Jacob is on the run! The manipulation, favoritism, feuding, and deception which have characterized the family of Isaac has reached its logical endpoint: murderous anger. Esau, having already lost his birthright, now missses out on the firstborn’s blessing, and is enraged to the point of fratricide (see chapter 27).
And as Jacob flees to unknown relatives (his uncle Laban who lives in Abraham’s home territory of northern Mesopotamia) he stops to rest his weary body for the night. And at this point, when he is perhaps the most desperate and vulnerable he’s ever been in his life — out of the protection of both father and mother, in the wilderness and darkness — Jacob experiences God.
What a strange vision! We read this passage and think about a step-ladder, perhaps; but a closer idea might be a stairway or ramp, probably in the proportions of an Ancient Near Eastern ziggurat. In those temples, priests would climb up and down what was seen as a replication of the cosmos — humanity & our world at the bottom, gods at the top — with offerings and messages between the two realms. But here, there are heavenly creatures going up and down, but with no discernible purpose. They certainly aren’t delivering messages or sacrifices.
Indeed, in this vision, God is not at the top of the temple, but standing right next to Jacob. God identifies himself with the proper name YHWH (the LORD in most English translations), and as the God of Abraham and Isaac, then confirms the birthright and blessing which was made by human words and deeds. This is expressed through 8 concrete elaborations. Significantly, God’s mission through the clan of Abraham is reiterated to Jacob: “all the families of the earth will be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v 14).
Jacob awakes with new awareness for the divine possibilities, for this is the first time (except for once as a part of deception) he speaks of God at all. He proceeds to interpret the vision not just as an earthly blessing but as continuous communication with God: this site is the “house of God” and “gate of heaven.” He establishes a place of worship, beginning with the stone which he used as a pillow, in this place where heaven and earth have met. After our passage ends (but before the chapter concludes), Jacob makes a vow in which he claims God’s promises for his own and promises his own faithfulness in response to God’s.
Walter Brueggemann, in his Genesis commentary, says: “Earth is not left to its own resources, and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven” (243). How have you experienced “heaven’s resources” in your life?
I wonder if Jacob’s restless intelligence and casual sneakiness might have prevented him from having a conversation with God before now. But at this lowest point in his life so far, he is not just vulnerable to violence or predators, he’s also vulnerable to God’s vision and word. In this moment, he’s asleep — so he can’t seize the day like he’s done in the past. It’s divine initiative, not human, that creates this encounter. What about in your life? Have you experienced God in your most vulnerable moments? How might we make ourselves more open to the Holy Spirit?
It’s interesting that God chooses Jacob to be the instrument of his mission and blessing. Can God really make a binding covenant with a trickster, liar, and fugitive? Well, yes! God’s options are interestingly more limited than before, because now God must be faithful to these promises channeled through Jacob. Does that surprise you? How have you been surprised by God’s faithfulness in the past? Are you looking for God’s blessing right now?
Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the way, the truth, and the life:
let us not stray from you who are the way,
nor distrust your promises who are the truth,
nor rest in anything but you who are the life,
for beyond you there is nothing to be desired
neither in heaven nor in earth.
Want to read more? All lectionary texts for this Sunday’s worship can be found at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary site.
Resources used in compiling this week’s GPS: Terence E Fretheim’s “Genesis” commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible; A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament by Bruce C Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E Fretheim, and David L Petersen; and the Working Preacher commentary by Juliana Claassens.
Image by He, Qi. Dream of Jacob, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46092 [retrieved July 12, 2011], licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Prayer by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536).