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Bargaining with God

Updated: Dec 22, 2022


Torah Portion: Vayetzei (“and he went out”)

Shabbat: Dec. 3, 2002 / Kislev 9, 5783

Torah: Gen. 28:10-32:3

Prophets: Hos. 12:13-14:10

New Covenant: John 1:19-51


Paul’s prayer in Colossians

“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins”. Colossians 1:9-14


Let's think about the patriarch Jacob (יַעֲקב) for a moment. Recall that the haunting and profound ache in his soul came from the lack of his father's love and appreciation. Tragically, when Jacob finally conspired with his mother's vision for his life by deceiving his father Isaac, he found himself an outcast from the family and was forced to flee the vengeance of his corrupt brother, Esau. Jacob's exile began in heartache and sorrow. While he was on the run to Haran, however, the sun began to set, and Jacob made a last stop "at a certain place" (יִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם) before leaving the Promised Land (according to midrash, the sun miraculously set quickly so that Jacob would dwell there before his long exile). Wearied from the journey, Jacob devised a makeshift "bed" in the field and used a stone as a pillow. That night Jacob dreamed his famous dream of the ladder (sullam) that was set up on earth and reached toward heaven with the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) ascending and descending upon it:

And behold, the LORD stood beside him (נִצָּב עָלָיו) and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your descendants (seed) shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 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" (Gen. 28:13-15).

When Jacob awoke, he was overawed. "Surely the LORD is in this place and I knew it not." Shaken by the vision, he said, mah nora ha-makom hazeh - "How awesome is this place!" and added, ein zeh ki im-bet Elohim v'zeh sha'ar ha-shamayim - "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17). Jacob then made a monument from the stone he had used as a pillow, anointed it with oil, and called the place Bet-El (בֵּית־אֵל) - "the house of God." It is likely that this was the place that Abraham erected an altar to the LORD after he came to the Promised Land (Gen. 12:8). First a couple quick observations. This is Jacob's last stop in the Promised Land before going into exile for nearly 20 years. But why does the LORD call Himself the "God of Abraham your father" and then almost parenthetically add "the God of Isaac"? Was this the LORD's way of acknowledging Isaac's mistaken judgment? Was this meant to connect the exile of Abraham from his homeland with Jacob's forthcoming exile? Second, the idea that "seed" is translated as "descendants" -- despite being a masculine singular noun (זַרְעֲךָ) -- is valid, since this "seed" would be "like the dust of the earth" (indicating multiplicity). The Apostle Paul's use of this verse, then, in Galatians 3:16, is literally correct, but the texts found in Gen. 15:5, 17:7, 22:17, 26:24, and 28:14 should be read in the plural, corresponding to the metaphorical use of "stars," "dust" and "sand" to represent the innumerable descendants of Israel. Like many prophecies given in the Tanakh, this one is "dual aspect," meaning that it refers to two different things. First it refers to the descendants of Jacob (i.e., the Jewish people), and later, it refers to the Seed of Promise that was the Messiah. The Talmud states that the angels assigned to the Promised Land were ascending the ladder while the angels assigned to another territory (chutz la'aretz) were descending. In other words, the angels guarding the Promised Land were not to accompany Jacob in his exile, but other angels would... As this procession occurred, Jacob heard them saying, "Come, O sun, Come O Sun," referring to the illumination that would become manifest in the world. Some of the sages liken the ladder to a great mizbe'ach (altar) with the angels representing the fragrance of sacrifice before the LORD. This adheres with the Messianic view that Yeshua is Sullam Adonai - the Ladder of the LORD, the Bridge to Heaven. It is significant that immediately after anointing and renaming the place, Jacob made the following vow to the LORD:

If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you. (Gen. 28:20-22)

Now the immediate question here is how to understand this vow. Was Jacob trying to "make a bargain" with God? Was his vow conditional? Was he in effect saying, "If God takes care of my material well being during this period of exile, and restores me b'shalom (in peace) to my father's house, then I will serve Him? According to the Jewish sage Rashi, these verses should be read:

IF God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, and the LORD shall be my God, THEN this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you. (Gen. 28:20-22)

In other words, given the context of the situation (i.e., God's promise to multiply his descendants, inherit the land, and so on), Jacob is merely restating God's intent and affirming his faith that God will follow through with His promises. In effect Jacob is saying, "If you will be my God, then I will honor you as such..." If, on the other hand, Jacob is somehow prevented from ever returning to the Promised Land, he would be unable to keep his vow to the LORD. It all depends on the LORD. According to other sages, however, Jacob understood God's Presence to be somehow tied with the Promised Land itself, almost as if God were a local deity of the land. This notion shows up in Jewish commentary about the ladder to heaven with the angels of Israel biding Jacob farewell, while the angels of the "other land" descend to greet him... Indeed, the Talmud states, "Whoever lives outside the land of Israel is as if he had no God" (Ketubot 110b). The midrash amplifies this notion, saying that the only reason a Jew should keep the commandments while in the Diaspora is so that they would not be forgotten when they eventually return to their divine inheritance. (It shouldn't be necessary to note that this is a gravely mistaken idea, since the LORD is King over all the earth (Psalm 47:2) and the whole world is filled with His glory (Isa. 6:3)). Still other sages note that Jacob's vow was made to God as Elohim, the Creator and Judge of all, but if things went according to His promise, Jacob would understand God as YHVH, the Source of compassion and love:

If God (אֱלהִים) will be with me ... then the LORD (יהוה) shall be my God...

In other words, Jacob was saying that if he returned to the Promised Land b'shalom el bet avi, "in peace to my father's house," then he would understand God as the Compassionate One. How so? Because this would represent refuah shlemah - a complete healing - for Jacob. Being restored to the love of his father would demonstrate God's compassion and ultimately give his heart room for true worship of the LORD. Finding the Father's heart is the source for our worship, too.


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