future looks bleak at best. However, at this precise time—at Jacob’s most exposed, unguarded and defenseless moment—God shows up and speaks into his train-wreck of a life. One would expect God to speak in judgment, condemnation or disapproval. But God does not do that. Instead, God confirms that the blessing that was given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), confirmed through Sarah (Genesis 18:10-14) reconfirmed to Rebekah and Isaac (Genesis 25:23 and 26:23) now rests upon Jacob.
Theologically, this is a reminder of the sovereignty of God and the enduring presence of Divine hesed—steadfast, loving-kindness. God’s mercy endureth forever. God’s plans cannot be thwarted by any human eventuality—not dysfunction, deception, ignorance, malice, or manipulation. God accomplishes Divine will—regardless of our fitness, our worth, or our compliance.
INTO THE LESSON
28 10-12 Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.
As we begin the printed lesson, the biblical writer drops us into this narrative as Jacob is on his way to Haran. He has left the comfort and safety of Beersheba and he is alone. This point is significant because up until this point in the Genesis narrative, Jacob has always been surrounded by his mother’s love and her cunning strategic actions. Now, he is without her guidance and protection, and he must learn to navigate life on his own, all by himself. While Jacob is alone, God will appear to him. This reminds contemporary Christians, that sometimes, God has to get us off by ourselves, undisturbed by the clutter that we allow to occupy our lives, in order to reveal God’s self. Often, the only way we can receive a word from God is if we are forced away from distraction—distracting people, distracting situations and distracting possessions—then, and only then, are we in the position to hear God speak.
Before Jacob makes it out of Canaan, night overtakes him, so he must sleep without cover under the stars. He comes to a certain place—nothing is extraordinary about this place, it’s just a place—finds a suitable spot to sleep, takes an ordinary stone from nearby, and props himself up for the night. As he sleeps, he has an awe-inspiring, life-altering dream. He sees a stairway set into the ground, that reaches from heaven to earth, with angels going up and down on it. In Ancient Near Eastern religious architecture and imagery, such stairways indicated access to heaven and the gods. Priests would ascend and descend stairways in order to provide communication between humans and gods. While angelic beings often serve as intermediaries for God, this is not the case in Genesis 28. Instead, God will directly address Jacob.
13-15 Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”
In verses 13-15, Jacob sees God standing right in front of him. Then, God speaks and recounts the covenant relationship that God established with Abraham and Issac. God tells Jacob that the very ground he is sleeping on is promised to him and his descendants. The words God speaks are similar to previous covenant declarations that were given to both Abraham and to Isaac. Further, Isaac’s pronouncement during his blessing of Jacob in Genesis 28:4 is now confirmed by God. God promises land, prolific progeny, and most importantly, Divine presence. God declares that where ever Jacobs goes, God will go,. God will protect him, and bring him back to this certain place—the very ground where he lies. God will stick with Jacob until every Divine promise is accomplished.
16-17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”
When Jacob awakens from his sleep, he immediately perceives the importance of what has happened to him. First, he understands that God has been with him all along. This is significant because up until this point in the narrative, Jacob never mentions God’s name. Nowhere in the Jacob narratives in Genesis does he indicate he knows anything about the God of his father and grandfather. But, after God speaks to him, he now has an intimate knowledge of the presence of God.
Second, Jacob now understands the importance that God visited him in this ordinary place. He is in between home and Haran; the familiar and the unknown; what was and what will be; and in this “in between place, God reveals something to Jacob that blows his mind. Jacob is terrified; awestruck and mystified that God was in “this place” and he didn’t even know it. He recognizes that the place where he thought he was alone, the place he thought was just a stop-over, turns out to be God’s House and the Gateway to Heaven. Therefore, he identifies the place with those two names. These architectural metaphors illustrate Jacob’s direct concrete experience with God in this place. He didn’t imagine God spoke to him, he knows that God spoke to him—God drew near to him. Many times we are so concerned about the places we find ourselves in, that we miss the God that meets us in those same places. Jacob does not make that mistake. He recognizes God met him in the ordinary—even difficult—place in his life.
18-19 Jacob was up first thing in the morning. He took the stone he had used for his pillow and stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Bethel (God’s House). The name of the town had been Luz until then. 20-22 Jacob vowed a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives. And everything you give me, I’ll return a tenth to you.”
Upon rising in the morning, Jacob’s response to this dramatic disclosure of Divine purpose and promise culminates with three concrete actions. First, he sets up a pillar (verses 18, 19) that memorializes the place where he met God, and he pours oil on the pillar consecrating the location as a place of worship. In the future, others will see the stones and worship there also.
Second, he formally names the place Bethel—meaning House of God—changing the name of the town from Luz. This action underscores the ongoing significance of this place, and what happened there, for Jacob immediately, and for his posterity in the future. Bethel will become an important religious sanctuary later in Israelite history.
Third, Jacob professes his faith. In verse 20, it says Jacob vowed a vow, indicating he has accepted God as his God. While Jacob’s conditional “if” statements seem to underscore his spiritual immaturity, by repeating God’s declared promises, Jacob asserts his belief in the God of his ancestors while claiming God’s promises as personal and true. He promises to return to build an altar and give a tithe, if God faithfully stands with him, protects him, keeps him clothed and fed, and brings him safely back to his father’s house.
Jacob’s response to what God is doing to him, and what God will do for him, is to express his devotion through concrete action. This is a reminder to present-day Christians that our love for God is best expressed through our actions of devotion, not rhetoric. If we say we love God, then we must do something. The song writer says, What shall I render, unto God for all His blessings? What shall I give? We must do the same.