QUESTION: Was Jacob’s vow an attempt to bargain with God?
You are referring to the vow Jacob made in Genesis 28:20-22 after the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Jacob requested the company, protection, and care of the Lord during his journey, and promised that if these were granted to him he would worship Him and give Him tithe. This is very close to a bargain! But before we examine Jacob’s experience let me say something about vows in Israel.
1. Nature of a Vow: In the Bible a vow is usually a prayer in which individuals commit themselves to do something for the Lord, if their requests are granted by the Lord. This was particularly done in times of intense need or danger. There were two types of vows: 1. The unconditional vow, in which people committed themselves to do something for the Lord without requesting any specific blessing. This was the case of the Nazirite vow (Num. 6:2). 2. The conditional vow, which was to be fulfilled only if the favor requested was received (1 Sam. 1:11). The practice was based on the principle of reciprocity: a favor received calls for an expression of gratitude; the receiver is, through the gift, transformed into a giver. This was not so much an attempt to bargain with God, as it was a desire for intimacy and fellowship with Him. God is perceived as Someone with whom one can talk and ask a favor, and to whom one can make a promise to reciprocate His kindness. It is assumed that He may choose not to grant the petition, thus making the fulfillment of the vow unnecessary. The practice of making vows took place within a covenant relationship established by God after He redeemed His people. Some may have tried to bargain with the Lord. In fact, some tried to manipulate God through the sacrificial system (Ps. 50:7-15). It did not work!
2. Jacob’s Vow: Now, back to your question. The impression I get from the text is that Jacob was not bargaining. His situation was much more serious. God had already promised Jacob what he was requesting, and much more. In Jacob’s dream the Lord promised to give him the land on which he was sleeping, to multiply his descendants, to bless all people through him, to be with him, and to protect him (Gen. 28:13-15). In his vow Jacob asked for the divine presence, for protection, and for a safe return. If these were granted to him, God would be his God and he would give Him the tithe. Why didn’t Jacob take God’s promises at face value? My answer: Jacob was spiritually impaired.
3. Jacob’s Commitment to God: When he made his vow, Jacob had not yet committed himself to the Lord. In his vow he said, “then the Lord will be my God” (28:21, NIV). Knowing that, the Lord introduced Himself to Jacob as “the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (28:13, NIV). He was not yet the God of Jacob; His providential care resulted in the conversion of Jacob. God blessed Jacob so much during his time with Laban that Jacob said, “God has taken away your father’s [Laban’s] livestock and has given them to me” (31:9, NIV). The Lord also protected Jacob in his dealings with Laban (31:22-24) and during his encounter with Esau (33:1-5). Finally, the Lord sent Jacob back to the land of Canaan with the promise of His presence (31:3). At that point in the narrative Jacob chose the Lord as His God; the Lord was now the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was no longer Jacob but Israel (32:24-30). In Canaan he built an altar and worshipped the Lord (33:20).
Jacob’s vow was an interim experience that led to his personal commitment to the divine plan for him and his descendants. God deals with us according to our spiritual condition and patiently leads us, if we are willing, to a deeper, personal devotion to Him as our Redeemer.
We should try God, as Jacob did, because He still accepts our vows. He does not reject the spiritually impaired, and neither should we.