Jacob Forms a Relationship with God - Genesis 28:10-22

God Blesses and Re-Creates Regardless  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Introduction/Seeing the Need

The scripture text today from records Jacob’s experience with God via a dream one night as he was departing from Canaan. The passage has prompted two well-known songs over the years. One is the African American slave spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The other is the hymn “Nearer, My God to Thee.” The latter is perhaps best known as the song that the musicians on board the Titanic purportedly began to play as the ship plunged into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean on that tragic April night in 1912. Much of the content of this hymn is based on the incident found in today’s text.
While the words and melody of this hymn are comforting to hear or sing, we must remember that Jacob’s circumstances in were very uncertain. He was on the run from his angry brother, Esau. Jacob’s self-exile had him traveling to a place he had never been and moving beyond the territory of the promised land for the first time.
When would he be able to return home? What did the future hold? Jacob came to realize that what he was leaving behind did not include the blessing and protection of God. God had his future well in hand.
When Esau realized that he had been outwitted by his brother Jacob (for the second time), he determined to kill Jacob, though not until after Isaac’s death. Rebekah learned of Esau’s plan and urged Jacob to flee northward to Harran (). This was the place where Abraham stopped and stayed for a time on his way from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan. Abraham’s father, Terah, had died in Harran, and apparently Abraham’s brother Nahor had decided to remain there. Jacob was thus being sent to stay with family, specifically with Rebekah’s brother Laban.

Moving Away -

Genesis 28:10–15 NRSV
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward 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.”
In verse 10 we see that Jacob left for Beersheba, which is the town Isaac had eventually settled, following a series of disputes with the Philistines over the ownership of certain wells. A journey from Beersheba to Harran, where Jacob’s relatives live, is approximately 550 miles. This is quite a journey for someone who is used to living among the tents.
Later we learn that the certain place where Jacob stops for the night is the town of Luz. It is approximately 60 miles north of Beersheba, so it may take Jacob a few days to reach that point in his travels. With no streetlights or flashlights available to illuminate the way, travelers of the era must stop when the sun sets. Even if the moon were full, walking would be problematic.
What “at a minimum” preparations should we make before embarking on a physical, emotional, and/or spiritual transition? How do we know where and when to draw the line between preparations God expects us to make and stuff we are to trust him for?
In verse 12, the stairway of which Jacob dreams is generally believed to be more than just a set of steps, but part of a structure known as a ziggurat. A ziggurat resembles a pyramid in shape, but includes steps that one climbs until reaching a platform at the top. An altar or shrine may be there, used by worshippers for sacrifices or other religious ritual.
Probably more captivating to Jacob than the structure is what he sees on it. Angels will play an important part in the account of Jacob’s life, particularly from the standpoint of his spiritual pilgrimage. In the case before us, he dreams of them. The progression may reflect Jacob’s progress in his journey with the Lord, climaxed with the changing of his name by the angel with whom he struggled ().
Archaeologists have discovered that the steps of pagan ziggurats are for gods to descend to earth. What Jacob sees, however, is different: the Lord stands above the stairway and makes no move to descend. What exact form Jacob sees is unknown to us. But it is likely more awe-inspiring and glorious than the angels.
As the Lord speaks to Jacob, it is worth noting that he says nothing whatsoever about Jacob’s deceptive actions toward his father and his brother. That is not what this wanderer from home needs to hear at this point. Instead, God reaffirms the covenant promises made to grandfather Abraham and father Isaac.
The promise embraces two important elements: the land and Jacob’s descendants. The fact that the land will be given to Jacob’s descendants means that he will have a wife and at least one child. Such an affirmation is likely intended to provide much-needed assurance to Jacob, since he will soon be leaving the territory of the land of promise to go to Harran. Perhaps Jacob has been wondering if and how the promise will be affected by his departure from the land (or by his treatment of his father and his brother). If he harbors any such doubts. God has come to ease them.
In verse 14 this language reflects God’s promises to Abraham. The phrase like the dust of the earth was used when Abraham separated from Lot and as Abraham was promised all the land he could see. Jacob may have heard about this from his grandfather personally, for Jacob was 15 when Abraham died.
This part of the message was first stated in , when Abraham was leaving Harran (the place Jacob is now headed). To bless all peoples on earth has been God’s larger plan all along. It is not a new element.
God’s promise I am with you is one of the most common and reassuring statements in Scripture. For Jacob these words provide further encouragement as he embarks on life as a figurative encouragement as he embarks on life as a figurative and a sojourner. In pagan thinking, gods are local, not global. They are limited to the territory or country that they rule. But Jacob, though he is moving away from the land promised to his grandfather and father, is not moving away from the presence or protection of God. Finding a place outside of God’s jurisdiction is impossible ().
Psalm 139:7–12 NRSV
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Which Scripture do you find most useful in reminding you of God’s presence? Why? How do you resist slipping into a passive “God will take care of it” mind-set whenever you meditate on those texts?
When Jacob left home, we easily imagine his mixed feelings, since he was leaving familiar land and people. But one night he had a magnificent dream in which the Lord promised to be with him. We should not expect such a dream today. God sometimes communicates his will through doors he opens. But we should not overlook the fact that the declarations and examples in Scripture are our primary source of assurance. And one of those examples is God’s providential protection of Jacob.

Marking the Place -

Genesis 28:16–19 NRSV
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; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Jacob seems to awaken as soon as the dream ends, while it is yet night. His amazement that the Lord is in this place is probably due to the fact that the spot seems very ordinary. There is nothing especially holy about it. Jacob is learning that God can make the most ordinary location holy by his presence; this is a truth that Moses will come to realize in his day.
In verse 17 a wondrous fear kicks in. (The words afraid and awesome are derived from the same Hebrew word.) Jacob is stunned to have found himself in the presence of God - the God who has revealed something of his splendor to Jacob and has in addition spoken to him.
In verse 18 we see Jacob lies awake the rest of the night, reflecting on the contents of the dream, replaying it over and over in his mind. Any paralysis in that regard gives way to action when he rises early the next morning. The stone he had placed earlier in the night as a pillow under his head now serves a different purpose. The oil he pours on top of it serves to consecrate the place. Oil is often used in the Old Testament to set apart priests and kings. But is will also come to be used on objects; the one we see here is the first such object. A single stone may not constitute a pillar to our thinking today; but the important point is commemorating an event, not the size of the memorial.
In verse 18 we see Jacob lies awake the rest of the night, reflecting on the contents of the dream, replaying it over and over in his mind. Any paralysis in that regard gives way to action when he rises early the next morning. The stone he had placed earlier in the night as a pillow under his head now serves a different purpose. The oil he pours on top of it serves to consecrate the place. Oil is often used in the Old Testament to set apart priests and kings. But is will also come to be used on objects; the one we see here is the first such object. A single stone may not constitute a pillar to our thinking today; but the important point is commemorating an event, not the size of the memorial.
In verse 19 we discover that Jacob called the place Bethel, which in Hebrew means “house of God,” which reflects Jacob’s earlier declaration in verse 17. Ironically and sadly, Bethel later becomes the site where the first king of the northern kingdom of divided Israel builds one of his golden calves to keep the people from going to Jerusalem to worship at the temple there.
How can we improve the ways we use (or don’t use) naming practices to remind us of things and actions of God?

Making a Vow -

Genesis 28:20–22 NRSV
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.”
Vows have not been seen prior to this point in Old Testament history. Regulations for making vows will later be included within the Law of Moses (). Jacob’s vow echoes the words God had spoken to him in his dream.
Jacob’s vow should be viewed as different from vows that are sometimes made to God in the heat of a crisis or emergency. Jacob is making his vow based on what God has revealed to him. One must also keep in mind that this vow is coming from someone who is just beginning to understand what trusting in God means. Jacob has a lengthy journey ahead of him, in terms of both miles and spiritual maturity. When Jacob promises then the Lord will be my God, he is pledging that at the end of his journey his personal relationship with the Lord will be far deeper than what it is now.
How can we create ways to remember and celebrate what God has promised and done? What dangers present themselves by adding memorial aids to to those God has already provided?
Jacob’s additional promise to give you a tenth has a precedent in , where Abraham offered a tenth to Melchizedek. As with vows, tithing will also be covered in the Law of Moses. The tithe, or tenth, in the ancient world was usually a tax given to a ruler. The context shows that Jacob’s desire to give a tenth to God is in appreciation for God’s working through him.
Jacob’s vow to follow God may have been stated in common language, but he was serious in what he was promising. He based his vow to God on his solemn trust in God’s faithfulness. Whatever our vows, in whatever circumstances, we should make them just as seriously.


We have seen in our study today how something very common, a stone, became something very special for Jacob as he marked the place where God appeared to him. Years later, he stopped at the same place and used a stone yet again to remember God’s faithfulness to him through very turbulent years. The prophet Samuel used a stone to commemorate the Lord’s deliverance of his people during a battle. He called the stone “Ebenezer,” meaning in Hebrew “stone of help” ().
It is important for us to stop and mark times when the Lord has demonstrated his faithfulness to us or answered our prayers. Our memorial does not have to be a stone, nor do we have to pour oil on it. It could be a card someone sent, a picture, a gift, a copy of an e-mail. In fact, any object, though as common as a stone, can serve the purpose - if it reminds us to stop at a specific time during our busy schedules and than God for blessing us.
To pause and remember spiritual landmarks can be a source of great reassurance and encouragement to us. That is especially so when our own times become as turbulent as Jacob’s did.


Ever present and ever grace-filled Lord and God, let us sense and know your presence with us as you were with Jacob. Let us know your nearness and love, despite our failure to live according to your will. Give us the courage and the tenacity to live by your way of love, even in the midst of a world that seems to trust power, wealth, and status instead of trusting in your presence. We ask this in the name of the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, Amen.
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