Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Recount the contents of Jacob’s dream and his reaction to it.
2. Compare and contrast Jacob’s dream with “normal” dreams.
3. Explain how he or she will be sensitive to God’s leading, balancing clear direction from Scripture with analysis of external circumstances.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 8—Remember God’s Works (Psalm 105:1–6)
Tuesday, Oct. 9—An Everlasting Covenant (Psalm 105:7–11)
Wednesday, Oct. 10—The Conflict Deepens (Genesis 27:41–45)
Thursday, Oct. 11—To Seek a Wife (Genesis 27:46–28:5)
Friday, Oct. 12—Esau Takes Another Wife (Genesis 28:6–9)
Saturday, Oct. 13—God’s Covenant with Jacob (Genesis 28:10–17)
Sunday, Oct. 14—The Place Named Bethel (Genesis 28:18–22)
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.
Why Teach This Lesson?
Who among us hasn’t been amused, startled, or confused by a dream that occurred during the night? Some dreams are so vivid that we can’t get back to sleep. The best response to a dream is usually to have a good laugh, shake it off, and get on with real life.
But not all your learners will take that path. A few will buy one of those speculative books on how to interpret dreams. Some will look at today’s lesson as confirmation that since God has spoken through dreams, he can do so again—so they expect him to do so. God certainly can do so, but can isn’t the same as likely to. The fact is that God has spoken to people through dreams in only a handful of instances in the entirety of the Bible.
It is much more important to focus on Jacob’s response to God’s leading rather than on the procedure God used to provide that leading. Make no mistake: God expects a personal response from each of your learners today. God does not allow us to “hide” within a larger group—be it a Christian family, a church, or a Christianized nation. The calls are personal, and the responses must be as well.
A. Second-Generation Believers
Many of us have been challenged by evangelistic sermons claiming that “Christianity is only one generation from extinction.” By this, preachers usually mean no one is automatically born a believer. Although many people have been brought up in Christian homes, this favorable environment is not enough to make one a Christian. At some point each person must respond to the gospel through personal decision, not the decision of the parents. This is why Christians must spread the good news to the next generation.
Our Jewish forefathers also had to make personal decisions. Abraham accepted God’s call, Isaac accepted God’s call, and in today’s passage even Jacob—the deceiver—is invited to continue the faith of his father and grandfather. How does his response apply to us today?
B. Lesson Background
Isaac and Rebekah had been living prosperously in Beersheba since Isaac made peace with the Philistines (Genesis 26). Like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebekah was unable to conceive. So God intervened to keep the promise alive. Unlike her mother-in-law, however, Rebekah gave birth to twin sons. This complicated matters since only one son could be the child of promise.
God foretold that Jacob was to be that child, but Jacob did not wait patiently for God to fulfill this prophecy. Instead, he lived up to (or down to!) his name, which can mean “heel-grabber”: he manipulated his brother into surrendering his birthright, and he deceived his father in order to get the blessing that was intended for Esau.
Esau, of course, was furious about his brother’s deception—so much so that he plotted to kill him as Cain did Abel. Aware of these plans, Rebekah arranged for Jacob to escape his brother’s fury and marry a woman from Abraham’s kin. It was important that the child of promise maintain a pure bloodline by not marrying a Canaanite. So Jacob went to Haran, the hometown of Rebekah’s brother Laban.
I. Jacob’s Journey (Genesis 28:10, 11)
A. Heading Toward Haran (v. 10)
10. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran.
Haran is located north of the promised land, approximately 550 miles from Jacob’s home in Beersheba. This journey thus puts plenty of needed distance between Jacob and his brother’s wrath, but it is also a risky move in light of family history.
In Genesis 11:31 we are told that Abraham’s father, Terah, left his homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans with the intention of arriving in Canaan, the land of promise. Was he called by God to do this? We know that God was recognized as Terah’s God (Genesis 31:53), yet Terah also worshiped false gods (Joshua 24:2). The Bible is silent about why he set out for Canaan and why Terah did not complete the trip. He went as far as Haran (about 600 miles northwest of Ur) and settled there. It was up to his son Abram (later renamed Abraham) to finish what he had begun.
Perhaps Abraham remembered his father’s failure. So when arranging a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham deliberately sent his servant—not Isaac personally—to Haran to find a wife (Genesis 24:6–8; see Lesson 5). This move ensured that Isaac would not be tempted to stay in Haran as his grandfather had. Rebekah, on the other hand, could not afford to keep her son Jacob nearby. The threat posed by Esau was too great; so Jacob’s risky journey began.
B. Layover in Luz (v. 11)
11. 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.
Jacob at this point is about 60 miles into his journey. He has run out of sunlight and thus stops for the night. We learn in verse 19 that this certain place is called Luz, a region located 20 miles northwest of the Dead Sea.
What is most notable about this place is that it is not noteworthy. Other travelers in Jacob’s day may intentionally set up camp near a temple or other holy place in hopes of gaining the favor of their god(s). Jacob, on the other hand, stops at no place in particular. This underscores the fact that Jacob does not attempt to engineer or manipulate the divine blessing he is about to receive, as was the case with the blessing he received in dealing with Esau. The revelation he is about to receive is entirely due to God’s gracious initiative.
Christians need to hear this message today. We have not been instructed to orchestrate a divine word from God. It is not a matter of praying the right prayer, meditating the right way, or assuming the right bodily posture. God is not like a vending machine that yields goods automatically when we push the right buttons.
What Do You Think?
How does Jacob’s situation compare and contrast with the times we seek God in the comfort of our worship centers?
Instead, God speaks to whom he will, when he will, and how he will. In Scripture God sometimes reveals himself to those who have petitioned him with fervent prayer and fasting, but often he does so when humans least expect it.
“Where are you going?” “Nowhere.”
“What are you going to do?” “Nothing.”
“Whom are you going to do it with?” “Nobody.”
That conversation (or a variation of it) has taken place countless times between parents and teens. Actually, there are lots of places that can be classified as nowhere or nowhere in particular. As one moves westward across the North American continent, one can find vast expanses of prairie and desert that qualify as nowhere.
Even places that used to be somewhere are now nowhere. Towns that were once thriving now may be hanging on by a thread; or they may have turned into ghost towns, slowly disintegrating as sun and weather beat upon them.
The place where Jacob stopped was nowhere—just a convenient place to sleep. But God met him there. We may think that the great experiences of life must happen in special places. Yet such events often happen in ordinary places that become special because of what happens there. Wherever we meet God is somewhere special! That’s what Jacob came to discover. —C. R. B.
II. Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:12–15)
A. What Jacob Sees (v. 12)
12. 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.
While sleeping, Jacob dreams of a stairway that spans the gap between heaven and earth. This stairway is not there, however, for Jacob to climb. The one who reached to grab his brother’s heel, his brother’s birthright, and his father’s blessing will not climb this stairway to reach and grab God.
Neither will God descend to meet Jacob face to face. Only God’s angels ascend and descend. God is above; Jacob remains on earth. There is a necessary gap between the two. This distance may be for Jacob’s protection, or God may simply be teaching him a lesson about holiness.
B. What God Says (vv. 13–15)
13a. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.
God’s speech to Jacob is a monologue. Jacob is not invited to converse with God; he is required to hear what God has to say.
God says three things. First, God introduces himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Will he be Jacob’s God as well? At this point, it is not clear that Jacob will follow the footsteps of his fathers. The decision to find a wife from Abraham’s kin is an important step in the right direction, but Jacob’s journey is also driven by his desire to survive Esau’s wrath. Yet the way that Jacob responds to this gracious initiative of God will be decisive for how many will come to know God: as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:15).
13b, 14. “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.
What Do You Think?
What part will you and your church have in helping fulfill God’s intent to bless the world?
Second, God affirms that the promise he made to Abraham and Isaac is now extended to Jacob. Using language similar to Genesis 13:14–16, God promises to give Jacob and his descendants the very land that Jacob is in the process of leaving, to multiply Jacob’s offspring like the dust of the earth, to spread his family in all four directions, and to bless all peoples on earth through them. Despite Jacob’s past, despite the threat to his life, and despite his self-imposed exile from the land of promise, God assures Jacob that he is indeed God’s chosen man.
15. “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.”
Third, God recognizes Jacob’s insecurities as one heading for unfamiliar territory. Thus God commits to be with Jacob, to protect him in his travels, and to return him to the land of promise.
What Do You Think?
What do we learn about God as he identifies himself here? How does this knowledge of God help us?
III. Jacob’s Response (Genesis 28:16–22)
A. With Awe (vv. 16, 17)
16, 17. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 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.”
Abraham and Isaac each had a chance to obey. Now it is Jacob’s turn. How will he respond?
Upon waking from his dream, Jacob reacts to God’s threefold speech with a threefold affirmation: (1) the Lord is in this place, (2) this is none other than the house of God, and (3) this is the gate of heaven. We will point out the importance of each of these three below. An important fact to be noticed at this point is that Jacob’s threefold affirmation is couched in fear. He had gone to sleep on common turf, but he awakens on holy ground.
Although God’s message to Jacob is full of comfort, the awe-inspiring nature of the vision also sounds a clear message: God is no human to be trifled with or manipulated. He stands on high with angels to do his bidding. God proclaims his word; humans must listen and respond. This recognition on Jacob’s part is vital in his development as God’s man, the man of the promise.
In our day of undisciplined speech about God, we need to be reminded of the healthy fear exemplified by our forefathers in the faith. Men like Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel truly respected God’s awe-inspiring presence. God is still a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29). The apostle Paul deems it appropriate to describe God as dwelling in unapproachable light, unable to be seen with human eyes (1 Timothy 6:15-16).
What Do You Think?
Is Jacob’s response to God’s presence a model for us today? Why, or why not?
B. With a Memorial (vv. 18, 19)
18. 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.
Rather than immediately resuming his journey, Jacob lingers to commemorate the place where God has met him. He selects the stone that functioned as his pillow, sets it upright, and anoints it with oil. We should not associate this act with idol worship, as if Jacob believes the stone itself possesses magical, dream-inducing powers. Such a practice will later be condemned as detestable to God (Deuteronomy 16:22).
We should view this instead as an act of reverence, an acknowledgement that Jacob has received God’s message loud and clear. Anointing with oil is a common way to set apart particular persons or objects in ancient times. By anointing kings, priests, altars, and garments, the Israelites who come after Jacob will set apart people and things for service on behalf of the one true God.
So Jacob does not regard this rock as special in and of itself. Rather, he considers this particular place to be sacred because God has chosen it for his unique purposes. It is God who gives it meaning—a meaning that Jacob wishes never to forget. This is part one of Jacob’s threefold response.
It is fitting for Jacob to use a stone for this purpose. In ancient times, stones serve as witnesses to agreements between parties, especially agreements concerning property boundaries. Years later Jacob will erect another stone to commemorate a boundary agreement between himself and his future father-in-law (Genesis 31:46–53). In setting up this first stone, Jacob may be communicating to God that he accepts God’s will for his life, including the boundary lines to the land that God has promised to Jacob’s descendants.
Visual for Lesson 7
Start a discussion by asking, “How do you associate God’s presence with the places you frequent?”
Sixteen million U.S. citizens served in America’s armed forces during World War II. More than 400,000 of them died.
Surprisingly, it took nearly 60 years for a monument to be built in Washington, D.C., to honor those who served in what has been called “the defining event of the twentieth century.” Nevertheless, there is now a monument for those who fought in that war. These were common people called upon to make uncommon sacrifices and save the world from tyranny.
Erecting memorials is nothing new. This practice is seen in many cultures of many eras. Centuries ago, Jacob erected a stone memorial as a tribute to the God who turned his life in a new direction. Most war memorials today are constructed at sites far removed from where the events they commemorate took place. Not so with Jacob; he raised his stone at the very site where his life took its turn. It was a reminder of Jacob’s vow that his life would be different from that point onward.
Today, God has already done the work of setting up “spiritual remembrance stones,” if we can use that terminology. The Lord’s Supper provides a frequent reminder of the work of Christ. Baptism is a tangible reminder of a person’s decisive turn toward him. How do you use these two “spiritual remembrance stones” to draw ever closer to him? —C. R. B.
19. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
In parallel with the second part of Jacob’s threefold affirmation of verses 16, 17, he renames Luz to be Bethel. The new name means “house of God.” The name sticks. Future Israelites will remember its significance. Even God, when he later reappears to Jacob, identifies himself as “the God of Bethel” (Genesis 31:13).
Unfortunately, not all future Israelites will learn the lesson that Jacob learns there. Instead, they will set up idols and establish Bethel as a worship center to compete with Jerusalem. This will gain for Bethel a reputation of transgression (1 Kings 12:28–32; Hosea 10:15; Amos 4:4). How easy it is for later generations to forget! The fear is lost, the awe subsides, and another gift to God degenerates into an agent of idolatry.
C. With a Vow (vv. 20–22)
20–22. 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.”
Jacob’s vow is part three of his threefold affirmation of verses 16, 17. This vow may be interpreted in a wholly positive or somewhat negative way. Positively, we notice that Jacob officially accepts his father’s God as his own and pledges to give him a tenth of all he will acquire, as Abraham did (Genesis 14:18–20). Negatively, Jacob seems to place conditions on his allegiance, saying if God does what he has promised (and more), then Jacob will worship him.
We see Jacob specifying the elements of food and clothes along with God’s already generous offer of continued blessing. One could construe Jacob’s response as a desire to turn God’s gracious gift—which is meant to be accepted and appreciated on God’s terms—into a negotiation, with two parties jockeying for position.
Such jockeying, if that is indeed what is going on here, would hark back to Jacob’s strained relations with Esau and would point forward to Jacob’s strained relations with Laban. Indeed, God’s later encounter with Jacob will be that of a wrestling match, after which Jacob is renamed Israel, meaning “one who wrestles with God.”
So—is Jacob’s vow the initial round of that wrestling match? Or is it a promising start to a committed, though imperfect, relationship? When Jacob finally arrives at his destination, God certainly uses Laban to teach Jacob a much-needed lesson about Jacob’s cunning ways. But should we see that lesson as a response to Jacob’s former life before Bethel or to his entire life, including his desire to strike a deal at Bethel?
It is not necessary for us to answer such questions with full confidence. But it is helpful to consider possible answers in light of God’s future reflection on the Bethel encounter. Many years later, when it is time for Jacob to leave Haran and return home, God will remind Jacob of the vow he made and the rock he anointed at Bethel (Genesis 31:13). This will remind Jacob of a time of hope and a symbol of promises made and things to be fulfilled. So while it is possible to see Jacob’s conditional vow as a symptom of flawed character, one may also see it as a turning point in his life. It is a time when he not only accepts God’s gracious invitation but also takes concrete steps to apply it to his own situation.
Today we don’t expect direct revelations from God in dreams. Even so, Christians have had “Bethel-like moments.” These are times when God awakens us to his claim upon our lives. Can you identify moments like this in your own life?
What Do You Think?
Do you have your own sacred place—your own, private Bethel—where you meet God on a regular basis? What is it like? If you don’t have one, what can you do to set one up? Or should you let God take the initiative in this regard?
Jacob was born into an important family that was chosen by God to do great things. Jacob knew from an early age that the day would come when he would be called to continue his family’s legacy. Yet Jacob was far from perfect. At his best he listened, waited, and obeyed. At his worst he tried to force events along paths of his own choosing via human ingenuity and deceit.
Yet God was able to work through Jacob’s worst moments. God showed his love for Jacob at Bethel by extending to him a promise that he did nothing to deserve. Jacob could have responded in all sorts of negative ways. Instead, Jacob recognized that the call was from God and responded with that fact in view.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, God’s invitation to join the people of promise—the church—has been extended to all. It matters not whether we are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. It matters not whether we grew up in a solid Christian home, in a “Christmas-and-Easter-only” religious environment, or in the belly of paganism. It matters not whether we were a respectful youth, raucous teen, or greedy business person. God’s invitation confronts us where we are, regardless of where we have been.
Our past cannot stand in for us, whether good deeds, ideal parents, or worldly achievements. God lays claim to our present life and calls us to an eternity with him. Despite Jacob’s imperfections, he responded to that call and took the necessary first step forward. God was certainly not finished working on him, but Jacob welcomed him in to begin that work. So must we.
Thought to Remember
Respond to God today.
“O God of Bethel, by Whose hand,
Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage,
Hast all our fathers led.
“Our vows, our prayers, we now present
Before Thy throne of grace;
God of our fathers, be the God
Of their succeeding race.
“Through each perplexing path of life
Our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread
And raiment fit provide.
“O spread Thy covering wings around
Till all our wanderings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode
Our souls arrive in peace”
In Jesus’ name, amen.
(Philip Doddridge, 1737).
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 63