Read Genesis 28:10-22
Jacob must flee from his own home because his brother Esau is plotting to kill him. He leaves with only his staff in hand. But he also leaves with something very significant, namely, his father’s blessing and his directives to find a wife among his relatives in Paddan-Aram (Gen. 28:2ff). This story in verses 10-22 begins then with this flight away from his family, and it will end with a reference to a safe return to this same family. Jacob will receive more than his father’s blessing: he will receive God’s promises that will direct Jacob’s life in the covenant of grace. Jacob will be gone for twenty years (Gen. 31:38). It is likely that his mother Rebekah dies before his return (cf. Gen. 35:8).
“He reached a certain place…” (28:10-11)
Jacob sets out on a journey without the benefit of any trains, planes, or automobiles. Beersheba is the point of departure, a place in the southern part of Canaan, and he heads north to his relatives at Haran in Paddan-Aram, near the northern point of the Fertile Crescent. This was a journey of about 500 miles (800 kilometers), almost certainly on foot (Gen. 29:1 says literally that he “lifted his feet”). The spot where he stops is over 50 miles (over 80 kilometers) from Beersheba.
This stop is not named, interestingly, until the end of the story. It is only called a “certain place.” The word “place” will be used six times in this story. Of course, this place to stop in order to rest for the night is not a place chosen by chance in God’s plan: the LORD remains in full control of the events in this story.
Sights and sounds in Jacob’s dream (28:12-15)
The sun has set, and Jacob stops for the night. This sets us up for the kind of event that has happened before. In Genesis 15, God had appeared to Abram as a burning torch and smoky oven. God made great unconditional promises to Abram that concerned the central pillar promises of the covenant of grace. God holds before His people these key promises: land and seed (descendants). Now in Genesis 28:12ff, Jacob has a dream. God is going to reveal more of Himself to this fleeing patriarch.
What does Jacob see in his dream? Some translations say that it was a “ladder” that reached between heaven and earth. Other translations are certainly closer to the picture seen in the dream when they translate the word as a stairway or a kind of staircase. In the ancient world people might build an artificial “mountain” and at the top would be a temple or shrine to the gods or goddesses they worshiped. These constructed “mountains” with a staircase were called ziggurats. Steps or stairways would allow the priests and worshipers to ascend to the top and down again. This kind of structure is likely what Jacob sees in this dream.
Besides this structure that connects earth and heaven, Jacob sees angels going up and coming down on the stairway. They descend on “it,” which can be interpreted to mean on “him,” i.e., on Jacob. Angels are messengers, created beings that inhabit the corridors of heaven, always ready to do the will of God. The book of Revelation pictures heaven as occupied by many creatures, and many of those creatures are the angels who join together with the saints in praise to God Almighty and to the Lamb. The angels in this dream are likely shown to be the fellowship link between Jacob on earth and the LORD God in heaven. Divine revelation will make its way to Jacob, even as his own situation and concerns will be known to the Father in heaven.
But the most important character in the dream is the LORD Himself. He is standing at the very top of the stairway, and thus He is the central focus of the dream. We may very well understand that God is standing over “him,” i.e., over Jacob. He watches over His people, day and night (Ps. 121). But more important at this point than His appearance is the short speech that the LORD gives to Jacob. In His word of address, God draws attention to the following important items:
1. He is the “God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” He is the God who maintains His covenant relationship through the generations of His people. The God of Abraham and Isaac has “caught up,” one might say, with Jacob.
2. The land on which Jacob now sleeps will belong some day to Jacob’s descendants. Remember, Jacob is not yet married, and the LORD is talking about children!
3. In fact, the children will be numerous, and they will spread out in all directions.
4. All nations will be blessed through Jacob’s family.
5. God will be with Jacob always. Here is the “immanuel” promise: God will be with His people.
6. God will protect Jacob wherever he goes.
Count your many blessings, Jacob! God promises Himself, land, children, blessing, and protection. Is Jacob merely dreaming all this? Can God deliver on what He promises?
Jacob responds to divine revelation (28:16-22)
That’s it! The dream ends, but Jacob has now been awakened to divine realities in the covenant of grace that God makes with His people. How will he respond to what he has seen and heard in this amazing dream of the night?
Jacob responds with both words and works, with both fear and a vow. First, he notes that LORD is in this place but he (Jacob) was not aware of it. This is an interesting statement if we might, for a moment, place it against the background of some pagan beliefs of that day and age. Some say that the ancient peoples believed that if you slept in a sacred place and had a dream there, that you could induce or almost force the god or goddess to reveal himself or herself at that spot. Jacob came and stopped at “a certain place” (verse 11), but we do not get the impression that Jacob was trying to coax God to reveal Himself to him. In fact, quite the opposite! Jacob says in verse 16, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Jacob was not looking for God in particular, so God came to him, even when Jacob was not expecting it. God chose to be here that night because Jacob was there in God’s providence. In the Biblical text, this is the first direct encounter between God and Jacob. But it will not be their last meeting!
Second, as the thought of encountering God in this place sinks into Jacob’s heart and soul, he is struck with fear (verse 17). No wonder! This is the great God who created all things by the word of His power, the God who is a consuming fire, unable even to look upon sin. Can anyone see God and live?
Third, we note that God has obligated Himself to Jacob, but curiously, the LORD has not explicitly demanded anything from Jacob. This does not mean that he can live in any way he pleases. God’s people are always required to live holy and blameless lives. But the events of Genesis 27 have not particularly shown any of Isaac’s family members as especially attractive, and Jacob’s deception of his father hardly shows him to a kingly-priestly type of character. Yet it is quite striking that God’s revelation (first) to Jacob draws out of him several other reactions.
Jacob draws attention to the awesomeness of this place. This will lead to the place receiving the name that is the most familiar to Bible readers: Bethel (“house of God”). God’s revelation causes a name change (so common in Biblical revelation, isn’t it). What is more, Jacob declares that this place is the “gate of heaven” (verse 17). When we turn back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, we find similar ideas but coming from the wrong direction. At Babel, man wanted to make a name for himself, so he built a towering city, a highway to heaven, a stairway to the stars. But God broke up that wicked, humanistic program with a confusion of man’s languages so that later in redemptive history He might unite all nations in Jesus Christ, in His church, through the preaching of the holy gospel, in the power of the Holy Spirit. At Bethel, God reached down to Jacob, so that he might respond in faith.
Jacob anoints his pillow of stone. This was an act of consecration. Something that has been anointed is now holy, marked as separate from ordinary use and given over to God. In the Old Testament both people (e.g., kings, priests) and physical objects are anointed. This stone pillar, now set apart, is a kind of prophecy of a time when the land of Canaan will be set apart and occupied by God’s people fully, as now in the New Testament era, God’s holy people are called to fill the whole earth and dedicate everything in life to the Lord God of heaven and earth (see Zech. 14:21-22; Matt. 28:1620).
Jacob also makes a vow. The word “if” in verse 20 can also be understood as “since.” Jacob is not so much doubting God’s word of promise so much as he is setting before Him the realities of what is in the future. After all, what does Jacob have in his own hand? His staff! But the future in God’s covenant is rich in its prospects. God says that He will be with Jacob, but only time will tell. God is always true to His Word, but Jacob must see this for himself. Amazingly to him and to us all, Jacob will see the promises fleshed out. The LORD will be His God, and this is what Jacob will confess as he approaches his own death.
Jacob also vows to give to God a tenth of all he will receive from God. This statement at the end of verse 22 is significant because in it Jacob confesses that what he will receive will be a gift from God. God’s generous revelation has now stirred up in Jacob an awareness that the birthright and the blessing will be significant for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jacob has received much in the birthright and the blessing, and God has promised him much. But to whom much is given, much is required.
As beautiful as Jacob’s reaction is to this event and to this place, the Israelites would later introduce corruption in their worship here and elsewhere. For example, Jacob sets up his stone pillow and anoints it as a consecration spot to the Lord. But superstitious Israelites would later set up such pillars as images of idolatry. Deuteronomy 16:21-22 says, “Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God, and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates” (cf. Exodus 23:24; 34:13). Jeroboam I, first king of a divided Israel, would set up golden calves at Bethel in order to keep the northern Israelites from traveling to Jerusalem and worshiping at the Temple. How easy it is for our wicked hearts to manufacture idols and to corrupt the pure worship of God. Superstition about things and places is still with us, even with people who call themselves “Christians.”
Ascending and descending on the Son of Man
Read John 1:50-51. In this context Jesus has encountered Nathanael, who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus responds by telling him that he would see even greater things. Indeed they would see heaven opened with God’s angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man, the title that Jesus typically uses in the Gospels to identify Himself. Jesus is drawing upon the dream of Jacob at Bethel, but He drops any reference to a ladder or staircase. The “house of God” (Bethel) is the place where God and man meet to have true fellowship together. Jesus Christ is today that Person through whom God and sinful humanity are reconciled. He alone is our Mediator, whose cross on Good Friday points to the true and only way to heaven. There is no more need for an earthly Temple composed of gold, stone, wood and veils. Christ has opened Paradise for all God’s elect through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead.
Thus Jesus’ words in John 1:5051 reveal that the great honor given by the Jews to the patriarch Jacob must truly shift to Jesus Himself. It is in Jesus that divine revelation has become flesh to dwell among us (cf. John 1:14). He is the true Temple for His people. Only Christ is the “gate of heaven” (cf. John 14:6).
Jacob was running for his life. He was not looking for God. But God came to look for him by means of a dream. In this way Jacob is awakened to new realities, made aware of promises that God will keep in order to restore all things to Himself again. Jacob and his family (yet to be) will have important responsibilities in that great redemptive plan. But in order to move forward by faith, God must put His promises underneath Jacob’s feet. Therefore, what God does on that night by that “certain place” which becomes Bethel, is good news—for Jacob and for us who read this story of grace.
Lesson 5: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Read Genesis 15 again. What does God promise specifically to Abram? God makes a covenant with Abram, but the language literally says that God “cut a covenant” with Abram. What does that mean in Genesis 15? How does Abram respond to God’s promises?
2. Look up the word “angel” in a Bible dictionary or Bible encyclopedia. What does the Bible teach us about the role of angels in God’s world?
3. Read Isaiah 6. What are the similarities and differences that Isaiah experiences when he sees the Lord “seated high and lifted up,” compared to Jacob’s dream?
4. There are other people who meet the LORD or His Angel. Can you name these people? How do they react when meeting Him? What do they say and do? For starters, see Exodus 3:1ff; 24:10,11; 33:12ff; Judges 13; etc.
5. We sing in one great hymn, “How vast the benefits divine that we in Christ possess.” What were the benefits that Jacob possessed by the end of Genesis 28? How do these relate to what Christians today have in the finished work of Jesus Christ?
6. Jacob says that he will give a tenth to the Lord. How is this also an act of faith in God? How is all giving to the work of the Lord supposed to be an act of faith for us today?