Friday, June 30, 2006

Genesis 28

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
People CAN Have Visions Without the Use of Hallucinogens

You see, I like stories. I enjoy them quite a lot. With stories, I am allowed to derive what ever point, content, purpose, plan, and/or theme I choose, with the full knowledge that the conclusion I arrive at could be totally different than the one that the author may have intended. And with stories such as the one in Genesis, there are so many twists and turns that it can prove difficult to stop reading. Or, as in the case of historical Jewish culture and similar cultures where history is conveyed through the oral tradition, the listener tries every means possible to keep the storyteller talking because the story is so enthralling that you want to find out exactly what will be happening next.

It is in this spirit that we approach our continuation of Jacob’s story in this chapter. The chapter markings that fill up contemporary Bibles were not part of the original texts and the standard division between chapter and verse was not achieved until the 16th century, just in time for the KJV to enter into mass production in 1611. Thus, anyone who read the Bible before this time would only read the story as it had been written, not being forced to stop by artificially imposed endings to chapters. And even more than that, those who were listening these stories were subjected to the whims of the storyteller who might have ended the recitation for the day whenever they felt like it.

I say all of that to say this – most scholars, when writing about Genesis 28 and focusing their remarks appropriately, combine Genesis 27:46 with Genesis 28:1-9 as a commentary upon how Isaac and Rebekah view Esau’s choice of wives and Jacob’s coming search for a wife. Specifically, Isaac’s blessing of Jacob is a reiteration of the blessing from chapter 27 and an echo of how Father Abraham sent The Servant to look for a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac. Some scholars also note that this section exists to provide a positive and theological context for Jacob’s flight, as if the composers wanted to show that Jacob wasn’t really leaving because of Esau – he was leaving to perpetuate the Promise and find an appropriate wife. (Brueggemann, p237) Moreover, this scene mirrors the events concerning the wives taken by Isaac and Ishmael – Jacob gets the benefit of the blessing and the chosen wife, while Esau reacts negatively and incorrectly by choosing wives from amongst the Hittites and by marrying his first cousin (Ishmael’s daughter). (Alter, p147) It is no wonder that Rebekah’s reaction to Esau’s choices in 27:46 is one of revulsion (and yet another example of her preferring the younger over the elder) – her complaint produces Isaac’s sending off Jacob to Paddan-Aram, in harmony with her sending of Jacob to Laban in 27:43-44. (Berlin & Brettler, p 58)

“When he [Jacob] reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway, resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of the Lord were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:11-12, TNIV)

Thus, while the core of the story in this chapter is contained within verses 10 through 22, detailing the beginnings of Jacob’s flight from home and the subsequent vision of the ladder/stairway leading to heaven, it seems that Jacob himself is unprepared for what’s about to happen to him. For you see, as opposed to his grandfather Abraham, Jacob had not experienced any contact with God when he launched across the desert. Moreover, in further contrast to Abraham, the reader knows a great deal about Jacob biographically at this point, whereas with Abraham, besides noting the names of his siblings and his wife’s infertility, the reader knew nothing of his personality and character when God first comes to visit him. (Hamilton, p238) In fact, when you examine what we learned about Abraham over the course of 15 chapters with what we have learned about Jacob in the last 3 chapters, one would find it hard to believe that God would really consider either Esau or Jacob to carry on the Promise that had been given to Father Abraham. Esau was a wild man who cared nothing for the birthright and what it truly meant, while Jacob, though understanding the true significance of the birthright and blessing, decided steal it from his brother instead of waiting on God to fulfill the prophecy given to Rebekah.

However, in a move that confuses (or should!) the “morality police” and gossipmongers of past, present, and future, God tends to choose some strange people to prod along the story. It appears that, no matter whatever prophecy or promise is at stake, the character of the one who will fulfill it often doesn’t really matter to God. Thus, Jacob travels towards his mother’s old home and to wherever his father has deemed appropriate to find a wife, unbeknownst to God’s higher purposes and desire for Jacob to truly receive Isaac’s blessing, regardless of Jacob’s tendency towards trickery and deceit. (Berlin & Brettler, p58) Thus, when Jacob awakes from his dream (or in the midst of his dream) to find angels walking up and down a set of stairs that stretch from heaven to earth, he is wholly unprepared to hear from God.

Jacob has never had any contact with God directly, something we can directly intuit from the text’s silence on any communication between God and Jacob up to this point. And that is often how God prefers it to happen. Jacob is running away from his brother fearfully, seeking to save only his own skin, sent off to find a wife by his parents just so he doesn’t start wandering and marry someone who was a local and not suitable for entrance into the First Family. Jacob’s agenda doesn’t include anything close to the will of God and God runs with that fact in how the conversation with Jacob comes to take place. (Brueggemann, p242)

“Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel…” (Genesis 28:18-19a, NRSV)

What a transformation Jacob underwent in the verses preceding his response here. Jacob enters into a dream and comes to stare in awe at the angels walking up and down the stairs between heaven and earth. God appears beside Jacob and proclaims to him the same promise that his grandfather Abraham received, and does this as the God of his grandfather and father. Isaac never had this experience and never blessed Jacob with the details of this promise; thus, while Jacob probably heard the stories about his grandfather, there is no evidence textually to state that Isaac or Jacob ever lived in light of these promises. If one were to compare the details of the Promise from Genesis 12, 13, and 17 to those in Genesis 28, the similarities would be overwhelming to the extent that they would seem quite verbatim. God extends to Jacob these promises: 1) the land on which Jacob sleeps will be his and his offspring’s; 2) his offspring will be as innumerable as the dust of the earth; 3) the peoples of the earth will be blessed by his offspring; and 4) God will be with Jacob, no matter where he travels. And upon waking from such a specific and direct line of communication with God, Jacob leaps headlong into loving God and acknowledging God’s presence in his life and in that place. (Brueggemann, p246) From there, Jacob worships a God through the building of a physical monument, the consecrating the direction of his life to trusting God for everything, and honoring God with a tenth of whatever God gives to him first.

A great many commentators give much attention to the physical and historical aspects of the events of this chapter. Whether they attempt to locate the location of this God-to-man communication, discuss the finer aspects of the building of the pillar/monument, or whether or not the angels were walking up and down a ladder or stairway, they spend more time trying to ascertain the specifics rather than gain a glimpse into the transformation that has taken place in Jacob’s life. Now, I do not ever want to dismiss such critiques and information from these authors; in fact, I find much of it to be great illumination into why Jacob chose to erect a physical monument as he made a verbal, spiritual declaration about the course of the rest of his life. However, I feel that some missed the larger, over-arching purpose of God’s entrance into Jacob’s life – Jacob needed this experience, this visitation from the God of Heaven. Before this dream, Jacob had lived a life by his own means and for his own ends, never truly taking the lives of others into consideration (besides obeying the whims of his mother). But after the dream, Jacob realized that he had received a literal and figurative wake-up call for his life – he became heir not only to his family’s physical possessions, but to their spiritual legacy and heritage. The birthright for which he had schemed and deceived for so long was much more important, significant, and eternal than he had ever imagined or dreamed.


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