Friday, January 11, 2008

Jacob's Vow: Genesis 28

The following is the note on this passage in the new Apologetics Study Bible: "Because Jacob's vision at Bethel was his closest encounter with God up to this point in his life, he was convinced this place was unique. For him it was 'the house of God,' (the literal meaning of Bethel, and 'the gate of heaven' (v. 17). At his stage in God's progressive revelation, he could not see that no earthly spot could play this role (Acts 7:48-50). Like his brother Esau, Jacob had not been a man of faith. But, even though the conditions he states toward the Lord (Gn 28:20-22) fall short of true faith, they represent a step in the right direction."

That is a common understanding of Jacob's vow: He is bargaining with God, attempting to manipulate God into dealing with him to his profit, just as he has dealt with his brother and his father. There are several things about the passage, and the vow in particular, that argue the wrongness of that interpretation. First, when Jacob awoke from the dream, he confessed both the presence of God and his own ignorance. He also stated his own fear, when he said "how fearsome is this place!" (v. 17). Many translations render that "How awesome is this place!" There are two difficulties with that rendering. First, the word "awesome" has been almost completely devalued in modern American English. Second, the root of the word rendered "awesome" is the verb "to fear." Hence my rendering "How fearsome is this place." (The Contemporary English Version has it, "This is a fearsome place!") Jacob was terrified by the fact that he was ignorant regarding the fact that God was there. This does not seem the sort of situation where Jacob felt himself in charge and able to manipulate.

Second, the vow itself has regularly been misunderstood. Any vow has two parts. The first part is called the protasis (the "if" part). The second part is called the apodosis (the "then" part). Though an argument regarding the Hebrew syntax can be made for either of the following possibilities, the second seems more likely, certainly fits the context better, and is more consistent with other vows in the Old Testament than is the first rendering. The first rendering is: If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if he provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God's house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me (vss 20-22, Holman Christian Standard Bible). The second rendering is: Then Jacob vowed a vow saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way which I am going, and will give to me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to the house of my father, and the Lord will be God to me, then this stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar shall be the house of God, and of all that you give me, I will tithe a tenth to you.

The difference between the two versions is where the "then" occurs. With the first, the then makes Jacob's acceptance of God conditional on God fulfilling the preceding items. In other words, according to this view, Jacob says, God, if you will do the following, I will do you the great favor of taking you as my God, and I'll give you a tithe. The second places the "then" after God, but before the pillar. The significance of that difference is as follows. First, in the wording of the vow, regardless of where the "then" is put, the bit about God is not that Jacob will take God for his own God, but rather that God will take Jacob for his own. It is the language of covenant relationship: "I will be you God, and you shall be my people." Second, the content of Jacob's vow is clearly a response to the promises that God made in the dream (vss 13-15). In other words, Jacob's vow is a response of faith to the promises of God, and to the fact that God has already taken Jacob on, being his covenant God

1 comment:

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

How do you interpret Jesus' use of this passage in the Gospels?