Jacob is in a difficult spot. Since the beginning of his section in Genesis 25:19, Jacob has strove with his brother to obtain what belonged to Esau. In the previous chapter, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, steals the blessing from his father Isaac (Genesis 27). When Esau learned what happened, he cries out: “Is he not rightly named Jacob [that is, Deceiver or Grabber]? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). Esau unsurprisingly wants to kill his brother because of what he has done. His parents therefore both tell Jacob to flee to Rebekah’s brother Laban to the north in Haran (Genesis 27:41-28:5).
Beersheba, the place where Abraham made an oath with Abimelech regarding the well (Genesis 21:25-34), is in the south (which is why the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” in passages like Judges 20:1 or 1 Kings 4:25 means basically “from north to south” or “from top to bottom”). Haran is in the far north, beyond the river Euphrates. Abraham had settled there with his father Terah before receiving the call to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Since Terah died in Haran, some of Abraham’s kinsmen still lived there, which is why Jacob is told to go there. He flees along a major road northward, hoping to make good time.
Jacob is obviously travelling alone and with great haste, since he stops at a “certain place” and uses a rock for a pillow (Genesis 28:11). As he is sleeping, the Lord sends a great vision in a dream. Such dreams occur throughout the Scriptures, such as with his son Joseph (Genesis 37), Pharaoh (Genesis 41), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2), and Joseph the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:20). God uses these dreams, therefore, as a special means of revelation, both to believer and unbeliever alike, and often at critical moments in salvation history.
In this vision, Jacob sees a “ladder.” This word, however, only occurs here in the Old Testament. The Septuagint renders it with a word which primarily means “ladder,” which is perhaps why this is the most common translation. The word, however, is related to other words, like “siege mound” in 2 Samuel 20:15 or “highway” in Numbers 20:19. Therefore, the basic sense is something like an inclined ramp, which by no means excludes steps or even rungs. However, the raised incline is the key, since it begins on the earth and extends into heaven.
Jesus identifies Himself as this ladder or ramp in John 1:51, where He calls Nathanael and proclaims His own divinity. Because the Lord gives the promise which He made to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-16) and to Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5) now to Jacob, Christ seems to say that He too is the conduit of such blessings to His people. “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Since Jacob calls that place “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven,” it points toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is the Son of God (John 14:6)! Further, Christ is also proclaiming both His own divinity, since He is a part of this vision to Jacob, and that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made this promise to His people so long ago that night.
The Lord also consoles Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). Jacob doubtlessly was afraid of Esau his brother, and a red-eyed flight northwards to escape being murdered also made him wonder about his future. But the Lord was with Jacob even in the midst of this exile or sojourning, so that he would become Israel and the father of the Lord’s people. The Lord will not break His promises, even when it seems like they are so far from being able to be fulfilled.
Jacob awakes and makes a curious statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). On the one hand, Jacob like his fathers is a stranger and a wanderer in a land which did not belong to him, even though it was promised to his offspring. Jacob in his terror may have thought that he was being driven away from the Lord as well, since his relatives were not necessarily God-fearing (Laban his uncle, for example, was an obvious idolator in Genesis 31:19). On the other hand, since he saw “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) even more so than we (Matthew 13:17; Hebrews 11:13), it may be that he thought that the Lord remained behind him as he fled to the north. Imagine his surprise, then, to discover what his offspring David says in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”
Jacob in the morning sets up the stone and unsurprisingly calls the place Bethel, literally “house of God” (Genesis 28:19). It would not become a city for many years, but it would play an important role in the history of Israel. Bethel sits on the road north of Jerusalem, but when the kingdom divided, it became a part of the Northern Kingdom. Being so close to the border between the kingdoms, it was essentially the southern point in the same way Beersheba was for the whole kingdom. Jeroboam, therefore, set up one of his golden calves at Bethel (1 Kings 12:29). The place where God had appeared to Jacob therefore became a sin and a snare to Israel. Physical locations where the Lord performs His miracles, however important they may be for salvation history, too often serve as a snare to faith in the same way. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred” (Matthew 23:17)? But Elijah and Elisha set up one of their schools in Bethel and the true worship of God continued even in the midst of idolatry (2 Kings 2:2-3).