Have you bargained with God? Have you prayed, “God, if you will do what I ask, I will do this specific favor for you in return?” That prayer somewhat resembles Jacob’s prayer in Genesis 28:20-22: ”If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Fear and shock prompted Jacob’s prayer/vow. Before he prays, he gasps, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” Jacob already had earned a reputation as a deceptive con-man. He had usurped his older brother’s birthright and blessing. That brother now wished to kill him. Jacob negotiates with God.
Jacob petitions for provisions and seeks personal safety. He promises in turn that he will recognize Yahweh as his deity and will donate back a tenth of all God gives him. He also will transform the stone that he had used as a pillow the night before into a shrine. This is Jacob’s prayer of promise and barter to God. The site of Jacob’s vision and prayer later becomes one of two sites that the rebel king Jereboam establishes as rival shrines to the temple in Jerusalem for the worship of God. Perhaps Jereboam appealed to Jacob’s vow as justification for placing his shrine at Bethel. Despite our questions about the ethics of bargaining with God, Jacob’s prayer foreshadows the next twenty years of his life. God does watch over him and stay with him. God gives him food to eat and clothes to wear. Ultimately Jacob returns safely to his father’s house. God answered his prayer with a resounding “yes.” The twenty years were not easy for Jacob. He met his equal in deceit in his uncle Laban. One might say that, like Jesus (Hebrews 5:8), Jacob learned obedience by the things that he suffered. In Genesis chapter 35, Jacob returns to Bethel many years later:
“So Jacob said to his household and all who were with him, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.'”
Jacob demonstrates the key principle in bargaining with God – Know that God will require you to keep your part of the bargain. Jacob, the deceiver, ultimately learned to submit and to deal fairly. He kept his bargain with God that he had made when, fleeing for his life, he “called for fire.”