Well thank you for joining this verse by verse bible study podcast, I’m your host Randy Duncan, and in this episode we will be covering Genesis chapter 28.
In the last episode, we finished chapter 27, and saw Jacob receive the blessing from Isaac and we discussed all the questionable circumstances and repercussions as a result. And now, as we begin here in chapter 28, we see Jacob set out from his home fleeing from his brother Esau, who is waiting to kill him as soon as Isaac dies. This chapter is fairly short, only 22 verses, but it contains the popular episode of “Jacob’s ladder”. And so with that we begin chapter 28.
Verses 1-5 read…28 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. 2 Arise, go to Paddan-aram (peh-don-arahm) to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother. 3 God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” 5 Thus Isaac sent Jacob away. And he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.
So first thing here, Isaac blesses Jacob, and confirms Jacob’s title to the birthright, in spite of all the deception. Jacob is recognized as the true heir to the Abrahamic covenant.
But following up on his blessing of Jacob, Isaac instructs Jacob that he must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. This is a hint that Isaac still doesn’t know the real reason Jacob must leave. It’s interesting that Isaac tells Jacob he must “go”, whereas Rebekah tells him he must “flee”. There is a difference in the urgency of those two verbs.You “go” to take care of business or find a wife. You “flee” when your brother is waiting to kill you!
Isaac tells Jacob that he must not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Remember, Esau doing this caused grief for Isaac and Rebekah. We discussed in an earlier episode that these Canaanite women caused their husbands to follow pagan gods, and that was totally unacceptable, especially for the family and descendents of Abraham who were to carry on the Abrahamic covenant.
Isaac blesses Jacob and tells him “May God bless you and multiply you”, and then he continues “that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham. Those words in English “take possession”, in Hebrew, sort of entails “to dispossess”, so it’s laying the groundwork for the war against the Canaanites, who will have become so evil and reprobate by then, that God will use the Hebrews to drive them out of the land.
And so Isaac tells Jacob to go to the house of Laban, Rebekah’s brother in Paddan-aram (peh-don- erahm). And with that, Jacob sets out. Keep in mind also, and I mentioned this earlier, how long do you suppose they thought Jacob would be gone? How long did Jacob think he would be gone? Turns out, it will be 20 years! Jacob would never see his mother, Rebekah, again. She would die before he returned. No doubt this was a very heavy price for Rebekah to pay, never seeing her son again.
Verses 6-9…6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he directed him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. 8 So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, 9 Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath (meh’ hell-eth) the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth (Neb-eye-oath’).
So Esau recognizes that Isaac instructed Jacob not to take a wife from among the Canaanite women. He finally realizes that it displeased his parents. And so, perhaps in an effort to please his parents, or maybe to try and mend the situation, what does Esau do? He goes to Ishmael, Abraham’s son who was sent away, and takes one of Ishmael’s daughters as his wife, in addition to the wives he already had.
There are a couple of ironies here. Jacob was the favorite of his mother Rebekah. He will marry the daughter of his mother’s brother. Esau was the favorite of his father, Isaac. And Esau will try to make amends by marrying the daughter of his father’s brother.
In another twist of irony, Esau was the firstborn, but would not receive the blessing or be the heir. And where does he turn to find a wife to try and make amends? He turns to Ishmael, who was also the firstborn of Abraham, who also would not be the heir. And so, rather than making amends, Esau actually ends up being identified wth the line that was sent away. I mentioned in the last episode that the Edomites were descendents of Esau
And so isn’t it interesting that Psalms 83:6 mentions “an alliance” against Israel between the “clans of Edom” and the Ishmaelites.
Psalms 83:3-6 says “They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against your treasured ones.4 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”5 For they conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant—6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
We now shift gears and sort of leave Esau behind for a while, as the focus now turns to Jacob and his journey. The next eight verses contain what is often referred to as Jacob’s Ladder, and is the primary focus of this chapter. So let’s read verses 10-17, and then pause to see what to make of this scene.
So, verse 10 begins, “10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So this scene marks the beginning of Jacob becoming a patriarch in his own right. He leaves the house of his father, just as Abraham did. In fact, he sort of retraces the same journey that Abraham made years earlier. A 550-mile journey that would have taken him a month to complete. Although, Jacob may be in an even more precarious situation than Abraham was.
But it says that along the way, he came to a place and stayed there as night fell. He took one of the stones, and laid his head on it to go to sleep. Interesting if you think about Jacob’s situation for a moment. The security of the light of day has given way to the dangers of night. The comfort of his parents’ home has been replaced by a rock in the wilderness. Behind him is Esau, who is waiting to kill him. And although he doesn’t know it yet, ahead of him waits Laban, who will exploit him.
And so we arrive at the point in this chapter where the so-called Jacob’s Ladder is described. V12 tells us that Jacob dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
So a few things to point out here. While Jacob is sleeping, in the middle of nowhere, he receives a dream revelation. Now the Hebrew word here usually translated as “ladder” is “sullam”(soo-lomm) which is a unique word in the Bible. This is the only place in all of the Bible where this word is used. And it could refer to either a ladder or a stairway. If you remember in Genesis chapter 10 when I discussed the Tower of Babel, back in I think episode 23, I discussed the Tower of Babel being a Babylonian ziggurat, with an external stairway or ramp that led to the top where there would be some sort of shrine. We also discussed that the purpose of the tower and the stairway was to provide the gods with a means to descend to earth, to the abode of men, where they could be appeased and worshipped in various ways. If you are interested, and you haven’t listened to that episode, I encourage you to go back and listen to episode 23
If you think about it, a staircase would seem a bit more reasonable, since it says that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on it. A ladder seems a bit awkward for that. Now of course, angels don’t need a ladder at all. Angels are very powerful, extradimensional beings who certainly don’t need a ladder to move up and down. For that matter, they don’t need a staircase either. But even in the imagery that Jacob is experiencing here, a ladder just seems a bit flimsy.
One observation here I think is interesting. The more I have studied the Bible, the more I have become convinced that every detail is there by supernatural design, supernaturally engineered. And so when I notice seemingly unimportant descriptions, like here, where it says Jacob saw angels “ascending and descending”, it makes me pause. We tend to think of all angels being right there with God in Heaven, and so they have to descend to earth. They are messengers. That’s what angel means, the Hebrew word for angel is “malach”(mowl-ock’), which means messenger.
But pay close attention to what it says, it says they were “ascending and descending” not “descending and ascending”. Maybe there is nothing to it. But why did God want that description in that order? Ascending first. Is it a subtle hint that angels are in large part here on earth with us?
I should also mention here that there is another thought on this. In Jacob’s dream, the angels may simply symbolize Jacob’s prayers for protection and help, which rise to heaven and receive a response back from God. And so you have the prayers ascending up to God, and God’s response descending back to Jacob.
But either way, we are told the Lord stood above the staircase and said to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac”. And then continues to tell him that “in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed”. Can you imagine?!
By revealing Himself in this way, God confirms Jacob as the third patriarch, and the heir of the divine promises to Abraham and Isaac. God also repeats the purpose of choosing Abraham and his descendents, which was to be a bessing to all the families of the earth
God continues by telling Jacob “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.”
It’s kind of ironic, just as Jacob is about to be exiled from the land, his true title to that very land is confirmed by God.
The ancient Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God chooses certain people for specific divine roles and protects them until that role is carried out. And that seems to be the case at least here with Jacob.
But even with that, this was an awesome experience for Jacob, and he is shaken by it. We know that because it tells us “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid
Jacob’s reaction to an encounter with God is different from Abraham and Isaac’s. He is much more emotional, and seems a bit surprised. Could it possibly be because he didn’t feel as close to God as Abraham and Isaac did? He certainly had reasons based on all that he had recently experienced. Maybe he was surprised that God would bother reaching out to him in this state. All we know for sure is that Jacob is significantly and deeply impacted by this encounter with God.
Notice what God is telling Jacob here too. I am with you, I will watch over you, I will not leave you. Sounds a lot like what Jesus told his disciples in Matt 28:20- “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Finishing out the verses in this chapter, V18-22…18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz (lose) at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “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, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 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 give a full tenth to you.”
So Jacob gets up early the next morning, takes the stone he had placed under his head, and sets it up as a pillar. The Hebrew word for pillar simply denotes a single, upright slab of stone. The pillar functions as a witness and a monument to what Jacob has experienced. This is in contrast to the Canaanite pillars that they believed were the repositories of dieties and spirits, and that were often used as cultic objects. No, this functioned to commemorate God’s revelation to Jacob and his promises.
The fact that Jacob pours oil on it is just to symbolically consecrate it, and also serves to bind Jacob to the vow, as the anointing with oil was also used in business contracts and obligations.
Jacob then calls the name of the place Bethel, bet (house) and el’ (God) which means “House of the Lord”.
Finally, Jacob makes a vow. It is actually the longest vow in all of the Old Testament. This is not just some short-lived agreement or contract. This is something that re-orients one’s life. So for Jacob who’s journey had begun as a flight from his brother’s wrath, has now become a pilgrimage, and Jacob has committed himself to living with YHWH as his God.
So as we look back at this chapter, Jacob flees his home, in exile, utterly alone, embarking on a long journey, one that will end up testing his character, refine his personality and perspective. And he will be transformed by a single encounter, not with a man, but with God.
Jacob sets out, not only to flee Esau, but also to find a wife. But God finds him first. And as a result, Jacob’s life is reoriented. Although he will still be on the same journey, his spiritual sensitivity has been transformed.
And isn’t this same thing true for many of us? It wasn’t us seeking out God, it was God who found us! Just like when Jesus told the disciples ,” You did not choose me, but I chose you”. It’s important to realize that God doesn’t wait for us to reach spiritual maturity before reaching out to us. He meets us where we are
And just like Jacob, many of us were also in a place of loneliness, brokenness, emptiness, sort of in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by darkness. And also just like Jacob, our encounters with God are moments of life-changing significance.
But I want to end this episode with this thought. In Jacob’s encounter with God, he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway or ladder between heaven and earth. Sort of an axis between heaven and earth. Jacob names the place Bethel, which means house of God. Now the house of God would later be replaced by a portable temple. And then a permanent one under King Solomon. But those temples were merely foreshadowings that find their fullfillment in Jesus Christ.
Jacob saw angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth on a stairway, but in John 1:51, Jesus tells us “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
Jesus is the only true mediator between heaven and earth. There is no literal or figurative stairway or ladder to heaven that we can climb through our own efforts. And Jesus made that clear when he told us “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.