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28. Jacob Flees to Laban
And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. 2Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother. 3And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; 4And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham. 5And Isaac sent away Jacob: and he went to Padanaram unto Laban, son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.
6When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob, and sent him away to Padanaram, to take him a wife from thence; and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan; 7And that Jacob obeyed his father and his mother, and was gone to Padanaram; 8And Esau seeing that the daughters of Canaan pleased not Isaac his father; 9Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.
10And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; 14And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
16And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. 17And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. 18And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 19And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. 20And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, 21So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: 22And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
1. And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him. It may be asked, whether the reason why Isaac repeats anew the benediction which he had before pronounced, was that the former one had been of no force; whereas, if he was a prophet and interpreter of the will of God, what had once proceeded from his mouth ought to have been firm and perpetual. I answer, although the benedictions was in itself efficacious, yet the faith of Jacob required support of this kind: just as the Lord, in reiterating, frequently the same promises, derogates nothing either from himself or from his word, but rather confirms the certainty of that word to his servants, lest, at any time, their confidence should be shaken through the infirmity of the flesh. What I have said must also be kept in mind, that Isaac prayed, not as a private person, but as one furnished with a special command of God, to transmit the covenant deposited with himself to his son Jacob. It was also of the greatest importance that now, at length, Jacob should be blessed by his father, knowingly and willingly; lest at a future time a doubt, arising from the recollection of his father’s mistake and of his own fraud, might steal over his mind. Therefore Isaac, now purposely directing his words to his son Jacob, pronounces the blessing to be due to him by right, lest it should be thought that, having been before deceived, he had uttered words in vain, under a false character.
2. Arise, go to Padan-aram. In the first place, he commands him to take a wife from his maternal race. He might have sent for her by some one of his servants, as Rebekah had been brought to him; but perhaps he took this course to avoid the envy of Esau, who might regard it as a reproach if more solicitude were manifested about his brother’s marriage than about his own.
3. And God Almighty bless thee. Here follows the form of benediction, which slightly differs in words from the former, but nevertheless tends to the same end. First, he desires that Jacob should be blessed by God; that is, that he should be so increased and amplified in his own offspring, as to grow into a multitude of nations; or, in other words, that he should produce many people who might combine into one body under the same head; as if he had said, Let there arise from thee many tribes, who shall constitute one people. And this truly was, in some measure, fulfilled when Moses distributed the people into thirteen divisions. Nevertheless, Isaac looked for a further result, namely, that many were at length to be gathered together out of various nations, to the family of his son, that, in this manner, from a vast and previously scattered multitude, might be formed one assembly. For it is not to be doubted, that he wished to hand down what he had received; seeing that he immediately afterwards celebrates the memory of the original covenant, deriving his present benediction from thence as its source: as if he had said, that he transferred whatever right he had from his father; to his son Jacob, in order that the inheritance of life might remain with him, according to the covenant of God made with Abraham. They who expound this as being said in the way of comparison, as if Isaac5353 In the editions of Amsterdam and Berlin, the name Jacob is here inserted; and the old English version has it too. The mistake is obvious, and stands corrected in the French translation. — Ed. wished those benefits which God had before conferred on Abraham to be in the same manner granted to his son, attenuate the meaning of the words. For since God, in making his covenant with Abraham, had annexed this condition, that it should descend to his posterity, it was necessary to trace its commencement to his person as its root. Therefore, Isaac constitutes his son Jacob the heir of Abraham, as successor to the benediction deposited with him, and promised to his seed. This also appears more clearly from the context following, where he assigns to him the dominion over the land, because it had been given to Abraham. Moreover, we perceive, in this member of the sentence, with what consistency of faith the holy fathers rested on the word of the Lord; for otherwise, they would have found it no small temptation to be driven about as strangers and pilgrims in the very land, the possession of which had been divinely assigned them a hundred years before. But we see, that in their wanderings and their unsettled mode of life, they no less highly estimated what God had promised them, than if they had already been in the full enjoyment of it. And this is the true trial of faith; when relying on the word of God alone, although tossed on the waves of the world, we stand as firmly as if our abode were already fixed in heaven. Isaac expressly fortifies his son against this temptation, when he calls the land of which he constitutes him lord, the land of his wanderings. For by these words he teaches him that it was possible he might be a wanderer all the days of his life: but this did not hinder the promise of God from being so ratified, that he, contented with that alone, might patiently wait for the time of revelation. Even the plural number5454 Terram peregrinationum — the land of wanderings. seems to express something significant, namely, that Jacob would be a wanderer not once only, but in various ways and perpetually. Since, however, the Hebrew plural has not always such emphasis, I do not insist on this interpretation. It is more worthy of notice, that the faith of Jacob was proved by a severe and rigid trial, seeing, that for this very reason, the land is promised to him in word only, while in fact, he is cast far away from it. For he seems to be the object of ridicule, when he is commanded to possess the dominion of the land, and yet to leave it and to bid it farewell, and to depart into distant exile.
6. When Esau saw. A brief narration concerning Esau is here inserted, which it is useful to know; because we learn from it that the wicked, though they exalt themselves against God, and though, in contempt of his grace, they please themselves in obtaining their desires, are yet not able to despise that grace altogether. So now, Esau is penetrated with a desire of the blessing; not that he aspires to it sincerely and from his heart; but perceiving it to be something valuable, he is impelled to seek after it, though with reluctance. A further fault is, that he does not seek it as he ought: for he devises a new and strange method of reconciling God and his father to himself; and therefore all his diligence is without profit. At the same time he does not seem to be careful about pleasing God, so that he may but propitiate his father. Before all things, it was his duty to cast aside his profane disposition, his perverse manners, and his corrupt affections of the flesh, and then to bear with meekness the chastisement inflicted upon him: for genuine repentance would have dictated to him this sentiment, Seeing I have hitherto rendered myself unworthy of the birthright, my brother is deservedly preferred before me. Nothing, therefore, remains for me but to humble myself, and since I am deprived of the honor of being the head, let it suffice me to be at least one of the members of the Church. And, certainly, it would have been more desirable for him to remain in some obscure corner of the Church, than, as one cut off and torn away from the elect people, to shine with a proud preeminence on earth. He aims, however, at nothing of this kind, but attempts, by I know not what prevarications, to appease his father in whatever way he may be able. Moses, in this example, depicts all hypocrites to the life. For as often as the judgment of God urges them, though they are wounded with the pain of their punishment, they yet do not seek a true remedy; for having aimed at offering one kind of satisfaction only, they entirely neglect a simple and real conversion: and even in the satisfaction offered, they only make a pretense. Whereas Esau ought thoroughly to have repented, he only tried to correct the single fault of his marriage; and this too in a most absurd manner. Yet another defect follows: for while he retains the wives who were so hateful to his parents, he supposes he has discharged his duty by marrying a third. But by this method, neither was the trouble of his parents alleviated, nor his house cleansed from guilt. And now truly, whence does he marry his third wife? From the race of Ishmael, whom we know to have been himself degenerate, and whose posterity had departed from the pure worship of God. A remarkable proof of this is discernible at the present day, in the pretended and perfidious intermeddlers, who imagine they can admirably adjust religious differences by simply adorning their too gross corruptions with attractive colors.5555 The Council of Trent is here obviously referred to, which held its sessions from the year 1545 to the year 1563. This council was the Romanist reaction upon the Protestant reformation. Father Paul gives a singular and graphic description of the persons, the characters, and the arguments, by which this last council of the Church of Rome was distinguished. It will be remembered that Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis was published about the middle of this protracted period. — Ed. The actual state of things compels them to confess that the vile errors and abuses of Popery have so far prevailed as to render a Reformation absolutely necessary: but they are unwilling that the filth of this Camarine marsh be stirred;5656 Camarina was a city on the south of Sicily, placed near the mouths of two rivers, close to which was a march or lake, called the Camarine lake, injurious to health, and often producing pestilence. It is reported that the inhabitants consulted Apollo whether or not they should drain it. The answer was, that it would be better undrained. This answer they disregarded, and in consequence the enemy found it easy to attack and plunder the city. Hence the proverb, “Ne moveas Camarinam;” that is, “Do not get rid of one evil to bring on you a greater.” — Ed. they only desire to conceal its impurities, and even that they do by compulsion. For they had previously called their abominations the sacred worship of God; but since these are now dragged to light by the word of God, they therefore descend to novel artifices. They flatter themselves, however; in vain, seeing they are here condemned by Moses, in the person of Esau. Away, then, with their impure pretended reformation, which has nothing simple nor sincere. Moreover, since it is a disease inherent in the human race, willingly to attempt to deceive God by some fictitious pretext, let us know that we do nothing effectually, until we tear up our sins by the roots, and thoroughly devote ourselves to God.
10. And Jacob went out. In the course of this history we must especially observe, how the Lord preserved his own Church in the person of one man. For Isaac, on account of his age, lay like a dry trunk; and although the living root of piety was concealed within his breast, yet no hope of further offspring remained in his exhausted and barren old age. Esau, like a green and flourishing branch, had much of show and splendor, but his vigor was only momentary. Jacob, as a severed twig, was removed into a far distant land; not that, being ingrafted or planted there, he should acquire strength and greatness, but that, being moistened with the dew of heaven, he might put forth his shoots as into the air itself. For the Lord wonderfully nourishes him, and supplies him with strength, until he shall bring him back again to his father’s house. Meanwhile, let the reader diligently observe, that while he who was blessed by God is cast into exile; occasion of glorying was given to the reprobate Esau, who was left in the possession of everything, so that he might securely reign without a rival. Let us not, then, be disturbed, if at any time the wicked sound their triumphs, as having gained their wishes, while we are oppressed. Moses mentions the name of Beersheba, because, as it formed one of the boundaries of the land of Canaan, and lay towards the great desert and the south, it was the more remote from the eastern region towards which Jacob was going. He afterwards adds Charran, (Genesis 29:1,) where Abraham, when he left his own country, dwelt for some time. Now, it appears that not only the pious old man Terah, when he followed his son, or accompanied him on his journey, came to Charran where he died; but that his other son Nahor, with his family, also came to the same place. For we read in the eleventh chapter (Genesis 11:1,) that Terah took his son Abraham, and Lot his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law. Whence we infer that Nahor, at that time, remained in Chaldea, his native country. But now, since Moses says, that Laban dwelt at Charran, we may hence conjecture, that Nahor, in order that he might not appear guilty of the inhumanity of deserting his father, afterwards gathered together his goods and came to him.
Moses here, in a few words, declares what a severe and arduous journey the holy man (Jacob) had, on account of its great length: to which also another circumstance is added; namely, that he lay on the ground, under the open sky, without a companion, and without a habitation. But as Moses only briefly alludes to these facts, so will I also avoid prolixity, as the thing speaks for itself. Wherefore, if, at any time, we think ourselves to be roughly treated, let us remember the example of the holy man, as a reproof to our fastidiousness.
12. And he dreamed. Moses here teaches how opportunely, and (as we may say) in the critical moment, the Lord succoured his servant. For who would not have said that holy Jacob was neglected by God, since he was exposed to the incursion of wild beasts, and obnoxious to every kind of injury from earth and heaven, and found nowhere any help or solace? But when he was thus reduced to the last necessity, the Lord suddenly stretches out his hand to him, and wonderfully alleviates his trouble by a remarkable oracle. As, therefore, Jacob’s invincible perseverance had before shone forth, so now the Lord gives a memorable example of his paternal care towards the faithful. Three things are here to be noticed in their order; first, that the Lord appeared unto Jacob in a dream; secondly, the nature of the vision as described by Moses; thirdly, the words of the oracle. When mention is made of a dream, no doubt that mode of revelation is signified, which the Lord formerly was wont to adopt towards his servants. (Numbers 12:6.) Jacob, therefore, knew that this dream was divinely sent to him, as one differing from common dreams; and this is intimated in the words of Moses, when he says that God appeared to him in a dream. For Jacob could not see God, nor perceive him present, unless his majesty had been distinguishable by certain marks.
And behold a ladder. Here the form of the vision is related, which is very pertinent to the subject of it; namely, that God manifested himself as seated upon a ladder, the extreme parts of which touched heaven and earth, and which was the vehicle of angels, who descended from heaven upon earth. The interpretation of some of the Hebrews, that the ladder is a figure of the Divine Providence, cannot be admitted: for the Lord has given another sign more suitable.5757 Whatever force and truth, as well as beauty, there may be in the exposition of Calvin which follows, he appears to have dismissed too hastily the opinion of the Jews, that the vision was symbolical of Divine Providence. The circumstances of Jacob seemed to require some such intimations of Divine protection and care during his journey, as this interpretation of the vision presents. And in every way the passage thus understood is both useful and encouraging. There is, however, no need to question, that the higher mystical interpretation, on which Calvin exclusively insists, is the legitimately applicable, as conveying the ultimate and, in short, the most important meaning of the vision. The reader may consult the 123d Exercitation of Rivetus on this subject. — Rivetus in Gen., p. 602. But to us, who hold to this principle, that the covenant of God was founded in Christ, and that Christ himself was the eternal image of the Father, in which he manifested himself to the holy patriarchs, there is nothing in this vision intricate or ambiguous. For since men are alienated from God by sin, though he fills and sustains all things by his power; yet that communication by which he would draw us to himself is not perceived by us; but, on the other hand, so greatly are we at variance with him, that, regarding him as adverse to us, we, in our turn, flee from his presence. Moreover the angels, to whom is committed the guardianship of the human race, while strenuously applying themselves to their office, yet do not communicate with us in such a way that we become conscious of their presence. It is Christ alone, therefore, who connects heaven and earth: he is the only Mediator who reaches from heaven down to earth: he is the medium through which the fullness of all celestial blessings flows down to us, and through which we, in turn, ascend to God. He it is who, being the head over angels, causes them to minister to his earthly members. Therefore, (as we read in John 1:51,) he properly claims for himself this honor, that after he shall have been manifested in the world, angels shall ascend and descend. If, then, we say that the ladder is a figure of Christ, the exposition will not be forced. For the similitude of a ladder well suits the Mediator, through whom ministering angels, righteousness and life, with all the graces of the Holy Spirit, descend to us step by step. We also, who were not only fixed to the earth, but plunged into the depths of the curse, and into hell itself, ascend even unto God. Also, the God of hosts is seated on the ladder; because the fullness of the Deity dwells in Christ; and hence also it is, that it reaches unto heaven. For although all power is committed even to his human nature by the Father, he still would not truly sustain our faith, unless he were God manifested in the flesh. And the fact that the body of Christ is finite, does not prevent him from filling heaven and earth, because his grace and power are everywhere diffused. Whence also, Paul being witness, he ascended into heaven that he might fill all things. They who translate the particle על (al) by the word “near,” entirely destroy the sense of the passage. For Moses wishes to state that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in the person of the Mediator. Christ not only approached unto us, but clothed himself in our nature, that he might make us one with himself. That the ladder was a symbol of Christ, is also confirmed by this consideration, that nothing was more suitable than that God should ratify his covenant of eternal salvation in his Son to his servant Jacob. And hence we feel unspeakable joy, when we hear that Christ, who so far excels all creatures, is nevertheless joined with us. The majesty, indeed, of God, which here presents itself conspicuously to view, ought to inspire terror; so that every knee should bow to Christ, that all creatures should look up to him and adore him, and that all flesh should keep silence in his presence. But his friendly and lovely image is at the same time depicted; that we may know by his descent, that heaven is opened to us, and the angels of God are rendered familiar to us. For hence we have fraternal society with them, since the common Head both of them and us has his station on earth.
13. I am the Lord God of Abraham. This is the third point which, I said, was to be noticed: for mute visions are cold; therefore the word of the Lord is as the soul which quickens them. The figure, therefore, of the ladder was the inferior appendage of this promise; just as God illustrates and adorns his word by external symbols, that both greater clearness and authority may be added to it. Whence also we prove that sacraments in the Papacy are frivolous, because no voice is heard in them which may edify the soul. We may therefore observe, that whenever God manifested himself to the fathers, he also spoke, lest a mute vision should have held them in suspense. Under the name יהוהJehovah God teaches that he is the only Creator of the world, that Jacob might not seek after other gods. But since his majesty is in itself incomprehensible, he accommodates himself to the capacity of his servant, by immediately adding, that he is the God of Abraham and Isaac. For though it is necessary to maintain that the God whom we worship is the only God; yet because when our senses would aspire to the comprehension of his greatness, they fail at the first attempt; we must diligently cultivate that sobriety which teaches us not to desire to know more concerning him than he reveals unto us; and then he, accommodating himself to our weakness, according to his infinite goodness, sill omit nothing which tends to promote our salvation. And whereas he made a special covenant with Abraham and Isaac, proclaiming himself their God, he recalls his servant Jacob to the true source of faith, and retains him also in his perpetual covenant. This is the sacred bond of religion, by which all the sons of God are united among themselves, when from the first to the last they hear the same promise of salvation, and agree together in one common hope. And this is the effect of that benediction which Jacob had lately received from his father; because God with his own mouth pronounces him to be the heir of the covenant, lest the mere testimony of man should be thought illusive.
The land whereon thou liest. We read that the land was given to his posterity; yet he himself was not only a stranger in it to the last, but was not permitted even to die there. Whence we infer, that under the pledge or earnest of the land, something better and more excellent was given, seeing that Abraham was a spiritual possessor of the land, and contented with the mere beholding of it, fixed his chief regard on heaven. We, may observe, however, that the seed of Jacob is here placed in opposition to the other sons of Abraham, who, according to the flesh, traced their origin to him, but were cut off from the holy people: yet, from the time when the sons of Jacob entered the land of Canaan, they had the perpetual inheritance unto the coming of Christ, by whose advent the world was renewed.
14. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth. The sum of the whole is this, Whatever the Lord had promised to Abraham, Jacob transmitted to his sons. Meanwhile it behoved the holy man, in reliance on this divine testimony, to hope against hope; for though the promise was vast and magnificent, yet, wherever Jacob turned himself, no ray of good hope shone upon him. He saw himself a solitary man; no condition better than that of exile presented itself; his return was uncertain and full of danger; but it was profitable for him to be thus left destitute of all means of help, that he might learn to depend on the word of God alone. Thus, at the present time, if God freely promises to give us all things, and yet seems to approach us empty-handed, it is still proper that we should pay such honor and reverence to his word, that we may be enriched and filled with faith. At length, indeed, after the death of Jacob, the event declared how efficacious had been this promise: by which example we are taught that the Lord by no means disappoints his people, even when he defers the granting of those good things which he has promised, till after their death.
And in thee, and in thy seed, shall all the families of the earth be blessed5858 Et benedicent se in to omnes fines terrae. “And all the ends of the earth shall bless themselves in thee.” The reader will perceive that Calvin’s remarks turn chiefly on the expression “bless themselves,” which does not appear in our version. — Ed. This clause has the greater weight, because in Jacob and in his seed the blessing is to be restored from which the whole human race had been cut off in their first parent. But what this expression means, I have explained above; namely, that Jacob will not only be an exemplar, or formula of blessing, but its fountain, cause, or foundation; for though a certain exquisite degree of happiness is often signified by an expression of this kind; yet, in many passages of Scripture, it means the same as to desire from any one his blessing, and to acknowledge it as his gift. Thus men are said to bless themselves in God, when they acknowledge him as the author of all good. So here God promises that in Jacob and his seed all nations shall bless themselves, because no happiness will ever be found except what proceeds from this source. That, however, which is peculiar to Christ, is without impropriety transferred to Jacob, in whose loins Christ then was. Therefore, inasmuch as Jacob, at that time, represented the person of Christ, it is said that all nations are to be blessed in him; but, seeing that the manifestation of a benefit so great depended on another, the expression in thy seed is immediately added in the way of explanation. That the word seed is a collective noun, forms no objection to this interpretation, (as I have elsewhere said,) for since all unbelievers deprive themselves of honor and of grace, and are thus accounted strangers; it is necessary to refer to the Head, in order that the unity of the seed may appear. Whoever will reverently ponder this, will easily see that, in this interpretation, which is that of Paul, there is nothing tortuous or constrained.
15. I am with thee, and will keep thee. God now promptly anticipates the temptation which might steal over the mind of holy Jacob; for though he is, for a time, thrust out into a foreign land, God declares that he will be his keeper until he shall have brought him back again. He then extends his promise still further; saying, that he will never desert him till all things are fulfilled. There was a twofold use of this promise: first, it retained his mind in the faith of the divine covenant; and, secondly, it taught him that it could not be well with him unless he were a partaker of the promised inheritance.
16. And Jacob awaked. Moses again affirms that this was no common dream; for when any one awakes he immediately perceives that he had been under a delusions in dreaming. But God impressed a sign on the mind of his servant, by which, when he awoke, he might recognize the heavenly oracle which he had heard in his sleep. Moreover, Jacob, in express terms, accuses himself, and extols the goodness of God, who deigned to present himself to one who sought him not; for Jacob thought that he was there alone: but now, after the Lord appeared, he wonders, and exclaims that he had obtained more than he could have dared to hope for. It is not, however, to be doubted that Jacob had called upon God, and had trusted that he would be the guide of his journey; but, because his faith had not availed to persuade him that God was thus near unto him, he justly extols this act of grace. So, whenever God anticipates our wishes, and grants us more than our minds have conceived; let us learn, after the example of this patriarch, to wonder that God should have been present with us. Now, if each of us would reflect how feeble his faith is, this mode of speaking would appear always proper for us all; for who can comprehend, in his scanty measure, the immense multitude of gifts which God is perpetually heaping upon us?
17. And he was afraid, and said. It seems surprising that Jacob should fear, when God spoke so graciously to him; or that he should call that place “dreadful,” where he had been filled with incredible joy. I answer, although God exhilarates his servants, he at the same time inspires them with fear, in order that they may learn, with true humility and self-denial, to embrace his mercy. We are not therefore to understand that Jacob was struck with terror, as reprobates are, as soon as God shows himself; but he was inspired with a fear which produces pious submission. He also properly calls that place the gate of heaven, on account of the manifestation of God: for, because God is placed in heaven as on his royal throne, Jacob truly declares that, in seeing God, he had penetrated into heaven. In this sense the preaching of the gospel is called the kingdom of heaven, and the sacraments may be called the gate of heaven, because they admit us into the presence of God. The Papists, however, foolishly misapply this passage to their temples, as if God dwelt in filthy places.5959 In foetidis lupanaribus. But if we concede, that the places which they designate by this title, are not polluted with impious superstitions, yet this honor belongs to no peculiar place, since Christ has filled the whole world with the presence of his Deity. Those helps to faith only, (as I have before taught,) by which God raises us to himself, can be called the gates of heaven.
18. And Jacob rose up early. Moses relates that the holy father was not satisfied with merely giving thanks at the time, but would also transmit a memorial of his gratitude to posterity. Therefore he raised a monument, and gave a name to the place, which implied that he thought such a signal benefit of God worthy to be celebrated in all ages. For this reason, the Scripture not only commands the faithful to sing the praises of God among their brethren; but also enjoins them to train their children to religious duties, and to propagate the worship of God among their descendants.
And set it up for a pillar. Moses does not mean that the stone was made an idol, but that it should be a special memorial. God indeed uses this word מצבה (matsbah,) when he forbids statues to be erected to himself, (Leviticus 26:1,) because almost all statues were objects of veneration, as if they were likenesses of God. But the design of Jacob was different; namely, that he might leave a testimony of the vision which had appeared unto him, not that he might represent God by that symbol or figure. Therefore the stone was not there placed by him, for the purpose of depressing the minds of men into any gross superstition, but rather of raising them upward. He used oil as a sign of consecration, and not without reason; for as, in the world, everything is profane which is destitute of the Spirit of God, so there is no pure religion except that which the heavenly unction sanctifies. And to this point the solemn right of consecration, which God commanded in his law, tends, in order that the faithful may learn to bring in nothing of their own, lest they should pollute the temple and worship of God. And though, in the times of Jacob, no teaching had yet been committed to writing; it is, nevertheless, certain that he had been imbued with that principle of piety which God from the beginning had infused into the hearts of the devout: wherefore, it is not to be ascribed to superstition that he poured oil upon the stone; but he rather testified, as I have said, that no worship can be acceptable to God, or pure, without the sanctification of the Spirit. Other commentators argue, with more subtlety, that the stone was a symbol of Christ, on whom all the graces of the Spirit were poured out, that all might draw out of his fullness; but I do not know that any such thing entered the mind of Moses or of Jacob. I am satisfied with what I have before stated, that a stone was erected to be a witness or a memorial (so to speak) of a vision, the benefit of which reaches to all ages. It may be asked, Whence did the holy man obtain oil in the desert? They who answer that it had been brought from a neighboring city are, in my opinion, greatly deceived; for this place was then void of inhabitants, as I shall soon show. I therefore rather conjecture, that on account of the necessity of the times, seeing that suitable accommodations could not always be had, he had taken some portion of food for his journey along with him; and as we know that great use was made of oil in those parts, it is no wonder if he carried a flagon of oil with his bread.
19. And he called the name of that place Beth-el. It may appear absurd that Moses should speak of that place as a city, respecting which he had a little while before said that Jacob had slept there in the open air; for why did not he seek an abode, or hide himself in some corner of a house? But the difficulty is easily solved, because the city was not yet built; neither did the place immediately take the name which Jacob had assigned, but lay long concealed. Even when a town was afterwards built on the spot, no mention is made of Beth-el, as if Jacob had never passed that way; for the inhabitants did not know what had been done there, and therefore they called the city Luz,6060 The word לוז (Luz) signifies an almond-tree, and the town may have derived this name from the fact that almond-trees abounded in the neighborhood. Yet the verb from which it is taken means “to turn away, to depart, to go back;” also “to be perverse, or wicked;” and it is not impossible that this name may have been assigned to it on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants. See the Lexicons of Schindler, Gesenius, etc. — Ed according to their own imagination; which name it retained until the Israelites, having taken possession of the land, recalled into common use, as by an act of restoration, the former name which had been abolished. And it is to be observed, that when posterity, by a foolish emulation, worshipped God in Beth-el, seeing that it was done without a divine command, the prophets severely inveighed against that worship, calling the name of the place Bethaven, that is, the house of iniquity: whence we infer how unsafe it is to rely upon the examples of the fathers without the word of God. The greatest care, therefore, must be taken, in treating of the worship of God, that what has been once done by men, should not be drawn into a precedent; but that what God himself has prescribed in his word should remain an inflexible rule.
20. And Jacob vowed a vow. The design of this vow was, that Jacob would manifest his gratitude, if God should prove favorable unto him. Thus they offered peace-offerings under the law, to testify their gratitude; and since thanksgiving is a sacrifice of a sweet odour, the Lord declares vows of this nature to be acceptable to him; and therefore we must also have respect to this point, when we are asked what and how it is lawful to vow to God; for some are too fastidious, who would utterly condemn all vows rather than open the door to superstitions. But if the rashness of those persons is perverse, who indiscriminately pour forth their vows, we must also beware lest we become like those on the opposite side, who disallow all vows without exception. Now, in order that a vow may be lawful and pleasing to God, it is first necessary that it should tend to a right end; and next, that men should devote nothing by a vow but what is in itself approved by God, and what he has placed within their own power. When the separate parts of this vow are examined, we shall see holy Jacob so regulating his conduct as to omit none of these things which I have mentioned. In the first place, he has nothing else in his mind than to testify his gratitude. Secondly, he confines whatever he is about to do, to the lawful worship of God. Inthe third place, he does not proudly promise what he had not the power to perform, but devotes the tithe of his goods as a sacred oblation. Wherefore, the folly of the Papists is easily refuted; who, in order to justify their own confused farrago of vows, catch at one or another vow, soberly conceived, as a precedent, when in the meantime their own license exceeds all bounds. Whatever comes uppermost they are not ashamed to obtrude upon God. One man makes his worship to consist in abstinence from flesh, another in pilgrimages, a third in sanctifyingcertain days by the use of sackcloth, or by other things of the same kind; and not to God only do they make their vows, but also admit any dead person they please into a participation of this honor. They arrogate to themselves the choice of perpetual celibacy. What do they find in the example of Jacob which has any similitude or affinity to such rashness, that they should hence catch at such a covering for themselves? But, for the purpose of bringing all these things clearly to light, we must first enter upon an explanation of the words. It may seem absurd that Jacob here makes a covenant with God, to be his worshipper, if he will give him what he desires; as if truly he did not intend to worship God for nothing. I answer, that, by interposing this condition, Jacob did not by any means act from distrust, as if he doubted of God’s continual protection; but that in this manner made provision against his own infirmity, in preparing himself to celebrate the divine goodness by a vow previously made.6161 See desposant a celebrer la bonnet de Dieu, en se vouant expressement a luy. Preparing himself to celebrate the goodness of God, in devoting himself expressly to him. — Fr. Tr. The superstitious deal with God just as they do with mortal man; they try to soothe him with their allurements. The design of Jacob was far different; namely, that he might the more effectually stimulate himself to the duties of religion. He had often heard from the mouth of God, I will be always with thee; and he annexes his vow as an appendage to that promise. He seems indeed, at first sight, like a mercenary, acting in a servile manner; but since he depends entirely upon the promises given unto him, and forms both his language and his affections in accordance with them, he aims at nothing but the confirmation of his faith, and gathers together those aids which he knows to be suitable to his infirmity. When, therefore, he speaks of food and clothing, we must not, on that account, accuse him of solicitude respecting this earthly life alone; whereas he rather contends, like a valiant champion, against violent temptations. He found himself in want of all things; hunger and nakedness were continually threatening him with death, not to mention his other innumerable dangers: therefore he arms himself with confidence, that he might proceed through all difficulties and obstacles, being fully assured that every kind of assistance was laid up for him in the grace of God: for he confesses himself to be in extreme destitution, when he says, If the Lord will supply me with food and raiment. It may nevertheless be asked, since his grandfather Abraham had sent his servant with a splendid retinue, with camels and precious ornaments; why does Isaac now send away his son without a single companion, and almost without provisions? It is possible that he was thus dismissed, that the mind of cruel Esau might be moved to tenderness by a spectacle so miserable. Yet, in my judgment, another reason was of greater weight; for Abraham, fearing lest his son Isaac should remain with his relatives, took an oath from his servant that he would not suffer his son to go into Mesopotamia. But now, since necessity compels holy Isaac to determine differently for his son Jacob; he, at least, takes care not to do anything which might retard his return. He therefore supplies him with no wealth, and with no delicacies which might ensnare his mind, but purposely sends him away poor and empty, that he might be the more ready to return. Thus we see that Jacob preferred his father’s house to all kingdoms, and had no desire of settled repose elsewhere.
21. Then shall the Lord be my God. In these words Jacob binds himself never to apostatize from the pure worship of the One God; for there is no doubt that he here comprises the sum of piety. But he may seem to promise what far exceeds his strength; for newness of life, spiritual righteousness, integrity of heart, and a holy regulation of the whole life, were not in his own power. I answer, when holy men vow those things which God requires of them, and which are due from them as acts of piety; they, at the same time, embrace what God promises concerning the remission of sins by the help of his Holy Spirit. Hence it follows that they ascribe nothing to their own strength; and also, that whatever falls short of entire perfection does not vitiate their worship, because God, mercifully and with paternal indulgence, pardons them.
22. And this stone which I have set for a pillar. This ceremony was an appendage to divine worship; for external rites do not make men true worshippers of God, but are only aids to piety. But because the holy fathers were then at liberty to erect altars wherever they pleased, Jacob poured a libation upon the stone, because he had then no other sacrifice to offer; not that he worshipped God according to his own will, (for the direction of the Spirit was instead of the written law,) but he erected in that place a stone — as he was permitted to do by the kindness and permission of God, which should be a testimony of the vision. Moreover, this form of speech, that the stone shall be Beth-el, is metonymical; as we are sanctioned, by common usage, to transfer to external signs what properly belongs to the things represented. I have lately shown how ignorantly posterity has abused this holy exercise of piety. What next follows respecting the offering of tithes, is not a simple ceremony, but has a duty of charity annexed; for Jacob enumerates, in a threefold order, first, the spiritual worship of God; then the external rite, by which he both assists his own piety, and makes profession of it before men; in the third place, an oblation, by which he exercises himself in giving friendly aid to his brethren; for there is no doubt that tithes were applied to that use.