God is at work. God is always at work. Even when his own people seem to be blundering around in the dark, making a mess of things, and even sometimes doing their deliberate best to thwart his plans, God is still sovereignly working to bring about the good things he has promised. We’ve seen God working through Abraham. We saw him working through Isaac, even though Isaac was sometimes more passive in his faith than Abraham was. And now we’ve seen God working to bring about his promises in the lives of Isaac’s family. The storyteller even makes a point of portraying Esau and Jacob, right from the time of their birth, as two unlikeable characters. Esau is the “Hairy Monster” who despised his birthright and sees no value in the things of God. Jacob is the “Supplanter” or the “Back Stabber”. He sees value in God’s blessings, but only in terms of what’s in it for himself.
And that was just the setup. Once we get into the story of Esau and Jacob we see Isaac and Rebekah making a mess of things too. Isaac knew God’s plan to work out his covenant through Jacob, the younger son, but Isaac wasn’t content to let that happen. He favoured Esau. And so he schemed to secretly bless Esau; he tried to counter God’s declaration with his own. And we saw how Rebekah was eavesdropping and cooked up a dishonest scheme to secretly slip Jacob under Isaac’s hands as he pronounced his blessing. We saw God at work as the drama played out. Jacob had a scheme he thought would undermine God, but God used Rebekah’s dishonest scheme to undermine Isaac’s and in the process confirmed the plans he had ordained before the boys were even born. And yet we were left at the end of that story wondering if God was really going to let Jacob get away with his thieving and his trickery. It looked like he might, but we were reminded that God always holds us accountable—maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but eventually God will deal with our sin. Esau’s time for repentance had already passed him by; Jacob’s time is yet to come. God has more work to do in his life and we see that work of transformation—of sanctification—begin in Chapter 28 as he flees Esau’s murderous rage.
At the end of Chapter 27 Rebekah cooked up another scheme to convince Isaac to send Jacob away. She was afraid that Esau would murder him and so she appealed to Isaac: “Those Canaanite women that Esau married have made life unbearable for me. Imagine how much worse it will be if Jacob does the same!” While we’re probably right to question her motives, Rebekah is reminding Isaac that God’s covenant is a family affair. His own father had sent for her from his own people to prevent Isaac from assimilating with the Canaanites. Now it’s time for Jacob to fetch himself a wife from their people back in Paddam-aram, lest he end up like Esau. But sons of wealthy fathers in the ancient world didn’t just run off and do things like that. They also didn’t up and run when their brother’s were angry with them. He needed his father’s approval—his father’s blessing—hence Rebekah’s manipulative scheme. Isaac probably wouldn’t have given his blessing if Jacob had simply been running away, but he is willing to give his blessing if it means that Jacob will find a proper wife. Look at verses 1-2:
Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.
But before sending Jacob off, Isaac bless him again:
God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” Thus Isaac sent Jacob away. And he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother. (Genesis 28:3-5)
Isaac seems finally to have accepted God’s plans for Jacob. We can imagine how he might. He knows that Esau squandered his birthright. In the last chapter he had tried to undermine God’s plan by blessing Esau with the inheritance that God intended for Jacob, but God had providentially put Jacob under his hands anyway. Isaac seems to have taken the not-so-subtle hints that God’s been giving. He’s already blessed Jacob, but here he blesses him again and here he blesses him more specifically. He expresses his hope that Jacob will be “fruitful and multiply”. That’s the hope of a father as he sends his son off to a foreign land to find a bride. But then Isaac expresses his desire to see Jacob inherit the blessings that God had given to Abraham. As Jacob prepares to leave the promised land, Isaac expresses his hope that Jacob will return—and in giving the blessing he’s reminding his son: You’re going away, but remember that this is your home; this is the land God has promised to give you and your descendants. You’ve got to come back!
And so, having received his father’s blessing again, Jacob heads off on the long trek to Paddan-aram—almost 900 kilometres. But before we follow Jacob down that long road, the storyteller takes us back to Esau. Look at verses 6-9:
Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.
Esau seems a little slow. After all these years, he’s only now cluing in that his parents don’t approve of his Canaanite wives. It may be an expression of just how poor his relationship with his mother has been. Rebekah complained that these Canaanite women made her hate life, but Esau was either so distant from her that he didn’t know or simply didn’t care how she felt. But now that he sees that his father disapproves, and not only disapproves, but has blessed Jacob again and sent him off to find a wife from their own family, he tries to please his father by taking a third wife. This time it’s his cousin, one of Ishmael’s daughters. In fact, all this does is further illustrate that when it comes to the things of God, Esau simply does not “get it”. He’s already taken not one, but two wives from amongst the Canaanites, straying from God’s ideal in two ways. Now he strays even further by taking a third wife, and then further still by taking her from amongst the daughters of Ishmael, his father’s brother who has already been sent out and excluded from the covenant community. Better than the Canaanites? Probably. But in taking this woman to wife, Esau simply distances himself further from the Covenant.
After this we pickup Jacob’s story in verse 10, where we’re told he left Beersheba, where Isaac was living, and headed towards Haran. He’s trekking north up the ridge road and through the hill country. Eventually he would meet up with the main highway to Damascus. Verse 11 tells us that he stopped at a “certain place”, which is later identified as Luz or Bethel. This is about 100 kilometres from “home”, so we can guess he’s been on the road two or three days. It’s at this spot that he has his famous dream:
And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it… (Genesis 28:11-13a)
With no more daylight to travel by, Jacob goes to sleep for the night with a stone for a pillow. And as he slept he dreamed. He dreamed of a ladder or, better, a stairway leading from his camp up to heaven. The Lord stood at the top, watching as his angels went back and forth between heaven and earth. We’ve all seen depictions of “Jacob’s Ladder” in art or in storybooks, but what was Jacob really seeing and what’s the significance of it. To understand that we need to have some idea of how ancient Near Eastern people understood communication to take place between the earth and the heavenly realm of the gods. We saw this vividly depicted in the story of the Tower of Babel in which the people built a ziggurat—a huge man-made, step-sided pyramid. The key feature of a ziggurat was the stairway that connected the temple at the bottom with what the people thought of as a gate to heaven at the top. That stairway represented a connection between earth and heaven. People worshipped in the temple below in an attempt to please the gods and coax them—or their messengers—down the stairway. Jacob’s envisioning something very similar in his dream, and yet the human and divine roles are dramatically reversed. Pagan humans built the ziggurats so that they could manipulate and coax their gods to come down to earth to give them what they wanted. Their worship was nothing more than an attempt to manipulate and control the gods—an attempt to do the gods a favour so that the gods would be obligated to give something in return. In contrast, here, God initiates the vision. He “builds” the stairway himself and he initiates communication with Jacob. The angels represent that line of communication between heaven and earth. The vision is another case of God meeting his people where they’re at and communicating with them in the language they already know. God uses the pagan imagery Jacob knew, but in the vision he turns it upside down. Pagans built stairways to heaven to coax the gods down; here God builds the stairway to earth and calls Jacob to himself.
Specifically, God calls Jacob into covenant faith. Remember, Jacob was already a member of the visible covenant community. He had been circumcised by his father when he was eight days old, but so far Jacob has proved himself to be a man of little or no faith. He bears the outward sign of the covenant, but he lacks the inner reality of it. God is about to begin his work of filling that void in Jacob’s life. This is the beginning of Jacob’s sanctification. Look at verses 13-15:
And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God has made this promise to Abraham; he’s made this promise to Isaac; now he makes it again to Jacob. But this time there’s special emphasis on his promise of the land. This is for our benefit as much as it is for Jacob’s. Remember, he’s leaving that land. He’s going back to Paddan-aram, the land God had called Abraham to leave. Jacob might have wondered if he’d ever return home; it’s possible he may not have planned to return home. And up to this point, leaving the promised land has always been a bad thing; it was to step out of God’s plan. But here, as Jacob heads north towards Damascus and nears the border of the promised land, God makes the covenant very real to him. As he had called Abraham and Isaac to be his partners in his great venture of redemption, now he calls Jacob, stressing that he willreturn and that the land—and all the other promises—will be his.
Jacob wakes from his dream and is in a state of awe. Look at verses 16-17:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob recognised that through the dream, God had turned his simple roadside camp into sacred space. Jacob responds in the religious language of his culture; it’s the language of the dream God had given him. For the people who built those ziggurats, the structure at the top of the stairway was the “gate of heaven”—an opening into the realm of the gods—and the temple at the bottom was the “house of God”—the place where deity came down and met humanity. God had turned Jacob’s campsite into a temple.
So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. (Genesis 28:18-19)
Jacob recognised that this place had been made sacred by God, so in the morning, he takes the stone he’d been sleeping on and sets it up as a pillar. This is what the people of that culture did to mark sacred space. Sometimes the pillars were large and elaborately carved; sometimes they were very simple and even small. Obviously this stone probably wasn’t all that large, but Jacob stands it on end anyway to commemorate that this was the place where God had met him. And Jacob consecrates the stone by pouring an offering of oil over it. This was common too amongst the Canaanites. Their sacred pillars often had catch basins at the bottom to hold these sorts of offerings.
But Jacob also gives the place a name. He calls it “Beth-el”; literally in Hebrew “House of God”. This was the earthside end of the heavenly ladder; this was the place where God met his people. And this where we’re told that Jacob’s camp was at a place called Luz. Up to this point the storyteller only describes it as a “place”—no place significant, just some spot on the side of the road. Now we find out it’s actually the town of Luz. This is interesting, because Luz was a major Canaanite city. And yet, in the story of redemption, Luz is a place of no consequence. It doesn’t become important until God meets Jacob there and, through that meeting, transforms it. Jan Fokkelman sums it up very well:
“Before [the dream] transformed the m?q?m [“place”] into Bethel, it had already accomplished another thing. By the [dream], Canaanite Luz has been exposed, leached, purged to the zero-state of “a place”. God does not want to appear to Jacob in a Canaanite town, but he wants to appear in a nothing which only his appearing will turn into a something, but then no less than a House of God. Where the history of the covenant between Yhwh and his people begins, all preceding things grow pale. Canaan loses its face, Luz is deprived of its identity papers.”
But Jacob also responds in a more personal way. Setting up a commemorative pillar simply marked the spot as sacred. Jacob also responds by making a vow to God.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
God has established his covenant with Jacob and Jacob responds with a vow. On one hand this is a positive in Jacob’s life. He’s heard God. He’s accepted the promises made to Abraham and Isaac as now being his own. And so he promises God something worthy of God’s honour: he pledges a tithe. For Jacob this would have meant the sacrificial offerings of one tenth of his flocks and herds. And, again positively, we see in Chapter 35 that when Jacob returns to Canaan, one of his first actions is to build an altar here at Bethel, certainly to make good on this pledge he has made to God. We see here that God has opened the lines of communication with Jacob and that Jacob—probably for the first time in his life—is listening.
But this is only a first step. Jacob has a long way to go. The negative side of this vow is that Jacob makes it conditional: “God I pledge to give you a tithe of everything…but not until you’ve proved yourself to me. When you’ve taken care of me and have returned me to my father’s home and peacefully settled my problems…then you will be my God.” In light of what we know of Jacob so far, this looks like he’s once again trying to bargain for something. God has said what he will do, but Jacob’s sceptical. He was amazed by the dream, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting cash on the barrel, so to speak, before he’ll actually commits himself. Unlike Abraham who heard God’s call to go to an unknown land and simply picked-up and went, trusting in God from the start, Jacob responds to God’s promises not with faith, but with a counter-offer: “Okay, God. I get it; you want me. You prove yourself by taking care of me on this journey and I promise that you can have me.” He’s got it backwards. Jacob’s still got a pagan way of thinking: he thinks that he can control God by doing something for him.
Jacob serves as a warning for us not to presume on God’s grace. God graciously offered to make Jacob his partner in his covenant of grace and Jacob responded by telling God how the deal was going to go down. I’m reminded of the old Russian folk story, “The Fisherman and the Golden Fish” that Alexander Pushkin set in poetry.
One day an old fisherman caught a golden fish. To his surprise the fish began to plead with him to throw him back. In fact, the fish promised a royal ransom if the man would only spare him. Frightened and wanting nothing to do with a magic fish, the man threw it back into the sea and ran home to tell his little shack to tell his wife what had happened. He found her sitting outside working at a cracked and leaky washtub. Of course, the old woman berated him for being such a fool. If it was a magic fish, why hadn’t he asked for something in return? He might have at least asked for a new washtub! Eventually she nagged him into going back to the seashore. Reluctantly he went and called out to the fish. The fish appeared and happily granted his request for a new washtub. The man returned home to find his wife happily doing her washing in a new tub.
But the man’s wife wasn’t satisfied for very long. A few days later she began nagging him again: “We live in a shack. Go and ask the fish for a new cottage.” And so he went. And, again, the fish graciously granted his wish and he returned home to a new cottage. But again, his wife’s satisfaction only lasted a short time. Over the next few days she repeatedly sent him back because the gifts of the fish weren’t good enough. She didn’t want to be a peasant in a cottage; she wanted to be a fine lady in a mansion. Then being a fine lady in a mansion wasn’t good enough; she wanted to be a tsarina in a place. And yet even that eventually wasn’t enough and she sent her husband back to the fish: “I want to be mistress of the seas and I want the golden fish to be my servant!” The fisherman reluctantly went off to find the fish again. He apologised profusely, but explained that his wife still wasn’t satisfied; she wanted the fish to be her servant—at her beck and call. This time the fish simply swished its tail and swam back into the dark and angry sea. The fisherman returned home to find the palace gone. In its place, once again, was their old shack and there was his wife, once again doing laundry in her old leaky washtub. The fish had taught her a lesson on presumption.
We hear that story and think: What a foolish and greedy woman! The fisherman had done the fish a favour and that favour was the grounds for his requests, but pretty quickly the requests became presumptuous and exceeded the original favour. And yet, Brothers and Sisters, how often do we do the same thing with God? We imagine that we’ve done some great thing for him—and we all have done things for him and for his kingdom—and yet we come to him with our requests like the man making his demands of the fish: I’ve done this for you God; now you have to do this for me! We forget that God has done far, far more for us than we can ever do for him. He sent his own Son to die for our sakes when we were his enemies. In contrast, even the greatest things we might do for God are small by comparison. Everything we have from him we have from his grace. His grace is endless, but that doesn’t mean we should presume upon it. We need to remember that it’s God who has taken the initiative in our relationship. He built the stairway to reach down to us from heaven. It was the pagans who tried to build a stairway leading up from the earth; it was the pagans who thought they could manipulate God and push him around.
Remember, God saved us so that we can be in fellowship with him, both now and for eternity. That’s where he has chosen to focus his grace in our lives: that we might live in communion with him. Now consider your prayers. How often are your prayers for our material gain? There are whole segments of Christianity that put the focus of the Gospel on wealth as a sign of God’s favour, but we don’t necessarily have to be that crassly materialistic to presume. Just think of your prayers. How much of your time is spent praying for material things—even things we “need”—in contrast to the time we spend asking God for spiritual things. Jesus does tell us to take our worldly needs and concerns to God, but is that all we take to him? Is it most of what we take to him? How much of our time is spent asking for things like greater faith, greater obedience, triumph over temptation, or a thankful heart. How much time do we spend praying for patience or for God to fill our hearts with love for the people we find unlovable? How often do we ask God to teach us to be satisfied with less or to be satisfied even in the midst of want and pain and sorrow? How often do we ask God to give us opportunities to share our faith; more time to study, memorise, and meditate on his Word; or a greater desire to serve others in his name? These are the sorts of things that never presume upon the grace of God. These are the things he offers us in the first place. These are the very things that show our growth in godliness and our continuing sanctification. These are the things that show our pagan desire to control God being replaced by a holy desire to allow God to control us. These are the things that show our wills growing less and God’s will growing more in our lives.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, thank you for the lessons you teach us through Jacob’s example. Thank you for showing us that you are always ready to turn sinners into saints. Turn our hearts to you more each day, we ask. Teach us not to presume upon your grace. And graciously renew us that our desires might gradually be replaced by your desires. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
C. Houtman, “What Did Jacob See in his Dream at Bethel?” Vetus Testamentum 27 (1977), pp. 343; J. A. Fitzmyer, The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire, Biblica et orientalia 19 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1967), p. 90; E. Martens, “nsb” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), vol. 3, p. 135.