Bethel: where Jacob met the Lord
by Jonathan S Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Text: Genesis 28:10 and following:
Jacob was probably one of the more colorful people in the Bible! Sometimes we think of him as a shady character, like when he “bargained” with Esau for the birthright. There is a bit of humor in that incident, perhaps, because “Esau” means “red”, and Jacob was making a stew out of something that looked, well, red! Esau traded his birthright for a meal, and never got it back. The last few verses of Genesis 27 have the background for that story. Maybe that’s one reason why I was never very fond of vegetable soup, as it always had a reddish tinge or coloring!
The text begins with verse 10 of Genesis 28, from the New American Standard Version:
Gen 28:10-22 NASB 10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 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. 12 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. 13 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. 14 "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. 15 "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." 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." 17 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." 18 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. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. 20 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, 21 and I return to my father's house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. 22 "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."
Why did Jacob stop at Bethel?
Remember that 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 marriage to two local (but foreign) women. Nothing is said of either Judith or Basemath (see Genesis 26:34-35) in regards to their faith. We don’t know if Esau was able to lead either of them into the knowledge of the God of Abraham and Isaac, or whether they turned Esau’s heart away from his father’s God, or if he kept the faith even though they didn’t. We do know that they did bring grief to Isaac and Rebekah.
We could also find a bit of irony, in that Abraham told his servant to not even think of taking Isaac back to the land of Nahor (Genesis 24:6-10), but now, Isaac is sending 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 which family to select his bride from. So, in light of the family situation, he set out on his journey.
The main reason, one could say, that Jacob stopped at Bethel was simply because he was tired! Verses 10 and following state that 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 and I have to state, I’ve never slept on an actual rock even though some pillows were about that hard!
We also can figure Jacob was tired because he had a dream. Was this dream because of natural sleep, or did God send a deep sleep on Jacob? God caused Adam to have a deep sleep when He formed Eve for Adam, and not long before, Abraham himself had experienced deep sleep and a terror of great darkness (Genesis 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 to Heaven! I wonder if Jacob had any thoughts of the Tower of Babel, which was designed to reach the heavens (see Genesis 11:4) when he saw God’s ladder. Jacob also saw angels ascending and descending upon the ladder. Even more important, he was one of the few who saw God Himself!
Jacob may not have intended to stop at Bethel, but he did, and what may have been simply 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, spelled LORD in all capital letters. There were and are other names such as Adon or Adonai, usually spelled Lord; and El/Elohim, the word for God, yet God chose to use the name Yahweh/Jehovah in this case.
Secondly, 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 that 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 the same, necessarily, as ours, but He will absolutely make good on every promise He's given.
Finally, the most important promise was that God affirmed He would always be with Jacob, and would bring him back to this land. Remember that Jacob left with the whole family in turmoil: Esau wanted to kill him, Rebekah wanted to protect him (one wonders how?), and Isaac sorely displeased when Jacob had deceived him. Now, Jacob was alone—we don’t read of anyone going with him on this “wife quest”—and he had no one to share his concerns with. No family, no servant, not even an animal: and yet, God promised He would always be with Jacob. When we, even now, 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 stated clearly, first, that he didn’t know, or hadn’t realized, that 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 a handful of stickers which had the motto, “wherever you are, God is” and in one sense, that’s true. In another sense, that’s not entirely true, because God is everywhere even if we are not, or in other words, because we’re limited to being in one place at a time and God, clearly, doesn’t have that limitation.
The second display of Jacob’s faith was the multi-part vow which he made. We’ll not spend much time there, but Jacob is basically saying, “All right, God, if You keep Your promise, then You will be my God and I’ll give a tenth to You”.
This is where the narrative stops, for this first encounter with God at Bethel, but it wasn’t the last, not for Jacob and certainly not for some others. 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 went as far as he dared, apparently, until he reached a point where we’d say it was too dark to go on. But even though 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 literal “Bethel” or any other place that some may state is sacred, special, or anything else. If you have never met God before, you can do so any place, any time, when God speaks to you. Do this today!
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. http://www.lockman.org