Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Genesis 28

Verses 1-9

Where faith exists in any of us, it is ever God's way to test it, as we have seen very clearly in the case of Abraham. The faith of Isaac, though less robust than that of his father, must now be subjected to a test. Canaan was watered with rain from heaven, and if the rain was withheld famine supervened. Egypt was watered by its famous river, and usually was the land of plenty. So when famine again descended on Canaan, Isaac's steps would naturally turn towards Egypt. But the word of the Lord to him was that Egypt was forbidden. He was to stay in the land and in spite of appearances God would bless him there and fulfil all that had been promised to Abraham. So Isaac descended to the coastal region, inhabited by the Philistines, and there for a time he dwelt.

But settling down amongst these people, there came the same test as confronted his father, and he met it in the same way, by subterfuge. Now subterfuge, practised by men of the world, may have considerable success; practised by a saint of God it always ends in failure, sooner or later. In Isaac's case it seemed to answer for a considerable time but at length the Abimelech of those days discovered the truth. Consequently we find again a man of the world, marked by a considerable measure of uprightness, rebuking the saint of God — a sorrowful sight! But one which has often been repeated from that day to this. Let each of us be careful lest it be repeated in our own history.

Nevertheless God did not forsake Isaac because of this lapse on his part. He had obeyed the instruction not to descend into Egypt and hence, in spite of the famine, God blessed him abundantly in his sowing, his flocks and herds and servants, so much so that he had to depart from the Philistine's land. In those days the Philistines were not numerous, since Abimelech, their king, had to confess that Isaac's large household had become mightier than they were. But one thing they had done to Isaac's disadvantage, as verse Genesis 26:15 records; they had filled the wells with earth.

In that land everything depended upon the well-springs, that made the rain of heaven available; hence the well becomes symbolic of the source of life and fertility, and ultimately of the Holy Spirit, springing up into life and blessing. The wells had been dug through Abraham, the man of faith, but the Philistines had stopped them with earth. Presently in Scripture we hear a great deal about the Philistines, who became numerous and powerful, and they have undoubtedly a typical significance. In these earliest mentions of them that significance becomes manifest.

They were a people who got into the land of promise, without being called into it by God. They were not like the Amorites, the old inhabitants of the land, mentioned in Genesis 15:16 but they were a people who had got into God's land without being God's people, and therefore typical of the religious world rather than of the worldly and irreligious world. Now the religious world, whether nominally Jewish or Christian, has always concentrated on a purely earthly order of things. Stopping the wellsprings of divine and heavenly blessing has always been a favourite occupation of the Philistine, whether literal or typical, and earth and its things have ever been the material they have handled. The Apostle Paul had the typical Philistine in view when he penned Philippians 3:19 and even when he wrote Colossians 3:2.

Isaac had to dig again the old wells, but he called them by their original names for they had not changed their characters. He also dug new wells and some of these the Philistines claimed. The well, Rehoboth, however, he retained, for he left hid case in the hands of the Lord who made room for him. We may see an analogy to this in church history. Many a well of apostolic days was filled with earth as the centuries passed and has had to be dug again. But when dug it has the same old name. Luther and his co-workers in other lands dug again an important well. It had the old name of "Justification by faith."

With the well Isaac connected the thought of fruitfulness, as we see in verse Genesis 26:22. This fits in with its spiritual significance. We are only fruitful as we abide in Christ and He in us, as stated in John 15:5 and of this we have knowledge, "by the Spirit which He hath given us" (1 John 3:24). Isaac now returned to "The well of the oath" where his father had dwelt, and there again God appeared to him and renewed His promises, and there we see Isaac at his best, for there he pitched the tent of his pilgrimage, and there he had his altar of sacrifice and communion, in addition to the well.

There too the Philistine king and his servants approached him, and confessed that they had seen that the Lord was with him, and this in spite of the fact, of which Isaac reminded them, that they had disliked him because of his prosperity and had sent him away. They now wished that there should be an oath and a covenant of peace between them, and this was established. Isaac could now pursue his pilgrim way without further interference from the Philistines, and we can see how his course illustrates the injunctions of Romans 12:17-19. Isaac had not recompensed evil for evil, nor sought to avenge himself, but as much as lay in his power he had lived peaceably with all men. May the same spirit be ours as we go through the world.

The two verses that close the chapter show us that at the age of forty Esau had developed a mind altogether opposed to that of both Abraham and Isaac, who made no alliance with the Canaanite. Esau established the most intimate connection, that of marriage, with two Hittite women. He thus brushed aside the thought of taking a wife from their own kindred, and linked himself with the people of the land whose iniquity was rising until their judgment fell some three to four hundred years later. Previously he had despised the birthright, now he despised a restriction that had Divine sanction. The call of God was nothing to him. It was a grief of mind to his parents and a challenging of the purpose of God.

In Genesis 27:1-46 we see the governmental result beginning to manifest itself. Isaac does not now appear in a very favourable light, nor indeed does Rebekah. Both were marked by partiality, as had been stated in verse Genesis 26:28 of the previous chapter, and were governed by their own special fancies. Isaac's loss of sight made him anticipate death a good many years before it came to him, and he was anxious to bestow the blessing on Esau, in spite of the fact that before birth it had been indicated that he was to serve Jacob. He was thus attempting to defeat the purpose of God, and the chapter reveals how his effort failed.

Rebekah, on the other hand, knew what God's purpose was, but in her anxiety for the blessing of her favourite she resorted to a calculated course of deceit in order to trick her blind husband. She instigated the deceit and Jacob practised it with success. Later episodes in Jacob's life reveal him to us as a man who was a master of artful and even underhand designs. It is a solemn thought that he got the earliest recorded lesson in this kind of thing from his mother. His bartering with Esau as to the pottage and the birthright was sharp practice, but had not in it the element of deceit.

Mankind is endowed with five senses, as we all know. One of the five was lacking with poor Isaac. Sight being gone, he was shut up to the other four, and this striking story shows that all the four were exercised. Rebekah's clever cookery presented the flesh of the kids as though it were venison, so his taste was deceived. Her production of Esau's garments, putting them on Jacob, was effectual in deceiving his sense of smell. Her plan of covering Jacob's hands and neck with the hairy skin of the slain kids was equally successful in deceiving his powers of feeling. One sense remained, that of hearing, and Isaac recognized the voice as that of Jacob. It was a case of three senses against one. Three senses declared that the son he could not see was Esau, and only one declared that it was Jacob. Isaac accepted the verdict of the majority and blessed the son he could not see.

Yet the majority verdict was wrong, and only the testimony of his ear was right. We see in this an allegory, illustrating a very important principle, namely that God-given faith comes by hearing. Faith is not sight, as we know. But there are many who seem to think that it comes by feeling; and that, not only among those who are desiring assurance of salvation, but also among those who are saved. Such would like to be guided by feelings or other natural senses rather than by simple faith in the word of God. We are living in an epoch in which God is addressing Himself, not to sight or feeling, but to the hearing of faith. We may safely trust His voice, even if all our natural senses contradict.

The deceit which Jacob practised, as instigated by his mother, was reinforced by a direct lie on his part, when he declared that he was Esau. Fully deceived, Isaac blessed him. Verses Genesis 26:28-29 give the terms of it, and we notice that it was all concerned with earthly things. He was to have plenty to eat and drink, and be served by his brethren and other nations, who would themselves be cursed or blessed by their attitude to him. There was no word as to God being his shield and reward, as we find with Abraham. Still, such as it was, it indicated the blessing on earth that was to be his. His descendants have forfeited it, as we know, but it will all be made good to them in the coming millennial day.

Our thoughts are now turned to Esau, who had been forestalled in this fraudulent way. Yet, as is so often the case, man's evil is overruled to work out the purpose of God. The great trembling of Isaac would seem to indicate that he was convicted of having tried to defeat God's purpose, and that having failed in this, and having been used to pronounce on Jacob what he intended for Esau, the thing was irrevocable. As for Esau, he at once recognized that here was the sequel to the wanton way in which he had sold his birthright. In regard to him we might summarize the whole sad story as: — The birthright: the barter: the bitter cry. The birthright was gone, and the bitter cry remained.

In Hebrews 12:16, Esau is designated, "profane person," and coupled with a "fornicator." The appropriateness of the connection is apparent when we remember that this latter sin is used figuratively for unholy connections between the believer and the world; whilst the profane person is one who lives wholly for this world, and shuts God and His world out of his thoughts. Esau had not only done this but also had despised what was of God. Now when people go to the length of despising God and His blessing they perish, as is stated in Acts 13:41. In our day and in our land there are multitudes slipping into that great sin in regard to the Gospel, and they stand on the brink of destruction.

Esau was now a pitiful sight. He wept. His tears could not undo the past or recover the birthright, but they did draw forth a blessing from Isaac, though not the blessing. And in uttering what he did in verses 39 and 40, he spoke doubtless as a prophet. For many a long century the yoke of Jacob has been off the neck of Esau.

But the feud between the two brothers remains to this day, and is one of the greatest forces provoking discord in the earth. The beginning of it and the root of it come before us in verse 41. But again we see that in all his thoughts Esau had not God before him, otherwise he would not have imagined he could defeat God's purpose by slaying his brother.

He miscalculated in thinking that his father's death was impending, when it did not take place for a number of years. His threat however reached Rebekah's ears and stirred her to a further plan on behalf of her favourite son. There was in it again, we think, an element of subterfuge. To explain to Isaac his sudden departure to Laban, she complained of the annoying behaviour of the Hittite wives of Esau, which doubtless was quite true, and insinuated that Jacob might follow this bad example. Really, however she only anticipated that Jacob's stay with his uncle would last for "a few days," and then, Esau's anger having evaporated, she would have her favourite son back again.

The incident that fills this chapter relates some sordid details, but contains some searching instruction. We see how God maintains His purpose and at the same time exercises His disciplinary government. Everybody suffered; Esau and Isaac, and finally both Jacob and Rebekah, since the parting lasted for many years, rather than "a few days," as she anticipated. Further, Jacob went forth to be deceived by others and Rebekah was left to the unwelcome society of the daughters of Heth. She dwelt upon her weariness as a reason and an excuse for sending Jacob off to her brother, but doubtless the discord between them was very real, and she was left to face it without her favourite son.

That Isaac was satisfied with Rebekah's explanation is evident as we read the opening verses of Genesis 28:1-22. Indeed at this point we see him in a much more favourable light, and speaking as a man of faith. He charges Jacob to go to Padan-aram and find a wife among his own people, and he blesses him in a way that surely indicates that he now accepted the purpose of God as to his two sons, which overruled and cancelled out his own natural inclinations. He calls upon God to give "the blessing of Abraham" to him, for that particular blessing, which carried with it the coming of the "Seed," in whom all nations should be blessed, was the very essence of the coveted birthright.

We notice further, that the possession of this blessing entailed the ultimate possession of the land of promise, but for the present strangership in the midst of it. This has a remarkable voice for us, since we read in Galatians 3:14, of "the blessing of Abraham" coming "on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." In receiving the Spirit we have the Earnest of the heavenly portion that is ours, but for the present we are left as strangers in the place where we are. Our portion lies there in the age to come. Our strangership is here in the age that is.

Verses Genesis 26:6-9, are sadly illuminating as to the mind of Esau. He not only contracts a further marriage that was bound to displease his parents, but that also would contravene the purpose of God. In the previous chapter he appears as a prospective murderer: now he is again revealed as a deliberate and high-handed despiser of God and His word. We saw this contrary spirit characterizing him at the end of Genesis 26:1-35; we now see it breaking out even more decisively and flagrantly, so that it is not difficult to understand the statement in the last Old Testament book, "I hated Esau." As yet the history of Jacob has not furnished us with any clear reason why God should say, "I loved Jacob."

Verses 10-55

In spite of all his defects Jacob's action in going forth to Haran was consistent with the purpose of God, and hence by a dream encouragement was ministered to him. At the time of Babel men sought to elevate themselves to heaven by a tower of their own construction, and it ended in scattering and confusion. But God has established a link between heaven and earth, indicated by the ladder of his dream, and this link in those days was made good by angelic administration. Jehovah Himself was at the top of the ladder and poor Jacob, the fugitive, at the bottom, needing a blessing and getting it.

Three things stand out clearly in this divine communication. First, though Jacob was running away from the land of promise, it was confirmed to him and to his seed, which was to be greatly multiplied and spread out in all directions. Second there was the promise of blessing for all the families of the earth in him and in his seed. Third, the promise of the Divine presence and preservation in all his wanderings, and his ultimate restoration to the land which was his according to purpose. He may have some bitter experiences under Divine government but God's purpose will stand.

It may be that when the Lord uttered the words recorded in John 1:51, He alluded to this incident. If so, we have to notice an important difference. In the coming age the Son of Man will not be a mere "ladder," but rather the administrative Centre of all things. Being Lord of all, angels will ascend and descend as He directs. The heavens and the earth will be brought into harmony and unity under His sway.

Verses Genesis 28:16-22 show us how Jacob responded to the dream. In the first place, it awoke him to the realization of the presence of God. That we may be in the presence of God, and yet quite unaware of it, is a solemn thought. To Jacob it was not merely solemn; it was dreadful. But that was because he had no assured standing before God on the ground of redemption Only when the death and resurrection of Christ were accomplished facts could believers say "We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ," having received the reconciliation. For us the presence of God is not dreadful but delightful.

Then again, Jacob recognized that where Jehovah manifests His presence, there is the house of God. Right through the Scriptures runs the thought of the house of God in its various forms and aspects, but here is the first mention of it. It is remarkable moreover that Jacob connected "the gate of heaven" with "the house of God." The first mention of a gate is in Genesis 19:1, where Lot sat in the gate of Sodom, and this shows that the word is used not only to designate the place of entrance and exit but also the place where men of age and wisdom sat to execute judgment. In other words, gate has a figurative as well as a literal meaning, and where God dwells in His house, there is the place of Heaven's administration and judgment.

And further, Jacob's action in taking one of the stones that had served him for-a pillow, and anointing it as a pillar, and identifying it thus with God's house, is remarkable and significant in the light of 1 Timothy 3:15. In ancient times pillars were used for support, as we see in Solomon's Temple. But they were also set up as witnesses to certain facts. Three times do we read of Jacob rearing pillars; here and in Genesis 31:1-55 and Genesis 35:1-29, each time as a witness.

It is in this sense, we believe, that the word is used in 1 Timothy 3:15. The Church of the living God is the house of God and the pillar and ground, or basis, of the truth. The "church of the living God" is being built by "the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16-18), and it is at the present time the standing witness to the truth in the power of the Spirit of God. It is worthy of note that in our chapter Jacob poured oil upon the pillar, which we may take as a figure of the anointing of the Spirit of God. His action originated the name, Bethel, which means, house of God.

But, though Jacob did all this, the ground that he took in his vow was about as selfish as ever to be found in a true saint of God. It came to this: — If God will be with me, and look after me, and do for me what I desire, then He shall be my God, and I will yield to Him a tenth of all that He gives me. A bargain such as this is barely above the level of a decent man of the world. Yet God bore with him and evidently accepted his feeble vow, and did for him all that he wished, and more also.

In Genesis 29:1-35, we find Jacob resuming his journey, and the merciful hand of God, directing him and opening up his way, is at once manifested. His steps are guided to the very well where the sheep of Laban, his uncle, were watered and where he met his cousin Rachel. Into the house of Laban he was received with an effusive welcome, but only to find himself there in the hands of a man who was his equal in duplicity.

After Jacob had sojourned there a month, serving Laban, the question as to his wages was raised and, loving Rachel, he agreed to serve seven years for her. The story of how Laban deceived him at the end of the seven years is given to us in verses 23-30, and Laban had a plausible excuse for acting as he did. We cannot fail to see in this the working of the government of God and an illustration of our Lord's words, "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." It was Jacob's turn now to complain of being beguiled.

Moreover, there was discipline from the hand of God. Jacob's love was centred on Rachel and in comparison with her Leah was hated, so it was ordered of God that, while Leah bore children, Rachel was barren. The closing verses of the chapter give us the birth of four sons and their names. It is worthy of note that in each case the name was given by the mother, and was related to her own circumstances and feelings. Jacob does not appear as having any say in the matter. During this period of his chequered career there is no record of his having an altar of sacrifice and communion. Being out of touch, he had no guidance as to the names of his children, and we shall see that this was the case with all his children except the last. Then, though Rachel named him, his father also named him, and Jacob's name prevailed.

The rather sordid story of Jacob's children, and of the devices of both Rachel and Leah, as they endeavoured to gain sons and thus establish themselves in his favour, is related in Genesis 30:1-21. Here we have the origins of the tribes in these sons, who were named by Leah and Rachel. The handmaids did not name their own sons, and the four tribes descended from these do not appear to have made any particular mark in the subsequent history of the nation.

When we reach verse Genesis 28:22, we find God begins to act, and we leave behind us the scheming of the two wives, though still it is Rachel who bestows the name of Joseph. Yet clearly here is a son who was born as the fruit of God acting in response to Rachel's prayers, and the story is lifted to a higher level. The son appears, who is to play a great part in the history of the nation, and who is to become a striking type of Christ, perhaps the most striking that the Old Testament affords.

In verse 25, we find that the birth of Joseph helped to lift Jacob himself to a higher level and, as a consequence, his mind turned to the land that was his according to God's purpose, and he desired to return thither. We may take it as axiomatic, and true in every dispensation, that when the saint enters into communion with God, the Divine purpose becomes to him all-important. Jacob freshly realized that there was a country that he could call, "mine own place."

Laban, however, intruded into the question and ultimately his thoughts prevailed, and he delayed Jacob, as it turned out, for six years. Laban was a shrewd man and recognized that Jacob's presence with him had brought blessing. He wished to retain that blessing, and was prepared to allow Jacob to settle his own wages. As a result there ensued a further battle of wits, and this time Jacob and not Laban gained the advantage.

Jacob bargained that all the spotted and speckled cattle should be separated and put under his sons, while he tended the others. Then, if these others produced young of the spotted and speckled sort, they were to be his and added to his flocks. The closing verses of this chapter reveal the device that he employed to increase his flocks at the expense of Laban's. We observe how true he still is to his name — meaning Supplanter.

In reference to this matter, Jacob had said to Laban, "So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come," which would seem to indicate that he had rather a low idea of what is right in the sight of God. It was quite clear that in time past Laban had taken advantage of him, but to employ counter-devices, in order to reverse the situation, while quite according to the way of the world, is not according to God. It is true of course that Jacob did not walk in the light of God fully revealed as we do.

The effect of all this is seen in Genesis 31:1-2. The sons of Laban saw that Jacob had largely despoiled their father of his flocks, and Laban himself began to regard him with disfavour. The situation became critical, and the Lord Himself intervened to end it. Back to his own land and kindred he was to go. In breaking the news of their impending departure to his wives he related how Laban had dealt crookedly with him, and how God had acted in his favour. We are now permitted to see how God had intervened and caused the agreement as to the spotted and speckled cattle to work in his favour. In the light of this our reflection would be that if he had rested with confidence in God, and not used the devices related in the last chapter, the end God purposed would have been reached, and his "righteousness" would have answered for him in a much more convincing way.

From all this we may draw a practical conclusion. We have no need nor right to resort to plans of our own, as though we could help God to achieve His purpose. If, on the other hand, God instructs us by His word to act, it is our duty and our wisdom to do as He says. Jacob asserted that Laban had changed his wages ten times. This, if a fact, was great provocation, but to have relied upon God would have saved him from actions also open to question.

In calling him back to the land of promise, God revealed Himself to him as "the God of Bethel," reminding him of the pillar he anointed and the vow that he made. Thus he was called back to the beginning of his direct dealings with God. Such is ever God's way with His people. We may wander away but back to the original spot, whence we departed, we have to come. The point of departure proves to be the place of recovery.

Rachel and Leah altogether supported Jacob in his determination to return. Their attitude shows that they were convinced of their father's dishonourable and callous conduct, and furnishes us with further evidence of how Jacob had suffered at his hands. Their advice in the emergency could not be bettered — "Now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do." Complete trust and obedience to God is the only right thing. It reminds us of the words of Mary, the mother of our Lord, recorded in John 2:5. God alone has the right to demand such unquestioning obedience.

But in the manner of his departure we again see the character of Jacob revealed. Instead of dealing openly with Laban, meeting him face to face, and then departing with due notice, he stole away unawares while Laban was absent, shearing his sheep. In so doing he presented Laban with fresh ground of complaint, for he had submitted himself to being in the place of a servant, working for wages, though son-in-law to his master. Under those circumstances the parting ought to have been arranged by mutual consent.

A critical situation had been created, so critical that God intervened, speaking this time to Laban, who had no direct knowledge of Him, for he speaks of Him to Jacob as "the God of your father." In a dream Laban was warned not to overtake Jacob with violence of speech or action and, having regard to this, he adopted an attitude only of remonstrance, with a note of reproach in it as to the stealing of his gods. Verse Genesis 28:19 had told us that Rachel had stolen the "images," or "seraphim" of her father. Laban regarded them as his "gods."

Teraphim were small images, used for purposes of divination. The incident furnishes us with a sidelight as to the way in which spiritist practices had spread. These little "household divinities" were reverenced and valued, and oftentimes especially so by the women, hence Rachel's anxiety to have them in her possession as they travelled away from her old home. Heathen practices are very infectious. Of Rachel's action Jacob evidently knew nothing, so the accusation, correct though it was, stirred his anger and led to a statement of his case.

His words to Laban at last were very vigorous, and he told him to his face of the hard conditions of service that he had imposed. He attributed God's warning to Laban as not merely a considerate intervention in regard to himself but as a rebuke to Laban, and so indeed it was without a doubt.

Verses 43 and 44, would indicate that Laban himself was conscious that this was the case, and so, while asserting his fatherly rights, he adopted a different tone altogether, and suggested that a covenant should be agreed and established between them. This was accordingly done.

Again we find Jacob raising up a pillar of witness and also a heap of stones, according to the custom of those primitive days. Jacob undertook to deal rightly by Laban's daughters, and both agreed not to pass beyond the stones of witness to harm each other. We do not read on this occasion of the anointing of the pillar, but we do find that Jacob solemnized the occasion not only by an oath but also by sacrifice. The name of God was invoked, as we see in verse 53, and that as the God of Abraham and of Nahor, since both those patriarchs would have been venerated by Laban as well as by Jacob. In addition Jacob sware by the fear of Isaac his father. Such was the esteem accorded to parents and ancestors in those far-off days — very good in many ways. But there was the danger of the fear of Isaac, whom he could see, supplanting the fear of the God, whom he could not see. Hence the reminder of the unseen world that he got, as we find in the opening verse of Genesis 32:1-32.

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Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Genesis 28". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.