Scripture: Genesis 28: 10-22; Psalm 139 Nigel Bunce
Alone in the desert, Jacob sleeps on holy stones. He dreams that a ladder reaches up to heaven. Finally, he realizes for the first time what sort of a man he is, and how he must change.
Two weeks ago, we heard how Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance. Rebekah, their mother, told Jacob that Esau was threatening to kill him. She told Jacob to leave town. She said that Jacob should go and find a wife in the ‘old country’. The family didn’t want Jacob to marry one of the locals. But the ‘old homestead’ was a long way away, many days walk. As noted by Steve Liechty, Jacob was more alone than he had ever been before.
One night, Jacob lay down to sleep in the desert. He dreamed hat he saw a ladder set up between heaven and earth. On it, angels were descending and ascending. In Jacob’s dream, God repeated the promise made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. The land where he was sleeping would one day belong to Jacob’s descendants.
God promised to be with Jacob and his family as long as it might take, and wherever their journeys may lead them. “I will not leave you,” says God in the dream, “until I have done what I promised you.” When Jacob woke up, he did not dismiss it as “just a dream.” It was a kind of conversion experience. He was standing on holy ground. His head had rested on holy stones. I imagine him saying in awe, “Surely God was in this place, but I didn’t know it.”
“Surely God was in this place, but I didn’t know it.”
Jacob’s comment reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago. On a parish retreat, we were told to find somewhere to read a Scripture passage alone. As I walked with my Bible beside a small stream, I seemed to hear a voice. It said, “Read Jonah.” In a clearing by that stream, the story of Jonah came alive for me. It made me reflect on the many ways in which I identified with Jonah. Like Jacob, That stream bank felt like holy ground. I could definitely have said, “Surely God was in this place, but I didn’t know it.”
Jacob recognized that heaven and earth were in very close proximity that night. Today, we could call it a “thin place” between earth and heaven. So Jacob set up an altar. He called the place Beth-El, which means House of God. We hear an echo of this story every Christmas. Heaven and earth were also very close together the night of Jesus’ birth. So close that ordinary human (shepherds) heard angels telling them to go and find the Christ-child in Bethlehem.
But scheming old Jacob was still around
The lectionary compilers cut today’s story short at Genesis 28: 19. This leaves “New Jacob” who is nice and holy. He has just set up an altar to the Lord. But when we read on for just three more verses, we find “Shifty Old Jacob” again. He has gotten over his awe at God’s promise to him, and attempts to make a deal with God.
“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.”
Notice the “if” and the “then”. Jacob, ever the schemer, wants to make a deal with God. The man who repeatedly cheated his brother, now behaves like a Mafia consigliore in an Al Pacino movie. “Sure, God, I’ll be your man – but only IF you will do this, that, and the other thing for me.” The chapter ends there, so we do not know how God reacted to the proposed deal.
Alone in the desert
Let’s cycle back tot he beginning of the reading. Jacob was on the run. He was absolutely alone in a strange and dangerous place. This was no Marriot Hotel. Jacob had to lie on the bare earth with a stone for a pillow. There was a good chance that wild animals might set upon him in the night. There’s another Gospel parallel. This time, I thought of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. More specifically, of the hymn “Forty days and forty nights.” And the “prowling beasts about thy way. Stones thy pillow, earth thy bed.” Another example of holy stones.
Yet amazingly, God comes to this unattractive trickster Jacob in a dream. God repeats to Jacob the promise that [he] gave to Abraham and Isaac. Eventually, they will occupy the Promised Land.
The freedom song, “The Welcome Table” of Afro-American slaves contains the verse “I’m a-gonna climb up Jacob’s ladder”. Some authors think that these words are a kind of play on words on the Biblical story. Underneath, there is the hope of slaves in the American South to “go up” to Canada
Jacob’s story finds an echo in today’s beautiful Psalm 139. “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me. You know my standing up and my sitting down; your understand all my thoughts.” The psalmist went on to say that God will be with us whether we climb up into heaven or whether we go down to the grave. Whether sunshine fills our lives, or we plunge into darkness. So God makes us the same promise as [he] made to Jacob. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you will go.”
Weeds and fruitful plants
Jesus once told his disciples a parable about weeds growing in a crop. The farm hands wanted to go and pull them up. But the farmer said, ‘No. Leave them. We can throw them out at harvest time.” In the Genesis story, we find many weeds growing in the garden of Abraham and his descendants. One way to think about this is that God can find good even in flawed people like Jacob, or like you and me.
But there’s another ‘take’ on the story. Jacob’s early life definitely made him look like a weed. God, the farmer, could have followed the advice of the farm-hands. Pull up Jacob like a weed and throw him away.
But then we would never have found out that Jacob eventually decided to reconcile with Esau. Or that he would father the sons who would found the twelve tribes of Israel. His early behaviour would not have predicted his later fruitfulness.
I want to finish with part of a poem. Sheila Nelson-McJilton wrote Who sleep on holy stones as a meditation on today’s Genesis reading. In the poem, the grain, wine and fatness of the earth are what Isaac promised to Jacob. They were pat of the paternal blessing that should have been Esau’s. Now, Jacob is alone in the desert. He realizes for the first time what sort of a man he is, and how he must change.
Bearer of curse and blessing, I left home to stumble into the desert.
Exhausted and empty, I watch fierce sun set over silent stones.
Stars ascend towards midnight, the wind moans through desert canyons,
And clouds drift across a full moon like shimmering angels.
Broken and empty, I come to you, O Lord God.
In a desert midnight, there is no smell of blessed fields;
No grain, no wine, no fatness of earth, no sweet dew of heaven.
Alone, I sleep on holy stones.