Genesis 28:10-19a (20-22)
July 20, 2014
In spite of my parents’ and my preacher’s and my Sunday school teachers’ best and most concerted efforts, my earliest and strongest association with the words “Jacob’s Ladder” were not from the Bible story, but with the string trick by the same name. I loved string tricks when I was a kid, and I would practice them for hours. I spent many hours in church as well, but the string trick that resulted in Jacob’s Ladder made more of an impression on me as a child than the story about the actual Jacob and his ladder did.
My next association with Jacob’s ladder is from the hymn. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Soldiers of the cross.” I suspect that as children we were encouraged to sing this hymn with gusto. It wouldn’t surprise me if we marched as we sang it, being the good soldiers of the cross that we were. But the origins of this hymn are in the spirituals sung by slaves. Just as the story of the Exodus, of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, was a narrative that resonated with these people bound in slavery’s chains, I imagine the idea of climbing a ladder to heaven was also a story that gave them some measure of hope. Soldiers of the cross, they would follow Jesus and climb that ladder from slavery to freedom with God.
But as plaintive and haunting as the spiritual and as fun as the string trick is, neither one fully connect to or convey what is happening in this story about Jacob and his dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven.
Jacob is on the run. Last week we read about Jacob swindling his older brother Esau out of his birthright. Although the lectionary skips this story, Jacob’s trickery doesn’t end with stealing Easu’s birthright. Jacob also tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for his brother. Twice Jacob has taken what should have been Esau’s. To say that Esau is furious is an understatement. Esau is plotting revenge. He declares that the old man can’t live forever. Once Isaac is finally laid to rest, Jacob will be too. Esau won’t stop until he sees his twin dead. His threats are reported back to their mother Rebekah. Just as she intervened and helped Jacob usurp the blessing meant for Esau, she again steps in on behalf of her youngest son. She tells Isaac that the Hittite women all around them are driving her to distraction. She doesn’t want Jacob to marry one of them, so she wants him to go to the land of her brother, Laban. Let him find a wife there. Isaac agrees and Jacob flees his home and his family, following his mother’s instructions to find her brother and his people.
That is where we meet Jacob today; on the run. Night has fallen so Jacob stops. Whatever provisions he brought with him, a pillow or head rest was not among them. To make due, he takes a rock, puts it under his head, falls asleep, and dreams a strange dream.
Now we hear about Jacob’s ladder. Only the word ladder is misleading. It wouldn’t have been the kind of ladder we would use. It would have been more like a staircase. Large structures with staircases going up them could be found in that ancient context. Babylon and other cultures believed that they marked the dwelling places of the gods. These were thin places, where the separation between the divine and the human was tenuous. These staircases were called ziggurats, and it was most likely a ziggurat that appeared in Jacob’s dream.
Angels, messengers of God, were ascending and descending the staircase, from heaven to earth and back again. But instead of some holy message or divine directive being given to Jacob by the angels, the Lord appears. In our reading, the Lord stands beside Jacob. But in the Hebrew, what is translated as “stood beside him” could also be translated as “stood above him.” As I read this, I wonder if both translations are true. The Lord, so big, so wondrous, so mighty, so above Jacob, was also the Lord who stood right next to him.
The Lord speaks to Jacob in the words of covenant. “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; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
Just as the Lord promised Abraham that his descendants will be like sand and stars, both elements so numerous they are uncountable, God also promises Jacob that his offspring will be like the dust of the earth. Commentators note that when we read the word dust, we should think more along the lines of topsoil. Topsoil is rich and fertile, full of the necessary nutrients required for plants and crops to grow. So Jacob’s offspring will be like topsoil. They will be prolific and grow and spread across the world. Through them God’s blessing for the world and all of the families within it, shall be realized.
It’s not surprising that when Jacob wakes up he exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” He recognizes that this random spot where he chose to bed down for the night is actually the house of God and the gateway to heaven, Jacob takes the rock he used for a pillow and refashions it into an altar. He anoints it with oil and uses it as a marker of the place where the sacred and secular met.
Although the lectionary stops at the beginning of verse 19, we really should read through verse 22. Not only did Jacob recognize God’s presence in that place and consecrated it accordingly, he also adds his part to the covenant God has made. “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, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
Perhaps the lectionary leaves off these last words of Jacob because it sounds as though he’s making some counter offer or trying to bargain with God. But I think that it could also be read as Jacob’s legitimate response to God’s covenant. The covenant you have made with my ancestors, you have made with me. So as you remain faithful, I too will be faithful.
It would be easy to end here. It would be easy to close with the importance of recognizing that God finds us in unlikely places and works through the most unlikely of people. Jacob the grasper, the scoundrel, becomes Israel. He becomes not only a father, but a father of a nation. God’s promise continues. It may seem to tread on shaky ground at times, but it continues. The promise is fulfilled in Jesus, and with each movement of the Spirit, God’s blessing can be found in every corner of the world. And it all can be traced back to that scoundrel Jacob. Alleluia. Amen.
Except … I am tired of scoundrels. I am sick to the death of them. It has been a heartbreaking week. I have lost count of how many times I’ve thought that on Sunday mornings. I’ve lost count of how many times I have mourned senseless deaths and illogical violence. With the shooting down of the Malaysian jet over the Ukraine, with the escalating violence in Gaza and the deaths of innocent people that are escalating with it, I am heartsick. So much of this can be traced back to scoundrels – whether individuals or collections of them. I am sick of scoundrels who see humans as disposable. I am sick of scoundrels on any side of any issue who refuse to consider any way other than violence as a means of addressing differences. I am just sick and tired of scoundrels. So it is hard to read this passage about Jacob, that scoundrel, and not feel some anger at God working through … him.
I am grateful and overwhelmed at the reality that God’s grace works whether I deserve it or not, because I realize that most of the time I don’t. But at the same time, I don’t want to get on the Jacob veneration bandwagon. Because I am sick to death of scoundrels.
Yet even as I say that, I cannot help but think about the times when I, like Jacob, have thought, “Surely, God is here!” I cannot help but remember when I have encountered God’s presence, when I have felt God with me, when I have known and believed to my very soul that God, so mighty, so big, was standing right there beside me. I remember those times and those places, those thin places, when the line between heaven and earth was blurred, and for a glimpse of a second I could see God at work in the world.
Perhaps that is what this passage is asking of us. It’s not asking us to venerate Jacob or excuse or accommodate the scoundrels of the world, even the ones that reside in our own selves. It’s asking us to have faith that God really is indeed present in our midst. And it’s not just asking us to believe that God is present generally, but that God is present specifically. It’s asking us to trust that there are more thin places than we can possibly know. It’s asking us to have faith that God is more persistent in grace, love and mercy than any evil or chaos a scoundrel can create. Perhaps this passage is asking us to have faith that the thinnest places in the world, the places where the line between God and us is most porous, is where there is heartbreak; the site of the downed jetliner, the West Bank, the cities and towns that are now battlegrounds, the hospital rooms, the violent homes, the forgotten places, the lonely places. Those are the thin places. So in faith let us proclaim that surely God is there. Surely God is here. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.