“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran” (Gen 28:10)
What could be possibly one of the most boring verses in the entire Bible suddenly jumped out at me with such intensity and meaning, I just had to stop and stare at it for a while.
Jacob was a weasel. He was a trickster, somebody well-skilled in passive-aggressive behavior. He was a mama’s boy and a manipulator. He let people walk all over him. He was weak and wimpy. And I’m sure he was full of insecurities and self-doubts, and maybe even a little self-hatred. (Hey, kinda like a lot of us!) But he was also a man with a destiny. He had a role to fill in divine history, and God wasn’t going to let a few personality flaws interfere with his ultimate plans.
So there he was, hanging out in Beersheba, a dusty little spot on the map, barren of life and luxury except for some scrub grass suitable only for livestock, and a few wells his grandfather had dug. Not the kind of place to build a name for yourself. Not even the kind of place to build much of a life. But he wasn’t stopping there. He was on his way to Haran, a rich, exotic city sitting on the trade routes of civilization, looking for a wife and his future. Caravans carrying goods from Mesopotamia to Egypt, from Persia to what is now Turkey passed through that city, and it was known for its gold, spices, and precious stones. He was going from the southern-most outpost of fertile land to the excitement of the big city in the north. But it wasn’t the city that held the key to his destiny. It was the journey itself.
“When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night …”
For many of us on the journey to new life and purpose, we overlook this important aspect: sometimes you just gotta stop moving, and camp out for a while. Something was about to happen to Jacob — he was hours away from that famous vision of angels ascending and descending the stairway between earth and God, a new revelation of God and about himself — and if he’d forced himself beyond that resting spot, if he’d continued his journey through the night in a hurry to get where he was going, he would have missed it. Like him, most of us tend to be restless. We’re running ahead at full steam, trying to escape (or at least change) our current situation, and reach the next stage of life, something better and more meaningful. But if we don’t slow down, if we don’t take advantage of our current situation, if we don’t learn whatever it is we’re supposed to glean from the present experience, we won’t be ready for that next step. Sometimes we have to slow down enough to listen. And for once, perhaps for the first time in his life, Jacob doesn’t blow the opportunity. He rests. And then God speaks.
“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac”
What’s missing here? Those of us who grew up in Sunday School can fill in the blanks. The title always goes “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But that hasn’t happened yet. Jacob already had some years and experience under his belt, but he hadn’t come fully into himself yet. He hadn’t realized his full identity, nor had he developed a satisfactory relationship with God. His faith was still with the God of his fathers’ — or to put in another way, it was his parents’ religion. He had yet to really make it his own. But it’s during this journey that all that changes. It’s in the desert, in the sand, in the middle of nowhere on his way to somewhere, that God becomes real to him. And his life is changed from that moment on. After this trip, the God of Abraham and Isaac becomes the God of Jacob. A new relationship, a divine partnership, is born. And when that happens, nothing remains the same.
“I will give you and your descendants the land … You will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you …”
It’s here, at this place of camping out, this place of quiet resting, at a break in the running, that Jacob gets the promise of the destiny he’s been looking for. God assures him that he will ultimately come into his own: he’ll inherit the land. But more than that, the purpose of his life is suddenly made clear: through him the whole earth will be blessed. It’s at this moment, at that rest-stop on the journey, that his life suddenly comes into focus. He IS somebody. He HAS a future. He IS worth something. All that scheming and manipulation, that striving for recognition and favor, the tricks and deceit, even his passive weakness, have not disqualified him from a purpose-filled and fulfilling life. His mess-ups couldn’t shake the love and favor of God for him. And on top of that, God promises to watch over him: “I am with you, and will watch over you wherever you go … I will never leave you …” A new depth and quality to his life appeared out of nowhere in that moment. It’s the breakthrough he needed in his quiet desperation, proof that his life had significance, that the world would be a better, more blessed place because of him.
His story continues, and a few chapters past this passage is another well-known event in his journey. It’s years later. He’s arrived in Haran, married the woman of his dreams (actually, got four women in the process), had eleven sons, and with God’s favor had become prosperous, despite his flawed character. And on one lonely night, still seeking to fill the void in his soul, he wrestles with a divine stranger till daybreak (Gen 32:24). Even though he’d achieved many of his goals — the love of a life-partner, a family of his own, the successful business — he’s still longing for deeper fulfillment. And he refuses to let the stranger go until he gets something from him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” But that’s exactly what the divine visitor came to do, and he gives Jacob a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men.” That life of constant struggle — deep within himself, with others around him, his family, and with God — God uses as material to forge his new identity. Though his journey in life would continue on for many more years, that part of the search for identity was finally complete. He now knew who he was, and what he was all about.
And none of this would have happened if he’d stayed in the dust bowl of Beersheba, if he hadn’t left his father’s house in search of his destiny. Meaningful spiritual discovery occurs on the journey.
For many of us, this is the story of our lives
We’re restless and wanting more. We feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled where we are right now, and we have this nagging feeling in our guts that “there has to be more than just this.” There is. A lot more. Your job is not done; your life is not stalled out. You are not stuck in the mud, or in the rut of your day to day grind. For those wanting more, there is new purpose and greater significance; there is a coming into your true identity, becoming all you were meant to be; there’s a deeper relationship with God, and a more fulfilling destiny — something bigger than yourself, something that will impact the world around you. But it all happens along the way. It happens in the journey.
So don’t stop pressing. Don’t stop seeking God for more. Take advantage of where you are now, learn what you can, grow in the place where you’re planted — you’re more likely to hear the revelation you need to get you to the next step when you’re still enough to listen. But don’t think that’s where your journey ends. You may be in a dusty spot, hanging out by a few wells of water, surrounded by little more than herds of sheep and goats, but Haran is calling. Your God-designed identity and destiny still await you. And this is God’s promise to you, as well as to Jacob. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. You’re gonna make it. You’re on the road from the dust bowl to your destiny.
Self-described “Gen-X reader, theological over-thinker and wannabe mystic” Stephen Schmidt is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity, and did doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is currently working on his doctorate of ministry in Christian Spirituality at the Virginia Theological Seminary and is pastor of The Abbey Church in Norman, Okla., and editor of https://impactmagazine.us.