Torah Commentary | Genesis

Portion: Torah Portion No. 27
Torah: Genesis 28:10–29:30
Haftarah: Hosea 12:12–14
Apostolic: Ephesians 6:5–9

Establishing the Covenant

By Tim Hegg

The narrative that is before us today in our parashah is a fa­mil­iar one: Jacob’s dream, the ladder, the angels—it’s not necessarily the “stuff” that Hollywood makes into box office hits, but it’s fa­mil­iar nonetheless. But how does this story fit into the flow of the Gen­esis narrative?

The pericope just prior to this one has highlighted the sovereign choice of Jacob over Esau, obviously not because one was better than the other, but because God was at work to bring about His pur­poses. Using even the wayward methods of Jacob and his mother, HaShem weaves the events of this history together to form the tap­es­try of His design.

But it is not so much about Jacob and Esau, or Isaac and Rivka. It is about the covenant. The Promise of the coming One (Gen 3:15) is being worked out event by event, unfolded to us in the pages of Moses’ writings, filling in the picture by each stroke of the divine brush. It is the covenant that is central—Isaac, Jacob, Judah, these are the chosen vehicles who carry it from one generation to the next.

Consider the setting as our narrative opens: Jacob leaves Ber Sheva and trav­els toward Haran. Then the texts says (28:11) “And he came to a certain place…” but the Hebrew has וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם, “and he arrived at the place.” What place is this? The Sages maintain, almost with a unified voice, that it is Moriah, the same place where Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, and the place where even­tually David would buy the threshing-floor—where Solomon would build the Temple. It was the place where Hashem had chosen to place His Name—to reveal Himself in specific and special ways. We are not surprised, then, when the story which unfolds before us is one of God revealing Himself and His plan for the descendants of Abraham.

The first thing Jacob does upon arriving at the place for his night’s stay was to choose a rock to lean against as he slept. This rock, a foreshadowing of the stones which would be used to build the Tem­ple in this exact location (if in fact this was the location), would soon be­come a temporary altar upon which a libation offering is given. (The so-called history of this “rock,” as the stone upon which the European monarchs were crowned is pure mythology.) The Hebrew term for a stone set up as Jacob does to this one is מַצֵּבָה, matzevah, some of which are prohibited in the Torah (Lev 26:1; Deut 16:22). Those which are prohibited are those used as an idol to which a person bows. Those which are allowed are stones set up as markers or as testimonials to covenants, agreements, or boundary lines (cf. Gen 31:13, 45, 51; 35:14, 20; Ex 24:4). This stone, which Jacob set up as a מַצֵּבָה is undoubtedly so erected as a witness or testimony of the covenant which was renewed at that place.

The dream which Jacob has is of a ladder. The Hebrew word is סֻלָּם (sulam), found only here in the Tanach and meaning either “steps” or “ladder,” perhaps even the steps of a ziggurat with its long stair case. The Sages note that this word has the same nu­merical value as סִינַי, “Si­nai,” but this is not helpful in understanding Moses’ message. Gematria has no real hermeneutical value. The ladder is pictured as ex­tending from earth to heaven, with the An­gels or Messen­gers of Elohim (the plural con­struction “an­gels of God” is found only here and in Gen 32:2) as­cending and descending. Most importantly, Adonai stands upon its head. The word for “stand” is not the common עמד (‘amad), but is נצב (natzav), meaning “stationed for a purpose,” and when used with the following preposition עַל, as here, it means “to preside over.” This meaning of the verb is further verified by its par­ti­ci­ple form meaning “deputy” or “pre­fect.” Thus Adonai presides over the whole, the Angels as­cending and de­scending are pictured as accomplishing His work and purposes.

Why the order of “ascend” and “descend”? It must be to em­pha­size that the Angels are appointed to dwell with the covenant mem­bers, but they regularly “re­port in” to Adonai as the Great King. The whole scene is symbolic of the on-going maintenance of the cov­enant, the Great King sending and receiving His am­bassa­dors in or­der to assure the on-going success of the covenant.

It should be noted at this point that Yeshua claimed that He was the ladder in this picture (John 1:51). In other words, it was the work of the Messiah to bridge heaven and earth in order that the covenant could be established. The Messiah is the “means” of the covenant—apart from Him there is no access to Adonai, and there is no cov­enant. It is in this covenant context that the words of Yeshua (John 14:6) should be understood: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by (on or through) Me.”

The high-point of the dream is the actual revelation of Adonai to Jacob. First, He identifies Himself as Adonai (יהוה), the God of Abraham and Isaac. This makes the covenant connection explicit. Though the meaning of the Name in terms of its “life-experience” revelation would await the exodus event, the Name itself was al­ready known by Abraham and Isaac, and had taken on specificity as the Name of the unique God of Abraham. What is meant in Exodus 6 (that before this time God had revealed Himself as El Shaddai, but by the name יהוה He was not known) is that Israel, up to the point of the exodus, had seen the meaning of the Name El Shaddai worked out in the events of their history, but the meaning of יהוה had not yet been so revealed. In this case, the word “know” is given its proper Hebraic meaning, namely, “have covenant relationship with,” not “be aware of some­thing.” Israel knew the four-letter Name attached to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but its meaning as revealed in the course of historical events had not yet been made known. After identifying Himself (common in all covenant forms), Adonai re­it­erates the as­pects of the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob. It is not a new covenant, but is a “renewing” of the covenant already established to Abraham and then to Isaac.

The first aspect is the giving of the Land. Here, once again, the covenant is clearly a Land Grant Covenant, a type of covenant used by kings of the Ancient Near East to bequeath a parcel of land to a favored vassal in perpetuity. Such a covenant required the oath of the Great King, not the vassal, and secured the rights of the vassal, not those of the Great King. The covenant was secure on the basis of the King’s word, not on the actions of the vassal. Thus, the Land is mentioned first to alert us, once again, that this covenant is a unilateral covenant dependent upon God and not upon man.

The second covenant promise is that of innumerable seed, “like the dust of the Land.” This great host of people would spread out in all directions of the compass and inhabit the Land.

The third and final covenant blessing is “and in you and your seed I will bless all the families of the earth” (28:14). Here, in somewhat cryptic language, is the promise of the Messiah, and the ingathering of the nations to worship the One true God. Put last for emphasis in each of the enumerations of the Abrahamic covenant (12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4), this is what Paul considers to be the Gospel (Gal 3:8). The blessing for all mankind was both through the nation of Israel in every gen­eration (through the living out of Torah, teaching of Torah, etc.) as well as (and ul­ti­mately) through the “seed,” that is, the Messiah. It is thus the realization of the Abrahamic covenant that the multitudes of redeemed people, from every tribe, kindred and tongue, are seen in the eschaton as the people of God. The picture of all the nations worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not one which was drawn by the later Apostles, but was part of the blueprint from the very be­ginning. The covenant given to Abraham and his seed always envisioned the nations.

What follows in 28:15ff is not technically part of the covenant reiteration. The presence of הִנֵה, “behold,” signals an additional statement. This additional statement speaks to the maintenance of the covenant member to the end that he would fully receive all of the blessings promised. And what is this blessing? Nothing less than the presence of God with Jacob wherever he would go, a promise to guard or keep him, and to bring him back to the Land. God promises never to forsake Jacob, but rather to fulfil the covenant by doing all that which He had promised.

Jacob’s response to all of this is cast in what sounds like modern lingo: “This place is really awesome!” (28:17). “This is nothing less than God’s house, and the very gate of Heaven!” The inner response of Jacob can be variously understood: most translations begin v. 17 “and he was afraid,” but the verb יָרַא (yara’), “to fear,” can also describe worship: “Worship Adonai in fear” עִבְדוּ אֶת יהוה בְּיִרְאָה (Ps 2:11). Perhaps we should understand from this that true worship has some measure of awe mixed into it—a sense that the God we worship is beyond us, greater than us, and infinitely awesome.

But Jacob’s statement of fear or worship is preceded by an admission: “Surely Adonai is in this place and I did not know.” What is meant by this? The Sages seem simply to understand this to mean that Jacob did not properly prepare for receiving such a revelation. But I think this remarkable statement by Jacob deserves further explanation. It is unique in the patriarchal narratives, where in every other place the appearance of God to Abraham or Isaac is met with full reception and not as something strange. Only Jacob is shocked that God would meet with him. Several explanations may be offered: one is that Jacob had somehow thought God was regional, like the pagan gods. Since he was away from the region of his family, he may have considered that he was outside of the ju­risdiction of his father’s God. A second possibility, and one which I think has greater weight, is that Jacob was carrying guilt for deceiving his father, and causing a breach between himself and his brother. He was therefore surprised to learn that not only was God going with him on his journey, but that God had come with blessing, not punishment. It is not as though Jacob did not deserve punishment—but this is not the point of the narrative. The point of the narrative is that the blessings of the covenant are not ultimately dependent upon the lives of the covenant people. The blessings come as a result of God’s character, not Israel’s.

The oath which Jacob makes (28:20-22) as a result of his dream/vision has not ceased to bother commentators and students alike. It appears as though Jacob strikes a bargain with God. If He will supply protection, food, and clothing (i.e. keep Jacob from pov­erty) then Jacob will confess Him as his God and pay tribute to Him in the form of a tithe. The im­pli­cations are obvious: if God were, for one rea­son or an­other, to allow Jacob to experience pov­erty, then he would deny God. Thus, it appears on the surface that Jacob’s confession is based entirely upon whether or not God supplies him with material blessings. But the Hebrew conditional terminology can also be understood in another way, as indicating the basis of the oath, as that which had already taken place (see the comments of Midrash Rabbah ad. loc.). God had already provided for Jacob those things he mentioned (clothing, food, guarding, etc.). Thus, we could understand the two verses this way: “So Jacob vowed a vow saying, ‘Will not God be with me and guard me on this way which I am going, and will He not give to me food to eat and clothes to wear, and will I not return in peace to the house of my father? Yes, Adonai will be my God, and this stone which I have set up as a memorial will be the House of God. Thus (Oh God), from all which you give to me, I will render a tithe to You.”

It is here, for the first time in Genesis, that the “house of God” phrase is used. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Jacob was given a vision of the Tem­ple which would, in time, be built on this very spot.

After the experience of the vision and theophany, Jacob leaves “the place” and “lifts up his feet” to head toward the east. The phrase “lift upon one’s feet” is found only here and could mean several things: 1) he was “light footed” meaning he went on light-hearted, 2) he directed his feet, i.e., he went with resolve, or 3) he had to force himself to leave the place he now knew was sacred. Perhaps he had a sense that he was going now to fulfil his part of the unfolding covenant, i.e. obtain a wife, have children, and enjoy the covenant blessings in the context of family. Per­haps he had a renewed hope of experiencing the blessings of community, some­thing he thought he may have forfeited by deceiving his father. In fact, the narrative may suggest that Jacob had been given previous disclosure by HaShem re­garding Rachel (her name means “a ewe lamb”) as his wife. When he sees her at the well, he rolls the stone away, waters (וַיַּשְׁקְ) her flock and kisses (וַיִּשַׁק) her. This is the only place in the Torah where a man kisses a woman in public who is not either his wife or mother. The narrative plays on the whole idea of “kiss,” for it was with a kiss that Jacob de­ceived Isaac (27:26-27), yet here Jacob comes to see that God has indeed led him to the very place where he would find, in Rachel, a true renewal of his soul, for he would be able to express love in the context of God’s blessings.

The story which now unfolds is also very familiar to us. Like Eliezer, who finds Rivka at the well, and Moses who likewise finds Zipporah at a well, Jacob will find Rachel as she comes to water her flock. His kissing her is innocent, and should be understood as a family greeting. However, as noted above, the watering of the flock and the kiss are surely a foreshadowing of his willingness to take her as his wife. The text later informs us that Rachel was the one Jacob loved and thus from the beginning there is a knitting together of their souls. That Jacob was able to act as a “superman” and roll the rock away from the well (something which could otherwise be accomplished only by a group of men) had to impress Rachel. But what is more important from a narrative standpoint is that Jacob had found his own clan, and thus the covenant promises which were linked to the “seed (off-spring) of Abraham” are clearly in view. That Laban would respond with “you are surely my bone and flesh” (29:14) hints at the words of Adam to Eve (2:23) and reinforces the close knit relations of the clan.

Jacob was treated as a guest for a full month (חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים) though his willingness to work put Laban in the place of feeling like he should be compensated. There may be legal ramifications in all of this: Laban did not want any of Jacob’s vol­un­tary work to “count” toward the eventual bride-price. That the whole issue of bride price may be in view is taken from the fact that the notice about Laban’s two daughters immediately follows. (Note also that in 29:15 we have an­other ex­am­ple of the use of אַח, “brother” meaning “relative,” much like the use of בֵּן, “son.”)

The description of Laban’s two daughters is straightforward: Leah (her name may mean “cow,” “strong woman,” or even “mistress”) is the old​er of the two, and she also has עֵינַי רַכּוֹת, usually trans­lated “weak eyes.” This most likely does not describe poor vision but a lack of luster or beauty, cf. 1Sa 16:12; Song of Songs 4:1, 9. Rachel, on the other hand, is יְפַת־תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה, “beautiful of form and appearance.” Because Jacob loved Rachel, he was willing to serve Laban seven years in lieu of the normal bride price he would have to pay. His wages as an indentured servant were accumulated and reckoned as the sum paid. This would indicate the high value of a bride-price, yet for Jacob the difficulty of working for seven years was mitigated by his deep love for Rachel.

Having completed his seven years, Jacob asks Laban for the arrangement of the ceremony, and the giving of Rachel as his full wife. The well-known “switch” is made possible because of the “drink-fest” which Laban made for the ceremony. Jacob has had too much to drink, and is in no shape to make discerning choices. Never suspecting that Laban would stoop to such a thing, Jacob leaves himself vulnerable to a man who has no scruples. Instead of bringing Rachel to Jacob’s tent, he brings Leah. The narrative gives us no hint as to what had been done with Rachel, but one has to imagine that she was restrained by Laban’s people.

29:23 makes it clear that Jacob had relations with Leah, and thus the bond was fixed and could not be broken. In the morning, awakened in sobriety, Jacob learns of the deception (רָמַה, ramah, cp. 27:35) and confronts Laban (29:25). Laban’s excuse for his de­ception was that the local tradition did not allow the marriage of the younger daugh­ter in advance of the first-born daughter. This brings to mind the divine de­cree regarding Jacob and Esau, that the older would serve the younger in reverse of what would be the normal custom.

The only alternative that Laban would given to Jacob is that he work an­other seven years, and re­ceive Rachel as well. One has to wonder if the later Levitical law (Lev 18:18) prohibiting a man marrying a sister of his wife while both were living did not in some measure reference the pain that Jacob’s arrangement would even­tually bring. Should Jacob have settled for Leah and given up hope of having Rachel, the one he loved? Though God would work His plan in spite of the misdeeds of mankind, it appears that the path of righteousness would have been for Jacob to realize that the tables had been turned upon him, and that as the deceiver he himself had been deceived. Interestingly enough, the Messiah comes through the line of Leah (Judah), not Rachel. Granted, the narrative will continue to follow the sons of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin), but God honors the sanctity of marriage as prescribed in Genesis 2:24 by assigning to Leah the line of the enduring cov­enant. God may graciously override the consequences of sinful choices, but it does not make such choices any less sinful.

In the end, the primary emphasis of the story is simply that God maintains His covenant, passing it to the next generation, and assuring that it accomplishes His determined will. What is more, the covenant continues to be unfolded as an un­con­di­tional covenant (at least in its eternal aspects), for even the wayward deeds of those involved do not overturn or somehow derail the covenant. God’s promises will stand secure whether His people walk as they should or not. Granted, for an individual to receive the blessings, he must engage in personal obedience. But as far as the overall covenant is concerned, it is secure to this generation and the next, because the covenant depends upon God, not man.

The haftarah, Hosea 12:12–14, is chosen for its clear connection to our Torah parashah: “Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep.” But the primary thrust of Hosea’s words in this passage is the waywardness of the nation that descended from Jacob. Using “Judah” to reference the southern tribes, and “Jacob” of the northern tribes (v. 2), the Lord declares that He has an indictment against them. He will repay them “according to their deeds.” Even though Jacob himself met God face to face, spoke with Him and even wrestled with Him (vv. 4–5), the nation that arose from Jacob failed to live in obedience to the covenant of which they were members. It is important to note that in Hosea’s words, the Angel of the Lord and the Lord Himself are equated. For in v. 4 Hosea states that Jacob “wrestled with the Angel and prevailed” but then goes on to say that “He (God) spoke with us.” And the next phrase makes this even more emphatic (v. 5): “Even the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is His name.”

The lowest expression of Israel’s waywardness is the debauchery of Ephraim (v. 14). “Ephraim has provoked (the Lord) to bitter anger” by in-cessent idol worship, and even sacrificing their children to the demons (2Ki 17:1–18). Yet in spite of the utter sinfulness of Israel and Judah, what is the message of the prophet? We hear it in v. 6: “Therefore, return to your God, observe kindness and justice (‏חֶסֶד וּמִשְׁפָּט שְׁמֹר), and wait for your God continually.” Here, once again, we see the utter faithfulness of God to the promises of the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For even though Israel has acted in the most egregious ways, He, through His prophet, calls them back to Himself.

Yet such unflinching faithfulness on the part of God does not negate the “sowing and reaping” principle. Though the covenant remains, and will be established to the remnant of each generation, those who act unfaithfully and rebel against God will be punished. The covenant remains intact, but only those who seek God and live faithfully unto Him, will enjoy the promised blessings.

This theme is thus the impetus for choosing the accompanying Apostolic reading for the Torah parashah. Paul warns the Ephesians that immorality, impurity, and greed have no place among those who are striving to be holy (v. 3). Verse 5 goes on to identify more precisely what Paul means when he links the words “immorality, impurity, and greed” together: he is talking about the kinds of things that are regularly attached to idolatry. The NIV has caught the sense of v. 5: “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Messiah and of God.”

Rather, having come to know God through His Messiah Yeshua, and having been given the gift of His Spirit, we are not to be deceived by “empty words” (κενοῖς λόγοις) but are to “walk as children of Light … trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (vv. 8–10). We are to live our lives as those who have had a genuine encounter with the Holy One of Israel, for like Jacob, we have met Him and have come to know Him in truth.



In the beginning

Genesis 1:1-6:8


In the beginning God…
Acceptable Worship
List of Generations

Tim Hegg

President / Instructor

Tim graduated from Cedarville University in 1973 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music and Bible, with a minor in Philosophy. He entered Northwest Baptist Seminary (Tacoma, WA) in 1973, completing his M.Div. (summa cum laude) in 1976. He completed his Th.M. (summa cum laude) in 1978, also from NWBS. His Master’s Thesis was titled: “The Abrahamic Covenant and the Covenant of Grant in the Ancient Near East”. Tim taught Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew Exegesis for three years as an adjunct faculty member at Corban University School of Ministry when the school was located in Tacoma. Corban University School of Ministry is now in Salem, OR. Tim is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature, and has contributed papers at the annual meetings of both societies. Since 1990, Tim has served as one of the Overseers at Beit Hallel in Tacoma, WA. He and his wife, Paulette, have four children, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.