Common English Bible (CEB)
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. 12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. 13 Suddenly the Lord was standing on it[a] and saying, “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 become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. 15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel,[b] though Luz was the city’s original name.
One of my favorite qualities about the book of Genesis is the unique kind of storytelling it employs. Literally, anything and everything can happen in this book.
Talking snakes, giant floods, enormous towers, rains of fire and pillars of salt—this books is unlike any other in the biblical canon. That’s part of the reason I’ve been walking with you through these stories, to explore the ideas and stories that our ancient brothers and sisters told each other for centuries. Today’s story is famous, for sure: the image of Jacob’s stairway to heaven is famous in art, history, and literature, not to mention inspiration for one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
The bigger question is, though, as with all dreams: what does it all mean?
Let’s talk for a second about dreams. Dreams are often called the window to the soul, a glimpse into the mind that only comes when we are in the depths of sleep. Many claim that dreams are really just the brain trying to sort out all the excess information it has received throughout the. That of course is plausible and often very true, but that’s not entirely it, because if it was, dreams would probably be a great deal more boring than they really are. Dreams are, in a word, strange, and often revealing of much more than just what we already know.
I’m not an expert on dreams, mind you, but there is a great deal about dreams that have not and cannot be explained. It’s still a frontier area in human knowledge. Perhaps we may never fully understand dreams. However, one cannot deny the importance they have in human history, and especially, in the realm of scripture. Dreams are often things through which God can directly access people God wants to speak to. Over and over again, God uses dreams to show things to people, things that are, and things that will be. There is a sacredness to dreams, separate from everyday life. Jacob’s dream, then, is of special significance, not necessarily because of what happens in the dream, but what came before the dream and what the dream signifies to Jacob.
Taken on its own, this dream elicits a great deal of responses from a vast swath of the faithful for millennia. There’s a great rabbinic tradition of trying to make sense of this dream, both from Jewish and Christian perspectives. For some, it’s simply taken on face value: the dream represents the constant connection God has with the world via messengers, or angels. For others, there’s a metaphorical quality to it, where the more you follow God, the closer you get to heaven on this stairway, and vice versa when you go against God. However, this takes out a crucial element to the story that I believe is essential to its meaning: the person of Jacob.
Up until this point, Jacob has been an absolute scoundrel.
Last week we talked about how he came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, earning him the name “Heel grabber,” or Jacob, an idiom meaning “he who takes the place of.” Later in life, he managed to negotiate with his older brother and got to trade him a bowl of soup for his elder brother’s birthright/inheritance. Time passes, and just before we get to this story, we go through the pivotal moment for Jacob and Esau’s relationship. Jacob, knowing his father Isaac is about to die, impersonates his brother and tricks his own father into giving him a fatherly blessing traditionally given to the firstborn. This may not seem like a big deal to us, but in ancient middle-eastern culture, this was incredibly significant. We think of blessings as inherently spiritual things, well-wishes good intentions. For Isaac, this was a part of the inheritance for his children. This was a prayer for their wellbeing, and it was a legal thing that one can bestow upon another, and in Isaac’s mind, something that can’t be taken back.
Now then, I want to make an aside here to try and figure out why Jacob did these things. In this society at this time, not being the firstborn is a pretty raw deal. Jacob more than likely saw the dealins of other families with their second sons, and didn’t want that for himself. He was ambitious. He felt constrained by the fate of being the second son. He felt, in a word, limited. All these efforts he made were to get around that feeling of being limited, of being confined, of not being free. Jacob wanted to be liberated, and so he used his remarkably clever mind to do so. Was he right to do so? I can’t say. What I can say is that I can understand where he’s coming from.
So he cheats his brother out of what was rightfully his for the second time. Esau is enraged and goes out looking for him. Jacob comes back to Isaac terrified of what might happen to him now that all is said and done, and Isaac sends him away with a mission: go to Paddan Aram, and find my brother Laban. Get him to agree to you marrying one of his daughters, because I don’t want you marrying a Canaanite like your brother did. Essentially what this amounts to is this: You messed up. All those things you cheated your brother out of amount to a hill of beans at this point, so run. Run, you clever boy. Drop everything and go, because that’s the only way you’re going to make it out of this alive.
Smash cut to Jacob in the desert, exhausted from fleeing his him on the way to God-knows-what. He’s sweating, probably bleeding, with no water, no supplies, no nothing. He is utterly alone, cast out, hoping against hope that his uncle Laban will give him help. With nothing but the clothes on his back, he lies down to sleep with a rock for a pillow. I actually have experience with using rock pillows, by the way, from when I was in boy scouts: they aren’t really that comfortable. True, he may be freed and limitless at this point, but with nothing but the clothes on your back, freedom is not quite the prize he thought it would be. It’s in this state of mind that he has this amazing dream, a dream of a stairway to heaven with angels walking up and down it, and God telling him that he is the one whom the covenant of Abraham will be carried. God chose that particular time, in that particular place, with that particular person, to reveal that promise to Jacob.
So what does this dream mean then, given that context? Given him being on the run, having cheated and lied to his family, having nothing to his name save for what he’s stolen, what does this dream mean to Jacob? It means a couple of things, really. There’s never just one answer to these types of questions.
The first thing it means is that the God that his father Isaac worshiped is the real deal. Before this, this God never really meant much to Jacob. He was just his family’s God, and not really much else. There wasn’t much to it aside from that for him. At this moment, he had an awakening: there’s more to it than just tradition. There’s more to this God than just it’s what you worship because that’s what your family does. This God is real. This God has messengers all over the place. On top of that, this God has power. That’s a big deal, people. That’s an earth shattering revelation. When you have this revelation, that there is this God and that God has made contact with you in some way, that’s no small thing.
Second, it meant to Jacob that there is a connection between heaven and earth. There is more going on in the world than he realizes. There is more to this world than just what we see. There is a spiritual nature to this world in tandem with the physical one. Up until this point, Jacob has been preoccupied with the physical blessings of his father, Isaac. At this point with this dream, Jacob comes to the conclusion that Shakespeare so aptly put in the play Hamlet: “There is more in heaven and earth…than is dreamt of in your philosophies.”
Finally, it means that Jacob will have a future. When he had this dream, he had nothing. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to have nothing. I’ve been blessed not to have been in that situation before, but I know what it feels like to be close, and it’s not a good thing. There is no isolation, no hopelessness, no desperation that can match the feeling of being homeless and outcast. This dream turned that around. Here was God God’s self, standing next to Jacob, telling him that he had a future. The covenant would live on through him. You will get out of this. You will be given a home. Your children will be given a home. Not only that, the whole world will be blessed through your children. You may be a scoundrel, but God is not going to leave you alone.
I like this story. I like it quite a bit. The more and more I read about Jacob, the more I kind of like him. He’s a jerk in some ways, yes, and a liar, and a thief. But he’s also human. He seeks a life without limits, and he seeks a life of blessing. In the end, it doesn’t really matter that Jacob’s a jerk—at least not to God. In that, I can take solace. God doesn’t care if I’m a jerk, or if you’re a jerk. You are God’s child. God has a future for you, even though things might stink right now. This dream is more than a glorious vision of the connection between heaven and earth. It’s about God coming to us when we need God most, and reminding us of God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness that goes beyond whatever limits we might face in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.