Jacob is fleeing for his life. He’s leaving the land God promised to Abraham. He has no reason to come back. His father is dying. He’ll never see his mother again. For his own safety, he hopes he never sees his brother either.
By grasping for power, Jacob has destroyed the Abrahamic family. He flees with nothing but his life. He’s heading 900 kilometres away, back to the land Abraham left. He will find his extended family, marry and settle down there. There’s nothing left for him in Canaan.
Or is there? As he flees Canaan, Jacob is so exhausted he can sleep with a stone pillow. A dream invades his consciousness. He sees a portal. Servants of the heavenly king pass between his two realms to implement his plans. Through the open portal, Jacob hears the sovereign’s voice reminding him that he, like his father and grandfather, is the earthly viceroy of the heavenly king. Jacob’s family has disintegrated, yet YHWH promises him a great family, in this land. Through Jacob’s family, all the families of the earth will be restored into the blessing of the sovereign’s rule. YHWH will accompany Jacob in his travels, but Jacob must return to this land (28:12-15).
That’s when Jacob realized what he was leaving behind:
Genesis 28:16-17 (my translation)
Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “YHWH is present in this place! I didn’t realize.” With fear he said, “How fearsome is this place! It’s nothing less than God’s house, the gateway to his realm!”
Perhaps for the first time, Jacob understood that this land was the place where YHWH would re-establish his reign over the earth through his family. The divine monarch’s activity was focused on this place. This was the gateway his heavenly servants used to conduct the king’s business. This place was the portal to the palace.
Jacob recognized this place as Beth-el, the house of God (28:19). At this very spot, his grandfather had built his second monument to YHWH’s sovereignty in this land (Genesis 12:8).
But the house of God goes back long before Abraham. In the beginning Eden was God’s house, so the Garden of Eden was the palace grounds. The king always intended to live among his people. But the gardeners grasped the fruit reserved for the king. Humanity was expelled from the garden. The path to the palace was closed (Genesis 3:24).
The sovereign didn’t give up: he still planned to live among his estranged humans. That’s why he called Abraham and brought him to this land. God planned to build his nation here, and extend the blessing of his reign to all the families of the earth. His portal is open, and his heavenly servants are buzzing with activity. This place is Beth-el, the house of God, just as Eden was in the beginning.
Tragically, Jacob is as deceptive as the couple in Eden’s garden. Like Eve, Rebekah is complicit and now watches it rip her family apart. Like Cain, Esau wants to kill his younger brother. Jacob has just discovered God’s house, but he is being exiled from the land, God’s garden (27:43; 28:5). The problem with humanity keeps recurring in Abraham’s family.
And yet, the heavenly sovereign still plans to live among his people, to make the whole earth his fruitful garden. He will not rest until the voice from the throne can say, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God [i.e. their ruler]” (Revelation 21:3).
Jacob’s tragic exile dogs his descendants too. The ark represented God’s presence at Bethel for a time (Judges 20:26-27), but Bethel became a place of idolatry (1 Kings 12:28-29). The house of God was found in Jerusalem for a time, but Israel was sent into exile for their sins (retracing Jacob’s steps). In the cacophony of the exile we hear the recurring strains of humanity’s inability to function as God’s kingdom.
Despite our failure, our king is at work. He has opened a portal to his realm, and his servants are at work. He speaks with authority:
Genesis 28:13, 15 (ESV)
13 I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. … 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
But after so many failures throughout the history of humanity and Israel, how does our sovereign reconnect heaven and earth? The one who sent his word through the portal to Jacob embodies that living word and comes through:
John 1:51 (ESV)
He [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Do you realize what this means for earth as heaven’s kingdom?
Genesis 28:16-17 (ESV)
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
What others are saying
G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 102–103:
In keeping with the thesis that the patriarchal shrines both recalled the original temple in Eden and anticipated the tabernacle and temple, it is not likely coincidental that in the seven instances where the patriarchs build their holy places, ‘tree[s]’ are present or close by on four occasions (Gen. 12:6; 13:18; 22:13; 35:8), though all of them probably had a significant arboreal feature in their midst. In the light of the links with Genesis 1–2 noted above, the common feature of a tree next to these worship sites, where humans experience God’s presence, might well evoke ‘the tree of life’ in the Garden of Eden (Longman 2001: 21).
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 571:
In Genesis 28 the messengers of God are likewise using this stairway to travel between realms. This is not a parade or procession as often depicted in art. It is a sacred portal between realms. Angels (messengers) descended to embark on their errands throughout the earth and ascended when returning with reports. At the same time note carefully that Yahweh is not seen descending by the stairway; he is standing beside it. Thus the dream is thoroughly embedded in the imagery of the worldview that it features but is distinct in how God relates to it.
Read Genesis 28:10-22.