Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob runs from Esau’s murderous rage.
The man who has stolen his brother’s birthright and blessing now has to leave mother and father, home and land, in order to escape with his life.
Jacob is vulnerable, traveling alone, sleeping under the stars. He is traveling far, retracing the steps of his grandfather Abraham, back to the land of Haran, in Mesopotamia. He is sent there by his mother Rebekah, his fellow colluder in the stealing of the blessing from Esau:
“Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away — until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Genesis 27:42-45).
Rebekah hopes that Jacob will be gone for only a short time. The phrase translated “a while” is literally, “some days, a few days.” The same phrase is used later in 29:20 when Jacob serves Laban for seven years for Rachel, but “they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” So Rebekah hopes that Jacob will be gone perhaps just a few years. Then she will send for him, her beloved son. It turns out to be a vain hope. Jacob will actually be gone 20 years, and he will never see his mother again.
But that is all in the future. In the text this week, Jacob is alone, running away from his past and uncertain of what lies before him. And it is here, at his most vulnerable moment, that God speaks to Jacob for the first time:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God gives Jacob God’s name, YHWH (translated as “the Lord”). God also describes himself as the God of Jacob’s grandfather and father though not (yet) the God of Jacob himself. This God has a history with Jacob’s family and is known through those relationships.
The Lord goes on to give Jacob the promise that Jacob already received from his father Isaac, the promise given first to Abraham: land, offspring, and blessing. And then God goes on to promise Jacob even more:
“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” (Genesis 28:15).
It is a very gracious promise, especially given the circumstances. Jacob has cheated his brother and deceived his father and is now running for his life. Yet God promises to be with Jacob, to keep him from harm, and to bring him back home again.
Jacob’s reaction to such a gracious promise is mixed. First, he acknowledges the holiness of the moment and of the place: “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it.… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).
Jacob then sets up a pillar of rock, and names the place Beth-El: the house of God. But it is worth reading a little further to see what Jacob does next. After God’s gracious, unconditional promise to be with Jacob and to bring him home again, Jacob — ever the schemer — bargains with God:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).
Jacob cannot simply accept or trust God’s promises. God promises, without condition, that God will be with Jacob and will bring him home again, and Jacob says, “If you are with me and bring me home again…then you will be my God.”
It seems that Jacob casts God in Jacob’s own image. Jacob would never make an unconditional promise. Jacob is in it for himself and he cannot comprehend a God who would promise something for nothing, so he schemes and bargains with this God of his fathers. The Lord may be the God of Abraham and Isaac, but Jacob will claim him as God if and only if God protects and prospers him.
Jacob is a complicated figure. On the one hand, he recognizes and commemorates God’s appearing to him. On the other hand, he cannot seem to grasp the magnitude of God’s grace, and so he bargains and wrestles with God just as he bargains and wrestles with every other person in his life.
As noted last week, the preacher would be well-advised not to turn Jacob’s story into a morality tale, a tale about what to do or (more likely) what not to do. This story, after all, is not primarily about Jacob; it is about God. The sermon will be more faithful to the text if, instead of preaching about what we human beings should do or what we have failed to do (Law), the preacher speaks about what God has already done (Gospel).
In this case, what God has already done is to make promises to Abraham (Genesis 12), Isaac (Genesis 26), and now to Jacob. This God makes overwhelmingly gracious promises to a “heel” like Jacob at his most vulnerable moment, as he runs away from home in fear for his life, his troubles entirely of his own making. And, even more than that, God fulfills those promises, as we will learn in the next two weeks.
And though this story is primarily about God and God’s gracious promises, it is worth noting that those promises have an effect on Jacob — self-centered, scheming Jacob. Twenty years after this encounter at Beth-El, as Jacob returns home from Haran, this time accompanied by family and flocks and herds, he prays another prayer. And this time, he does not bargain with God. This time, he acknowledges his own unworthiness and God’s faithfulness, even as he reminds God of God’s promises:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32:9-12).
There is no “if…then” in this prayer, as in Jacob’s first prayer at Beth-El. Instead, Jacob prays “because…therefore.” Because you, God, are faithful, because you have made these promises…therefore I am trusting you to help me now. The change is not Jacob’s doing, but God’s. God’s gracious promises and God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises transforms Jacob from a callow youth to the man who founds a nation, and who, on his deathbed, claims the God “before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked” as also his God, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (Genesis 48:15).
From that moment on in the biblical narrative, this same God will self-identify as “the Lord…the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:15).