One inevitable question that comes to mind when one reads the Old Testament lesson for the Sunday of Proper 11 (Genesis 28:10-19a) is: Did the Lord God actually speak to Jacob? Or, did Jacob actually hear God speaking to him saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…”? (Verse 13).
First, let’s see what happened at Bethel.
According to the text, in his wanderings from Beer-Sheba in the south and towards Haran in the north, Jacob “came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set” There he lay down for the night placing a stone under his head for a pillow (verse 11). The communication from God came to him in a dream and a vision.
Upon waking up, Jacob realized that he had had communication with God. “How awesome is this place!”, he reflected. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”. We could say it was a moment of transformation. It was a moment when something or some things fell into place. The meaning behind a mystery or a puzzle was revealed and suddenly her had a new and different perspective.
Because of this transforming experience, Jacob set up the stone he had used as a pillow for a pillar that would remind him of the significance of that experience. He also named that place Bethel – meaning “house of God” – in place of its original name of Luz (verse 19).
Today, Bethel is identified as the modern Beitin, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem. According to Judges 1:22-29 Joseph’s children Manasseh and Ephraim occupied the territory even though it was originally allotted to Benjamin.
In addition to Jacob’s experience, Bethel is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and carries significance rivaled only by Jerusalem. According to Judges 20:27 “the Ark of the Covenant of God was there in those days”. Furthermore, Samuel “went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places” (1 Samuel 7:16). We could say Bethel was one of Samuel’s three circuit courts.
The dark time for Bethel came later when it became one of two places where Jeroboam set up altars for idol worship. 1 Kings 12: 28-29 reads: “So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan”. (By the way, today one can explore the remains of Jeroboam’s temple in Tel Dan, an important archaeological site and the northern border of the Biblical Kingdom of Israel).
Good times returned to Bethel when King Josiah dismantled Jeroboam’s altar and idol worship and re-established the worship of Yahweh. Furthermore, after the Babylonian Exile, 223 Jews returned to Bethel and Ai, according to Ezra 2:28.
But Jacob’s experience at Bethel is also a reflection of God’s dealings with his grandfather Abraham. In Genesis 12:8 Abraham “moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord”. The promises made to Jacob were reaffirmation of the same promises made to Abraham before setting out for Haran via Bethel.
There is no doubt, therefore, that both Abraham and Jacob were experiencing the Presence of the Lord in a very powerful way and Bethel serves as a physical marker for their transformation. Even later historians could look back at the Patriarchs’ wanderings and see God at work, in their lives and in the lives of future generations. They could see the fulfillment of God’s promises.
So, back to the question: Did Jacob actually hear God speaking to him? My answer is, Yes! He experienced God communicating with him in a dream and through a vision. There are many ways through which God communicates with us. Often we miss the communication, especially because we are caught up with so much that is going on around us. If we were to listen carefully to our many experiences, we would see God “speaking” to us. That is what transformation is all about.
Again, the problem is that we are too busy to listen, in addition to the fact that we already have pre-determined parameters of communication.