Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BETHEL - THE PLACE OF WORSHIP

The man Jacob was on the run. He had done something that, in his time and place, was disgraceful and loathsome. He was the second born of his family, albeit by only a couple of minutes. Nevertheless, if one is inclined to be precise, his twin brother Esau did precede him in his birth, and in that culture, these minutes meant everything. Many of the rights of inheritance were vested on the first born simply by virtue of the fact of his primogeniture.
 

The Birthright

Jacob’s minutes older brother Esau, however, had little regard for the privileges that he had received simply by virtue of him being the eldest son. Sometime before Jacob began his escape from the consequences of his disgraceful deed, Esau had showed contempt for those inheritance rights when he uncaringly traded them to his younger twin for a bowl of red soup.

This maneuver by Jacob to gain his older brother’s rights might be considered by some to be enough to make Esau angry, but now, Jacob had done something that had especially enraged the older brother. It was from this latest wrath of Esau that Jacob was fleeing.

Their elderly and nearly blind father, Isaac, wanted to give Esau his blessing. “I am now an old man and I do not know the day of my death,” Isaac said to Esau. “Now then, take up your weapons, your quiver and bow, and go out into the field to hunt some wild game so that you can prepare the kind of tasty food that I like. Then I will eat it and I will give to you my blessing” (Genesis 27:2). 

The Deceit

However, Isaac’s wife Rebecca heard of her husband’s plan and informed Jacob. Jacob was her favorite. She favored him so much that she wanted to go against tradition and arrange for Jacob to receive the blessing instead of Esau. Rebecca cooked up a plan (in more ways than one) in order to steal the blessing from Esau.


Rebecca had Jacob bring in two goats from their herd. Isaac’s wife of many years knew the flavor Isaac was looking for in his food, and cooked up the dish exactly how he liked it. Then, Rebecca had Jacob dress in the clothes of his brother Esau, and, since Esau must have been a very hairy man, the mother even covered Jacob’s hairless hands and neck with goatskins.

Rebecca hoped that these guises would fool her elderly and nearly blind husband. She gave the tasty food to Jacob to bring to his father, hoping that Isaac would think it was Esau who was bringing him the food, and give that one standing before him the blessing.

The trick worked. Isaac, in his physical blindness and blindness caused by his appetite for good food, was deceived into giving the blessing instead to Jacob. Isaac had been suspicious and sensed there may have been something going on that he could not see, but because Jacob was wearing the clothes of Esau and Isaac could feel the hair on Jacob’s hands, the old man was deceived. Isaac was swayed by the taste of the good food.

When Esau returned from his hunting trip that he had made at his father’s request, he learned how Jacob had snatched away from him the blessing of their father. Esau became enraged and vowed to kill his younger sibling. Rebecca told Jacob that he had to flee, and flee Jacob did. 

The Flight and the Dream

It was because of these events that Jacob was now on the run. With only a vague idea where he was to go, he stopped in a place in the wilderness to spend the night.

Jacob was not an outdoors man. It was Esau who was the hunter of the family. Jacob was more accustomed to staying around home. Nevertheless, the younger brother now found himself sleeping under the stars and unsure of his present situation and of his future.

That night, Jacob had a dream. In his dream, he saw a ladder that was set up on the earth and with its top that reached right into heaven. On the ladder, angels of God were ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Then Jacob heard the Lord speak to him.

“I am the Lord,” the voice said, “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...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 NAS).

When Jacob awoke the next morning he said to himself, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it...How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28:16-17 NAS).

The Vow

Then Jacob set up a stone as a memorial and made a vow: “If God will be with me,” he said, “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. 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” (Genesis 28: 20-22 NAS).

It was at that time that Jacob gave this place its name: Bethel – The House of God. 

Abraham’s Journey

This actually was not the first time that this site had been visited by one of Jacob’s family. Some one hundred and fifty years earlier, Jacob’s own grandfather Abraham had passed this way. At the time, Abraham, like Jacob, was also on a journey and with no clear idea where he was to go. Unlike Jacob, however, Abraham was not traveling on the advice of his mother or in order to flee a dangerous situation, but rather was traveling because God had told him to do so. Abraham had set out on his journey with some confidence in certain promises that God had given to him.

God had said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-3 NIV).

Nevertheless, despite these promises of God, Abraham still had many questions. As Abraham walked, his mind was active and sometimes doubtful. He stopped near what his grandson would one day name Bethel and built an altar. It was at that place that Abraham “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8). 

Grandfather and Grandson

Though their reasons for their journeys were different, both Abraham and Jacob were facing uncertain futures. In their separate travels, disconnected by a hundred and fifty years, along the way they both stopped at the same place.

The only thing that we are told of Abraham’s time at this place Bethel was that he built an altar and called upon God. With Jacob, we are told that he had made a vow to the Lord at that place, but we do not know what the nature of Abraham’s calling out to God was. Nor do we even how long he stayed at Bethel. It was not long, however. Abraham soon journeyed on, going to the south toward the Negev.

In the Negev, however, Abraham found only famine. These southlands could be considered part of the lands that had been promised to Abraham by God, but there Abraham saw none of the blessings that could be associated with the promise. He saw only hunger and deprivation. Abraham decided to journey further onward toward Egypt. It was in Egypt that he got himself into trouble. 

Abraham’s Own Deceit

Now outside of the land of the promise, Abraham felt that he was also outside of the protection of God. He was afraid of what might happen to him in Egypt. Abraham had a wife named Sarah who has often been said to be one of the most beautiful women who has ever lived. She was the pride and joy of Abraham’s life, but in this hostile land of Egypt, Abraham began to view her as more of a liability. Because Abraham was away from the place that had been given to him by God, he felt that he could no longer count upon the protection of God. Instead, Abraham came up with his own scheme of protection. The scheme was a cowardly and selfish one.

Abraham said to his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Genesis 12: 11-12 NAS). 

The Lord Steps In

As it turns out, Abraham was not far from being correct in his prediction. However, on at least one very important point he was wrong. It is true that he was right in that the Pharaoh of Egypt did admire Sarah’s great beauty and did take her into his harem, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister. After all, this is what Abraham had told him. However, Abraham did not count on an intervention by God. Abraham was wrong in thinking that he was now outside of the protection of the Lord.

The story continues: “But the Lord struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (as their two names were in those days before they were changed to Sarah and Abraham). The Pharaoh, upon learning the truth about Sarah, called Abraham to task and rebuked him.

It is not difficult to see some of the reasoning of Abraham in this incident. Abraham felt that when he went out on his own to have dealings with those who did not know the Lord nor fear God, he thought that he must depend upon his own self-preservation resources. This was especially true, he thought, because he was in a foreign land.

But in Egypt, Abraham learned that his own personal resources were not enough. God had needed to rescue him. 

Abraham Returns to Bethel

Because of this whole incident, Pharaoh had his men escort Abraham, along with Sarah and all that they had, out of Egypt. Abraham decided to return to the Negev, but his route was not a direct one. He bypassed that place and went “as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning…to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 13: 3-4 NAS).

It is interesting that Abraham returned to Bethel. He was not to settle here. One would think that, if he were to begin a new life after his time in Egypt, he would want to travel directly to where he meant to set up his household and begin his new life, especially since he was traveling with no small amount of livestock.

Nevertheless, Abraham instead first went to Bethel. In that place, as he did in the beginning, he called upon the name of the Lord. Abraham, I think, needed to reconcile himself to the Lord. He had gone down not only into Egypt, but also away from the place of promise. He had passed his days in Egypt as one away from God and instead in the world.

At Bethel, he again called upon the name of the Lord and again received the promise. The Lord told Abraham, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever” (Genesis 13: 14-15 NAS). 

Jacob in the World

It was at this same site where Jacob, years later, dreamed his dream and where God had also renewed the promise that he had given to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. It was here that Jacob made his vow. Jacob told the Lord that if God would indeed bless him as he had said, then Jacob would make the Lord his God. Those were his words. And with that he set out on his journey. As did his grandfather so many years ago, Jacob left Bethel to continue on his way.

Jacob did not go south and then to Egypt as Abraham had done however, but he instead traveled to the north – to Haran. Although, in Haran, he was returning to the extended family and the roots of his grandfather Abraham, it was not to a place that had the heritage of the faith of Abraham. While Jacob was in Haran, in many ways he would be, as Abraham had been in Egypt, spending time away from the place of the promise of God. Jacob was instead in the world.

We may think that Abraham had delved deeply into using trickery and scheming while in Egypt, but as we look at Jacob in Haran, we see that he could have taught his grandfather much in the way using the ways of the world. In Haran, Jacob lived by his wits, continuing the pattern that he had established in dealing with his brother and father. Jacob took advantage of every situation, and when there was no situation to give him the advantage, he created one. It is true that Jacob almost met his match in his uncle Laban, but Jacob learned well the ways of the world and by the time he was ready to return home, he had become a very wealthy man.

Jacob had become very self-sufficient. Unlike Abraham, Jacob, on his way back to the land of promise, he did not feel the need to return first to Bethel to renew his relationship with the Lord. Despite the several ways that the Lord was trying to teach Jacob of his need for his relationship with God and the real in-sufficiency of Jacob’s own resources (as God taught Abraham in Egypt), Jacob was still trying to win by gaining the upper hand using his own schemes. 

Resisting and Wrestling Instead of Resting and Receiving

One can see Jacob’s forethought in the planning that Jacob put in to the inevitable meeting with his feared brother Esau as he neared the place of his youth. One can even see it in the enigmatic passage where God sent a “man” to wrestle with Jacob by the brook Jabbok (Genesis 32:24-32). This man with whom Jacob wrestled is generally regarded as a theophany, meaning an appearance of God. At least, that is how Jacob regarded the experience. Jacob considered his wrestling as being with God Himself.

“I have seen God face to face,” Jacob said, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30).

On that day before, Jacob had sent all of his servants and family ahead of him. That evening, he was left alone by the brook. It was then that he wrestled all night with this man of mystery, this man whom Jacob considered as being God Himself.

After wrestling all night, in the early hours of dawn, the man said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”

“I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob responded.

Why Jacob thought that he had to wrestle a blessing out of God, I do not know. God had, many years before, promised to bless him. Nevertheless, Jacob had grown accustomed to living outside of that promise. He was now instead accustomed to struggle to get what he wanted. Jacob was determined that he would get the blessing, but he felt he needed to fight for it as he did against his uncle Laban.

I think that it was an unfortunate decision on Jacob’s part that did not return to Bethel at this time. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob did not go there to remember his covenant with God and renew his relationship with him. He still had not learned to rest in the promises of God, but instead felt the need to wrestle the promises out of God.

As it turns out, when Jacob did meet his estranged brother Esau, Esau received him gracefully and they had peaceful meeting and a peaceful parting. This was much to Jacob’s relief. After this, Jacob settled down in Succoth, which is in the same general area where he had met his brother. Unlike Abraham when he returned to the land of promise, Jacob seemed not to place a great priority on returning first to Bethel, to the place where he received the assurances of God. 

Egypt Becomes Shechem

Even after some years, when Jacob decided to leave the area of Succoth, he still did not go to Bethel. He instead made a detour and settled near a city called Shechem. In fact, we are told, he set up his camp right in the front of the city. Why Jacob decided to live there, we do not know, but from his later words, it seems like he placed a greater importance on establishing a good relationship with the people of the land than he did with the Lord God. We shall see that in Jacob’s first response to the events that were to follow.

The stay in Shechem turned out to be a very troublesome time. Jacob was no longer the young man he was when he first fled from his brother. Even at that time, he may not have been  considered “young.” Jacob was well into adulthood when he first fled from Esau, although it is actually often very difficult to determine the age of the Old Testament people at any given time.

Now, after spending twenty years with his uncle Laban, marrying two of Laban’s daughters and staying an unspecified time in Succoth, Jacob settles down in Shechem with eleven sons (the last son Benjamin was not yet born) and one daughter. It was his daughter Dinah who would be the innocent victim, but who would bring trouble upon the household.

For the only daughter Dinah, having eleven brothers and no sisters, one perhaps cannot blame her too much for what she did. She decided to go into the city of Shechem to get to know some of the girls of the city... seemingly innocent enough perhaps. However, while in the city, she was captured and raped by the prince of the land. When Dinah’s eleven brothers heard about the incident they plotted how they could bring revenge upon the city.

The young prince who raped Dinah then decided that he would like to make her his wife. He had his father try to convince the eleven brothers to warm up to this idea and become one people with them.

But the brothers of Dinah, Jacob’s eleven sons, came up with their own scheme. They saw this as an opportunity to exact revenge upon the city for the rape of their sister. Amazingly, using their methods, they were able to not only rescue Dinah from the prince’s house, but they were also able to kill every male person and loot the entire city. Their revenge was complete. 

Jacob’s Response

Jacob’s response to all of this was surprisingly self-centered. Instead of mourning the loss of so many lives and grieving over the great evils that had been done, he became angry and upset that the whole affair brought trouble upon him by making him “odious” among the inhabitants of the land. That was his main concern! More concerned was he with his relationship to the Canaanites than he was with his relationship to God! Bethel had been forgotten.

Since Jacob seemed no longer capable of remembering his oath to the Lord, God abruptly steps into the situation with a command: “Arise, go up to Bethel and live there,” God said to Jacob, “and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau” (Genesis 35:1 NAS). 

Return to Bethel

Jacob finally does return to Bethel, to the “house of God.” It was there that Jacob, many years earlier, had made promises to God and confirmed the promises with an oath. It was that on this day later in Jacob’s life, when God spoke to him about the covenant promise that he was making to Jacob. God wanted a complete transformation in the man Jacob, and even gave him a new name. The name was Israel, Jacob’s covenant name.

It indeed seems astounding that the need to remember the oath that Jacob had made those many years earlier was so difficult for him to remember. It is astonishing that Jacob could become so used to living by his own trickery and manipulation that he seemingly forgot his relationship to the Lord.

In contrast, Abraham, after he had fallen into the same deception of self-sufficiency, when he was reprimanded for his deeds and attitude in the world, at least quickly returned to the place where he remembered “calling upon the name of the Lord.” Jacob however seemed not to be quite so quick to understand.

Jacob could have spared himself and his family much trouble and heartache if he would have quickly returned to Bethel to renew his relationship with the Lord and allow God to reaffirm the promise and blessing that He had made to him.

It was not the site itself that was holy, except that for Jacob, it should have been. It was the place where he had met God. Abraham was quick to recognize this. Jacob much less so. He had to be reminded. 

Our Own Journeys

Today, we have moved ahead in history a few thousand years. Today our situation has changed considerably. God now dwells within each one of his redeemed ones.

Nevertheless, we are still are in need of special times of worship, when we can “call upon the name of the Lord,” as Abraham had done at Bethel. We still meet together to worship. It is not Bethel or Jerusalem, but we have our places of worship.

Our sojourning also is also different. We are not dwelling in Egypt or Haran or Shechem, but we are still dwelling in the world. We are still surrounded daily by the trickery and deceit of the world. We still have a need to renew our relationship to God and to receive again His promise to us.

When Jacob came to his senses, he said this: “Let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (Genesis 35:3 NAS).

And as for us, where are we to turn in the day of our own distress? We too must deal with people who have lying lips and deceitful tongues. Where are we to go?

I hope that one of these places is in your own places of worship, meeting with your church families. There may be other places as well. I have these places. Some of them I can revisit, as Abraham and Jacob did with Bethel, but some are so far away I can only visit them in my memory. These are the places where I have called upon the name of the Lord and where I received direction from the Lord.

These places are, I suppose, my own Bethels – the houses of the Lord.

In the days of the Old Testament, pilgrims traveling to the temple in Jerusalem used to sing a song as they walked along. The song was called, “The Song of Ascents.” In it they sang, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’…For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (Psalm 122:1, 9 NAS)

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