There is a lot to like about the name, meaning, and history of Bethel. Believe it or not, kids sometime feel the need to point out the obvious, such as my baldness. Sometimes I like to believe that I have heard it all, but it is at that point that someone comes up with a new twist. At that point I often give them credit, “That’s a new one..nice!” Anything from cue ball to light bulb, MegaMind to alien..I’ve heard them. A vast majority of the time it is out of affection or endearment. On the rare occasion that it is mentioned in anger – “You baldheaded…” – I find some satisfaction that they can think of nothing else terrible to say. And, on my good days, I tell them about the story of Elisha.
After being mocked by youth as a “baldhead,” Elisha called down curses upon them for not respecting him as a prophet for the Lord. God heard Elisha, and two bears came out of the woods to maul 42 youth. That’s pretty impressive. Think about it. The bears didn’t just claim two youth – one each – but 42! That’s a rampage. (Makes me wonder if God is bald and took particular offense. Maybe? Maybe not.) Most kids don’t believe me that the story is in the Bible (2 Kings 2:23ff), so I just tell them, “You’re lucky I like you..”
That story took place at Bethel. But it is not my favorite association with that name. No, my favorite connection with Bethel is the story of its name change. It had been called Luz, a Hebrew verb that means to turn aside. The way we would describe that verb today, and the way it is mostly used in the Bible, has a negative connotation. If you “turn aside,” you are not doing what you should be doing. For example, maybe you have deceived your old and nearly-blind father into giving you your brother’s inheritance and blessing. Maybe you have stolen from your brother by plotting with your mother. What do you have to say about that, Jacob?
But we all have our Jacob moments. We all have had times (and likely still will) when we exert our own will and try to make things happen our way. We have our Jacob moments of trying to fast-forward God’s plans..”Here, God, let me help you.” And sometimes we pull it off. We execute our plan. We hustle. We trick. We deceive. We get what we want. Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on us that we didn’t think about the “Now what?” part. Jacob, in deceiving his father, received the blessing he wanted. I’m not so sure he thought about the part where his angry brother finds out. Remember, Jacob’s brother Esau was a hunter. A skillful hunter. Smooth-skinned Jacob was quiet and stayed “among the tents.” (Genesis 25:27)
Deceivers do not always see the big picture. Their goal is gratification and to figure out the rest later. “Figuring out the rest” is how we come to know this place called Bethel. Jacob was advised by his parents to take off. To get outta Dodge before his skillful hunter of a brother could lay hands (or weapons) on him. Jacob did. He ran. After a long day of travel, Jacob pulled up a stone for a pillow. And what a dream he had! A stairway from heaven to earth, God at the top, angels going up and down, and promises from God for land and for Jacob’s descendants.
But my favorite promise was this: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15b) Isn’t that a wonderful promise? And wouldn’t our lives be much better if we remembered that? So often we take off running, we turn aside, from the plan that is laid out. We luz. “Hey, God, I found a shortcut! We don’t have to go that way!” I don’t know, maybe it’s just me that does that. I held back a laugh today when I received an email about discussing my “career path.” Career path? What’s that? I am as familiar with that as I am with the term “family planning.” Career path..sounds fascinating.
You see, I am a quiet, smooth-skinned boy from a rural area. I was always good with numbers so I pursued Engineering – for half of one semester in college. Then I found my next major by looking at the classes I was interested in taking. Criminal Justice. Then I worked at a summer camp for inner-city youth. Then I worked with juvenile delinquents in a residential treatment program. Then in a program for youth who commit sexual offenses. After-school programs. I was a “book guy” (ask me, I’ll tell you), a lawn care technician, a cell phone salesman, I worked in an all-girls treatment program, a case manager, a chaplain, at a charter school…so sure, I would LOVE to hear my career path!
The truth is, I’m a lot like Jacob. Thankfully, however, there is a redeeming quality to his story. Jacob may have turned aside, may have tried the shortcut, but eventually he had to stop. He had to rest. And when he did, God showed up. More accurately, Jacob saw God. God reminded him, “We still have some work to do.” Jacob finally got it. And then comes my favorite part, the part that I am starting to understand in my own life:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16)
Amen. That is what God does. He never asks us to live in regret, never asks us to live in the rearview. He can, and does, use it all. I had a passing thought in high school of going into ministry. What I now see is that the Holy Spirit was prompting me. And God was preparing me. But God was not done with me yet. There was work to do. So He went with me as I turned this way, that way, this way, that way, all the while watching my path take the form of Billy in The Family Circus strip. All the while knowing that eventually I would rest. All the while knowing His promise to me – to not leave until He was finished.
And He waits patiently for us to reach this point, the point that Jacob reached:
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
The word “Beth” in Hebrew can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to a physical house. It can refer to an extended family (“house of Jacob”). It can even refer to a temple or tomb. It refers not so much to a specific type as it does to the function – what it does. It holds or contains.
Is that your life? Does it hold or contain the functions of God (Beth-el)? Or are you still in a place of Luz? Have you fast-forwarded the plan only to find yourself asking, “Now what?” Do not worry. God is not nearly as interested in your career path as He is your heart path. He wants to talk less about your past, and more about your present. God hopes you wake up to say, “This is amazing, God has been here all along!”
Indeed, He has. Will you let your life be a Bethel today? Will you remember God’s promise that He will be with you until He is finished?
Surely God is in this place that you are in. Rest. Listen. Look. And you will see your Luz become a Bethel.