A study on Genesis 28:10-22. Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral (15th October 2017).
Esau was breathing fire and brimstone against his brother.
We read: “Esau hated Jacob, because of the blessing which has father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob’” (27.41).
Their mother Rebecca got wind of Esau’s desire to murder her favourite son, and thought up a scheme to get Jacob out of harm’s way. So she said in effect to Jacob: “I can’t bear you marrying one of the local girls, one of the Hittite women. Why don’t you go and find a wife in your uncle Laban’s home, way back in Haran?” (Gen 27.42-46). What’s more his father Isaac endorsed the plan (Gen 28.1). Jacob, grateful for an excuse to put a distance between himself and his brother, set off for Haran, some 55 miles away.
A few days into his journey he came to a town called Luz (v19) and decided to stay there the night. Or rather, it would appear that he decided to stay on the outskirts of the town – maybe he thought it would be safer to stay out in the open, if his brother was on the look-out for him.
“He stayed there for the night… the sun had set” (v11a)
It was dark. I wonder whether the darkness of the night was symptomatic of a deeper darkness – a darkness of fear, of despair, and maybe of guilt which Jacob was feeling at this time.
“Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place” (v11b). It was not exactly the most comfortable of beds. No doubt an Indian bed of nails would have been worse, but even so it was not up to Dunlopillo standards!
There he had a dream. “He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it”. Actually it was probably not a ‘ladder’, but as the NRSV note says a ‘stairway’ (also GNB & NIV) or ‘ramp’.
People have speculated as to what might have been the inspiration for this dream.
- Some have suggested that the stones around was the source of inspiration: “In the rocky limestone country of the central hills… (the) great boulders towering above him may well have suggested the stairway to bridge the gulf between heaven and earth” (Joyce Baldwin).
- A more likely source of inspiration was the Babylonian ‘ziggurat’. A ziggurat was a Babylonian temple-tower, akin to the tower of Babel (Gen 10). These ziggurats were in some ways like a helter-skelter you might find in a children’s playground. At the top of the tower there was a room where a god was supposed to dwell. Between this upper-room and the temple on the ground floor there was a long ramp. The ramp connected the god of heaven with the people of earth down-below.
Whatever the source of inspiration, Jacob’s “stairway” or ramp provided a link between heaven and earth, between God and humankind.
He sees angels, God’s messengers, ascending and descending.
The implication is that they were not going up and down for the sheer heck of it. Rather, the ones descending were going out to fulfil various divine commissions, whereas the ones ascending were returning from their various missions.
But not only does he see angels. The Lord appears to him
According to the NIV translation, “There above it stood the Lord”.
However, I prefer the translation of the NRSV, which is also found as an alternative in a NIV note: “And the Lord stood beside him” (v13). The Lord wasn’t standing at the top of the stairway – he was down below with Jacob.
My mind immediately goes to Matt 1.23, where Matthew applies the prophecy of Isaiah 8.10: “’they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’”.
There is, however, another NT parallel: in John 1.51 Jesus says to Nathanael: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. Jesus is here effectively claiming to have replaced the stairway – he has become the bridge that links God & heaven.
But to return to Jacob: he must have been frightened out of his wits.
Up until that moment he thought he had only his brother to fear, but now perhaps he wondered whether the Lord was also pursuing him.
But his fears proved groundless, for God was there not to avenge but to bless:
v13: “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 your offspring….
The promise of land that God gives Jacob is the same promise that God had given earlier to Abraham and Isaac (12.1,7; 13.15; 26.34-). It is, if you like, a ‘standard’ promise which God makes to all three patriarchs.
However, God goes on to make a special promise to Jacob – perhaps because at this point Jacob faces special dangers: v15: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you”. There are three elements to this promise:
- A promise of presence: “I am with you”. That, of course, was what was behind the dream of a stairway given to Jacob. Heaven has come to earth. God is with Jacob, with all his resources of power and of grace. God has not abandoned Jacob, in spite of all his deceit and trickery. What is true of Jacob is true of us all. Brueggemann: “This promise presents a central thrust of biblical faith. It refutes all the despairing judgments about human existence. A fresh understanding of God is required if we are to be delivered from the hopeless analyses of human possibility made by pessimistic scientists and by the poets of existence.”
- A promise of action: “I will keep you” – GNB “I will protect you”. The imagery here is of God the shepherd who will protect Jacob. And what is true of Jacob is true of us all: God the good shepherd cares for and protects his helpless sheep in every circumstance. Psalm 23 comes to mind – but also Psalm 121, the pilgrim’s psalm, where the word “keep” occurs six times, and in particular in the final two verses: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out & your coming in from this time on and for evermore” (121.7,8). The same idea is also found in the Aaronic blessing in Num 6.24-25: “The Lord bless you and keep you”.
- A promise of homecoming: “I will bring you back to this land”. Jacob is a fugitive, fleeing for his life – but God promises to bring him back to this land, he promises to bring him ‘home’
With the appearing of God, the dream ends and Jacob awakes from his sleep and with no doubt a start he says: “Surely the Lord is in this place -and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv16,17)
I find it significant that Jacob does not use the past tense and say: “The Lord was in this place” – rather he speaks of the present: “The Lord he is here”. Jacob realises that God is still beside him. He is not alone. God is there.
Whereupon he takes the stone which had been his pillow and sets it up as a kind of memorial. He pours olive oil on it and dedicates it to the Lord and calls the place “Beth-El” (v19) i.e. “house of God”. For it was here that God had met with Jacob.
Jacob in turn makes a threefold ‘promise’ or “vow” (v20).
God has committed himself to Jacob, and Jacob in turn commits himself to God.
In effect we have here a ‘covenant’ made between God and Jacob.
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then….
- “The Lord shall be my God”. Jacob commits himself to God in the way which baptismal or confirmation candidates commit themselves today
- “This stone which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house”. Jacob’s commitment to God involves a commitment to ongoing worship.
- “and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you”. Jacob’s commitment to God involves ‘tithing’, a practical recognition of God’s claim upon his life.
Although Jacob’s encounter with God was unique, I would maintain that we can draw parallels with our experience of God today
- God who met with Jacob in a place he called ‘Bethel’, still meets with us today in our ‘Bethels’. What experiences have you had of God meeting with you in worship? To what extent are churches ‘sacred’ places where God makes himself known?
- God who came to Jacob by means of a stairway between heaven and earth continues to come to us in Jesus. What practical difference does this make? Have we here a symbol of the availability to us of all the resources of heaven? We may not have tricked our brother and our father – and we may not fear the anger of a brother in hot pursuit of us. And yet like Jacob we may know fear and despair. Like Jacob when we lay our head down at night, all may seem dark around. The pressures, the worries, the cares of this life are such that we may feel that we have come to the end of our resources. Then what?
- At Bethel a covenant was established between God and Jacob. For that covenant to become a reality God had to take the initiative, and Jacob had to make a response. To what extent do you find this concept of ‘covenant’ helpful to describe your relationship to God today?