God has a way of shaping the lives of His children even before they have entered into a relationship with him. One of my seminary professors, whom I greatly admire, serves to illustrate this dramatically. While an unbeliever, he attended college and was faced with a decision as to his major. He was (and is) an exceptional golfer and decided to major in whatever subject was available which would leave his afternoons free to play golf. That subject happened to be Greek. After his conversion he went on to theological seminary and eventually became the head of the Greek department there for many years.
I am inclined to look at the life of Jacob in a similar way. I do not see any evidence of his conversion before Genesis 28. In Genesis 27:20 Jacob referred to the God of Abraham and of Isaac as “your God.” It is here in chapter 28 that Jacob affirmed, “The LORD will be my God” (Genesis 28:21). Jacob appears to be on the road to Haran much as Saul made his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1ff.), religious but not related to God by a personal faith and commitment. Both Saul and Jacob were stopped short by a vision which was to change the course of their lives.
While the consequences for failure to pull off the deception of Isaac had been carefully considered, neither Rebekah nor Jacob had weighed the cost of success. Isaac had been deceived and mocked (cf. 27:12, marginal note in NASV) due to the frailties of his age. Esau was deeply resentful, looking forward to the time when he could kill his brother (27:41). Rebekah must have found the gap between herself and her husband (not to mention Esau) widened by her deception of her mate. More than this, Rebekah now perceived that Jacob would have to leave until emotions cooled, although she had no conception of how long this separation must last.
In Genesis 27:42-45 Rebekah began to expedite the plan which she had already formulated in her mind. She must see to it that Jacob escaped the passions of Esau. She would arrange for him to spend time with her brother Laban, far from Esau, and so she began to pave the way for Jacob’s escape. First, she prepared Jacob for his departure by explaining the need for it (verses 42-45). Just a few days, she reasoned,232 would be needed for things to settle down (verse 44). Instead it was twenty years before Jacob would return (cf. 31:38), and that, it appears, was after she died.
The final verse of chapter 27 describes the skillful manipulation of Isaac by Rebekah, leading him to the inevitable conclusion that Jacob should be sent away to Haran, the city of her brother Laban:
And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am tired of living because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth, like these, from the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)
How different was Rebekah’s approach from what Sarah could have been predicted to do. I think Sarah would have given Abraham an ultimatum: “Send my son to my brother Laban in Haran or else!” This she would have demanded, poking her bony finger in the face of Abraham all the while (cf. 16:5; 21:10). Rebekah believed in the subtle but sure approach. She never told Isaac what to do; she just spelled things out in such a way that Isaac could reasonably do nothing else. She let it be known how distressed she was over the Canaanite women whom Esau had taken as wives (cf. 26:34-35). Then she insinuated that if Jacob did the same she would not be fit to live with. Little wonder then that Isaac did what is recorded in the first two verses of chapter 28:
So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1-2).
Two things are striking about this word of instruction from the lips of Isaac. First, it is unprecedented. Nowhere previously has this instruction been given. We see this from Esau’s response to the events of the early verses of chapter 28:
Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram, to take to himself a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he charged him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Paddan-aram. So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased his father Isaac; and Esau went to Ishmael, and married, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth (Genesis 28:6-9).
We must therefore conclude that neither Jacob nor Esau had ever previously been taught that marriage to a Canaanite woman would be inconsistent with the will of God and unsatisfactory to their parents.
Second, this charge to Jacob was untimely. We must admit that the occasion of Jacob going to Paddan-aram to seek a wife is a good one for this instruction, but we must not overlook how late in the life of these two sons this is. We have previously stated that Jacob was 77 years old when he went down to Haran.233 This would mean that Jacob did not marry until he was 84, since he had to work seven years for his wife (29:18,20).
We must remember that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (25:20), as was Esau when he took his two Hittite wives (26:34). For Esau this instruction came 37 years late. Imagine his frustration at finally learning the reason for his parents’ grief about his marriage. Surely Isaac’s words in verses 1 and 2 are too little and too late for Esau, and none too soon for Jacob.
Coupled with the fact that marriage was a secondary reason for Jacob’s departure to Haran, while survival was primary, we begin to grasp the casual attitude of Isaac toward the spiritual training of his sons. To him these matters must have been of minimal import to come as little and as late as they did.
The blessing of Jacob is somewhat more positive. While Isaac had blessed Jacob in the previous chapter, he had done so as though it were Esau. That blessing does not reach the clarity and the particularity of verses 3 and 4:
And may God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you; that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.
Only by allusion did Isaac convey the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob in chapter 27. Here it is stated in very specific terms. Isaac has finally resigned himself to the fact that God is going to bless Jacob and not Esau. His words reflect this acceptance of things as they must be and as God said they would be.
Television and the movies have conditioned us to delight in the destruction of the villain. He gets his just desserts, and usually in a way that befits his dastardly deeds. We all know that the good guy will win (or at least this used to be true), but we must watch until we have had the pleasure of seeing the bad guy get what is coming to him. Likewise, when we come to these verses concerning the response of Esau to what has happened between Isaac and Jacob, we tend to think of Esau as the villain. We expect to see his downfall, and we plan to savor it when it comes.
Because of this, we must be reminded that Jacob was not chosen because he was the hero, nor was Esau rejected because he was the villain. Genesis 25, especially in the light of Paul’s explanation in Romans 9, forces us to conclude that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau without regard to the deeds of either (Romans 9:11-12). Esau is not a man who, because of his actions described here and elsewhere, was rejected by God. Esau is not any different from any unbeliever whose heart has not been enlivened and whose mind has not been enlightened to respond to divine realities. Esau in his unbelief is no more depraved nor any less sensitive to spiritual things than any other son or daughter of Adam who suffers from inherent sin:
There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one (Romans 3:10-12).
Let us therefore put aside all sense of smugness and superiority when we come to consider this tragic figure, for whom we should all feel a deep sense of pity. Let us all acknowledge that, but for the grace of God, there go we. Here is a man who cannot comprehend the love of God and is unconvinced about the love of his father. Here is one who fails to grasp spiritual realities but who also has not been taught them by his parents.
Thirty-seven years too late Esau has learned at least one of the reasons why he felt unloved: his wives displeased his parents. I say “parents,” but you will observe that Esau is not reported to have cared about his mother’s sentiments toward him, only his father’s (verse 8). He had long since given up hope of being loved and accepted by Rebekah. Desperately he sought to win the approval of his father.
If having a non-Canaanite wife was all that it took to please his father, that was a small price to pay for the approval he craved. Failing to see any problem in his actions, Esau took Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael (verse 9). This woman was no Canaanite; she was of the family of Abraham. What could be more pleasing to Isaac than this? But Esau did not understand the matter of purity. Ishmael had been rejected to carry out the line of Abraham because he was a child of self effort (21:12, cf. Galatians 4:22-23). He was a product of fleshly striving, not spiritual dependence. Marriage to a descendant of Ishmael failed to achieve Esau’s intended goal. Without realizing it, he typified in this act the very thing which God most condemned, fleshly striving. Just as Abraham acted on his own to achieve a son, so Esau acted in a fleshly way to win the approval of his father. How appropriate this marriage was, and how ineffectual.
On his journey to Paddan-aram, Jacob was accompanied only by his staff (32:10) and his thoughts. It would not seem difficult to speculate with fair accuracy as to what these thoughts were about. Surely he must have considered the wisdom of his actions in deceiving his father. He must have compared his expectations in this plot with the outcome of it. He should have felt guilt at the thought of his treatment of his brother and father. He undoubtedly grieved at having to leave his mother. He must have wondered what kind of reception he would have from Laban. He would not be able to overlook the fact that he had nothing to offer Laban as a dowry for a wife. What would his wife be like? When would he ever be able to return home?
Whatever his thoughts must have been, I believe that Jacob was finally at the end of himself. I believe that he came to realize that he would never prosper on the basis of his schemes and struggles. His self-assurance was probably at an all-time low. This was the ideal time for God to break into his life, for now Jacob knew how much he needed God in order to be blessed as his father had been.
Night seems to have overtaken Jacob before he arrived at the city of Luz. The city gates would have been closed for the night, so Jacob, as shepherds customarily did, slept under the stars. He found a suitable spot, took a stone from nearby, and propped himself up for the night. In his sleep he had an awe-inspiring vision. He saw a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it. Above this ladder was God, who spoke these words to him:
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 shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall 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. And 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 (Genesis 28:13-15).
This vision has been the victim of many interpreters. Its significance has been said to be deep and profound. I think not. I believe that it was intended to be understood very simply, just as Jacob did. My interpretation of its meaning and significance will be based upon four considerations: (a) the words of God to Jacob; (b) the words immediately spoken by Jacob; (c) the words spoken on a later occasion by Jacob; and (d) the words of our Lord in John 1:51.
The words spoken by God are very similar to previous declarations to Abraham and to Isaac. Isaac’s pronouncement that passed on the blessing of Abraham to Jacob (verse 4) was now confirmed by God Himself. While there are various aspects to these covenant blessings, foremost seems to be the references to the land:
… the land on which you lie; I will give it to you … (verse 13)
… and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south … (verse 14)
… and will bring you back to this land … (verse 15)
Jacob perceived the significance of the place, too, for he immediately narrowed his thinking to the awesomeness of the place where he lay:
… surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it (verse 16).
… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (verse 17).
Later on in his life Jacob looked back upon this vision, still realizing the manner in which God signified the special nature of that place:
I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth (Genesis 31:13).
As Jacob, in obedience to this command, approached the land of promise, he received a report that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). Jacob prayed for protection as he went forward, based upon the promise of God in the vision at Bethel:
Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, mother with children. For thou didst say, “I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 32:11-12).
These statements of God and Jacob fit together nicely, especially in the light of the context of the vision. Jacob was about to leave the land of promise for a twenty year sojourn in Paddan-aram. He might be tempted never to return to this land again. By means of this dramatic vision God impressed Jacob with the significance of this land. It was the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place where God would come down to man and where men would find access to God. It was, as Jacob asserted, “the gate of heaven.” Throughout those twenty years Jacob would never forget this dream. He would realize that ultimately, to be in the will of God, he must be in the place of God’s choosing, the land of promise. It was in the land that God’s blessings would be poured out upon God’s people. While Jacob must leave, he must surely return.
How eagerly the first recipients of this record must have read it. The books of the Law were written by Moses and thus must have been completed before his death and before the entrance of Israel into the promised land. What a sense of anticipation the Israelites must have had as they looked across the river Jordan knowing that, in some special way, God’s presence was to be revealed in that place. The experience on Mount Sinai surely gave substance to this hope.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel Jesus had invited Philip to follow him (1:43). Philip likewise sought out Nathanael, assuring him that he had found the Messiah. This Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth (verse 45). Nathanael wondered at how the Messiah could come from such a place as Nazareth (verse 46). When Jesus saw Nathanael coming, He identified him as a man “in whom is no guile” (verse 47). Further, Jesus indicated that He had seen Nathanael while he was “under the fig tree” (verse 48). This was enough to convince Nathanael that Philip was right—Jesus was the Messiah!
Our Lord did not stop at this, however. While commending his belief, He went on to give even greater revelation concerning Himself:
And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
Nathanael had put too much stock in place. How could Messiah come from Nazareth? Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. God had revealed Himself to man in Israel. But while Jacob had focused upon the ground, the place where the ladder was situated, Jesus drew Nathanael’s attention to the ladder itself. He, Jesus of Nazareth, was the ladder. It was not the place where the ladder stood which was now most important but the person who was the ladder. Jacob saw God above the ladder; Jesus revealed God as the ladder. Ultimately it was Jesus Christ who bridged the gap between heaven and earth. It is through Him that God has come down to man. It is through Him that man will have access to God. Jacob saw what he needed to see at that moment in his life. Jesus revealed to Nathanael that there was much more to be seen than what Jacob had perceived in his day.
Jacob’s response to this dramatic disclosure of the divine purposes and promises of God can be summarized by three statements.
Jacob Set Up a Pillar
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. And he called the name of the place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Genesis 28:18-19).
The pillar was to serve as a memorial. It marked a place to which he would return to build an altar and worship God.
Jacob Made a Profession of Faith
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” (Genesis 28:20-21).
Some are inclined to view the “ifs” of these words as evidence of Jacob’s bargaining nature. It is as though Jacob is striking a deal with God. While Jacob’s faith is certainly immature at this point, I am inclined to view the “ifs” more in the sense of “since,” along with others.234
Jacob Made a Promise
And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee (Genesis 28:22).
Jacob planned to return, consistent with the thrust of the vision he had seen. At that time he would build an altar and give a tithe to God. While the Scriptures record the building of the altar (35:7), no reference can be found to the giving of the tithe. It may be, however, that this tithe was involved in the sacrifices which would be offered upon the altar. There was no command to tithe; this was a voluntary act on Jacob’s behalf.
This chapter has some very sobering lessons for us as parents. Isaac’s apathy in the matter of instructing his sons may sound uncomfortably familiar. In addition to this I find Isaac’s love to be contingent upon Esau’s performance. Isaac “loved Esau because,… ” we are told (25:28). Interestingly, in this same verse we are told only that Rebekah loved Jacob. No conditions are expressed. Look at the insecurity of Esau. Here was a 77-year-old man, still desperately trying to win the love and approval of his father—and with good reason, for his father loved on the basis of his performance.
Then, also, it would seem that as a favored son Esau was pampered by his father. Nowhere are we ever told of the discipline of either of Isaac’s sons. Discipline, as the Bible repeatedly informs us, is one manifestation of genuine love (cf. Proverbs 3:12; 13:24; Hebrews 12:5-11). I cannot help but feel that some words of admonition and correction in the life of Esau would have assured him of his father’s love. Discipline is not the enemy of love but the evidence of it.
Both Jacob and Esau illustrate the futility of scheming and self-effort in achieving divine acceptance. Here Esau’s sincere and diligent efforts to win approval by marrying a daughter of Ishmael are worthless. While his sincerity is evident, his actions do not conform with the requirements of faith. Sincere effort which is not based upon divine revelation is folly.
All of Jacob’s efforts to achieve the blessing of God are in vain as well. It was only by entering into a relationship with the covenant God of Abraham and Isaac that Jacob could experience the blessings of God. The basis for such a relationship was the revealed word of God. I find it amusing that while Jacob could not find God by striving, he was found by God while in his sleep. Surely God is trying to tell us something by this. It is by resting in Him and in His Word that we can be blessed. This does not mean the absence of activity on our part,235 but it does mean that self-effort will always be futile.
Two further lessons from this text should be pointed out. First, place is important. It surely was important so far as Jacob was concerned. Experiencing the blessing of God meant being in the place where God had promised to bless. I hear people say things such as, “I can worship God just as well out on the lake as I can in a church.” But the Word of God tells us, “… not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some …” (Hebrews 10:25). There are surely certain places where it would be difficult, even impossible, for a Christian to be for the glory of God.
Second, a profession of faith does not mean our immediate entrance into blissful experiences and rose-petal-strewn pathways. For twenty years after this conversion experience Jacob was to live away from his mother and father, away from the land of promise. For twenty years Jacob was to be administered a large dose of his own medicine, dealt out by an uncle who was even more deceitful than he. Entering into a relationship with God does not guarantee only good times and happy experiences; but it does assure us of the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life, and the presence of God in our everyday lives.
232 It is possible that Rebekah did realize that Jacob’s separation would be long-term. Was she then making his exit more palatable by saying it was only for a “few days” (27:44)? Surely it would take more than this to travel that distance and return.
235 Here we see Jacob resting in God, later he will wrestle with God (32:24-30). These two aspects of the Christian life are not contradictory. We are saved only by resting in His Word and His work on our behalf. But God delights to bless His children when they actively prevail with Him in prayer.