Jacob’s Altar


Any student of scripture hearing the cadence of the names, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will immediately recognize these three generations as succeeding carriers of the promises of God.  Promises that included a people, blessing & protection, and that the Messiah would be born through their lineage.

Although all three names are often laced together in sentences, Jacob was very different from his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac. He was the one slowest to catch on to the enormity of the promise and what it meant for future generations.  Jacob wanted to be his own man – in reality, Jacob was rebellious – but God would soon fix that.

To illustrate this difference between Abraham and Isaac and this third-generation rebel Jacob, we can look at how they all responded when God spoke to them.


God spoke to Abraham, and he built an altar

Ge 12:7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.


God spoke to Isaac, and he built an altar.

Ge 26:24 That night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” 25 Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.


God spoke to Jacob, and he built a pillar.

Ge 28:12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”  17 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.” 18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.

Jacob did not respond like Abraham & Isaac by building an altar; he built a pillar which was a very different response. An altar is a place of sacrifice, submission, and relationship. A pillar was a memorial to mark a spot where something amazing had happened.

Abraham was an altar man.

Isaac was an altar man.

Jacob was a pillar man.

Jacob was quite impressed with the dream and his encounter with God, but something was very lacking.  There was no real contrition or humbling. No prayer, no calling on the Name of the Lord, no sacrifice, no altar, no real relationship.

Abraham & Isaac’s response was worship, Jacob’s response was filled with conditions and the words “if” and “then”.

Ge 28:20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “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  21 so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God  22 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.”

“If you protect me and provide for me then you will be my God.” In other words, “God if you prove yourself to me, then I’ll let you be my God”.  How different is that from his grandfather’s and father’s response to God?

Even though Jacob’s heart was not right, God would bless him for the sake of the promise given to Abraham and Isaac.

But God had a plan for this independent rebel.  A plan that would bring him to his knees and reveal his glaring lack of relationship with God and his absolute helplessness before the circumstances of life.

He would experience 20 years of trials and problems.  Cheated of time, money, and wives. In fear of his life from his uncle Laban, and his brother Esau.

God brings his troubles to a climax as his brother Esau is on his trail and is about to catch him.  Years earlier Jacob had cheated his brother out of the family birthright.  Esau had said then, “I’ll wait until dad has died, but then Jacob is a dead man!”.

Now, dad is dead and Esau was coming for his brother.

Jacob was afraid – more afraid than he had ever been.  The night before Esau caught up with him, Jacob does something he had never done before, he prays.  Not just a “please help me I’m desperate and about to die” prayer. It was a real, heartfelt, humble, life-changing prayer.  Something was being birthed in Jacob’s heart.

Ge 32:9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups.  11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.  12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.'”

That night as he pondered what the morning might bring, Jacob has another incredible experience with God.  The Bible says a “man” came to him and they wrestled all night.  Jacob knew this was no ordinary man – this encounter was Divine.  Many believe this was a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.

Jacob would not let Him go until this “Man” blessed him.  I used to think that this was Jacob being Jacob – more of the strong-armed wheeler and dealer he had always been.  But I see now, this was Jacob’s desperate plea for help.  He was saying, “I am out of hope and if you don’t bless me, I’m going to die in the morning, so I can’t let you go – my life depends on it – I have got to have your blessing!”.

God does bless Jacob.  The next day when he meets with his brother Esau the anger and bloodshed that he feared, doesn’t happen. Instead, Esau is overjoyed to see his brother.  God had done a miracle, and Jacob is blown away.

Jacob leaves his brother and heads for the city of Shechem.  He stops outside the city and for the first time in his life – he builds an altar.

He gives the altar a name, a name that reveals the profound change that has occurred in his heart.

Ge 33:20 There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.

It would be easy to miss the significance of this verse.  Jacob names the altar, “El Elohe Israel, meaning in Hebrew, The Mighty God of Israel.

At first reading, we might think he is saying, the mighty God of the nation of Israel, but we’d be wrong, there was no nation of Israel at that point in history.

God had changed Jacob’s name to Israel.  He was saying, “this altar is dedicated to my God. The God of Israel, the God who is the God of me!”.

“He is my God!”

It was an altar of sacrifice, thanks, worship, but most of all it signified the start of a new relationship.

He was now an altar man, just like his grandpa, and father, before him.

Some of us are like Jacob. We know there is a God, and we’re impressed, but we don’t know Him.  We gladly erect “pillars” that look spiritual, but lack real substance. There is no altar. No blood sacrifice. No cross, no real Jesus, no contrition. Our “pillars” are religious, but they mean very little.

Like Jacob/Israel God calls us to a place where we humble ourselves, and say, “you are the God of me!”.