53. Genesis 27:41 – 28:22

III. C. continued

3. Jacob’s Flight to Laban (Genesis 27:41 – 28:22)

Esau was enraged by Jacob’s deception, but he was completely self-controlled in his anger. This contrasts with his lack of self-control when he returned from the hunt hungry and traded his inheritance for a bowl of soup. Physical desires were too hard for him, but emotional desires were within his power. He calmly plotted to murder Jacob at a good opportunity, when their father died so as not to distress him. Of course Esau did not know that there would be more than forty years before Isaac died. Even Isaac thought he might be getting close. However Rebekah did not want to take any chances; it would be better to put Jacob at a safe distance and rely on time to soothe the anger of Esau.

It was a wise plan, and Esau’s wives presented the perfect rationale to talk Isaac into agreeing to the plan: send Jacob to Paddan-Aram, to Rebekah’s family, to find a wife so they wouldn’t have any more of those Hittite women in the family. Even after thirty or so years, by my chronology, or perhaps especially after thirty years, the relationship with the Hittite women increasingly irritated Rebekah and Isaac. Rebekah had been gone from her brother Laban for ninety years and probably had lost touch with what was going on in her family, but it seemed like a good bet that they were doing well and would at least be able to offer Jacob a safe hiding place in addition to getting him a wife.

When Jacob left for Paddan-Aram, the insensitive Esau finally noticed that his parents did not get along with his wives. He just had simply not noticed there was a problem even after decades, but Jacob’s departure finally brought it to his attention. Esau really did not mean to displease either of his parents. He wanted to please them and to make up for his mistake with the Hittite women he found an Ishmaelite woman to marry. The Ishmaelites were close relatives and there might be less friction. That was the best he could have done, short of following Jacob to Paddan-Aram, but as the eldest he would have had duties managing the family property, especially if Isaac was sick and blind, and it would have been more than awkward being in close company with Jacob. For all these reasons a journey to Paddan-Aram was out of the question for Esau. Esau really was a dutiful son; he was just kind of an oaf, clueless but with good intentions.

The most likely guess would have Jacob leaving for Paddan-Aram in about 1920 b.c. when he was nearly eighty years old. This timing fits well enough with later events. Mesopotamia was in a state of turmoil and the city-states of Isin and Larsa vied with each other to dominate the region. It was a time of shifting alliances with no clear power in charge, but their focus was on the centers of power and not on the edges of world. The fringes of Mesopotamia, which was where Paddan-Aram was, were on their own until some super-power arose to interfere with their lives. We don’t know the political climate of Paddan-Aram at the time, but it may have been reasonably, though briefly,  stable.

The main problem with dating this narrative is that it would have been unusual for Jacob to be unmarried at eighty. As I mentioned in the previous section, one gets the impression that Jacob was very much dominated by his mother and such people often find it difficult to make their own choices. Marriage could be perceived by the mother as a threat to her influence and therefore to be postponed as long as possible. Such a story is not unheard of in our day, but we don’t know enough about that culture to judge its likelihood in that context. In more modern times, even a man as forceful as General MacArthur had a mother who was more than his match. If Jacob had not had to flee from Esau, how long would it have been until he married? And we can imagine the sort of wife his mother might have picked for him. The Bible does not portray the relationship of Jacob and Rebekah as at all healthy, but dysfunctional families were not an invention of the modern age.

Jacob arrived in Bethel, but probably not on his first night; it was nearly sixty miles to the north. He seems to have arrived at that spot coincidentally, not realizing it was the place his grandfather Abram had built his second altar to the Lord after his arrival a century and a half before. It was one of those divine coincidences that dot the process of Covenant history, underlining its unity. There, on his first night away from home, God appeared to Jacob for the first time. This is also the first time God chose to communicate  in a dream. Previously the text had described God as “appearing” to Isaac or to Abraham, without being specific about how it happened. This time it is specifically a dream. The dream of the ladder going up into heaven with angels ascending and descending echoes through the millennia, until the Messiah promised the same vision to His disciple Nathanael with his waking eyes.

In the dream, God reaffirmed all the promises He had made to Abraham and to Isaac, thus firmly indicating that the Covenant would be passed on to Jacob. Giving a vision to Jacob and not to Esau does not mean that Esau was being excluded from the Covenant, but it does mean that Jacob was being chosen as the leader for the Covenant people, the primary guardian of the revelation. The Covenant itself was not transferred from generation to generation by the giving of visions but by birth. Esau was as much a part of the Covenant as Jacob, or as anyone else born into that household, including the slaves and the children born to them. But Esau was estranged both by Jacob’s underhandedness and by Isaac’s imprudent favoritism and only continued to grow more isolated from his heritage in his old age.

Jacob’s response to the dream is embarrassing even to read. Having heard the Covenant promises of God, the same that had been made to Abraham and to Isaac, the same promises he must have been told of by his father and grandfather, Jacob might have felt awe, he might have felt gratitude, he might have felt humbled. He might have but he didn’t. Jacob’s vow in response was more like slapping God in the face. God had promised to care for him and protect him unconditionally; Jacob turned it upside down and made his response to God a conditional one. God humbled Himself by seeking out this son of Abraham and Isaac, ignoring Jacob’s deceitful character. Jacob sent God back for His resume: only if God was able to pull it all off would Jacob worship Him.

So Jacob was saved by grace, but God was put on probation! Why did God not give Jacob a good swat to remind him who was the creature and who was the Creator? How many parents among us would take such cheekiness from our children without responding in some harsh manner? Yahweh took it because He meant what He said. He did not respond to Jacob in the manner he deserved exactly because He was gracious. In other words, God had had a lot of practice being spat upon before He came in the flesh to experience it physically. To be more emphatic, the crucifixion of the Messiah was just the material realization of a process that had been going on for millennia.

This is the context of the second time tithing is mentioned in the Bible. The first mention of the tithe was when Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek. There was clearly a custom somewhat common in the ancient world that when thanksgiving or vows were made to God a tenth was a fair amount to give. The origin of tithing is lost in ancient history just as the origin of burnt offerings is lost. While burnt offerings go all the way back to Cain and Abel, however, it is not clear how early the practice of the tithe began nor where it came from. One thing is clear: although God intended to incorporate the tithe into His official worship eventually, He had not made a point of requiring or expecting tithes from Abraham or Isaac. It was never described as being part of their lives. At the beginning of the Covenant of Revelation tithing was apparently peripheral and unimportant. Though Jacob promised a tithe, it is not clear how or in what form he ever actually presented it to God. Since there was no priesthood, no rituals, and no precedents at this point we can’t say how he intended to keep the promise. There is no reason to doubt that he kept his vow, but there is no record of him actually keeping it.

Still, for all his arrogance Jacob was profoundly impressed that God was indeed present in that place. Jacob did not know God very well; he was apparently still thinking of the finite and localized gods of the Middle East. And his awe of God was the awe that bows before the unpredictable and powerful, not the awe that comes from love or gratitude. Doubtless he had heard of God’s appearances to his grandfather; he was in on the oral traditions and the family stories of God’s intervention, but he just didn’t get it. He was like so many of us; the stories about God are great, inspiring, comforting, part of our heritage; or else they are quaint and interesting but don’t actually intersect our lives. It is fine to believe in the God of our fathers, but to directly encounter God is not what we expect, and sometimes not exactly what we want. It catches us by surprise, throws us off guard, and without thinking we find ourselves treating God like a shabby and uncouth cousin we haven’t thought of in years, an unwelcome intruder.

From this experience Jacob named the place Bethel, the “house of God”. The account of Abram’s visit there used the name Bethel because the account was written down later when Bethel had replaced Luz as the common name for that place. In giving this name, Jacob realized that God could be present even when he was unaware of Him, a very important truth to learn. We would all benefit by understanding this same idea. For those of us who are susceptible to spiritual desires, we want to feel God’s presence, we want the experience of Him here and now. But if we don’t feel anything, it doesn’t mean He isn’t here. We are all clueless, like Jacob, unobservant fools stumbling through our lives and hardly ever aware that Bethel is where we always are, with angels ascending and descending all around us.

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