Thursday, January 11, 2007


Jacob's Vow: Genesis 28:10-22
This passage has a long history of both misinterpretation and mistranslation. In general, the passage has been read, especially vss. 20-22, as Jacob bargaining with God: if You provide for me, I'll believe in You. The problem with such an understanding is that is fails to realize that there is, as it were, no profit for God in such a deal. Further, it fails to take serious account of the context of the passage, and finally it fails to pay careful attention to the Hebrew syntax of the passage.

Dealing with the last first, the problem of mistranslation, based apparently on either a failure to comprehend the Hebrew syntax, or a misunderstanding of what is taking place, ranges all the way from the Geneva Bible (1599) to the God's Word translation (2003). As most English versions have it, the protasis (the "if" part of an "if/then" statement) begins in vs 20 with "If God will be with me." The apodosis (the "then" part of an "if/then" statement) begins at the end of vs 21 with "then God will be my God." Unfortunately, this follows neither the Hebrew syntax, nor the sense of the larger context. The Hebrew syntax is clear. The protasis begins with the particle im (if) and the imperfect form of the verb. The succeeding elements of the protasis are then linked by the conjunction vav and the perfect form of the verb. The last link in this chain is "and the Lord will be my God" in vs 21. The beginning of vs 22 breaks this verbal sequence (thus ending the protasis and beginning the apodosis) by starting the verse (the next clause in the vow) with a noun, not a verb. Thus, the vow should read: "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way on which I am going, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to my father's house, and Yahweh will be my God, then this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be the house of God, and of all which you give me, I will tithe a tenth to you." This rendering is found in the 1901 American Standard Version.

This rendering also makes the best sense of the context. Jacob, in the clauses of his vow, is taking Yahweh at his word (compare vss 20-21 with Yahweh's promise in vss 13-15, especially vs 15). Thus Jacob's vow is not a bargaining with God, but rather a confession of faith, in which he takes God at His word, and says so. What follows in the account of the life of Jacob is the account of the difficulties of the work of sanctification in the life os a man. Jacob often acts according to his name (character) "supplanter, heel-grabber," rather than according to who he is as a converted child of God. The vicissitudes of his life are not unlike those of our lives. This is set out as a series of examples for our instruction. Let us be instructed thereby.

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