Chapter 28 launches the biography of Jacob as an independent personality, the patriarch of the next generation of the covenant family, the man who would eventually give his other name, “Israel,” to the descendants of Abraham. Coming on the heels of Esau’s threat, Jacob’s entry into the world as the next patriarch began in the darkness of exile, uncertainty, and threats. Through those difficulties, stretching over the next twenty years, his character would be tested and transformed. The only detail we have of Jacob’s journey is the account of his extraordinary encounter with God himself in a dream.
The chapter begins with Isaac having finally accepted the sovereign will of the Lord. No longer will he contrive foolish plans to subvert God’s will. Rather, he blessed Jacob once again with eyes wide open, so to speak. Isaac then sent his younger son to Paddan Aram to find a wife in the household of his uncle Laban. Jacob went there with the full blessing of the Covenant Patriarch, the son of Abraham. For the young man who was so anchored to home, hearth, and his mother, this flight to a strange place under threat from a murderous brother must have been painful, disorienting, and frightening.
Along the way Jacob found a place to sleep for the night near Haran. Alone in the desert with a stone for a pillow Jacob’s body gave in to exhaustion and there he dreamed. It is made clear that the dream is a vision from the Lord and the vision illustrates one thing supremely: God’s unmerited grace. All of the action in the dream belongs to God and his holy messengers. Jacob’s only action is to hear and receive with gratitude and worship the promises of God. The ladder is not provided so that Jacob, or anyone else for that matter, may climb his way to God. Rather, the ladder, or stairway, is meant to show that God himself has made the way to reach his sinful and weary people.
The events recorded in this ancient passage clearly anticipate the gospel of Jesus Christ. On the one hand we are witness to God’s initiative to bless his people with his presence, his forgiveness, and his salvation. On the other hand, we see God’s people respond to his promises in faith, gratitude, and commitment. This is the utterly unique character of the biblical religion. Every other religion and philosophy of man seeks to secure God’s favor by merit or technique. Only in the Bible do we read that God bestows his grace freely, personally, well beyond the dictation of man.