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.
Back to Bethel
God can play the name game, too.
This time it wasn’t a young couple naming their newborn sons—it was God Almighty giving himself a name: “I am El Bethel,” translated in the record as the God of Bethel.
He has never in my experience called Himself by that name since that first time in Haran. It is a unique name, one I believe He used just for me and just for that time in my life. It was a time in my life when I was looking for faith—for my own faith and my own relationship with God.
And, of course, God was there.
My Journey to Find God
Sometime during those hard years in Haran, as I struggled to find myself and my place in the world, I stopped bargaining with God and started truly believing. I can’t tell you exactly when it happened. Probably after the tenth time Laban changed my wages and cheated me out of my fair share of the flock.
I remember feeling so helpless and frustrated. I don’t cry very often, but one night after I got back to the tent from a day with the flocks and bickering with Laban, I broke down and sobbed.
The family was alarmed, of course, and the older children put their arms around me and cried with me. They were afraid because they didn’t know why I was so broken.
But I knew. I was beginning to let go of my own strategies and schemes, and turning to God for help. I had come to the end of my own resources. I had the presence of mind to realize that there was no one else to turn to.
Why does it take a crisis to lead a person to deeper faith? The fact is, crisis doesn’t always lead to faith. Sometimes it leads to suicide, or to skepticism and bitterness. Sometimes it leads to a greater resolve to trust yourself even more and trust everyone else even less.
These are not decisions of faith—they are commitments of the flesh. They are actions taken in isolation and alienation, because of a sense that “I” am the only one I can count on.
I am able to explain these things to you because I was there. The choices I had made and the attitudes I had adopted in my childhood and youth had isolated me from my parents and brother. My world revolved around me and my desires and my cleverness and trickery.
Of course, I would not have admitted I was isolated and lost. I felt like I was in control, on top. That’s the flesh, being lost in yourself.
During my first stop at Bethel, I engaged in a bargaining session with God. “If you will give to me, then I will believe in you.” I suppose you could call that faith of a sort.
But it is immature, shallow faith.
When I was a child, my father gathered us each week for our lesson in “family and faith” as he called it. I still remember the lesson entitled, “Faith of our Fathers.” It was the story of Terah and his son Abraham, how they left their home in Ur because God had called them out to a new land and promise.
While at Bethel the first time, I was at that stage of faith. My faith was not my own, it was just a story about my father’s faith in God that I had heard and given mental assent to. I wasn’t experiencing faith; I was looking at it from the outside, as if I was a curious onlooker. At that point, it was still all about me.
But that day when God called himself the God of Bethel, I was ready to listen more carefully. I was ready to enter new territory with God.
It’s interesting that I should use that metaphor, “new territory.” As far as I can remember, that was the first time God ever told me where to go. He said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your home.”
Before then, I was the only one deciding my directions. But the crises of those years had indeed broadened and deepened my faith. As I have said in an earlier entry, God had taught me that I could trust him; I didn’t have to put my confidence only in my own resources. My eyes and ears of true faith were opened. I had come to realize that I need the blessing not just of my father, family or fortune, but I also need the blessing of my God.
I was ready for the journey.
My Journey Home
I speak of it as a journey, but I had not always looked at life that way.
A very wise old ranch hand once explained to me his philosophy of life. At the time, I thought a philosophy of life was the last thing I needed, not knowing I already had one that was killing me.
He described life from different perspectives. He said, “Some people see life as the rain and the rivers. The rain falls, runs into rivers, which run to the sea and then returns again from the sea as clouds to bring us rain, which runs into rivers.”
You get the idea. Life is an endless, meaningless cycle. Not nearly as beautiful as a rainfall. Life is just existence. Do the best you can with what you have since that is all there is.
He said, “Some people see life as living out of some sort of legend.”
I had heard plenty of stories of heroes of the past, so I kind of knew what he was talking about. Life is the story of heroic effort against all the odds. I could be that hero if I just persevered with patience, courage and self-sacrifice. It means a person has to find meaning in life somewhere and follow a dream.
He mentioned that some people see life as a pilgrimage. I could identify with that only because I had listened carefully to the lessons from Grandfather Abraham’s life. He was a pilgrim. He looked beyond life as he could (or couldn’t) make of it. To him life was a journey following the promise and provision of God to a new land.
As I look back, I realize that for most of my life up until that point I had thought of myself as the hero, valiantly fighting against all the obstacles that my upbringing and my experience with Laban had put before me. As I saw it, the fight was all mine, although one seldom actually expresses it in so many words.
But one day, after my heart and spirit had been melted down and remolded by the fires of life, God beckoned me to a journey. He started giving me the directions and I started listening. As it turns out, He had led me all the way up until then, but now I was going beyond bargaining to following.
I was going back to Bethel.
The vision of my first Bethel came back with greater clarity. I could look back and realize that the God of Bethel was the God of my crises. He had been there when I needed Him, even if I could not see Him there. And He had been with me through all the years of frustration and uncertainty.
I could see that the God of Bethel was the God of my commitments. He reminded me that I had made a vow, a very immature and self-centered vow to God, but a vow nonetheless. And He would not let me renege on my commitments without confronting me with them. He was faithful to me and He was going to require that I be faithful to Him.
I guess that is what a journey is – two people like a man and his wife promising themselves to one another and moving through all the crises of life whilst keeping those promises.
Bethel had been the place where God invited me to enter the promise—the same promise He had made to Abraham and to Isaac. The God of Bethel was summoning me to a pilgrimage.
“I am the God of Bethel… Now leave this land.”
With those words, my journey with God began in earnest.
Questions for Reflection:
- Are you at a turning point in your life, like Jacob was? What are the reasons to move forward with God? What are the reasons to continue on in the course you have set for yourself?
- Is there a vow or promise you have made to God that you need to follow and be true to?
The Jacob Journal will end soon! Catch up on all of the latest entries.
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.