Jacob leaves his home to escape the vengeance of Esau and begins his journey to his mother’s homeland and the house of her brother. On the way God meets him and extends the blessing of Abraham to him. God blesses and encourages him and doesn’t rebuke him for his behavior with Isaac and Esau. Jacob’s contact with God shows that Isaac’s blessing was effective and that God is faithful even when man’s behavior doesn’t warrant it.
Jacob leaves Isaac and Rebekah in Beersheba and begins his journey to Haran and the house of Laban, Rebekah’s brother. The journey is roughly 550 miles, so it is not easy or short. On his way, he comes to a place around the city of Luz, roughly 60 miles north of his home. He decides to stop for the night and sets up camp and sleeps.
During the night he dreams and sees a vision of a stairway (or ladder) extending from earth into heaven. Angels ascend and descend on the stairway. The Lord is at the top of the stairway – or standing beside Jacob (the text isn’t clear) – and speaks to him (since God speaks to him, it might make more sense that He stands beside Jacob rather than at the top of the stairway).
God tells him six things:
- I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac [Remember that Jacob invoked God’s name when he lied to Isaac – the Lord your God caused it to happen (27:20). Wonder if coming face to face with the One who calls Himself the God of Isaac causes him to regret that part of the deceit?]
- The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.
- Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and will spread throughout the world.
- In you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
- I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.
- I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
What an amazing and reassuring blessing! God comes to Jacob when he is likely weak and unsure and traveling to a distant land to relatives he doesn’t know, and makes five life-changing promises. He essentially passes along the blessing He first made to Abraham. And He makes sure to tell Jacob that though he’s traveling far away, God will be with him and will bring him back to his home. Even more, God won’t leave Jacob until He fulfills all the promises He’s just made.
Who does God say this to? The man who has just lied and cheated his way right out of his home. It’s the whole reason Jacob’s traveling and is in this place at all. Yet, God says NOTHING about the stolen blessing, the lies and disrespect to Isaac, or the generally deceitful way Jacob’s lived his life. He doesn’t rebuke Jacob at all. He simply blesses and reassures him. It is a mark of the incredible faithfulness and mercy of God that He comes to Jacob when He does and treats him as He does.
That said, there’s something we have to note here. In 26:3-5 the text records a similar scene between Isaac and God. There God says to Isaac, “Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” What oath did God fulfill by blessing Isaac? The oath He swore to Abraham. Why did God bless Isaac? Because Abraham obeyed Him. So why does He bless Jacob here after Jacob has shown himself to be a deceiver and a cheat? Because Abraham obeyed and God swore an oath to him.
So Jacob’s actions ultimately have no bearing on God’s blessing to him at all. God promises to make a great nation of Jacob and give the land to his descendants because that’s the promise He made to Abraham (notice there are no contingencies in the promise at all – God puts no requirements on Jacob – there are no ‘ifs’). Jacob benefits from Abraham’s faithfulness even while living with the effects of his own unfaithfulness.
But notice something else. God doesn’t necessarily have to phrase the last part of the blessing the way He does. He specifically reassures Jacob. He tells him He will be with Him wherever He goes and will bring him back to Canaan. He then ends with perhaps the best and most reassuring statement of all – “…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” This is nothing but overflowing mercy. Does God have to bring him back to fulfill the covenant? Yes. But does He specifically have to tell Jacob He will never leave him no matter where he goes, and that He will be with Jacob until God fulfills all the promises He’s made to him? No. He doesn’t owe Jacob reassurance to fulfill the covenant with Abraham (He didn’t say the same things to Isaac). He does it because He’s merciful and loving. He does it because He knows Jacob is in an enormously uncertain point in his life and needs encouragement. He says just the right things to His servant purely because that’s what His servant needs and even though His servant has acted like anything but His servant for most of his life. What a testament to God’s grace and mercy and love!
Think about how many times in the Bible God promises to be with His followers. It is one of the main promises throughout God’s story. It’s the purpose of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. It’s the meaning behind the name the prophets foretold and the angel used for Jesus at His birth – Immanuel, God with us. It’s the reason Jesus tells His disciples that He will send the Holy Spirit to them after He leaves them. And it’s the parting reassurance Jesus gives the disciples before His ascension – “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). It’s really the essence of salvation. We live in God’s presence and He is with us always. We are NEVER alone. NEVER. We never face a decision, trial, question, persecution, celebration, stress-filled night, easy day, or unjust circumstance alone. EVER.
Something else to consider as to why God doesn’t rebuke Jacob here. He knows the future. And He knows the circumstances that Jacob’s actions are about to bring about. Jacob is about to understand what it means to be lied to and what it means to live with the consequences of being deceived. Just as Esau now lives with the lifelong consequences of Jacob’s deceit, Jacob is about to live with the lifelong consequences of another relative’s deceit. God doesn’t have to rebuke Jacob because the ramifications of his sin are just over the horizon.
Jacob wakes up and realizes he’s just seen God. He’s awed by this place and declares it to be the house of God, the gate of heaven. He renames it Bethel (house of God). He then takes a rock and sets it up as a pillar and anoints it, dedicating the place to God (ironically – and sadly – it will later become the main worship place for the northern kingdom after Israel splits under Rehoboam – as such it will be given completely over to idolatry – I Kings 12:25-33).
After dedicating the place, Jacob dedicates himself. He makes a vow and says that if God does all He just promised to do, Jacob will make him his God and will make Bethel a place of worship and will give a tenth of everything he receives to God. With the details of the vow Jacob betrays his uncertainties. He doesn’t know what the future holds or how he will support himself or when/if he will come back. He only knows he’s going to a place he’s never been with no guarantee that anything will work out as he hopes. So if God will provide for him and bring him back, he will serve God and give out of his abundance. He will later refer to this time as the day of my distress (35:3). [There is no way to know exactly how Jacob means to fulfill the giving part of his vow. Since there isn’t a temple or priests, he may intend to sacrifice a tenth of his livestock, perhaps when he returns to Bethel – 35:1-4.]
His vow is interesting because of the contingency in it. He says He will serve God IF God does what He promises to do. This is difficult to interpret. Is this vow acceptable to God? Is it OK to make service and worship contingent on God’s actions? Is Jacob righteous here or does he show that his understanding of God is still limited?
It is hard to make any definite conclusions. What we can conclude, however, is that while Jacob makes a contingent vow, God doesn’t. God simply states what He will do – even in the face of Jacob’s sin. Jacob, on the other hand, says God has to fulfill His promises before Jacob will serve Him. It is a noticeable difference and frames the faithfulness of each. [In fairness to Jacob, some commentators think the ending phrase of verse 21 is not part of the “then” clause. What this means is that the “if” includes all of verses 20 and 21, and the “then” is only verse 22. Jacob assumes God will be his God, but says if God provides for him and brings him back, he will worship Him in Bethel and tithe of all he has.]
One last thing to notice about the vow. Jacob says, “…of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” This is the correct perspective on giving. Giving is returning to God a portion of what He gave (it’s more of a rebate than a contribution). Everything we have is from God so giving is never just giving – it’s giving BACK. Jacob certainly has his many faults and his view of God may not be fully formed, but his understanding of and attitude toward giving are spot-on.
The text doesn’t identify what the stairway in Jacob’s dream is. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to why it extends from earth to heaven and why angels ascend and descend on it. There is a text, however, that helps us understand. In Jn 1:51, Jesus says to Nathanael after calling him as a disciple, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Perhaps the best way to understand the stairway is to see it as God’s attempt to bridge the distance between Himself and man. He uses the stairway to show Jacob He will always be with him, and the stairway itself points to a time when the distance will be bridged permanently. It ultimately points to Christ, the One who will for all time provide for man’s entrance into the presence of God. Jesus is the base of the stairway. God can be among men because they are justified by Christ. We have continual communion with God through the stairway built by Jesus.
“That by the angels of God ascending and descending, is to be understood, that a perpetual intercourse should now be opened between heaven and earth, through the medium of Christ, who was God manifested in the flesh. Our blessed Lord is represented in his mediatorial capacity as the ambassador of God to men; and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, is a metaphor taken from the custom of dispatching couriers or messengers from the prince to his ambassador in a foreign court, and from the ambassador back to the prince.” (Adam Clarke, 19th Century Methodist theologian)