Jacob’s alone. In the dark. Fleeing with nothing. With no one. His greed destroyed his family. He hopes Esau doesn’t find him.
None of this changes the sovereign’s plans. The God who promised land and descendants and blessing to his father and grandfather reveals himself to Jacob. Yes, Jacob goes into exile for his sins, but he does not go alone:
Genesis 28:15 (ESV)
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.
Jacob is terrified. He’s been so unfaithful. Despite that, his king has remained faithful. YHWH committed himself to Abraham and his descendants, so in the third generation Jacob is his viceroy. Jacob goes with divine authority. Even when he goes into exile!
The revelation of YHWH’s stunning faithfulness triggers a response in Jacob—a vow of faithfulness. Jacob’s commitment to YHWH rests on YHWH’s commitment to Jacob. He quotes back to God what God said to him:
Genesis 28:20–22 (ESV)
20 Then Jacob made 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 clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
First and foremost, Jacob vows to submit himself to YHWH as the authority over his life. What a contrast to the way he attempted to control his father and brother!
Second, Jacob upends the stone pillar on which he received the Bethel revelation, promising that it will become the house of God. In effect, Jacob lays the foundation stone for God’s house, the palace of the heavenly king that is to be built within Israel.
Finally, whatever he returns with he will recognize as provision given by the heavenly king. He volunteers to pay the tax that recognizes his sovereign’s provision.
What a reversal! Previously Jacob wanted to be head of this household (the birthright); now YHWH is his head. Previously Jacob wanted the power to run the house; now he gives his pillar to build God’s house. Previously Jacob tried to steal his brother’s possessions; now he willingly gives in recognition of YHWH’s provision.
How ironic! At the point when Jacob is being sent into exile for his sins, he recognizes YHWH, lays the foundation stone for his house, and volunteers to tithe. I think that’s called repentance. Repentance isn’t feeling sorry for your sins. It’s a change of orientation— from self-seeking to submission. It’s the change that comes when someone gets a revelation of who God is.
If you know someone who’s been a real pain and has made life difficult for you, pray for God to reveal himself to them. The one thing that will turn them around is a revelation of God. It’s that moment when they wake up and realize, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16).
What others are saying
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 200–201:
At this critical moment, while still under the impact of his extraordinary dream experience, Jacob takes upon himself certain obligations. … Jacob’s vow is unique in that all the desired conditions have already been unqualifiedly promised by God (v. 15). …
The stone shall function as a witness to Jacob’s vow. … It symbolizes the divine presence that monitors the fulfillment or infraction of the terms of a treaty or vow. … In the mouth of Jacob the term beit ʾelohim [house of God] means that the stone is a testimony to the Divine Presence. …
Jacob, now empty-handed, vows to pay a tithe to God of all his future possessions on his return. This tithe appears to be a one-time votive offering from the flocks and the products of the soil, not an annual obligation. The text is intriguingly silent on who is to receive the tithe and what is to be done with it. Normally one offers the tithe only to a king or to a sanctuary with an established clergy.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 1, vol. 2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 479:
And so, when Jacob, waking from his dream (Gen. 28:16f.), says: “Surely the Lord 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,” this is not simply an expression of pious emotion. On the contrary, it describes the objective condition that lies at the basis of the whole covenant between God and man. Had the Lord not been at this particular place in a particular way, and had it not really been this particular Beth-El, then the dreams of this particular man. Jacob, which he had at this particular place and not at any other, would have been idle fancies. And then the whole covenant between God and man as a definite covenant with definite men would have been invalid both at that time and for all time.
Read Genesis 28:18-22.