The Connection Between Jacob and Nathaniel (Bartholemew)
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
How can we escape this reality: sometimes life is scary!? This is especially true when we are forced out of our “happy ruts” by disturbing circumstances, reversals, or crises. Although sometimes we create our own problems, very often we are vulnerable to the choices others make, or to circumstances beyond our control.
For centuries, God’s children have turned to the Word for strength. In the book of Genesis, chapter 28 (verses 10-20), we read about the first major crisis in the life of Jacob. As we look at how God ministered to Jacob during this crisis, we can note God ministered (in one way or another) through his Word.
- God Reassured Jacob through his spoken Word
Jacob’s crisis (28:10-11) was life changing. He was not only forced to leave home without much warning, he also had to leave his country! As far as we know, he had never been outside the land of Canaan. He fled for this life because, after stealing his brother’s birthright and blessing , his brother Esau was plotting to kill him. He fled without a job, journeying hundreds of miles to hopefully be welcomed by relatives he had only heard about.
In times of crisis, we are both vulnerable and open. Many people come to faith in Christ during a crisis, but many people are drawn toward false religions during a time of crisis or misery. Which direction would Jacob take? Would he mover toward the one true God, or gravitate toward the popular religious beliefs of Canaan? In this instance, it was God — and not the devil — who got a hold on Jacob.
In verse 12, Jacob experiences an amazing dream: he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Verses 12-13 read:
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…”
This dream was sent by God to strengthen Jacob and remind Jacob of his sovereign rule over earth from heaven. Indeed, the dreams location, Bethel, became a permanent reminder to Jacob about where he met God in a powerful way. He constructed an altar to the Lord, and looked forward to the day he could return to Bethel. He now knew God would take care of him.
This dream, however, was also prophetically “planted” for a later meaning.
About two thousand years later, Nathaniel (aka, Bartholomew) was contemplating this text as he sat alone under a fig tree. Jacob, the deceitful founder of the Jewish nation, was a trickster full of guile. He had cheated his brother out of his birthright. How, Nathaniel must have wondered, could God bless this man and change his name to Israel? He had been deep in thought.
His time of contemplation was cut short by his friend Philip, who ran to him in excited fashion. Philip claimed he had met the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth. When Nathaniel heard that this supposed Messiah hailed from Nazareth, he spoke with sarcasm, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
He decided to humor Philip and meet this one who was supposed to be the Messiah. We pick up the text with John 1:47-49
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
This passage seems mysterious, at first, if the reader does not connect these two texts. But it makes perfect sense: only Nathaniel and God knew what he was thinking, reading, and contemplating. Since Jesus knew, he therefore must be divine! And Nathaniel was completely right.
Nonetheless, Nathaniel (and all the disciples) needed the courage of Jacob to chart an unknown course — disciples of the Messiah. Disciples and rabbis were a common sight in Israel, each rabbi at times traveling the countryside like Jesus and his disciples. But to follow the rabbi who might be the Messiah and could heal the blind, raise the dead, and quell a stormy sea — that is venturing into the unknown territory!
- Jacob sets an example for us: the need for mechanisms
We already mentioned that Jacob set up an altar at Bethel as a result of his dream. So we, too, must set up what I call “mechanisms,” systems that help us nurture our walk with God. Most of us realize this, and some of us never will: Good intentions often do not bear fruit unless we set up the mechanism.
A mechanism is a system or a series of routines. For example, coming to church and Sunday School weekly is a mechanism to guarantee some Biblical nutrition. A weekly Bible study can be another mechanism. Daily devotions are another mechanism. Listening to the Bible read online can be another mechanism.
A routine time for prayer is yet another. Without a system, good intentions remain merely intentions.
Jacob built an altar, he offered prayer to God, and made a vow to give the Lord a tithe. The latter was particularly a mechanism to remind him to honor the Lord as part of his daily life, not just while he was in Bethel.
The prophet Daniel would pray three times daily toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). The Feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23) as well as the weekly Sabbath were mechanisms for faithful Jews to spend time in the Word, worshipping and honoring God and building spiritual depth within their families. Daily memorization and discussion of Scripture was to be the norm (Deuteronomy 6:7)
III. The fringe benefits
Jacob found courage to face change he had never expected. A new country, a new family, a new vocation, and a new language were in his future. He would have the challenge of working for a relative that was twice the trickster that Jacob was, and he would eventually return home with two wives, servants, and a growing family. Nathaniel found the courage to take a risk that Yeshua was the promised Messiah, a frightening proposition at the time.
So we too have many challenges to face. The journey of life itself is filled with twists and surprises. Our nation is changing so quickly we can barely keep up with what is happening. The church world is topsy-turvy as groups cave in to the culture and fads engulf even the faithful. For this, we have God, our Rock, and a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is “…the same yesterday and today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8).