"Hedging Your Bets: Jacob's Conditional Response to God's Unconditional Blessing"
July 17, 2011 Genesis 28:10-22
NEW INSIGHTS CAMPING IN THE OPEN
The summer months are a great opportunity to go camping and 'get away from it all'. Tenting at a campsite you're really out in the open, equipped with just the barest necessities; it can be a freeing experience to escape the everyday and get 'out of the box'. Camping presents a chance for self-reflection, to re-discover yourself and look at your life afresh, away from all the 'stuff' and pressure of routines that can seem to be smothering. There's room in the great outdoors, if we're open to it, to encounter the Creator in the vast majesty of His beautiful design of wind and water, sun and stars.
The story is told of fabled private investigator Sherlock Holmes and his faithful assistant Dr Watson out camping one night. They set up their tent, and fell asleep. Some hours later, Holmes woke his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see." Watson replied, "I see millions of stars." "What does that tell you?"
Watson pondered for a minute, then waxed eloquent: "Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Also astrologically that Saturn is in Leo. Time-wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it's evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?"
Holmes was silent for a moment, then stated, "Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent." [!]
Once Jacob in the Old Testament was out camping in the open when he too came to a startling realization. Genesis 28 tells of his unexpected meeting with the Most High at a time when he was particularly vulnerable. He received assurance that can lead us to fresh appreciation of God's goodness today.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: GOD'S UNCONDITIONAL BLESSING
At the beginning of today's account, we find Jacob in a state of some distress. He must have been ashamed at least, if not burdened and depressed by guilt. He'd proven himself to be a swindler, having taken advantage of his famished brother, driving a hard bargain in which Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Then, later on, Jacob had shown himself to be a lying cheat: he'd used an elaborate disguise and crafty plan to con his blind elderly father into pronouncing the blessing upon him instead of his older brother.
Now, he was a fugitive fleeing to save his own hide: Esau held a severe grudge against Jacob for stealing the blessing, and harboured plans to murder Jacob after their father died. For his own safety, his mother had persuaded Isaac to send Jacob far away to her kindred to find a wife. He was resourceless and running light, not to mention exhausted after the first day of his escape in which he'd travelled close to 50 miles, perhaps aided by a fast camel. He was off on his own in the big wide unfriendly world, without much materially to his name; Genesis 32:10 has him recalling, "I had only my staff [walking-stick ] when I crossed this Jordan."
He was definitely way out of his comfort zone. You may recall Esau was the outdoorsy type, "a man of the open country," while Jacob was "a quiet man, staying among the tents" (25:27). So when he finally dropped to his knees and hauled a stone into place as a pillow for the night out under the open sky, Jacob probably felt especially vulnerable, lonely, even scared. Remember, this was nothing like camping at a serviced campsite in a Provincial Park. This would be more like canoing down a river in northern Ontario and camping on an outcrop of rock on some crown land miles from civilization...hearing the cry of wolves in the distance. And in Jacob's case, there's no OPP or RCMP you can call for help; no MedEvac or hospitals; just you against the wilds, trying to keep a low profile out of the view of robbers and outlaws. Not a safe place!
Yet it's in this remote spot that Jacob has an amazing dream. He sees a stairway extending from earth to heaven, v12, "and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." In the old sense of the word, they are 'communicating' from that dimension to this. Perhaps the stairway was like the ramps that wound around the ancient ziggurats dotted around the Near East. At the top of the stairway stood the Lord. the angel traffic represented God's Kingdom having impact right here where we live: God was not far off and forgotten as Jacob might have supposed.
In v13 we find the Lord introducing Himself in these words: "I am the LORD [in capitals], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac." This is God's particularly Biblical name YHWH, God of all being - coupled with Him identifying Himself as God of Jacob's father and grandfather: ie the 'pre-eminent' / pre-existent God of all eternity AND the God who associates Himself personally with Jacob and his kin. Transcendent (out there, holy, beyond) and immanent (right here, up close and personal, nearer than your next breath). God who not only creates but interacts and seeks relationship with people, who are fashioned in His likeness.
Then in vv13-15 we find 5 astounding blessings promised unilaterally to this wandering warped wayfarer. Note how UNconditional they are: the grammatical structure is clearly "I will [do this], I will [do that]" - not based on any performance by the other. First there is the promise of PROPERTY: "I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying." This echoes God's earlier promises to Jacob's grandfather Abraham (12:7, 13:15) - "To your offspring I will give this land."
Next there is the promise of PROGENY: "Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south." Again, this echoes God's promise to Abraham in 15:5 when He took him outside to look up the heavens and count them if he could, saying, "So shall your offspring be." The apostle Paul points out the singular 'seed' for 'offspring' could point especially to Jesus Christ as the vehicle of God's blessing; yet also if you belong to Christ through faith, "then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." So this passage is also pointed at you!
Next, God reminds Jacob He has a PURPOSE for him: 14B, "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring." Again, this echoes God's initial mandate to Abraham in 12:3, "...All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Did this come as a clash to Jacob? Jacob the deceitful schemer, true to his name, who came from the womb trying to trip up his twin brother and lately had shown what a masterful rip-off artist he was? Is our purpose in life, what we're put here on this planet for, to bless people? Isn't that totally against the dog-eat-dog, grab-what-you-can-before-it's-too-late philosophy of humanist culture? How do people experience us - as agents of God's blessing OR selfish scrimping tightwads, out to have a good time?
PROPERTY - PROGENY - PURPOSE - God's next blessing promised to Jacob is PROTECTION. "I...will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land." Remember Jacob wasn't travelling with a security escort, a team of bodyguards, or even a good old hound dog. He was a plum ripe for the picking as far as bandits were concerned. New Living Translation renders this, "I will protect you wherever you go." And as we see in later chapters, God did bring Jacob back safely - and even arranged peace between him and the hunter-brother who'd been intent on murdering him.
And the fifth and last blessing we find here is the promise of God's PRESENCE. "I am with you...I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." This particular starts to even go beyond what God had promised to Abraham. Indeed, this assurance of God's presence seems to be THE KEY assurance the Lord provides to the great heroes of the Bible throughout its history. It records of Joseph unjustly confined to jail, "the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden." (Gen 39:21) Of Moses at the burning bush: "And God said, "I will be with you..." (Ex 3:12) Of Gideon, quaking as he threshed grain trying to hide in a winepress: "The LORD answered, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together."" (Judges 6:16) To Judah's king worried about invasion by neighbouring bully-states Isaiah delivered the sign of a boy who would be called "Immanuel" / "God with us" (Isaiah 7:14) - a sign the New Testament finds fulfilled literally in Jesus' being born of a virgin (Mt 1:23). Isaiah also prophesied these words of God's assurance when we're going through hardships in 43:2, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you."
Centuries later, in the New Testament, we see Jesus picking up this theme of making real for us God's presence. When believers gather as the church, Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." And His parting words in the Great Commission as He ascended, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Mt 28:20) So the promise of God's presence, being with us, is fundamental, at the core of His blessing for those who are His.
Camping out there in the open, Jacob was astounded by this dream-vision of a stairway to heaven. It shocked him to realize God was as close out there in the wilderness as He'd been back at Jacob's parent's altar. Do you feel far-away from God, as if He's forgotten about you or doesn't care, or is angry and keeping His distance from you? This image of the stairway should be especially precious to Christians, because Jesus applies it to Himself. He is our "Stairway to Heaven", our 'portal' to that spirit-dimension! In John 1(51) He tells Nathanael, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." See the substitution? He IS the stairway! Later He told His disciples, "I am the way and the truth and the life.No one comes to the Father except through me.If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well." (Joh 14:6-7) Another verse says, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus..." (1Ti 2:5) He is the only vehicle or transporter, the only conveyance by which we can come to God, through His perfect sacrifice for us.
SHAKEN AWAKE: A HEDGED, HESITATING, CONDITIONAL RESPONSE
What effect did this dream-vision have on our weary, deflated traveller? In vv16-17 we see Jacob waking up and feeling afraid; he exclaims, "How awesome is this place!" The root for 'awesome' here in the Hebrew means fear, afraid, terrible, dreadful. Something to make one shake in one's boots. Jacob thinks to himself, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." Maybe Jacob had slipped into pagan ways of thinking as if he were running away from God; in Baal-worship, each vicinity's 'baal' was localized, not a god far away. But YHWH was different: even out here in an open field in the middle of nowhere, God is there. And God was rattling Jacob's 'box'; his god was too small. What kind of a God was this that pronounced unconditional blessings, anyway? The Lord's 'blessing' nature, His unconditional grace and favour, challenge and contrast with the type of person Jacob is - scheming, self-reliant. God rattles the box of presuppositions by which we often view this world: dog-eat-dog, 'every man for himself', 'you gotta grab it while the getting's good.'
Jacob is taken aback. This schemer / wheeler-dealer is knocked off balance by such a generous, blessing God. Jacob perhaps falters in his response as if he's not quite sure what to do with such an offer: this is sure different from how most people operate! Note that his response is not UN-conditional (like God's promise) but very conditional - v20's "IF God will be with me...and will give me food" (etc) is paired with v21's "THEN the Lord will be my God..." IF / THEN: he's not prepared to commit himself unless God first comes through with the goods. IF God proves faithful THEN Jacob will own YHWH as his God, worship where the stone has been set up as a consecrated pillar, and give God a tenth. Why not receive the Lord as your Saviour right now, Jacob? What's holding you back? And why just 1/10 - is that some kind of tokenism? Are you still trying to drive a bargain, make a shrewd deal where you end up with the 90% advantage?
Sounds as if Jacob's hedging his bets, trying to have it both ways: do what HE wants on HIS own steam, but keep God in his back-pocket as a talisman for backup in case of emergency, WITHOUT committing up front. "IF God will be with me...THEN the Lord will be my God..." Why 'then'? Why not now, already, in view of God's generous gift He's just pronounced?
What about you? Are you trying to be shrewd like Jacob - are you holding out on God, trying to negotiate a deal, playing it safe, wanting to call the shots yet keep Him in reserve as a fall-back plan or emergency life-saver? How's that square with all that God's done already, the lengths He's gone to in order to save you? Jesus gave His all for you at Skull Hill; what are you responding with in return?
v18, "Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it." His stone pillOW became a pillAR, a memorial of his encounter with God; a visible reminder of the Lord's gracious promise and his (weak by comparison) vow. Though he was still way out in the wilderness, one little man on the run, yet now he knew he had a mighty Backer. One that, in the wrestling, would shape Jacob's life into Israel, the forefather of a great nation.
Who are WE 'out in the open', away from the clutter of our possessions, titles, and involvements? What gives US security apart from that 'stuff', out in the open under the stars, as it were? One of the main lessons in the Christian life is that our security comes not from what we possess or have performed, but in who God IS on our behalf, and what Jesus has done for us already. That's the unshakable source of true security.
Bill Gothard observed: "Contentment is realizing that God has already provided everything we need for our present happiness." The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.What can man do to me?"" (Heb 13:5f)
When the tent is stolen from over our heads, when our world shakes and what we thought were foundations crumble, we can find real hope in God. Robert C McQuilkin, a Bible college president, wrote that when plagued by undone tasks, misunderstandings, troubles, and apparent failure, he stops and deliberately asks himself 2 questions:
"First, am I surrendered to the Lord; Do I want only His will so far as my choice is concerned...
"The second question is: Is the Lord just now meeting all my need? The answer must be to take Him at His word though there are fightings without and fears within and though the circumstances of outward things and of inward life seem to say the needs are not being met. His grace IS sufficient.
"So I go forward doing the next duty and resting in faith, not in feeling." Let's pray.