In times of emergency or crisis, human beings have a tendency to bargain with God. “Just get me out of this one, and I’ll go to church.” “Rescue me this time, and I vow to be a better person from here on out.” “I won’t make that mistake again, I promise—please let me off the hook.” As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Jacob tried a bit of bargaining with God in today’s passage. As far as we know, this was his first conversation with God. Having deceived both his father and his brother, he had been sent away, ostensibly to find a wife but actually to avoid Esau’s revenge and further family conflict. In other words, he had been forced to run away.
On the road, he had a dream of a stairway between earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. God introduced Himself to Jacob and renewed the covenant He had made with Abraham and Isaac, promising land, descendants, and blessings for all nations through his line (vv. 13–14). He also gave him a more personal guarantee that one day He would bring Jacob back safely (v. 15).
The flawed patriarch received these promises at a time when he was down and out. Even he must have known how unworthy he was to receive them. Awestruck by what had happened, Jacob set up a memorial stone and named the place Bethel, or “house of God.” His vow, however, sounds rather like bargaining, and amounts to, If you’ll take care of me and provide for my needs, I’ll offer you a tithe (see vv. 20–22). This was petty stuff compared to the covenant promises! Though a participant in a divine conversation, Jacob still had weak faith and a long way to go to become the man God intended him to be.