GENESIS 25-35. THE CONTEXT
The context for this story began with the conflict between Jacob and Esau in the womb (25:19-26), the very different men that they grew up to be (25:27), and the favoritism shown by Isaac (who loved Esau) and Rebekah (who loved Jacob) (25:28).
The context continued with the story of Jacob persuading Esau to sell his birthright (25:29-34) and cheating Esau out of his blessing by tricking their father, Isaac (27:1-40). That trickery triggered Esau’s fury and his determination to kill Jacob—which led to Jacob’s fleeing to Haran to escape Esau (27:41 – 28:5).
The context will continue after Jacob encounters God at Bethel (28:10-19). He will meet and fall in love with Rachel (29:1-14), but Laban (Rachel’s father) will trick the trickster into marrying Leah first (29:15-26). Only after seven additional years of service will Jacob marry his beloved Rachel (29:27-30).
Jacob will continue his trickery, prospering at Laban’s expense (30:25-43). This will cause tension between Jacob and Laban, so that the Lord tells Jacob to return to Canaan (31:1-42; especially 31:3)—a flight fraught with tension but ending in a covenant between Jacob and Laban (31:43-55).
Jacob will also send presents to appease Esau (32:3-21)—will wrestle with God at Peniel (32:22-32), and will finally make peace with Esau (33:1-16).
Jacob will then return to Bethel, the place where he saw the ladder connecting earth and heaven, to settle there at God’s command (35:1-15).
GENESIS 28:10-12. JACOB CAME TO A CERTAIN PLACE
10Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place (Hebrew: ham-maqom—the place), and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12He dreamed. Behold, a stairway (Hebrew: sullam) set upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven. Behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
“Jacob went out from Beersheba” (v. 10a). Beersheba is located in the far south of what will later be known as the Promised Land or Israel. “From Dan to Beersheba” will be a way of saying, “throughout Israel” (Dan is a city at the far north edge of Israel).
Abraham and Abimelech earlier swore an oath at Beer-sheba (21:25-31), after which Abraham planted a tamarisk tree and called on the name of the Lord (21:33) and settled there (21:34)—insofar as a nomadic person like Abraham could settle anywhere.
God encountered Isaac at Beer-sheba and renewed the promises that he had once made to Abram (12:3) so that they would apply to Isaac (26:23-25). Isaac’s servants dug a well there (26:31) so they named it Beer-sheba (Beer in Hebrew means well) (26:32).
So Jacob’s family has had a long association with Beer-sheba.
“and went toward Haran” (v. 10b). Jacob’s family has also had a long association with Haran. Terah, Abram’s father, took Abram and the rest of his family to Haran and settled there (11:31).
When Abram was seventy-five years old, God blessed him, saying, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:1-3)—a blessing that God will repeat (worded slightly differently) in our Jacob pericope (v. 13-14). So Abram did as God commanded and left Haran to go to Canaan (12:4-5).
Later, Abraham sent his servant to Haran to search for a wife for Isaac (24:1-10). The servant found Rebekah at the well (24:11-21) and arranged for her to return with him to become Isaac’s bride (24:34-61). Rebekah is the sister of Laban, who will also figure into the Jacob story as the father of Rachel and Leah, whom Jacob will marry.
Now Rebekah is sending Jacob to Haran to escape Esau’s wrath (27:42-45). She also complains to Abraham about the local Hittite women (27:46), so Abraham tells Jacob to go to Paddan-aram, Rebekah’s hometown, and find a wife there (28:1-2).
Paddan-aram and Haran are located near each other in Mesopotamia, about 400 miles (650 km) northeast of Beer-sheba.
“He came to a certain place ham-maqom—the place) and stayed there all night, because the sun had set“ (v. 11a). The phrase “the place” occurs three times in this passage (see also vv. 16-17). The definite article, used in each of these three verses, suggests that this will be a special place. There is no reason to believe that Jacob understands that when he decides to make camp here. This is just where he happens to find himself when the sun begins to set.
“He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep” (v. 11b). The original Hebrew of this text makes it unclear whether Jacob put a stone under his head as a pillow or put stones around his head for protection. However, that is a minor detail, of little importance to the substance of this story.
“He dreamed. Behold, a stairway (sullam) set upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven” (v. 12a). Scholars debate whether this sullam is a ladder or a stairway. While there is no way to determine that definitively (hence the debate), that is a minor issue of little importance to the overall story. This sullam—whether a ladder or a staircase—connects heaven and earth. That connection signifies access to God, and that is what is important here.
Scholars have also noted the similarity between this ladder/stairway and the tower of Babel (11:1-9), but they also note that the tower of Babel represented human initiative and pride, while the ladder/stairway is God’s initiative.
“Behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (v. 12b). When angels come into contact with humans, it is usually to deliver a message or to see that the Lord’s bidding is accomplished (Genesis 19:1-29; 32:1-2; Joshua 5:13-15; Psalm 78:49; 103:21) or to give God praise (Psalm 148:2). However, these angels do nothing but to ascend and descend on the ladder. Perhaps their ascending and descending conveys the message that God wants conveyed—that earth and heaven are connected and the connection permits movement between earth and heaven. Perhaps it is God’s way of giving Jacob a glimpse into the heavenly realm.
GENESIS 28:13-15. BEHOLD, I AM WITH YOU
13Behold, Yahweh stood above it, and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed. 14Your seed will be as the dust of the earth, and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. In you and in your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed. 15Behold, I am with you, and will keep you, wherever you go, and will bring you again into this land. For I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken of to you.”
“Behold, Yahweh stood above it” (v. 13a). Scholars debate whether Yahweh stands beside Jacob or at the top of the ladder/stairway—the original Hebrew permits either translation. Again, the difference does not significantly affect the meaning of this story.
“I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac”(v. 13b). This is the first occurrence in Genesis of the phrase, “the God of Abraham,” but that phrase will be repeated in various formulations many times in both Old and New Testaments (31:42, 53; Exodus 3:6, 15-16; 4:5; 1 Kings 18:36; etc.). At Exodus 3:6 (God speaking to Moses), the phrase will begin to include Jacob—”the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—and at 1 Kings 18:36 it will become “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel” (Israel being the new name that God will give Jacob).
“The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed. Your seed will be as the dust of the earth, and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. In you and in your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed” (vv. 13b-14). These promises to Jacob repeat the promises that God made earlier to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather (12:1-3; 17:4-8; 22:16-18) and Isaac, Jacob’s father (26:3-4). Here God reveals that he has chosen Jacob to be the conduit through whom the lineage will be transmitted—through whom the blessings will be bestowed. It is a high honor—the highest of honors. It seems astonishing that God would heap such honor on slippery Jacob, but God calls whomever God chooses to call. Who are we to question God’s choice?
God makes Jacob three great promises here:
- First, God will give Jacob and his offspring the land.
- Second, Jacob’s offspring will disperse in all directions to populate the world –– God makes this promise while Jacob is still a bachelor.
- Third, God will bless all the families of the earth through Jacob’s offspring.
As noted in the previous paragraph, these are not new promises. What is new is God’s assurance that Jacob has been chosen to be the channel of blessing.
“In you and in your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed” (v. 14b). This repeats God’s promise to Abraham in 12:3. The blessings are not just for Abraham’s descendants, but for everyone.
“Behold, I am with you, and will keep you, wherever you go, and will bring you again into this land”(v. 15a). Jacob is in the process of leaving his homeland to go to Haran, Abraham’s old homeland, but God assures him that the promises given here are good regardless of where Jacob’s travels might take him.
“For I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken of to you” (v. 15b). As it happens, Jacob is leaving his homeland and his parents and will not return for twenty years. Esau, not Jacob, will gain the use of Isaac’s wealth. But Jacob leaves his homeland with God’s promises ringing in his ears. He will persevere in Haran, surely in part due to the assurances that God has given him.
“until I have done that which I have spoken of to you“ is quite open-ended. The promises will not be wholly fulfilled until many generations after Jacob’s death. This, then, is a promise that God will be with Jacob for the rest of his life.
“I am with you” (v. 15a) is a promise made earlier to Isaac (26:24), and is a promise that God will make to Moses (Exodus 3:12) and Joshua (Joshua 1:5) and Gideon (Judges 6:16) and Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:38) and Israel (Isaiah 41:10; Haggai 1:13) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8). It is also a promise that Jesus will make to his disciples (Matthew 28:20; Acts 18:10).
GENESIS 28:16-17. SURELY YAHWEH IS IN THIS PLACE
16Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” 17He was afraid, and said, “How dreadful (Hebrew: nora—from yare) is this place! This is none other than God’s (Hebrew: elohim) house, and this is the gate of heaven.”
“Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I didn’t know it’“(v. 16). As noted above, when Jacob chose this place to camp, it simply because night was falling and this is where he happened to be. He had no idea that it was a holy place—and, in fact, it was not a holy place until God made his appearance. It is God’s presence that makes this place holy.
“He was afraid” (v. 17a). Fear is a common response to the presence of God (3:10; 18:15; 42:18; etc.).
“How dreadful (nora—from yare) is this place”(v. 17b). Yare suggests awe or dread or reverence or fear. Again, the place itself doesn’t possess those qualities. It is the presence of God that creates this sense of awe.
“This is none other than God’s (elohim) house, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17c). Jacob declares this “the house of God” because he has encountered God in this place. He declares it “the gate of heaven” because of his dream of the ladder connecting earth and heaven.
GENESIS 28:18-19. JACOB CALLED THAT PLACE BETHEL
18Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on its top. 19He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
“Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar” (v. 18a). As noted above, the Hebrew is not clear regarding the stone. It could be a stone that Jacob used for a pillow or stones that he arranged around his head for protection. If it is a single stone it cannot be large, because Jacob has no way to set up a large stone. But the size of the stone isn’t important. Jacob’s purpose is to erect a stone to memorialize his encounter with God in this place.
At this point in time, there is no reason why Jacob shouldn’t raise a stone pillar to memorialize his encounter with God. Later, the people of Israel will encounter people who raise pillars to pagan gods, and God will forbid them to set up pillars and will require them to demolish pillars set up by others (Exodus 23:24; 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 16:22).
“and poured oil on its top” (v. 18b). By pouring oil on the stone, Jacob dedicates it to God. As time passes, anointing of religious objects as well as priests and kings (and other God-appointed leaders, such as Aaron) will become common practice (Exodus 30:26-30; 40:13-15; Leviticus 8:12; 1 Kings 19:16; 1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalm 105:15).
“He called the name of that place Bethel” (v. 19a). El is a generic word for God, and the word Bethel means “house of God.” Bethel is a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Jerusalem. Jacob started in the far south of Canaan, in Beer-sheba, and is traveling north and east toward Haran. He has traveled only about 50 miles (80 km) so far.
“but the name of the city was Luz at the first” (v. 19b). But we have heard the city called Bethel on at least two occasions earlier when Abraham visited here (12:8; 13:3).
In both Old and New Testaments names change to indicate a change in religious status. Abram became Abraham when God chose him to be the ancestor of many (17:5). Jacob will become Israel when he strives with God (32:28). Luz becomes Bethel (the house of God) when Jacob encounters God in this place.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS, LEXICONS & ATLASES:
Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993)
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Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr. (ed.), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
May, Herbert G. (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (Third Edition) (New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
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Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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