Jacob finds himself all alone at nightfall. He is on the run from his brother Esau because of a blessing.
As the dim-eyed Isaac embraces Jacob, mistaking him for his favorite son Esau, he exclaims: "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine" (Gen. 27:27-28).
How hollow this blessing must sound now to Jacob, a fugitive with only a hard stone for a pillow. Esau's rage over the stolen blessing forced Jacob to abandon his quiet ways among the tents (Gen. 25:27; 27:41). To escape with his life, Jacob had to leave forever the mother who favored him (Gen. 25:28) and who had schemed with him to secure his father's blessing.
Contrary to appearances, Jacob is not alone. A dream reveals that his resting place is full of busy angels, or more literally divine "messengers." These beings are purposeful in their ascent and descent on a stepped structure joining earth to heaven. They are on the move doing God's work in the world.
Jacob also encounters God at this awesome "gate of heaven." Jacob is surprised to discover that he has been a guest at the "house of God" (Gen. 28:17), which is the literal meaning of the name Bethel (bet-'el).
Bethel was an important Israelite shrine city, most closely associated with the patriarch Jacob. Before Jacob's time, Abraham built an altar to the east of Bethel, where he called upon the name of the LORD (Gen. 12:8). Later, Bethel was one of two national shrines of the Northern Kingdom (the other being Dan) set up by King Jeroboam I in the ninth century BCE (1 Kgs. 12:25-33).
Ancient Mesopotamia provides insight into some aspects of Jacob's meeting with God at Bethel. In cities such as Ur and Babylon there were artificial mountains known as ziggurats that correspond to the stairway in Jacob's dream. These structures were the place where earth and heaven meet and where the gods dwell. The meaning of the city name Babylon (from the Akkadian bab-ilu) is the "gate of god." There at the top of a ziggurat a temple was dedicated to the great god Marduk.
Within this cultural context, it seems natural that Jacob should see God positioned at the top of the steps to heaven: "the LORD stood above it" (Gen. 28:13), meaning above the stairway. But in the Hebrew text, God's location is less than clear. The same prepositional phrase translated as "above it" may also be translated as "beside him," meaning alongside Jacob: "the LORD stood beside him" (Gen. 28:13). This second translation suggests that, like the divine messengers, God is on the move to accomplish a mission.
God confirms that he intends to accompany Jacob in all of his travels: "Know that 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" (Gen. 28:15).
In what seemed like a lonely flight, Jacob has discovered that he is in good company. His hasty journey assumes something of the character of the rapid motion of the divine messengers. Just as Jacob left his home in Beersheba, so God departs from his own "house" in Bethel to join him on the road, until they return to this special place of divine indwelling (Gen. 28:20-22; 35:1-15).
Jacob's journey also receives a larger purpose through this vision. His travels further God's intention of extending blessing to all the families of the earth. At Bethel, Jacob learns a new way of thinking about blessing. Jacob comes to recognize how his own conflicted story contributes to God's gracious purposes for humankind.
Jacob's family of origin assumed that a father had only one blessing to impart as death drew near. Esau can only weep and plan for revenge when he arrives too late and Jacob has already taken the blessing: "Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father" (Gen. 27:38).
By contrast, when God renews the covenant with Jacob, the promises of land and descendants are linked to an inclusive and far-reaching concept of blessing. The comparison between Jacob's descendants and dust establishes this connection: "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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring" (Gen. 28:14).
The metaphor of "dust" with its innumerable particles recalls similar comparisons between Abraham's descendants and the stars of the heavens and the sand of the sea (Gen. 15:5, 22:17). The image of dust also conveys a close relationship to the land, in that dust covers the earth's surface.
Especially suggestive in this discussion of blessing, however, is a different understanding of the Hebrew word translated as "dust" ('afar). This word can refer to "topsoil," the rich layer of loose dirt that supports plant growth and sustains life.
When Isaac blesses Jacob, he compares his son to "a field that the LORD has blessed" (Gen. 27:27). At Bethel, God also uses agricultural imagery, as Jacob's descendants become the topsoil that benefits the families dwelling on the land. God promises that Jacob's flight and the migration of his descendants in every direction will be a rich source of blessing for all whom they encounter.
In this passage God is revealed as dwelling in Bethel, the "house of God," only to be identified also as the God who accompanies Jacob on the way. A stone marked with oil, used as a crude pillow for a passing traveler, marks the place of going and coming, of ascending and descending, and of spreading out in the four cardinal directions. The purpose for all of this kinetic energy is God's blessing of all the families of the earth.