A Journey of Faith Begins and Ends at God’s House in Bethel.
Study Series Note: This study is one in a series of studies on the Bible’s sacred places (tabernacle, temple, etc.). The last study (posted in September under Study 4) focused on the Creation and the Garden of Eden as a Temple.
All sacred places of the Bible are made sacred by God’s presence. God walked in the Garden of Eden and was close to the people he created, which was why the Garden was closely associated with the later temple. Visiting the houses of God, therefore, doesn’t always entail entering a structure. In today’s study, we jump forward several chapters in Genesis and many thousands of years.
Sin has increased and people have forgotten the one true God. In the midst of a rebellious world God calls out select individuals to move his ultimate plan of redemption forward. One such man is Abraham, whom God calls out of his land and out of his idol worship and into a covenant relationship. God promises Abraham that through his descendants all the world will be blessed. In other words, God’s plan of redemption will progress through Abraham and his offspring, which includes Abraham’s grandson Jacob. At this stage in history, the Garden of Eden is gone and there is not a specific sacred place where God meets his people. Nevertheless, God breaks into the lives of his chosen people at the time and place that he chooses. One such person is Jacob, one such place is Bethel.
Jacob begins his Journey at the House of God
Jacob would one day be known as Israel, the father of a nation, but Jacob starts out as a non-devout deceiver who estranges himself from his family. Jacob persuades his older brother Esau to sell him his birthright, and then Jacob tricks his father (Isaac) into giving him the death-bed blessing intended for Esau. Having had enough of his brother’s trickery, Esau decides to kill Jacob when their father dies. To avoid Esau’s plan, Jacob leaves his family in search of a wife among his mother’s relatives. This journey would not only be a journey to find a wife, it would be a spiritual journey that beings and ends with a life-changing encounter with God.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Jacob travels alone as he makes the long perilous journey to an unknown future. Not long into his journey, Jacob encounters God. God’s presence opens Jacob’s eyes and transforms this escape from his family into a sacred pilgrimage.[i] We read about Jacob’s visit with God in Genesis 28.
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.” 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 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.” (ESV)
Not too far into Jacob’s journey to escape his brother and find a wife, he has a life changing experience of God’s presence. Jacob goes to sleep and has a dream. He wakes up realizing that he has visited the house of God.
What does Jacob see in his dream? (Suggested answer: A ladder from earth to heaven with angels going up and down the ladder. The Lord stood at the top of the ladder and spoke to Jacob).
What does the Lord say to Jacob? (Suggested answer: verses 13-15, “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. 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. 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.”)
God reveals himself as the God of Jacob’s ancestors. Furthermore, the promises that God made to Abraham, he passes on to Jacob. Jacob, therefore, will carry on the covenant and promises given to Abraham. More immediately, God promises to carry Jacob successfully through his journey and bring Jacob back to this place.
What is Jacob’s reaction when he wakes up? (Suggested answer: Jacob is astonished and fearful. This was not “just a dream”, Jacob knows that God actually appeared to him in that place.)
What does Jacob say about this place? (Suggested answer: He calls it “the gate of heaven” and the “House of God” because Jacob sees this place as a point of intersection between heaven and earth where God made his presence known.)
Jacob sets up the stone he slept on as a pillar and pours oil on it as a way to set it apart as a special place of God’s presence. He names the place, Bethel, which means “house of God.” Jacob also vows that if God keeps his promise and brings Jacob back to this place, he will make the stone into an even bigger sacred place for worshiping the Lord. Then the Lord will be Jacob’s God, and Jacob will devote a tenth of his possessions to the Lord.
Jacob vows that the Lord will be his God if the Lord fulfills his promise. What does this vow say about Jacob’s current relationship to the Lord as he begins his journey? (Suggested answer: Jacob is not really a devoted follower of the Lord. It’s as if the Lord needs to prove himself to Jacob.)
Jacob is a deceiving skeptic when he begins his spiritual journey, and yet God reveals himself to Jacob. What does God’s appearing to Jacob reveal about God’s character? (Suggested answer: God is gracious. God keeps his promises. He promised Abraham that his descendents would carry on the faith, so God is taking the initiative and calling Jacob to himself.)
The episode at Bethel is an important reminder that sacred places do not contain God; they connect to God. God’s appearance to Jacob shows that God can manifest himself wherever, whenever, and to whomever he chooses. By no means was Jacob a faithful and kind follower of the Lord when the Lord broke into his life. The Lord is a God of grace, who pursues his wandering children. Many people attest to a point in their life’s journey where God made himself known to them, and that appearance changed their life.
Do you have a Bethel?
Jacob finishes his Journey at the House of God
Around two decades after Jacob left Bethel, he returned. Jacob returned with a household full of children and with an abundance of wealth. God brought Jacob back just as he had promised, even seeing Jacob though one last encounter with Esau. Astonishingly, Jacob did not go straight to Bethel upon his return. Instead, he dawdled in Schechem where his family caused and endured much conflict. In yet another example of grace, God instructed Jacob to finish his journey and keep his vow to return to Bethel and build an altar.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Read Genesis 35:1-4, 9-15.
1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel. (ESV)
As Jacob’s journey comes full circle, God meets Jacob again and changes Jacob’s name to Israel to recognize a change in identity. God has led Jacob from being the “deceiving usurper,” to “one who prevails with God” (what the names “Jacob” and “Israel” mean). God also confirms that through Jacob, God’s covenants will continue. This covenant includes the promise of the land and the promise of a nation that would eventually bless the world.[ii] Similar to the beginning of Jacob’s journey, Jacob sets up a pillar in response to meeting God and pours oil on that pillar. In so doing, Jacob reestablishes the conviction that Bethel is God’s house, a sacred place of contact between God and people—between heaven and earth.
What strikes you about how Jacob’s journey comes full circle? (Suggested answers: He still had idols that he had to dispose of before he went up to Bethel! God keeps his promises. The whole journey took decades—a reminder that our journey can often be a long one.)
God can manifest his presence anywhere; he broke into Jacob’s spiritual journey at Bethel. God then saw Jacob through that journey so that Bethel was a place of re-meeting—a gateway to God’s heavenly presence at both the beginning and the end of this spiritual journey. This manifestation of God’s presence proved God faithful even when his people were not. We tend to think of God’s sacred places and chosen people as intrinsically perfect and beautiful. As Jacob and Bethel demonstrate, it is not some internal perfection that sets something apart; rather, it is God’s presence and choosing. This truth means that God can enter your life and change your path anytime and anyplace—perhaps even today.
How do God’s dealings with Jacob at Bethel affect how you view God?
How do God’s dealings with Jacob at Bethel affect how you look at your life journey?
[i] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001),, 395-396.
[ii] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (NAC 1B; Nashville: B&H, 2005),619-623.