By Mike Baird
Faculty, College of Theology
The Jacob Journal is a reflection on the life and times of the biblical character of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah.
Bargaining at Bethel
Let’s review. I am Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah. You probably remember that part.
I was born in conflict – with my brother, with my parents, with myself. I am a deceiver, not just because my name says so, but because I have lived a life of deception, stealing from my family.
What has it all come to? My brother hates me and wants to kill me. My parents have decided to send me away.
The only good part is that I am now out on my own, although it is very sudden. I am out on the road by myself. Alone. I have no idea what is going to happen next.
That’s me so far in this story. Quite a story, isn’t it?
Life on the Road
How did I feel that first night out? Scared – afraid that I had done the wrong thing in stealing the blessing, worried that my actions had cut me off forever from the people I loved the most and (as I was beginning to realize) needed the most.
Looking ahead frightened me as much as looking back. I had no idea what was happening next. I knew I had to make it across the desert 400 miles to Haran, where the family home was. But there were lots of mountain lions and wolves between me and my destination. I was haunted by the last words I heard from my father:
“May God Almighty bless you… may he give you the blessing of Abraham.”
For most people a blessing like that would be comforting, but not for me. At least not at that point in my life. It jarred me to realize that I had not allowed God to be much a part of my life. It made me realize how far, much more than just 400 miles, I had to go to find what I was looking for.
I was energized and excited to be out on my own. I was also scared down to the bottom of my soul.
A Dream of God
Here’s what happened on that first night out on the road. In a dream, I saw a ladder going up from the ground to the top of the sky. That sounds funny, but it is one of those dream things where things that don’t ordinarily make sense, make sense.
There were beautiful beings floating up and down the ladder. Then I heard the voice of God! I just knew it was God – one of those dream things. I know what the record tells us God said to me, but I am confessing openly right now that at the time I only heard one thing:
“I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.”
I was only thinking of how much I missed home and how frightened I was. I was thinking only of myself, as usual. “I will keep you.” But when God tells you something like that at a time like that, it really sticks in your mind.
I am also openly confessing what I didn’t hear at that time, but have come to realize was the most important thing God said to me. God told me that He was my God, not just the God of Abraham and Isaac.
He told me that I would become a great nation, and He would bless all the nations of the earth in me – me, Jacob, the unblessed one. At the time, I didn’t get that part. Again, I was only thinking of myself in the present crisis. I guess I was telling God I didn’t want to hear what He had to say.
In fact, I chose to turn that incredibly important encounter with God, one that could have changed the course of my life from that moment on, into another Jacob maneuver. I turned my back, for the time being, on the opportunity to receive the blessing of God and become a blessing to others.
God was beckoning me, calling me out of my Jacobness, and at first all I could think of was what a strange and wonderful feeling it was for me. “How awesome,” as if the feeling was the reality.
Of course, when I finally gathered my senses, my Jacob antennae went up and I lunged at the chance to get what I wanted from God. The record is clear. My response to God was to bargain for my welfare and safety, just like I had dealt with Esau and my father.
“If God will be with me… keep me safe on this journey… give me food to eat and garments to wear… return me safely to my father’s house.”
I even offered God one tenth of all the good things that He would give me. At the time I thought that was a good deal for both of us. I thought I was being generous. When I left that place the next morning, I decided to give that spot a name. I called it Bethel.
The Struggle of the Soul
Since that time at Bethel, I have read up on the topic of “encounters with God.” I now realize that it is what could be called “the struggle of the soul.”
There is within each of us an intuition that we are not the center of all things. It is a vague suspicion that there is a reality higher and greater than this human life we live. That is what we struggle with – to find it, to lay hold of it, to experience life as we think it ought to be.
Some struggle more than others, and each of us has our own plan for finding it. Some struggle until the very end of physical life, others give up early on and sink into selfishness and eventually despair. Some struggle until they find it.
All my struggles up to then had been struggles of a different sort – a struggle with Esau over the birthright. By birthright, I mean the money. A struggle with my father for his attention and blessing. Even many struggles with myself, fighting loneliness, rejection (real or perceived), guilt, envy and greed.
Never during those early years did I suppose that I was struggling with God. I hardly even thought about God. At least not seriously, anyway. Of course we had the obligatory lessons on the family tradition, the stories about Abraham leaving Haran to come to Canaan. But I never really thought about God and me.
What was my Bethel?
What is your Bethel?
The name means “house of God,” but it is more like a mountain peak. When I was living at home, on clear days, sometimes I could see the gorgeous snow-capped peaks of Lebanon far in the distance. I imagined that from the top of one of those mountains you could see the whole world.
Bethel is a spiritual Mr. Hermon. It is a moment, given in God’s grace and timing, when a person gets a clear, strong vision of God. You get a vision of life as it ought to be, as it can be at its best and most promising. God summons you; you can almost hear His voice audibly.
Here’s my advice about Bethel: Don’t dwell on the feelings. Feelings go away very soon. And don’t put conditions on God – if, if, if. If starts with “I,” it means you are Jacobing God for all you can get.
What could be the turning point in your life, becomes another sad episode of selfishness and frustration. As it turns out, God was very patient with me. He kept His word even though I couldn’t give mine.
I suppose He will do the same for you, but I won’t guarantee it.
Questions for Reflection:
- Notice that Genesis 28:20-22 tells us that Jacob made a vow to God. This is the second time that Jacob has made a vow. How does this vow represent a progression in Jacob’s spiritual growth? What is strong and weak about this vow?
- Have you had a Bethel experience like Jacob? How was your situation, your reaction to God and your vow similar to and different than Jacob’s?
Miss the previous entry in the Jacob Journal? Catch up by checking out Part 5 in this series.
About the Author
The 21st century author of this journal is Mike Baird, PhD, retired professor of Christian studies. The ideas and insights found here come from a life lived, not from a fantasy world. It is his prayer that you will see yourself mirrored in some of Jacob’s struggles and decisions, and that you will discover the timeless spiritual resources which Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking through it have made available to us.
Dr. Baird originates from Glendale, AZ. He received his BA at Grand Canyon College (now GCU). His MDiv and PhD were completed at Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary, Fort Worth, TX (Go Cowboys!). He and his wife have three children and five grandchildren.
He has enjoyed teaching college students for the last 35 years. He is a member of First Southern Baptist Church, where he teaches a Bible study class on Sunday mornings and sings in the choir.
What he has enjoyed greatly over the years is participating in the Ethington Theatre Series as a guest actor. He has been in 27 productions, his favorites being the Shakespeare productions.
He encourages students to use their time at GCU to clarify and sharpen their sense of calling. You are here to equip for the work of the Kingdom. Don’t squander the opportunity.