Genesis 28: Jacob Leaves and Encounters God at Bethel

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Even though Esau is also blessed by Isaac, he can’t move past the idea that Jacob cheated him out of what is rightfully his. Clearly, he believes that his father really is on his deathbed (although Isaac ends up living for a very long time afterwards). He is determined to kill Jacob as soon as his father dies.

Word of this also gets back to Rebekah. Not wanting to lose both sons, she devises another plan. She calls Jacob and shares this information with him. Then she insists that he go to her brother who lives in Haran, where he will be safe. She thinks this will only be temporary. He can come back as soon as Esau settles down and “forgets what you have done to him.” She will send for him as soon as that happens.

Her approach to Isaac is somewhat different. She complains that Esau’s Hittite wives are making her life miserable, though she in no way elaborates on what is happening. Nonetheless, she worries that Jacob might marry one of them as well and asks, “What good will my life be to me?” Apparently, this is a convincing argument because Isaac agrees and blesses Jacob’s journey. He also charges him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.” He sends him to the home of Rebekah’s brother and blesses him again, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous.” He also repeats the blessing of land and descendants that God has given to Abraham and to him, thus providing continuity for God’s promises.

The truth is, Rebekah will never see Jacob again. When Esau realizes that his Canaanite wives do not please his father, he goes to Ishmael and takes one of his daughters for a wife. This will be an addition to the wives he already has. Because the story continues with Jacob’s journey, there is no additional comment about whether this pleases his parents.

For his part, Jacob is off to new lands. On the way to Haran, Jacob comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night. He finds a stone for a pillow and falls asleep. During that night, he dreams there is a ladder set up on earth that reaches to heaven. Angels of God are coming down and going up the ladder. The Lord is standing next to him and declares, “I am the Lord;… the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… Know that 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.”

When Jacob awakes, he is afraid because he realizes “the Lord is in this place” and he didn’t even know it! When he arises in the morning, he takes the stone that he has used for a pillow, sets it up as a pillar, and pours oil upon it. He calls the name of the place Bethel, which means “House of God;” previously it had been known as Luz. Then he makes a vow. “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 surely give one-tenth to you.”

A cursory reading suggests that if God keeps his side of the bargain—by guarding him, feeding him, and returning him safely to his father’s land, then, and only then, will the Lord be Jacob’s God. It appears that Jacob is the eternal bargainer and hasn’t learned much from his experiences so far.

Yet scholars see great significance in this short encounter. At this point, Jacob is fleeing from the consequences of his transgressions. He has been banished from those he loves and is being sent to a place he doesn’t know. He might have a sense of adventure about all this, but the idea of leaving one’s family and going to an unknown place reminds us of God’s commands to Abraham. Abraham was to leave his family, his kin, and his country to go to an unknown land. Along with those commands, however, were promises of land and descendants that God made to Abraham. And one major result of this encounter is that God reiterates those same promises to Jacob, thus providing direct continuity from generation to generation.

The encounter is very short and comes in the form of a dream. But in order to help us understand its significance, the narrator uses numerous word repetitions to make his point and tie things together. For example, the ladder was “standing” on the earth; God was “standing” by it. Jacob used his pillow stone for a pillar stone. Jacob noticed that the “top” of the stairway was in heaven; he anointed the “top” of the stone to commemorate the spot.

The word “place” is used repeatedly in a few short verses. He came to a “place” of insignificance; it becomes a “place” of great significance when he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” At the beginning of this short segment, he talks about the ladder reaching to “heaven”…and “the Lord” standing next to him. At the end of the segment these phrases are reversed: “the Lord” is in this place…this is the “gate of heaven.” That word reversal provides a literary framework for the beginning and end of the event.

The purpose of all these literary devices is to focus attention upon Jacob’s response to his dream. When he awakens, he is filled with “fear.” The word describes a combination of awe and fear—a sense of reverence. He is simply overwhelmed by the notion that the Lord was “in this place.” It had been such an ordinary spot—a place to rest for the night. Now, however, it is a holy place, the house of God, the gate to heaven.

He has to mark it somehow, and he does it by setting his pillow stone on edge. As others pass by, they will see this marker and recognize it as a significant spot. This is where God can be found. Pouring oil on the stone is an offering, a gift of worship. It would have been comparable to offering a sacrifice, and it signifies his piety and dedication of the place. He also takes an oath, acknowledging God’s promises and making a promise of his own. He accepts God’s promises; he promises to do his part in return. And this becomes apparent in his desire to establish a place of worship and to tithe. Jacob is transformed from a fugitive to a follower, from a worldly figure to a worshiper. This will become the model for all those who follow.

Nor is it an accident that this dream occurs at this pivotal point in Jacob’s life. He has left his family behind. His dealings with Esau have ended. Going forward, he will be dealing with a new place and a new family. When that phase of his life comes to a close, he will have another encounter with God at Peniel. These two events bookend the 20 some years he spends in Haran. The author deliberately connects these transformative nocturnal encounters by using the phrase “angels of God” – the only two places in the Old Testament where this phrase appears.

But for now, Jacob is ready to move forward into his new life. He has been fortified and reassured by God. Whatever difficulties lie ahead, God has promised to be present with him – not that Jacob incorporates those promises into his everyday life. Yet, it is another example of God intervening at a critical time, resulting in a transformed spirit.