When we last saw Jacob in Genesis chapter twenty-seven, we read how he had managed to deceive his elderly, blind father into giving him the inheritance that his father had originally planned to give to his older brother Esau. As you might expect, Esau was pretty angry about what his brother had done and said to himself, “As soon as my father dies, I’m going to kill Jacob” (see Genesis 27:41). But Esau’s mother Rebekah found out about this plan and came up with a plan of her own. She basically told Jacob, “Get out of town fast and go stay with my brother Laban in the town of Haran. When everything cools down, I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back” (see Genesis 27:42-45).
So Jacob got ready to leave, but his father Isaac had a few things to say to him first…
“So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.
May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.’
Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau” (Genesis 28:1-5).
So even though Isaac had tried to give away his entire inheritance to Esau, it seems that he was now ready to accept the fact that it was God’s will for Jacob to receive those things instead.
Now when it came to finding the right marriage partner for his son Jacob, it appears that Isaac had the same problem that his father Abraham had when it came time for Abraham to find a wife for Isaac. The problem was this: since very few (if any) families in that area followed God, it was an almost impossible task to find a God-honoring marriage partner in the local neighborhood. So what was the solution? Well, Isaac told Jacob to do exactly as Rebekah had suggested: “…go at once to Paddan-aram, to the house of your grandfather Bethuel, and marry one of your uncle Laban’s daughters” (Genesis 28:2 NLT).
“Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram” (Genesis 28:5).
Paddan Aram (also known as the “plain of Aram”) was about 500 miles (800 km) away from where Jacob had been living, and this trip represented a month-long journey back in those days. Now Jacob might have expected this journey to be fast and simple- go to Paddan Aram, find a wife, wait for everything to cool down back home, and then go back. But what Jacob didn’t know was that it was actually going to be a long, long time before he ever returned.
So Jacob left to begin a new life in a foreign land, but instead of continuing on with his story, the Scriptures suddenly take an unexpected detour back into the life of Jacob’s brother Esau…
“Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, ‘Do not marry a Canaanite woman,’ and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram.
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 28:6-9).
Now you may remember that Esau previously married two local Canaanite women who eventually caused a lot of trouble for his parents. Now it seems that Esau realized that this had been a serious mistake because he, “…saw that the daughters of Canaan were evil in the eyes of his father Isaac” (LITV).
So what was Esau’s solution to this problem? Well, Esau decided to go over to his father’s side of the family and marry a relative of his uncle Ishmael, his father Isaac’s half brother. Unfortunately, there is no indication that Esau prayed or asked God for His direction before making this decision either- he just went ahead and did what seemed right in the hope that this would make things OK with his parents.
This whole episode illustrated Esau’s real problem- his actions were dictated by the way he felt. He saw that his parents weren’t happy about his relationship choices so he went ahead and took another marriage partner without any help, input, or direction from God. If Esau had been a more spiritually concerned person, he wouldn’t have made this mistake. Unfortunately, we don’t know how Isaac and Rebekah felt about Esau’s new wife because she is never mentioned again in the Scriptures.
“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran” (Genesis 28:10).
Let’s see if we can imagine what things were like for Jacob on this 500 mile (800 km) journey to Haran. First, remember that Jacob had just found out that his brother wanted to kill him, so he probably felt the need to move quickly. While Jacob could have been riding on a donkey or camel during this time, it’s probable that he couldn’t carry very much in the way of food or supplies.
Since Jacob was the kind of guy who liked hanging around the house (see Genesis 25:27), it’s unlikely that he was well prepared to defend himself against animals, protect himself against robbers, or find things to eat. It’s possible that Jacob carried some money with him but probably not much else. So we can say that this was probably not a very easy trip for Jacob to make.
“When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep” (Genesis 28:11).
We’ll find out later that the town where Jacob stopped was called Bethel, a place that was about 50 miles (80 km) away from where he started. It was possible to cover this distance in twelve hours if you could move quickly and not take too many breaks. Of course, once the sun went down there were no inns available to put someone up for the night, so Jacob ended up sleeping outside with his head on a rock. But while he was sleeping, Jacob had a very unusual dream…
“He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord…” (Genesis 28:12-13a).
What was the meaning behind this dream? Well, let’s think about it like this: let’s say that someone is on the first floor of a two-story building and God is on the second floor. That would put God is out of reach, wouldn’t it? But- if someone had an escalator, a stairway, or an elevator to reach the second floor, then that person could have access to God, right?
That seems to be the idea that God was trying to communicate to Jacob through this dream. You see, Jacob was on earth (or the first floor, so to speak) and God was in heaven. How could Jacob possibly reach God? Well, he could do it by using the stairway that God provided. We’ll talk some more about this symbolism of “Jacob’s Ladder” and what it means for people today next.
“(Jacob) had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord…” (Genesis 28:12-13a).
This imagery of a stairway reaching from earth to heaven provides us a good representation of Jesus and what He has done in giving us access to God. In fact, Jesus made use of this same concept in the New Testament when He said to a man named Nathanael, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Another version of the Bible phrases that statement like this: “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth” (NLT).
This helps identify Jesus as the “ladder” or “stairway” that allows people to have access to God. But Jesus doesn’t only show people the way to have access to God; He is the way to God. Jesus identified Himself as the One who unites people with God when He said, “…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
But what do these angels going up and down on this staircase represent? Well, this could be a way of symbolizing the prayers and requests of God’s people as they are delivered to God by His angels who then return with His answers. This idea has support in the Bible because Hebrews chapter one, verse fourteen (1:14) tells us, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”
“…and he said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.
All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you'” (Genesis 28:13b-15).
Do these promises sound familiar? If so, then it may be because these are the same basic promises that God gave to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham in Genesis chapter 12 and to his father Isaac in Genesis chapter 26. So even though Jacob was temporarily homeless and alone, he now had God’s promise to bless him and keep him safe.
It appears that God’s message to Jacob had quite an effect on him once he awoke…
“When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it'” (Genesis 28:16).
You may remember that Jacob was traveling to the town of Haran when God spoke to him through this dream. He was in an area that has been described as “bleak and barren” by one source. (1) He was cut off from his family and had no material possessions except the clothes he was wearing and whatever he could carry. And until God spoke to him through this dream, Jacob may have felt spiritually alone as well. So there was nothing about where Jacob was physically, socially, spiritually, or materially to suggest that God was with him. Yet God was with Jacob- and Jacob realized it: “The LORD is here! He is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (GNB).
Like Jacob, it may be easy for us to go to school or work and sometimes think, “Where is God in this place?” It can be easy to go online, read the news, or watch television and say, “Where is God in this world?” When a trusted friend or family member lets us down, it might be easy to say, “Where is God in this situation?”
Well, the answer is that God is here, just as He was for Jacob. The problem is that we sometimes don’t see Him, just as Jacob failed to recognize God’s presence until God revealed Himself to him. So why don’t people recognize God’s presence more often? One possibility is that we may be so focused on our circumstances that we can’t see anything else. Then there may be other times when people don’t recognize God because they’ve chosen to ignore Him or simply live their lives as if He didn’t exist.
People may also fail to recognize God’s presence because they really don’t want to hear the things that God may be saying. One area where this seems to happen a lot is in relationships. For instance, it’s possible for someone to want to be in a relationship with another person so intensely that he or she ignores the warning signs that say that God has closed off the door for any romantic involvement with that person.
The important thing to remember is that God is always there regardless of whether we see Him or not, just as He was for Jacob
(1) “Bethel” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
“He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz” (Genesis 28:17-19).
So as a result of his dream, Jacob gave this location a new name: Bethel, a name that means “house of God.” Jacob then consecrated or “set apart” the location where God had appeared to him by setting up the stone he used as a pillar and pouring oil over it. This act was something that symbolized the fact that this particular place had now been set apart for God. So Jacob made sure to establish that God’s appearance to him in this invisible dream would be something that other people could recognize by way of a visible memorial.
“Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth'” (Genesis 28:20-22).
At this stage of his life, it appears that Jacob was still making deals, just as he did with his brother Esau when he obtained Esau’s right to their father’s inheritance. In this instance, Jacob was basically making a deal with God by saying, “If You do something for me, then I’ll do something for you…” Unfortunately, that approach is really nothing more than a business arrangement and it doesn’t reflect the kind of genuine, love-based relationship that God really wants to have with people.
But even though Jacob was not totally where he should have been in his relationship with God, he was definitely on the way- and this should provide an encouragement to God’s people today. If you sometimes feel like you’re not everything that you should be spiritually, then take some time to remember Jacob’s example here in Genesis chapter 28. You may not be everything that you should be yet, but if you’re a Christian, then you’re definitely on the way to becoming everything that God wants you to be.