Jacob at Bethel

PART TWO – Genesis 28. 10-22

In Part 1 of our study of Jacob’s initial experience at Bethel, we looked at the four ‘Beholds’ which punctuate the narrative; ‘Behold, a ladder’, ‘Behold, the angels’, Behold the Lord’, and ‘Behold, I am with you’. In this concluding article, we consider some of the practical implications of the patriarch’s dream.

We noted in Part 1 that, when Jacob had settled down to sleep that night, he had been distressed and alone. But he now knew he would never need to feel lonely again; for God had promised, ‘I … with you’. Yes, there were very real dangers still to be faced. But Jacob need have no fear; for God had promised to keep him in all places he went and to bring him safely back home again.

Jacob later acknowledged that God had indeed kept His promises. Jacob’s testimony to Rachel and Leah over twenty years later,1 was that ‘the God of my father has been with me’, 31. 5. Shortly after, he angrily and pointedly made it clear to Laban that, ‘unless the God of my father … had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed’, v. 42. Ahem! Again, he later issued the instruction to his household, ‘Let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar to God, who … has been with me in the way which I have gone’, 35. 3. But God had not only been with him. As He had promised, He had kept him. God remained faithful to His promise and delivered him, and Jacob was able to point out to his household that ‘God did not allow him (Laban) to hurt me’, 31. 7.

Having received God’s pledge of His presence (that He was with him), His preservation (that He would keep him), and His perseverance (that He would not leave him until He had done all He had spoken), ‘Jacob awoke’. Now ‘he was afraid’, but not now of the unknown, not now of being alone, not now of Esau. The patriarch’s ‘fear’ was a sense of overpowering awe and wonder at the conscious, felt presence of Almighty God. ‘How awesome (‘how fearful, how dreadful, how terrifying’) is this place! This is none other than the house of God’ – which, at its simplest, signifies the place where God dwells, His abode.

It may often be difficult for us to believe it but that is just what the local church is today. The apostle Paul spoke of ‘the house of God, which is the church of the living God’ – referring not, of course, to the building where Christians meet, but to the company of God’s people. Yet so many of us have to confess that we are exactly like Jacob – we do not realize that ‘the Lord is in this place’. How rarely we feel a sense of true awe in His presence. To many of us, the sense of mystery has ‘been replaced by the yawn of familiarity'2 – as if it is ‘no big deal’ for us to encounter and meet with the living – the eternal God.3 Jacob, for one, found that in God’s house, His august, overpowering presence is very, very near.

In his Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis describes two girls, Susan and Lucy, preparing to meet Aslan the lion. Two talking animals, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, prepared the children for the encounter. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver. ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most, or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’, said Lucy. ‘Safe?’, said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King’. ‘Is there anyone who can appear before him without their knees knocking?’ … perhaps our knees are just a little too steady when we enter God’s presence and God’s house!

When he had travelled the day before, Jacob may well have hoped to reach and find the gate of Luz before the sunset. If so, he had failed. But during the night he discovered something infinitely more exciting. He found ‘the gate of heaven’;4 and there he had seen God’s angels, and, far more importantly, he had met God!

When Jacob rose the following morning, He realized that things could never be the same again. He knew he had encountered God (or, perhaps more accurately, that God had encountered him) and that he must now respond to what he had seen and heard. It was not an option for him to simply ignore it, shrug his shoulders, pick up his staff and continue on his way to Padan Aram. And so, before anything else, Jacob did two things.

First, he set up the stone at his head5 to stand as a sacred witness to the time and place where he had met God.6 This was the first of four pillars we know Jacob to have erected.7 His pouring of the oil on the pillar was an act of consecration,8 but, far more important than his consecration of the pillar, was his consecration of himself. For this was the only appropriate response to his encounter with God.

And so, second, ‘Jacob vowed a vow’, lit. This, the first and the longest vow recorded in the whole Old Testament, was a vow of personal dedication. And the man, who received such wonderful promises from God, now responds with a solemn promise of his own to God.

On the face of it, it may seem as if Jacob was in the business of striking a deal with God – of laying down his own conditions. But this is hardly likely for a man who has such a holy fear of God as Jacob has at this point in his life. It is important to note that the words, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me … so that I come back’ can equally well be translated ‘Since (given that, seeing that) God will be with me, and keep me … so that I come back’, vv. 20- 21. That is, Jacob was referring back to God’s explicit promises, ‘I am with you’, ‘I will keep you’ and ‘I will bring you back’, v. 15. To Jacob, the fulfilment of these promises was a foregone conclusion – an absolute certainty – based as they were upon the word of the awe-inspiring Lord who stood over the stairway to heaven. That is, Jacob took God at His word and made his vow on the basis of what God had guaranteed He would do.

Out of gratitude to God for His firm promises, and fully trusting God to fulfil them (every one of them), Jacob vowed three things:

  • That the Lord who had appeared to him would henceforth be his God;
  • That the pillar he had set up would become God’s house; and
  • That a proportion of his future goods would be given back to God.

First, Jacob affirmed that the Lord would henceforth be his God. It may well be that this marked the beginning of Jacob’s personal relationship with God – that the road to Haran proved to be to Jacob what the road to Damascus later proved to be to Saul of Tarsus, to whom the risen Lord ‘appeared … on the road’.9 Just before he died, Jacob’s mind went back to this incident, telling his son Joseph that ‘God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me’, 48. 3. Clearly, it must have been a very special and important time for Jacob. Certainly, both Jacob and Saul were stopped in their tracks by revelations of the Lord, by revelations which changed their lives.

Second, Jacob promised that the pillar marked the spot of God’s house. Much later God reminded Jacob of his commitment, telling him to ‘go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you’, 35. 1. Jacob was to worship God there.

And third, Jacob promised to give a proportion of all he received back to God. Although at the time he had no possessions at all (apart from his staff, 32. 10), he clearly believed God would supply his every need (and more!), and voluntarily promised to return one tenth of everything to Him – one tenth of his flocks, herds, fruits – everything10. We too, as Christians, should count it a privilege to give of our possessions and income to the Lord, which, according to the New Testament, we should do both proportionately and cheerfully.

Note that later Jacob had occasion to remind God of His promises and God had occasion to remind Jacob of his vow.

(i) When, in obedience to God’s command, Jacob returned to the land of promise, he received an alarming report that Esau was coming to meet him – with four hundred men, 32. 6. Jacob prayed! He directed God back to His promise to him here at Bethel, ‘Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude’, 32. 11-12. ‘Lord, it is all very simple. No mothers and children – no descendants!’

(ii) And, for His part, God took Jacob’s vow very seriously – reminding him of it after Jacob had spent twenty long years in Haran. ‘I am the God of Bethel’, He said, ‘where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me’, 31. 13.

God’s description of Himself as ‘the God of Bethel’ prompted Philip Doddrige to pen what became a very popular and wellknown hymn:

O God of Bethel, by Whose hand
Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our fathers led.

Through each perplexing path of life
Our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread,
And raiment fit provide.

O spread Thy covering wings around
Till all our wanderings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode
Our souls arrive in peace.


End-notes – Part One

  1. The Hebrew word translated ‘came to’ is better rendered ‘met’ or ‘encountered’. The stress is on the casual nature of Jacob arriving at this particular ‘place’ - ‘place’ being a key word in the section, occurring no less than six times.
  2. Gen. 35. 1, 7.
  3. Compare Genesis by Derek Kidner, IVP, page 155.
  4. Note also that the identical Hebrew expression ‘at his head’ (literally) is used to describe the near location of King Saul’s spear and jug of water, 1 Sam. 26. 7, 11, 16. Clearly Saul did not use these articles for his pillow! See again the same expression in 1 Kings 19. 6; ‘a cruse of water at his head’.
  5. ‘Three lines of the story now known as Nergal and Ereshkigal depict the viziers of the great gods of heaven and the underworld … ascending and descending “the long stairway of heaven" between the two realms’; letter from A. R. Millard, Tyndale House, Cambridge, in the Expository Times, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 3, pages 86-87. See also the Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Vol. 3, page 266.
  6. It is just possible that the ‘stairway’ resembled a long staircase up to the temple top of a ziggurat. If so, what Jacob witnessed in Genesis 28 stood in marked contrast to what had taken place at the opening of chapter 11. Jacob was made aware that, if there is to be communication between earth and heaven, the staircase to heaven has to be altogether of God’s making, and not of man’s!
  7. The mention of ‘descendants’ would have been a great encouragement to Jacob, who had been sent to find a wife; a point reinforced by God’s revelation that his descendants would ‘spread abroad’ in every direction in the Promised Land; cf. 13. 12–18. The promise that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him was evidence to Jacob that the Abrahamic blessing had been carried forward to him’; cf. 12. 3.
  8. ‘The clause is a nominal clause; the verb to be supplied could be present … or future’, footnote to Genesis 28. 15 in the NET Bible.

End-Notes – Part Two

  1. See Jacob’s reference to ‘these twenty years’, 31. 38 – for fourteen of which Jacob had served Laban to obtain Rachel for himself.
  2. The Trivialization of God, by Donald W. McCullough, NavPress 1995. Page 13.
  3. Ibid. Page 57.
  4. It is of interest that, in the Assyrian/ Babylonian myths, there were ‘gates’ both at the top and the bottom of ‘the long stairway of heaven’. (See End-note 5 to Part 1.)
  5. See the comments made on verse 11 in Part 1 – together with the related End-note 3.
  6. Standing stones in the ancient world often served as markers, arresting the attention of passers by in that the stones were not in their natural position. It was clear to all that such stones must have been positioned that way deliberately, whether to form a boundary, 31. 45, to mark a grave, 35. 20, to commemorate an important event, 1 Sam. 7. 12, or, as here, to indicate a sacred spot.
  7. At Mount Gilead, 31. 45; for a second time at Bethel, 35. 14-15; and on Rachel’s grave at Bethlehem, 35. 20.
  8. ‘Inanimate objects also were anointed with oil, in token of their being set apart for religious service’, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, article ‘Anointing’. Compare the repeat of Jacob’s act of consecration when he later returned to Bethel and poured out oil with a drink offering on a stone pillar, 35. 14.
  9. Acts 9. 17.
  10. It is possible to view Jacob here as a picture of his descendants (the ‘children of Israel’), who would also spend a number of years outside the land, Gen. 15. 13–16. During that period, God would be with them and keep them (Exod. 1. 7, 12, 20) and ultimately bring them back to their proper inheritance. Such covenant blessings were calculated to inspire a response of consecration and devotion on their part – and a desire to build Him a habitation,j Exod. 15 (note v. 2); Josh. 4. 19–24.

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