Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the 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. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him 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; and 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 all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that 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.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 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 Jacob rose early in the morning, and he 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. He called that place Bethel;[e] but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 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, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 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 surely give one-tenth to you.’
Jacob is caught in a self inflicted crisis. The ‘supplanter’ is on the run from vengeful brother Esau, whose birthright he has stolen from his blind father Isaac (with his mother’s connivance). Family problems are nothing new.
Jacob’s night resting place turns out to be restless, but propitious, for his dream reveals the previously unseen coming and going of God’s messengers from heaven to earth (and vice versa). Then God comes close to him. Jacob hears the offer of much needed reassurance and promise as to his future. It turns out that Jacob is the inheritor of God’s promise to Abraham ‘…all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring’. What? Dreadful behaviour, rewarded? A definite ‘no, no’ in our eyes; but Jacob’s name may mean not just ‘supplanter’, but also, ‘may God protect’. God alone seems to know Jacob’s full potential. That’s true of us too – God alone knows our true potential.
As for Jacob’s vow at Bethel, was Jacob striking a bargain with God? We know we attempt to strike quid pro quos with God, so our interpretation of Jacob’s words may tell us more about ourselves than we admit. It’s possible to understand Jacob’s Bethel vow in a much less suspicious way. As a consequence of God’s promise to Jacob, Jacob promises to be faithful to God.
So what have we made of our God given potential? indeed what shall we make of it?
‘O God you search me and you know me’, is the witness of those who seek you. In your loving kindness accept me for who I am; and come close even when I want to distance myself from you, and remind me that even I am an inheritor of your promises for good. Amen
The Rev’d John A Young, retired URC minister of Scottish Synod, member of Giffnock URC
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