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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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GENESIS 28

The highlight of this chapter, of course, is Jacob's vision of the ladder reaching to heaven, the whole chapter being built around that event. The background fact of Jacob's being sent away to Paddan-aram with Isaac's wholehearted and unrestrained blessing, and also Esau's belated attempt to please his parents with a proper marriage are also related.

Of special interest is Gen. 28:46 of the previous chapter, which we have included here because it gives a glimpse of the continued involvement of Rebekah in the crucial decisions of this family. It appears that she might, even here, have been less than candid with Isaac.

Gen. 27:46 says, "And Rebekah said to Isaac, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?"

There's not a word here of the knowledge that Rebekah had regarding Esau's intention of killing Jacob, nor of the previous decision Rebekah had already made to send Jacob to her brother's home in Paddan-aram; and, while what she said was most certainly the truth, it was far from all of the truth. She may have feared that Isaac was still hostile because of the deception she and Jacob had perpetrated against him, and, also, she may have desired to conceal from him what she had heard regarding Esau's expressed intention to murder Jacob, thus not aggravating a situation already deplorable. Despite this lack of candor, it is hard to fault Rebekah for the skilled manner in which she prevailed with Isaac, who promptly bestowed fully the blessing, without reservation, which the Word of God, long known to him, had plainly commanded.


 
Verses 1-4
And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother's father. And take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother's brother. And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a company of peoples. And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee. That thou mayest inherit the land of thy sojournings, which God gave unto Abraham.

The difference between this blessing and the one that Isaac mistakenly conferred upon Jacob earlier is rather striking. In the first, there was no mention of the Abrahamic promise, but here Isaac apparently made an effort to go all the way in conferring the covenant blessing. But even in this there could have been a deficiency, a lack supplied by God Himself in the vision that came as a sequel, that being the fact that "all the families of the earth" would be blessed in his seed. Nevertheless, even as it stood, the blessing seemed to convey the impression that Isaac had repented of his sinful effort to convey the birthright to Esau.

Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan…
These are almost the same words spoken by Abraham to the servant who was sent to procure Rebekah for Isaac. And one can only marvel that Isaac had avoided and neglected this task as long as he had. The usual calculation for the age of Jacob at this time is 77 years, although another method of calculating his age makes it about 57.F1 If the first is correct, then Ishmael had been dead fourteen years when Isaac commanded Jacob to go to the house of Bethuel. If the second calculation is allowed, Ishmael still lived and would not have died until six years later. The statement that Esau went unto Ishmael (Genesis 28:9), inferring that Ishmael was alive at the time of the events of this chapter, definitely favors the lower calculations of 57 for the age of Jacob. The Bible here says nothing whatever about anyone's age, and human deductions are subject to all kinds of errors.


 
Verse 5
And Isaac sent away Jacob. And he went to Paddan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob's and Esau's mother.

It is not stated that Isaac lavishly equipped Jacob for this journey. On the other hand, Jacob long afterward mentioned that he had passed through this area "on foot with his staff in his hand" (Genesis 32:10). Some have wondered why Jacob should have been called upon to endure such hardship. But perhaps it was imperative that he should learn some of the lessons that vividly appeared in his experience.

Sin always drives the sinner out. Adam and Eve sinned and went out of Eden; Gehazi sinned and lied to the prophet, and went out a leper white as snow; Judas betrayed the Lord and went out and hanged himself; Peter profanely denied the Lord and went out into the darkness weeping bitterly; here Jacob had sinned and lied to his father and went out to rest in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. The application is perpetual: men become vain, worldly and sinful and go out from the Bible school, out from the worship services, out from the prayer meetings, out from the holy church!

The reason behind Jacob's being commanded to take a wife from among the daughters of Laban lay in the near-universal paganism then descending upon apostate humanity. It was imperative that the head of the chosen nation be relieved of the burden of paganism in his own family. Even in the case of Laban's family, there still remained vestiges of the Gentile paganism then engulfing mankind, but, at least, the people of Laban's household did know and honor the one true God.

We have no sympathy whatever with the critical theories about multiple sources of this chapter. For those interested in such things, reference is here made to the scientific analysis of this problem by Leupold, who outlined the various complicated arguments allegedly favoring a division of the sources, concluding thus:

"Note how flimsy all this becomes on closer examination ... There surely is little convincing proof ... If such arguments are proof, we do not know what proof means ... Could any procedure be more unscientific ...? Critics admit that they are not sure ... !"F2


 
Verses 6-9
Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram, to take him a wife from thence. And that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. And that Jacob obeyed his father and his mother, and was gone to Paddan-aram. And Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan pleased not Isaac his father. And Esau went unto Ishmael, and took, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham's son, the sister of Nebaioth, to be his wife.

One cannot resist the opinion that Esau was a shade late with what he must have considered some kind of a concession to the opinions of his parents. "This was a rather pathetic attempt, a closing of the barn door after the horse was gone."F3 It is true that this marriage bore a superficial resemblance to that of Jacob, in that Jacob married his mother's niece, and Esau married his father's niece. But the shocking difference lay in the fact that Esau married out of the covenant line, Ishmael also having been rejected as heir of the promises. Besides this, he already had two wives from the daughters of Canaan, and the only thing he did was to add another woman to his polygamous household. Alas, Jacob fell into the same error, but with provocation that did not exist in the case of Esau. The behavior of both these grandsons shows what a colossal mistake Abraham made when Hagar became a second wife.

These marriages by the patriarchs of wives closely akin to them were possible and permitted because, "The race was young enough that the danger of accumulated mutational defects was minimized."F4 Later, in the times of Moses, when genetic problems were more likely, the Law forbade the marriages of persons of near kinship.

Despite the failure of Esau to make any essential improvement in his situation by this additional marriage, one may sympathize with what he no doubt intended as a gesture of reconciliation.


THE VISION OF THE LADDER

Verses 10-17
And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set. And he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed. And behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, Jehovah stood above it, and said, I am Jehovah, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee, whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land. For I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely Jehovah is in this place. And I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

From Beersheba. toward Haran ..…
Haran was some 500 miles from Beersheba, and this first event on the way to be mentioned by the sacred record occurred evidently about the third night after his departure. Bethel was some fifty or sixty miles distant from Beersheba.

He lighted upon a certain place…
This was not some holy location honored by the pagan populations of Canaan. It had nothing whatever to do with cultic shrines, or anything of that nature. It was altogether a chance location, exactly at the place where the sun went down on him.

And he dreamed, and, behold a ladder. !
The word here is ladder, not stairway or staircase. It is most reprehensible that critical scholars pervert what is written here by changing ladder to stairway. The word [~cullum], used only here in the Bible, is well established as meaning ladder.F5 Seeing that what the word means is ladder, why do the critics want to change it? First, why did the Holy Spirit use this word? Surely the word for a terraced staircase was known in those days. And, therefore, we must conclude that this word was chosen to indicate that it was not such a staircase. Here is the reason why the change is advocated:

"It goes without saying that a picture of angels going up and down in a steady stream is hard to reconcile with an ordinary ladder ... The Mesopotamian ziggurats were equipped with a flight of stairs leading to the summit ... Only a stairway can account for Jacob's later description of it as a `gateway to heaven.'"F6

So, there is no textual basis whatever for changing "ladder" to "staircase." The reason lies in the purpose of making this dream purely a human dream without God anywhere visible in it. Note the prejudice here that a "steady stream of angels" (where did he read that) could not go up and down at the same time on an ordinary ladder! Where does this text refer to this ladder as "ordinary"? The word occurs once in the whole Bible.

Also, how does the critic know that angels could not ascend and descend at the same time on the device Jacob dreamed of here? The critic did not tell us where he got all that information about how many angels could stand on the point of a needle! As we have pointed out, the medieval disputants never did solve that problem. Have the modern critics done so? As a matter of faith, changes in the sacred text that are supported solely by the undependable opinions of men should be rejected.

Once they have made this dream a vision of the stairway of some pagan shrine, they attribute this dream to Jacob's having seen such a ziggurat, of which there is no proof whatever. And God, as the true author of the vision, is left out of it altogether. Such piddlings with the Word of God are not interpretation; they are denials! It is a similar denial to make this vision the result of the steppe-like terrain where Jacob rested.

The fact of our Lord Jesus Christ having referred to himself in words that unmistakably come from this vision here, removes all question as to the accuracy and inspiration of the vision. (See John 1:51).

Due to its importance, we shall return to this vision of the ladder a little later.

One of the stones of that place…
Men cannot leave the Word of God alone. Josephus was sure that it was not a single stone, but a whole group of stones that Jacob gathered. That would have been some pillow!

THE MEANING OF THE LADDER

Jacob had engaged in multiple deceptions and falsehoods. And, angrily, his brother Esau had vowed to kill him, so he was fleeing from his home and native land in order to escape. He was the heir of great wealth, but this journey would appear to have been taken on foot with minimal provisions. The mention of "bread ... and clothing" (Genesis 28:20) is equivalent to, "just enough to subsist on."F7 He no doubt felt rejected, ashamed, and frightened.

But that night, God appeared to him in a dream. As the author of Hebrews said (Hebrews 1:1), God spoke to the fathers "in various ways." In this instance, it was by a dream. God reassured Jacob of his love and protection, confirmed to him the Abrahamic covenant, and promised him heavenly protection until he should return to that land again. God told him of his ultimate destiny as the head of the Chosen Nation. But what was the meaning of that fantastic ladder, reaching all the way to heaven (not to the summit of a Babylonian ziggurat)?

Many dreams are not even remembered the next morning, and in rare cases any longer than a few days, but this one has haunted the imaginations of men for millenniums of time. The Son of God himself spoke of it! Why? Because this dream did not derive from physical or environmental conditions that are sometimes received as a cause of dreams. This one was from God. It was not merely intended to bless Jacob, but all subsequent generations of mankind as well. Among the great teachings that are inherent in it are the following:

  1. The continual interest of God in his human creation is evident. Earth is not isolated from God or from heaven. There is a line of communication. Countless angels are busy as divine servants "doing service for them that shall be the heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14)
  2. The omnipresence of God, called also His ubiquitousness, was also shown in this dream. Jacob was away from home, in a strange land, and fleeing from the wrath of a brother, but one cannot flee beyond the watchful eye of the Lord. No more could Jacob than Jonah, run away from God. Every man must discover (soon or late) that "Surely God is in this place (every place)" whether men know it or not.
  3. The ladder is also a type of the Lord Jesus Christ. The ladder was "the way" between earth and heaven; and Christ affirmed that he is indeed "The Way" (John 14:6); and, as Jacob saw the angels of God ascending and descending upon that ladder, Jesus affirmed to Nathaniel that he would "see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (John 1:51). The ladder is therefore a perfect representation of Christ in that in him God came down to men, and in him men themselves may go up to God and be in heaven with him forever. Christ is the only avenue of communication between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5), just as this ladder in the dream was the only way to God's presence. To miss this significance of the ladder is to lose the most important thing in the chapter.

 
Verses 18-22
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el. But the name of the city was Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed 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 raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, and Jehovah will be my God, then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

The stone that he had put under his head…
It is of interest that all kinds of traditions about this stone have been alleged. It was supposed to have been taken to Jerusalem, to Spain, to Ireland, and to Scotland, upon which, The Kings of Scotland sat to be crowned!F8 It is not at all likely that any truth lies behind the tradition. Dummelow pointed out that, Edward I of England removed it from Scotland to Westminster Abbey, but he observed that the Stone under the coronation chair in the Abbey is common granite, whereas all the stone in the area of Bethel is limestone!F9

The text seems to say that Jacob anointed the stone "as the house of God," but this is merely metonymy for the "place." Note: "God is in this place," (Genesis 28:16), not "in this stone." He called the name "of the place" Bethel (Genesis 28:19). "How dreadful is this place," not "how dreadful is this stone" (Genesis 28:17). Such emphasis leaves no doubt that "the place," not the rock was considered holy by Jacob. The setting up of the pillar as a marker in order for him to be able to later identify "the place" is the thing in view here.

As is easily understood, all kinds of superstitions arose over the stone, with allegations that God dwelt "in such things," such pagan notions being at least partially derived from a misunderstanding of this passage. The Canaanite pagans indeed had such conceptions. Later on, it was necessary for God to forbid such practices. "The O.T. often condemns the use of pillars in worship because they were associated with pagan rites (Lev. 26:1; Deut. 12:3; 16:22; 1 Kings 14:23; Hos. 10:1-2; Micah 5:13, etc."F10 There are a number of passages (especially Gen. 31) where cairns of stones, or in some instances a pillar, were raised as memorials, or evidence of agreements, but those were not instances in which God approved "the worship" of pillars. That was a pagan practice altogether.

Bethel…
means the place of God, not the stone of God.

I will surely give the tenth unto thee…
The conditional nature of Jacob's vow in this place should not be overly stressed. True, it is phrased conditionally, but Jacob considered the fulfillment of that condition as being certain, founded upon the unchanging Word of God, and thus his vow is in effect a promise to give one-tenth of all to God's service.

This is the second time that tithing in the O.T. has been mentioned, the other being in the instance of Abraham's tithes to Melchizedek. Perhaps this is not the place for a discussion of whether or not Christians should give "a tenth" to the work of God. For a dissertation on this, the reader is referred to my commentary on Heb. 7:8. Note that Jacob did not originate or invent the conception of tithing. It was apparently an accepted understanding even among the remnant of monotheistic peoples prior to Abraham, with reference to the duties of devout worshippers of God to support holy religion by generous giving. The question to be faced today is whether or not we, who have been blessed so superabundantly above all the blessings received by Jacob, should be content to give less than he vowed to give.


Footnotes for Genesis 28
1: Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Whole Bible (London: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1832), p. 173.
2: H. C. Leupold, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), pp. 762, 763.
3: Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 444.
4: Ibid.
5: H. C. Leupold, op. cit., p. 772.
6: E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1964), p. 218.
7: Ibid.
8: Adam Clarke, op. cit., p. 175.
9: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 34.
10: John T. Willis, Genesis (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1979), p. 335.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 28". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ge&chapter=028>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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