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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 28

Verse 1

XXVIII.

(1) Isaac called Jacob. . . . —Though Rebekah’s primary motive was her concern for Jacob’s safety, yet we must not imagine that his marriage was a mere pretext. On the contrary, now that he was acknowledged as the firstborn, both he and she would have been abandoning his high position had they not arranged for the fulfilment of his duty in this respect. What is remarkable is the frankness of Isaac’s conduct. There is no attempt to substitute Esau for Jacob, nor to lessen the privileges of the latter, but with hearty cheerfulness he blesses the younger son, and confirms him in the possession of the whole Abrahamic blessing.

Verses 1-22

THE TÔLDÔTH ISAAC (Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 35:29).

THE BIRTH OF ISAAC’S SONS.

Abraham begat Isaac—The Tôldôth in its original form gave probably a complete genealogy of Isaac, tracing up his descent to Shem, and showing thereby that the right of primogeniture belonged to him; but the inspired historian uses only so much of this as is necessary for tracing the development of the Divine plan of human redemption.

The Syrian.—Really, the Aramean, or descendant of Aram. (See Genesis 10:22-23.) The name of the district also correctly is “Paddan-Ararn,” and so far from being identical with Aram-Naharaim, in Genesis 24:10, it is strictly the designation of the region immediately in the neighbourhood of Charran. The assertion of Gesenius that it meant “Mesopotamia, with the desert to the west of the Euphrates, in opposition to the mountainous district towards the Mediterranean,” is devoid of proof. (See Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1, p. 304.) In Syriac, the language of Charran, padana means a plough (1 Samuel 13:20), or a yoke of oxen ( 1 Samuel 11:7); and this also suggests that it was the cultivated district close to the town. In Hosea 12:12 it is said that “Jacob fled to the field of Aram;” but this is a very general description of the country in which he found refuge, and affords no basis for the assertion that Padan-aram was the level region. Finally, the assertion that it is an ancient name used by the Jehovist is an assertion only. It is the name of a special district, and the knowledge of it was the result of Jacob’s long-continued stay there. Chwolsohn says that traces of the name still remain in Faddân and Tel Faddân, two places close to Charran, mentioned by Yacut, the Arabian geographer, who flourished in the thirteenth century.

Isaac intreated the Lord.—This barrenness lasted twenty years (Genesis 25:26), and must have greatly troubled Isaac; but it would also compel him to dwell much in thought upon the purpose for which he had been given to Abraham, and afterwards rescued from death upon the mount Jehovah-Jireh. And when offspring came, in answer to his earnest pleading of the promise, the delay would serve to impress upon both parents the religious significance of their existence as a separate race and family, and the necessity of training their children worthily. The derivation of the verb to intreat, from a noun signifying incense, is uncertain, but rendered probable by the natural connection of the idea of the ascending fragrance, and that of the prayer mounting heavenward (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4).

The children struggled together.—Two dissimilar nations sprang from Abraham, but from mothers totally unlike; so, too, from the peaceful Isaac two distinct races of men were to take their origin, but from the same mother, and the contest began while they were yet unborn. And Rebekah, apparently unaware that she was pregnant with twins, but harassed with the pain of strange jostlings and thrusts, grew despondent, and exclaimed—

If it be so, why am I thus?—Literally, If so, why am I this? Some explain this as meaning “Why do I still live?” but more probably she meant, If I have thus conceived, in answer to my husband’s prayers, why do I suffer in this strange manner? It thus prepares for what follows, namely, that Rebekah wished to have her condition explained to her, and therefore went to inquire of Jehovah.

She went to enquire of the Lord.—Not to Shem, nor Melchizedek, as many think, nor even to Abraham, who was still alive, but, as Theodoret suggests, to the family altar. Isaac had several homes, but probably the altar at Bethel, erected when Abraham first took possession of the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7), and therefore especially holy, was the place signified; and if Abraham were there, he would doubtless join his prayers to those of Rebekah.

Verse 2

(2) Padan-aram.—See Note on Genesis 25:20. Throughout this verse Isaac shows a much more intimate acquaintance with the family at Haran than was possessed by Abraham. (Comp. Genesis 24:4.) And though we gather from Genesis 28:5 that Bethuel was now dead, yet it is evident that he was a person of more importance than is supposed by the Rabbins, who ascribe to his feebleness or death the prominent part taken by Laban in his sister’s marriage. It was this greater knowledge which made Isaac send Jacob in person, and not a deputy. With a few trusty attendants he would journey till he reached the usual caravan route which led through Damascus to Haran. and would then attach himself to some trading company for escort and society.

Verse 3

(3) God Almighty.—Heb., El Shaddai. As it was Isaac’s purpose in this blessing to confirm Jacob in the possession of the promises made to Abraham, he is careful to use the same title as that borne by God in the covenant whereby the land of Canaan was given to his seed, and of which the sacrament of circumcision was the seal. (See Genesis 17:1.)

A multitude of people.—Heb., a congregation of peoples. This is not the word used in Genesis 17:4, but one that signifies an assembly, especially one summoned for religious purposes. Like the Greek word for church, ecclesia, it comes from a root signifying” to convoke.” It subsequently became the regular phrase for “the congregation of Israel” (Leviticus 16:17), and implies even here that the nations descended from Jacob would have a religious significance.

Verse 5

(5) Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.—This insertion of particulars already well known is in exact accordance with the Oriental manner of writing, which, moreover, is very careful in impressing all matters of family relation on the mind. (Comp. Genesis 25:12.) It is worthy of notice that as Jacob has now been confirmed in the possession of the birthright by the father as well as by the mother, his name is placed first.

Verse 6

ESAU MARRIES A DAUGHTER OF ISHMAEL.

(6) When Esau.—The solemn transfer of the birthright to Jacob, and Isaac’s complete assent thereto, must have been the cause of no little grief to Esau, and evidently it made him feel that he had greatly contributed to this result by his own illegitimate marriages. When, then, he sees Jacob sent away to obtain a wife, in accordance with the rule established by Abraham, he determines also to conform to it, and marries a daughter of Ishmael. She is called Bashe-math in chap 36:3, and described in both places as “the sister of Nebajoth,” in order to show that as Nebajoth “the firstborn” (Genesis 25:13) was undoubtedly the son of Ishmael by his first wife, “whom Hagar took for him out of the land of Egypt” (Genesis 21:21), so also Mahalath shared in this precedence, and was not the daughter of any of Ishmael’s subsequent wives, or of a concubine.

Verse 10

JACOB’S DREAM.

(10) And Jacob.—Though this history is called the Tôldôth Isaac, yet it is really the history of Jacob, just as the Tôldôth Terah was the history of Abraham, and the Tôldôth Jacob, beginning at Genesis 37:2, is the history of Joseph. Up to this time all had been preparation, but now at length Jacob is confirmed in the possession of the birthright, and made the heir of the Abrahamic blessing; and henceforward his fortunes solely occupy the inspired narrator, though Isaac had still sixty-three years to live. (See Note on Genesis 11:27.)

Verse 11

(11) He lighted upon a certain place.—Heb., he lighted upon the place. The article probably signifies that it was the place appointed for the revelation, though lighted upon by Jacob by chance. As it lay twelve miles north of Jerusalem, in the mountains of Ephraim, Jacob had already been at least four days on the route (see Note on Genesis 22:4); and though we are not to suppose that Isaac would send away the son who was heir of the blessing without a few trusty servants (nor does the expression in Genesis 32:10 require it), yet Jacob would none the less feel the solemnity of the journey, and the difficulties which surrounded him. Well may he have asked whether El Shaddai would confirm him in the possession of that which he had defiled by fraud and cunning. And thus, meditating much and praying much, he had in those four days drawn near to God, and is at last accepted. The interest in Jacob’s life lies in the gradual improvement and progress of his character. Religion was always a reality with him; but at first it was of a low type, and marred by duplicity and earthly scheming. His schemes succeed, but bring with them sorrow and trial; and trial purifies him, and gradually he advances into a region of unselfish and holy piety. Though to the last he was a man sagacious, and full of expedients, yet the nobler part of his character finally had the supremacy.

He took of the stones. . . . —Heb., he took one of the stones of the place, and put it as his bolster. Jewish commentators identify the place with Mount Moriah, and say that the stone which Jacob placed under his head was one of those which had formed the altar upon which Isaac had been bound for sacrifice. The name Beth-el signified, they add, the temple, and as makôm—place—is thrice used in this verse, it mysteriously foreshadowed the three temples—Solomon’s, Ze-rubbabel’s, and Herod’s—which successively occupied the site. More probably Beth-el was really the town of that name, and these explanations are allegorical rather than expository.

Verse 12

(12) Behold a ladder. . . . —Isaac had confirmed Jacob in the possession of the blessing before he started on his long journey, but it was necessary that he should also have the Divine ratification of his appointment; for the chief privilege was the covenant with God previously confirmed to Isaac, his father (Genesis 17:19-21). Day after day, then, he travels forward, anxious and oppressed, feeling as he went farther from his home the responsibilities attendant upon that birthright which he had coveted so eagerly. His lot was now a repetition of that of Abraham; but he had travelled from Haran with a noble following, and by express command. Jacob had at most but a few attendants, and no voice from God had ever as yet reached him. But faith in Him was growing strong, and the Divine ratification to him of the Abrahamic covenant was at length vouchsafed. In his sleep he sees a ladder, or staircase, rising from the ground at his side, and reaching up to heaven. It tells him that heaven and earth are united, and that there is a way from one to the other. Upon these stairs “messengers of Elohim are ascending and descending,” carrying up to God men’s prayers, and the tale of their wants and sorrows, of their faith and hope and trust; and bringing down to them help and comfort and blessing. At the head of the ladder Jehovah himself stands. The word is that used in Genesis 24:13, and signifies that the Deity was not there accidentally, but that He holds there His permanent station. Finally, Jehovah from His heavenly post confirms to Jacob all the promises made from the time when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, and assures him of His constant presence and protection.

It has been pointed out that each of the three stages in the dream has emphasis given to it by the word behold, and that this rises to a climax at the third repetition, when the covenant God is seen stationed at the head of this pathway between earth and heaven. But besides this, the value of Jacob in Jehovah’s sight arises now from his being the appointed ancestor of the Mesciah, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed (Genesis 28:14). Christ, too, is the Way symbolised by this ladder (John 14:6), and the bridge of union between the material and the spiritual world (1 Timothy 2:5). Our Lord, accordingly, Himself claims that “the angels of God ascend and descend upon Him” (John 1:51),

Verse 16

(16) Surely the Lord (Jehovah) is in this place.—Jacob was not unaware of the omnipresence of the Deity: what astonished him was that Jehovah should thus reveal Himself far away from the shrines where He was worshipped. Rebekah had gone to one of these to inquire of Jehovah (Genesis 25:22), and probably to a shrine in the very neighbourhood of the place where Jacob was sleeping (Genesis 12:8). But first Abraham, and then Isaac, had for so long made Beer-sheba their home, that Jacob probably knew little about the sanctity of the spot, and felt himself far away from all the religious associations of his youth, and from that “presence of Jehovah” which in antediluvian times had also been supposed to be confined to certain localities (Genesis 4:16). But one great object of the dream was to show that Jehovah watches over the whole earth, and that messengers to and fro come from Him and return unto Him.

Verse 17

(17) How dreadful.—The manifestation of God must always inspire awe and dread, but not fear: for where He reveals Himself, there is “the gate of heaven”—the appointed entrance for prayer now, and for admission to the glorified life hereafter.

Verse 18

(18) Jacob . . . took the stone . . . and set it up for a pillar.—In so doing, Jacob’s object was to mark the spot where so important a communication had been made to him. But besides its use as a memorial, it would enable him to identify the place upon his return, and pay there his vows. And as oil was the symbol of the dedication of a thing to holy uses, he pours oil upon the top of it.

Verse 19

(19) Beth-el . . . Luz.—In Joshua 16:1-2, we find that Luz and Beth-el were distinct places, though near one another; and with this agrees the present passage. For plainly, Jacob and his attendants did not go inside the city, but slept on the open ground; and as they would carry their provisions with them, they would need no supplies from its Canaanite inhabitants. Probably at the time of Joshua’s conquest Beth-el was rather a holy place than a town, and when Ephraim seized upon Luz and put the people to the sword (Judges 1:23-25), the victors transferred the name of Beth-el to it. Thus the spot where Jacob slept would not be the town of Beth-el, but some place a mile or two away from it.

Verses 20-22

(20-22) Then shall the Lord (Jehovah) be my God.—This is a false translation, and gives a wrong sense. Jacob, in his vow, which implies no doubt on his part, but is his acceptance of the terms of the covenant, says: “If Elohim will be with me, and will protect me on this journey that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I come again in peace to my father’s house, and Jehovah will be my Elohim, then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be Beth-Elohiin; and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely pay thee tithes.” Genesis 28:20-21 are a recapitulation of the mercies of which he was to be the recipient, while in Genesis 28:22 Jacob states what shall be his vow of gratitude.

But what was a Beth-Elohim? It has been supposed that it was a sort of cromlech, set up to be itself an object of adoration. Attention has also been called to the Baitylia, or stones “possessed of a soul,” which the Phœnicians are said by Eusebius (Praep. Evang. i. 10) to have worshipped; and it has been thought, with some probability, that the word is a corrupt form of the Hebrew Beth-Elohim. These Baitylia. however, were meteoric stones, and their sanctity arose from their having fallen from heaven. Stones, moreover, set up at first simply as memorials may in time have been worshipped, and hence the prohibition in Leviticus 26:1, Deuteronomy 16:22; but there is no trace of any such idolatrous tendency here. Jacob apparently meant by a Beth-Elohim a place where prayer and offerings would be acceptable, because God ad manifested Himself there; and His vow signified that if, preserved by Jehovah’s care, he was permitted to visit the place again, he would consecrate it to Jehovah’s service, and spend there in sacrifice, or in some other way to His honour, the tithe of whatever property he might have acquired.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 28". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-28.html. 1905.