Gracious Promises to an Exiled Sinner
Jacob was a man of conflict and struggle. In fact, even before he was born he wrestled with his brother in the womb, and was born grasping at the heel of his brother Esau. In fact, his very name is indicative of his character, since it means “heel grabber,” or supplanter. Those who wish to see him as the hero of the story, need only to consider Isaac’s comments in Genesis 27:35 when tells Esau that, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau then responds by saying,“Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.”
As a result of Jacob’s deception, Esau then comforted himself with thoughts of killing his twin brother. And when Rebekah discovered this, she told told Jacob to “Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away.” In some ways, though Jacob is now being exiled from the Promised land, we could also say that the story is being reset for us, as we recall Abraham’s original call. As we have seen, that call was a one sided promise that was never conditioned on Abraham’s obedience. For if it was conditioned in that way, surely it would have been revoked on those clear occasions of Abraham’s sin, or after his son Isaac had repeated the same sin of his father. Surely the blessing would have been taken away after Jacob deceived his father and cheated his brother. What we actually see, however, is that as the narrative unfolds, God’s promise will have its way regardless of the sin of its recipients. In other words, all along the way, this has been a story of grace.
We especially see this in Genesis 28 as Jacob is forced to flee from the land promised by God to Abraham and his offspring. Though he must flee the promised land because of his sin, God nevertheless appears to him and reaffirms his gracious promises. Reflecting on this part of the story, Walter Bruggemann notes that “The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is not the religious phenomena of [the divine] appearance. It is the wonder, mystery and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one. The miracle is the way this sovereign God binds himself to this treacherous fugitive…God comes where he is not anticipated.” Similarly, Victor Hamilton observes that what is most surprising to the reader is the fact that “Yahweh does not say one word to rebuke Jacob for his behavior toward his father and brother. Far from fulminating against Jacob, Yahweh bestows on Jacob a [chain] of unconditional promises. In this respect, Jacob joins Isaac and Abraham in that all three are relatively free from censure by God for patently scandalous behavior.”
In verse 12 of Genesis 28, God appears to Jacob as he is fleeing the promised land. As he stopped for the night and slept, the patriarch dreamed of a great stairway that reached to the heavens upon which “the angels of God were ascending and descending.” And 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.”
The first thing to point out here is that this chapter provides an amazing contrast to the events of Genesis chapter 11, in which the men of Babel desired to build for themselves a tower reaching to the heavens. Of course as you’ll recall, those plans ended up being thwarted by God. But here in this scene, a great ladder from heaven descends to Jacob at a time in which he’s fleeing the promised land because of his sin. And the very one who graciously descended from heaven in order to speak to Jacob in this dream is the same one who later on in the fullness of time would later tell Nathaniel that he would one day seeheaven open, and “the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn. 1:51). In other words, by using these particular words, Jesus revealed to his disciples that he was the very one who showered the blessings upon Jacob back in Genesis, which is clear evidence that he is not your ordinary Rabbi. No, Jesus was actually claiming to be Yahweh himself.
What’s particularly interesting is that according to verse 13 of Genesis 28, God appeared to Jacob and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” Yet, just a few chapters later as Jacob relates this scene to his uncle Laban, he says that “the angel of God” appeared to him and said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me” (Gen. 31:11; 13). In other words, in the first report, we were told that Yahweh appeared to Jacob, yet in the retelling of that same event, it seems to be clear that the one who appeared to the patriarch in the vicinity of the staircase was actually the “angel of the Lord,” who is mysteriously sent by Yahweh, and yet, who also happens to be Yahweh. Therefore, when we put the information from all these passages together, it becomes clear that the person who appeared to Jacob in Genesis 28 was none other than the pre-incarnate Christ, the “word made flesh,” who “is with God” and also “is God” (Jn. 1:1; 14).
According to the ESV translation of Gen. 28:13, the Lord “stood above” the staircase. Yet according to Richard Bauckham and others, there are more interpretive options in the original Hebrew, which is why the NRSV and other versions say that “the Lord stood next to him,” referring to Jacob. However, the Septuagint translators (as we’ll as Wycliffe and Tyndale), concluded that the Lord “stood upon it,” referring not to Jacob but the staircase, which in my opinion seems to fit nicely with Jesus’ own statement in John 1:51. Based on the ESV rendering of Gen. 28:13, I had always assumed that it was God the Father who stood above the staircase (which itself was a kind of visual symbol of Christ). But as I began to think about the implications of all these passages together, I ended up concluding that Jesus was not merely prophesied or hinted at in Genesis 28 — he was actually there. He’s the one who stood upon the ladder and graciously reaffirmed the Abrahamic promises to Jacob who had just sinned agains his father and brother and was now fleeing the land of promise.
As Jacob wakes from his sleep in verse 17, he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” It’s interesting isn’t it that Jacob focuses on the place of his visitation, rather than on the God who visited him there. In my thinking, this is sort of like the kid on Christmas morning who ends up playing with the box rather than the actual present. And so, notice what happens next in verses 18 and 19, “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, which means house of God.” Jacob is basically following the ancient Canaanite practice of setting up pillars and altars signifying a holy place. But what’s fascinating is that this very practice was later prohibited by God throughout the writings of Moses. The people of Israel were told not to set up pillars or high places under every green tree or on every high hill as a place of worship, but were told to worship God exclusively in the way that he prescribed.
In my thinking, Jacob’s misplaced emphasis here on the place of the divine visitation, rather than on Yahweh himself, end up foreshadowing things to come, as later in redemptive history, the entire nation of Israel ended up placing too much emphasis on the Temple made by hands — which was destined to be destroyed. But as we pay close attention to the words of God’s promise, Jacob was actually told that Yahweh would be with him wherever he went. The rock which Jacob anointed with oil was not the true Bethel. No, Jesus himself, the word made flesh, would become for his people, the temple of God’s presence (Jn 2:21). He is the one who in the fullness of time would eventually be anointed to be our great messianic king. He is true house of God and the gate of heaven (Jn 10:7-9).