Bethel: Where Jacob Met the Lord

What do you think of, when the name Jacob comes to mind? Clearly he was one of the more colorful people in the Bible. Sometimes we think of him as a shady character due to instances such as when he bargained with Esau for the birthright. I still think there’s a bit of humor in that incident, as Esau means “red,” and Jacob was making a stew, perhaps, with ingredients that were, well, red! Esau traded his birthright for a meal and never got it back. (See the last few verses of Genesis 27 for that story.)

Our text today begins with verse 10 of Genesis 28: “Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants 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.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ 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.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. ‘This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You’” (Gen. 28:10-22).

Why did Jacob stop at Bethel?

Remember Jacob had lived in Beersheba for some time before he was sent away. Without going into too much detail, Isaac sent Jacob away to find a wife, back to the land of Rebekah, his mother. Perhaps this was a reaction to Esau’s marrying two local (but foreign) women. Nothing is said of either Judith or Basemath (see Gen. 26:34-35) in regard to their faith. We don’t know if Esau was able to lead them into the knowledge of the God of Abraham and Isaac, whether they turned Esau’s heart away from his father’s God, or the exact nature of their faith. We do know they brougth grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

We also could find a bit of irony in that Abraham told his servant not to think of taking Isaac back to the land of Nahor to find a wife (Gen. 24:6-10), but Isaac sent his own son there. There is another contrast in that Abraham’s servant Eliezer had no idea whom he would find for Isaac. His prayer was answered in that Rebekah fulfilled every one of his prayer requests. Jacob was sent out with minimal guidance. He wasn’t told much more than from which family to select his bride. So, in light of the family situation, he set out on his journey.

The main reason Jacob stopped where he did was because he was tired! Verses 10 and following say it was dark and that Jacob spent the night there. We also read that he took one of the stones of that place for a pillow. I have to say, I’ve never slept on an actual rock and can’t imagine that would be comfortable.

We also can figure Jacob was tired because he had a dream. Was God sending a deep sleep on Jacob and causing this dream? God caused Adam to have a deep sleep when He formed Eve for Adam. Not long before Jacob’s journey, Abraham himself had experienced deep sleep and a terror of great darkness (Gen. 15:12) when God made a covenant with Abraham.

Now the dream itself was unusual. The ladder was touching the earth, but the top reached heaven! I wonder if Jacob had any thoughts of the Tower of Babel, which was designed to reach the heavens (see Gen. 11:4) when he saw God’s ladder. Jacob also saw angels ascending and descending the ladder. More important, he was one of the few who saw God Himself!

Jacob may not have intended to stop at Bethel, but he did; what simply may have been a night under the sky became an encounter with the true and the living God!

What did God say at Bethel?

The next few verses, 13-15, give the words God spoke to Jacob. Let’s take a look at some of these items:

First, God revealed Himself to Jacob by using the name Yahweh/Jehovah, the covenant name, also called Lord. There were and are other names such as Adon or Adonai, also meaning “Lord”; and El/Elohim, the word for “God,” yet God chose to use the name Yahweh/Jehovah in this case.

Second, God affirmed the faith of Abraham and Isaac. That would be a real blessing to me, knowing the God of my father and grandfather and who knows how far back it goes would speak to me personally. We need to remember very few people have ever experienced the joy of fellowship with God Himself, but it’s possible, and available for everyone if we ask Him for it!

Third, God also confirmed the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac. Part of that promise was that their descendants would be “…like the dust of the earth…” but Abraham had only one genuine son, Isaac; and we only read of two sons of Isaac: Esau and Jacob. God’s ways are not our ways, and His timing isn’t necessarily the same as ours, but He absolutely will make good on every promise He has made to His people.

Finally, the most important promise was that God affirmed He always would be with Jacob and would bring him back to this land. Remember Jacob left with the whole family in turmoil: Esau wanted to kill him, Rebekah wanted to protect him, and Isaac was sorely displeased when Jacob deceived him. Now, Jacob was alone. We don’t read of anyone going with him on this wife quest. He had no one with whom to share his concerns, no family, no servant, no animal. Yet, God promised He always would always be with Jacob. When we walk with God, we are never alone!

What did Jacob do after he heard God speak?

When did Jacob become a believer? I don’t recall reading that “Jacob believed God,” as was said of Abraham. Was it here? Was it before? Was it later? Regardless, there was a time when Jacob came to what we could call saving faith and became a believer in the God of Abraham and Isaac.

We can find at least some initial steps in the following items: He said clearly, first, that he didn’t know or hadn’t realized God was there. The concept of God being everywhere may not have been easy for these early believers to grasp, but it’s true. I’ve seen stickers with the motto, “Wherever you are, God is.” In one sense, that’s true. In another sense, that’s not entirely true, because God is everywhere even if we are not. In other words, we’re limited to being in one place at a time, and God doesn’t have that limitation.

The second display of Jacob’s faith was his multi-part vow. We’ll not spend much time there, but Jacob basically said, “All right, God, if You keep Your promise, then You will be my God and I’ll give a 10th to You.”

This is where the narrative stops for this first encounter with God at Bethel, but it wasn’t the last for Jacob and certainly not for others who followed. To review, Jacob received a command (We might as well call it that.) to find a wife from his mother’s family. This makes sense, because Esau’s Hittite wives didn’t bring much peace to Isaac and Rebekah! Jacob apparentlywent as far as he dared until he reached a point where we’d say it was too dark to keep going. Although he may not have known much about the geography or anything else, for Jacob, meeting God at Bethel was a life-changing experience.

Dear friend, have you met God? There is no need to find a Bethel or any other place some may say is sacred, special or anything else. If you never have met God before, you can do so any place and any time when God speaks to you. Agree to meet Him today!

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