- Main Text: Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17
- Accompanying text: John 1:50-51
How much Rebekah was influenced by the prophecy of Genesis 25:23 is up for conjecture. When the twins who would become Esau and Jacob wrestled inside it, it was revealed to her that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger (NIV)”. Did this lead her to favour Jacob and to manipulate subsequent events? Did she tell Isaac of the prophecy? Did he know of it and yet did he, in defiance of it, purposefully try to pass on the inheritance blessing to his firstborn? We just don’t know. What we do know is that there is a clear record of conspiracy and deceit. Not only that but Jacob and his contemporaries reflected the superstitious and idolatrous customs of the surrounding society which later God would call on his followers to reject. They were “full of superstitions from the East” (Isaiah 2:6).
Abraham himself had followed a local custom concerning the giving of oaths when he said to the senior servant, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites” (Genesis 24:2-4). These ideas of religious and tribal purity were common in the ancient Near East, and Isaac himself encouraged Jacob not to take a Canaanite wife. “Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had” (Genesis 28:8-9). Esau had married Hittite women, who were a “source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:35), who consequently followed another custom — an arranged marriage for Jacob.
As Jacob flees from the angry Esau and makes his way to marry one of his mother’s brother’s daughters, Jacob has a very strange dream. At least it seems strange to us. But was it that unusual for the times in which he lived? Jacob engaged in the beliefs of his age and his idea of God changed gradually. He comes to a place later called Bethel, an area renowned for its limestone rocks and stones. It sounds uncomfortable but he takes a stone and uses it as a pillow — perhaps he covers it with a goatskin or something first. The dream involves angels going up and down a staircase to Heaven. When he awakes, he consecrates the stone as a special place of God’s presence. Perhaps heaven had been on his mind. The idea of sacred stones was well-known at the time. Moses would later command the people not “to set up an image or a sacred stone” (Leviticus 26:1). Nevertheless, the day after the dream Jacob set up the stone as a pillar or obelisk of worship. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”, he had thought, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17). He did not yet realize that God is everywhere. The Spirit of the Lord is omnipresent — God can be worshipped in any place. Later in Israel’s history Bethel became a capital for the breakaway northern tribes, and it was a place where sacrifices and tithes were received (Amos 4:4).
Thoughts re application today
As we read the scriptures, especially passages from the Pentateuch, “Again and again we are prompted to decide whether this or that story did or (more usually) did not take place as literally narrated…how are informed Christians to read their community’s foundational text?…rightly understood, the Bible is an extraordinary and complex human phenomenon, a library of books of every genre, evolved over centuries and held together first in Hebrew scripture by one nation’s search for identity…Genesis starts with two pictures, one of a creation recognised as good, and the other as a source of deep fracture which spearheads the search for atonement and renewal” .
Sometimes the patriarchs and others sought that atonement and renewal through links to superstitions and local customs, and we may try to do similar things today. With Jesus there is a better way. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25).
Jesus, in response to Nathaniel’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of God and the king of Israel, seems to refer to Jacob’s ladder — “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51). Jacob could only dream of Heaven, but we live in the reality of who Jesus is. He is the Way. Jesus alone is the link between Heaven and earth. We can join with Paul when he says, “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Some other Scripture Resources
- Psalm 39
- Revelation 21:1-6
- Ephesians 1:3
- Acts 7:55
Footnotes and references
- Rupert Shortt, Outgrowing Dawkins: God for Grown-Ups, a Generous Orthodoxy published by SPCK, UK, 2019:46-47.