THE NAME BETHEL MEANS “house of God.” I wonder how many churches, houses, Bible colleges and seminaries, Christian shelters, and other institutions have chosen this name to grace their signs and their letterheads.
Yet the event that gave rise to the name (Gen. 28) was a mixed bag. There is Isaac, scurrying across the miles to the home of his uncle Laban. Ostensibly he is looking for a godly wife ó but this reason nests more comfortably in Isaac’s mind than in Jacob’s. In reality he is running for his life, as the previous chapter makes clear: he wishes to escape being assassinated by his own brother in the wake of his own tawdry act of betrayal and deceit. Judging by the requests he makes to God, he is in danger of having too little food and inadequate clothing, and he is already missing his own family (28: 20-21). Yet here God meets him in a dream so vivid that Jacob declares, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).
For his part, God reiterates the substance of the Abrahamic Covenant to the grandson of Abraham. The vision of the ladder opens up the prospect of access to God, of God’s immediate contact with a man who up to this point seems more driven by expedience than principle. God promises that his descendants will multiply and be given this land. The ultimate expansion is also repeated: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (28:14). Even at the personal level, Jacob will not be abandoned, for God declares, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15).
Awakened from his dream, Jacob erects an altar and calls the place Bethel. But in large measure he is still the same wheeler-dealer. He utters a vow: If God will do this and that and the other, if I get all that I want and hope for out of this deal, “then the LORD will be my God” (28:20-21).
And God does not strike him down! The story moves on: God does all that he promised, and more. All of Jacob’s conditions are met. One of the great themes of Scripture is how God meets us where we are: in our insecurities, in our conditional obedience, in our mixture of faith and doubt, in our fusion of awe and self-interest, in our understanding and foolishness. God does not disclose himself only to the greatest and most stalwart, but to us, at our Bethel, the house of God.