Forgetting Leads to Exile: Reflections on Genesis 28:10-19a

"Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, 'What do you know! YHWH is in this place, and I did not know it!' And he was afraid, and said, 'How fearful is this place! This is nothing less than the house of God, the very gate of the sky!'" (Gen. 28:16-17) There is, you will note, nothing especially religious about any of this. He saw YHWH all right, and he registers terror at the experience, but he does not admit any error on his part. There is no mention of lying and trickery and thievery of the blessing and promise. In short, I see nothing changed in the man, despite what the hymn seems to suggest.

And that fact is reiterated in what follows. He gets up after the dream, grabs his rock pillow, pours oil on it to make it some sort of monument to the experience, and changes the name of the location from Luz to Bethel. Period. Well, not quite period, despite what the lectionary collectors have done. For then Jacob does do something religious, or at least it has the appearance of being something religious.

He makes a vow in response to the absolutely free gift of his God. And here it is. "If God will be with me, and will protect me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I return in safety (peace) to the house of my father, then YHWH can be my God, and this stone that I have set up for a memorial shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will give a tenth to you" (Gen. 28: 20-22). Well, thank you very much, you little jerk! God gives to Jacob full and free promise and blessing, and Jacob replies that as long as God comes through for him, then and only then he will allow God to be his God! Note, too, how Jacob makes YHWH's promise for safety and presence far more specific; he demands bread and he demands clothes. Finest bread and silken threads, no doubt!

Jacob's meeting with YHWH at Bethel has changed him not a whit; he remains the same grasping man that his name suggests. He is still grabbing for all he wants and demands, and he will do so even if the grabbee is God! Jacob, like so many of us, has forgotten that it is God's promise to give and not Jacob's promise to grab. As the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, said, "Forgetting leads to (or perhaps 'prolongs') exile, while remembering is the secret of redemption." Jacob too often forgets that God is the promise-bearer, and as a result finds himself both in physical and spiritual exile, cut off from God's desire for him and for his descendants after him. It is finally no surprise that Jacob becomes Israel at the Jabbok stream. He is Israel, quick to forget God, quick to grab for what he wants, quick to avoid the real work of redemption that God has called him to.

Well, what about us? We are also, if we are willing to admit it, Jacob ourselves. In the face of God's free gift, we too often grudgingly give God a crumb or two and imagine we are then God's followers. That way leads to exile. Just look around you, if you don't believe that truth.

12/2/2022 9:10:32 PM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.