Jacob 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. In that culture, this was a distinction of significant importance. Much of the honor and inheritance was vested on the firstborn simply by virtue of the fact of his primogeniture.
Esau however, the older of the twins, had little regard for this custom and even for his own rights as the eldest son. Some time before this latest event, the one from which Jacob had to escape the consequences, Esau had showed his disrespect for those inheritance rights when he uncaringly traded them to his younger twin for a bowl of red soup.
The trade had been initiated and negotiated by Jacob. That exchange alone might be considered by some to be enough to make the older brother angry. This time however, Jacob had done something that had really enraged his brother. Now Jacob had done something extremely deceitful, and Esau was angry. He had even vowed to kill Jacob because of it. It was from this wrath of his brother that Jacob was fleeing.
Here is what had happened: Isaac, their elderly and nearly blind father, wanted to give Esau a 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).
Isaac’s wife Rebecca however, favored Jacob as a son. She heard of her husband’s plan and informed her favorite child. Rebecca cooked up a plan (in more ways than one) in order to steal the blessing from Esau.
While Esau was out hunting, the mother had Jacob bring in two goats from their herd. Isaac’s wife of many years knew the flavor that Isaac especially relished 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. The mother even covered Jacob’s hairless hands and neck with goatskins, since Esau must have been a very hairy man. Rebecca hoped that these guises would fool her elderly and nearly blind husband. She then gave the tasty food to Jacob to bring to his father. All of this she did so that her favorite son would receive the blessing instead of Esau.
Isaac, in his physical blindness and his additional blindness caused by his appetite for good food, was deceived into giving the blessing instead to Jacob. Isaac had been suspicious, but since Jacob was wearing the clothes of Esau, and since 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 learned how Jacob had snatched away from him the blessing of their father, the elder brother was enraged and vowed to kill his younger sibling. Rebecca told Jacob to flee, and flee Jacob did.
On the Run
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. Esau was the hunter of the family. Jacob was more accustomed to staying around home and helping with the house chores. Nevertheless, the younger brother now found himself sleeping under the stars. He was unsure of his present situation and fearful of his future.
That night, Jacob had a dream. In his dream, he saw a ladder that was set up on the earth, with its top reaching 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).
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. It means “the house of God.”
Abraham’s Stop at Bethel
This was not the first time that this site had been visited by one of Jacob’s family. Some 150 years before, Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had passed this way. Well before the time of Jacob, and even years before Jacob’s father had been born, Abraham also had come to this same region where Jacob rested on that night and had his dream. Both stopped here to rest for at least one night.
Although their journeys were similar in the fact that they both stopped at this same site, in most other ways, their two wanderings were unalike. Jacob was fleeing for his life on the advice of his mother, but Abraham was traveling because God had told him to do so. Jacob had only the stolen blessing of his father. Abraham had set out on his journey with some confidence in certain promises that God had given to him.
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you,” God had said to Abraham. “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 he walked, his mind was active and sometimes doubtful. He stopped near the place that his grandson would one day name Bethel. There, Abraham built an altar, and “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8).
That is all that we are told of Abraham’s time at that place that would come to be so significant in the lives of his people. We do not know what the nature of Abraham’s calling out to God was or 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 only found famine. These southlands could be considered part of the lands that had been promised to Abraham by God, but Abraham could see none of the blessings that should be associated with the promise. He only saw hunger and deprivation. Abraham decided to journey further onward toward Egypt. It was in Egypt where he got himself into trouble.
What Happened in Egypt
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 was, we are told, very beautiful.
In this hostile land of Egypt, Abraham began to view his wife, who was the pride and joy in his life, 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 a scheme.
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).
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 that he did take her into his harem, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister. That is, after all, what the Pharaoh had been told. 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 Abraham learned in Egypt that his own personal resources were not enough.
Abraham Returns to Bethel
Because of this whole incident, after Pharaoh learned the truth, he 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 direct. He bypassed that place and went “as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 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 to see 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 went to Bethel. There he called upon the name of the Lord, just as he had done the beginning.
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 in the world. He did not call upon the name of the Lord in Egypt. Instead, he had tried to live by his own resources and wits.
But on his return to Bethel, he again called upon the name of the Lord. There, just as before, he again received the promise of God. 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).
Where Jacob Went After His Stop in Bethel
It was at this same site where Jacob, many years later, dreamed his dream. In this place, where God had renewed the promise to Abraham, Jacob’s own grandfather, Jacob made his vow. Jacob told the Lord that if he would indeed bless him, then Jacob “would make the Lord his God.”
Those were his words. And with that he set out to resume his journey. As did his grandfather so many years before, Jacob left Bethel to continue on his way.
Jacob did not go to Egypt however. He went instead to the north—to Haran. Although in Haran, he was returning to the family and roots of his grandfather Abraham, it was not to a place that had the heritage of the faith of Abraham. In Haran, Jacob would be in many ways as Abraham was in Egypt, spending time away from the place of the promise of God. He was instead in the world.
If one were to speak of dealing with the world by using the worldly methods of trickery and cunning, as did Abraham while he was in Egypt, Jacob could have taught his grandfather much.
In Haran, Jacob lived by his wits. He was 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. He even outwitted his uncle at his own game, and by the time Jacob was ready to return home, he was a very wealthy man.
Jacob Avoids Bethel
Jacob had become very self-sufficient. He had grown confident in himself.
Unlike Abraham, Jacob, on his way back to the land of promise, did not see the need to first return 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, Jacob still did not see it.
His grandfather Abraham had learned in Egypt how inadequate his own scheming was, but Jacob did not learn the same lesson. He did not see the real in-sufficiency of his own resources. Jacob was still trying to win by gaining the upper hand using his own schemes.
Wrestling with Blessing
One can see it in his planning for his inevitable meeting with his feared brother Esau. 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, which is a preincarnate appearance of God in the Old Testament. That at least is how Jacob himself 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).
When Jacob was left alone after sending all his servants and family ahead, he wrestled all night with this man of mystery. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob told the man.
Why Jacob thought that he had to wrestle a blessing out of this man, I do not know. God had, many years before, promised to bless Jacob. Nevertheless, Jacob had grown accustomed to living outside the promise. He was now instead accustomed to struggle to get what he wanted. Jacob would get the blessing, but he felt he needed to fight for it as he did against his uncle Laban.
After his wrestling with God, Jacob did not go to Bethel. He met his estranged brother Esau. They had both a peaceful meeting and a peaceful parting. But in all of this, Jacob did not return to Bethel to renew his relationship to God.
Rather, he continued onward to a place called Succoth. This was actually 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 to the place where he received the assurances of God.
What Happened at Shechem
Even after 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 before 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 following events.
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 would not be considered “young,” as we would think of it today. Now, after spending twenty years with his uncle Laban, marrying two of Laban’s daughters and staying an unspecified time in Succoth, Jacob was quite elderly.
The old man settled down in Shechem with his wives and 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.
Having eleven brothers and no sisters, one perhaps cannot blame Dinah 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, but while in the city, Dinah was captured and raped by the prince of the land. When her eleven brothers heard about the incident, they plotted how they could bring revenge upon the city.
The young prince who raped Dinah later decided that he would like to make her his wife. He had his father try to convince the eleven brothers to become one people with them. The brothers saw in this an opportunity. They would do it, they told the king, if all the men of the city would circumcise themselves, since this was the sign of their covenant with God.
Surprisingly, the king of Shechem agreed. Perhaps even more surprisingly, all of the men of the city submitted to the decree of the king.
Three days later, when all the men were in pain, two of the brothers entered the city by stealth and killed every male. They rescued Dinah from the prince’s house and the all the brothers looted the whole city. The revenge was complete.
The Response of Jacob
It is difficult to see anything at all in this incident that is honorable and respectable. There are no completely innocent parties, and even young Dinah did not act in the wisest manner. When one deals with the world outside of the grace and promise of God and uses the manners and tactics of the world, this is the way that it is. It seems that there is no action or individual that is completely pure. It all is touched by corruption.
Jacob’s response to all of this was not that he was saddened by the entire event. He seemed only to be upset that it brought trouble upon him by making him “odious” among the inhabitants of the land. More concerned was he with his relationship to the Canaanites than he was with his relationship to God.
Bethel had been forgotten.
Jacob seemed no longer capable of remembering his oath to the Lord, the one that he had made so long ago when he set up the altar at Bethel. Seeing Jacob’s inability to reconcile himself with God, the Lord 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).(Continued in next post)