Genesis 28 – the Original Stairway to Heaven
Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast May 21, 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Congratulations to our youth who will be confirming their faith this morning. They have worked hard, and one of their teachers was struck down by major illness during the year. I know that Bob Williams will be with the students in prayer as they receive the laying on of hands today. In recent weeks I’ve heard from several people who listen to this radio broadcast each Sunday. Thank you for your notes and kind words of encouragement. I have been particularly struck by how many listeners are not Moravian. This program has been an outreach to the local community for 75 years now, and I’m glad that we are able to continue it.
Jacob’s Flight: We are deep in the midst of our study of the book of Genesis, and this morning we turn our attention to one of the most memorable stories from the life of the patriarch Jacob. Last week we discussed how Jacob stole his brother’s identity in order to receive the blessing from his father. We had a lively discussion after we went off the air. One of the key points from last week was that there are two stories in Genesis to explain why Jacob had to leave home. The one we focused on was the story of Jacob deceiving his father in order to receive the blessing. Jacob was exiled from his family because Esau wanted revenge.
In chapter 28 we have a different explanation for why Jacob left home. Isaac and Rebekah send Jacob back to Paddan-aram in order to find a wife. This story probably came from the priests of Judah and it reflects their concern that the bloodline of the Chosen People remain pure. Both stories of Jacob’s flight from Beersheba reflect the issues faced by the Israelites after the Babylonian Conquest. One is concerned with maintaining racial and religious identity during and after the exile. The other concerns exile itself and the question of God’s faithfulness.
In today’s lesson, Jacob spends the night in a place that he will name Beth-el, the House of God. The interpretation of this episode depends in part on which story your prefer to explain Jacob’s flight from Beersheba. If you view Jacob as an exile fleeing the wrath of his brother, then the encounter with God at Bethel has a different intensity than if Jacob is simply on a long journey to his ancestral home. Either way, though, the most important message of this story is that God speaks with Jacob and reaffirms the covenant of Abraham in one of the best known visions of Western religion.
Read Genesis 28
Stone Pillow: When I was a child in Sunday School, the thing that most amazed me about this story was the stone pillow that Jacob used. That always seemed odd to me, but I took it so seriously that from time to time I tried using a stone for a pillow when I was camping or just napping in the fields. It never worked, and I’m afraid that it made me doubt the historical veracity of the book of Genesis by the time I was 10. For the most part, though I contented myself with the theory that this was a stone that was shaped just perfectly for Jacob’s head, but I never found one for my head. Years later I learned that you can lie on your back rather comfortably if the stone is beneath your neck. The Egyptians refined this type of pillow into a special neck brace for sleeping. So, Jacob may been following custom in sleeping with his neck on a smooth stone rather than rolling his spare clothes up into a pillow like I used to on camping trips. Or, the stone could be emphasizing that Jacob fled in a hurry without taking along a change of clothing. All he had was the food that Rebekah had provided for him.
The only reason we know about the stone pillow, though, is because Jacob had a vision of God while he was sleeping. Naturally, he assumed that the stone itself had mystical properties – that it had given him the vision. The next morning, he set it up as a pillar, which meant that it must have been a pretty good sized rock. It is possible that he set the stone up on another rock that was the pillar. And then he poured oil over the rock to mark it as a sacred object. This may strike you as a little odd, but there is ample evidence from the Bible and outside the Bible that ancient people believed that rocks could be sacred. We see this most clearly in a place like Stonehenge, which continues to attract pilgrims who marvel at the standing stones. We saw that Abraham build altars out of rocks in sacred places, and the most famous sacred rock is associated with Abraham in Islam. That, of course, is the Ka’ba stone in Mecca.
Jacob’s actions in ch. 28 are perfectly reasonable in his historical context. If you have a mystical experience that tells you that a place is sacred, you set up a special rock to mark the holy place. There is something very primal in this encounter with a rock that I really like. I have always liked stone walls, churches, and bridges. They connect you to the earth in a special way. Genesis Bible reminds us that the things of this earth may be vehicles for revelation and grace.
Beth-El: Jacob named the place where he had his vision Beth-el, the House of God. This became one of the most important cities and shrines in ancient Israel. It was rediscovered by the archaeologist Edward Robinson in the early 19th century and parts of it were excavated after WWII. At one time it belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, but it was lost to the Canaanites during the period of the Judges. Later it was recaptured by the tribe of Ephraim, and it became an important shrine for the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of Jeroboam. It is most likely that the story of Jacob’s dream at Beth-el was part of the religious tradition of the shrine passed down by the priests and prophets of Bethel.
Archaeologists have discovered many layers of history at Bethel. It is located on a ridge that has several springs of good water. The city was founded about 2000 BC and by 1700 had a city wall that was eleven feet thick in places. It was well-fortified and appears to have been a notable city by the time of Abraham (Gen. 12:8). It is a little odd, then, that there is no mention of the city in Jacob’s story until the end. The story makes it sounds as if Jacob happened upon an unknown place in the wilderness, but this is simply be the story-teller’s art. We would expect that Jacob, like all travelers, would journey from town to town. We’ve seen that Abraham and Isaac did so. Most likely, Jacob knew he was going to the village of Bethel, which was called Luz at the time. He probably camped outside of the city wall, but it is possible that this experience took place in the city square where sojourners could sleep. In any case, the Israelites called the shrine and the city Bethel because of Jacob’s religious experience. He did not found the city of Bethel, but he did make it sacred to the Israelites. Centuries later, Bethel would be one of the resting places for the ark of the covenant and a key city of Israel. This story of Jacob helps to connect later Israelite history with the story of the patriarchs.
It is interesting that Jacob named the shrine for El, the chief God of the Canaanites. Archaeologists have determined that for much of its history, Bethel was one of the most prosperous Canaanite cities, but it was completely destroyed by the Israelites around the time of the Joshua’s invasion of Canaan. The destruction of Bethel is not mentioned in the Bible, but scholars speculate that the book of Joshua confuses Bethel with the neighboring town of Ai. By the time Genesis was written, though, Bethel had been an Israelite city for centuries, and its Canaanite origins were largely forgotten. Jacob had a vision of the LORD (YHWH), but he named the shrine for El. In this little episode of naming, we see how the religion of the Israelites was blended with the older religion of the Canaanites in a creative fashion. You may remember that we saw the same thing in the Abraham stories.
Jacob’s Vision: The most striking thing in this story is the vision that Jacob had. This was the Jacob’s Ladder sung about in spirituals and memorialized in children’s games. There are a number of interesting points to consider in this vision. First of all, it took place in a dream. We haven’t had many dream stories in Genesis up to this point, but dreams are going to be very important in the Joseph story that follows. Up to the story of the binding of Isaac, the LORD generally appeared directly or spoke directly to the patriarchs and matriarchs, especially in the J narrative. The LORD walked with and talked to Adam, Eve, Cain, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Hagar. He will make an appearance to Jacob later, but in an unusual way. There will be less direct contact between God and people after the time of Abraham, and we see that in the Jacob story. The LORD speaks in a dream rather than face to face as he did with Abraham.
The second thing worth noting is that Jacob’s ladder was not really a ladder; it was more of a stairway. Yes, indeed, Led Zeppelin was correct in their interpretation of this passage. It is a stairway to heaven. I was glad to learn that it wasn’t really a ladder because I always had trouble visualizing the angels going up and down a ladder. My father taught me early on that only one person should be on a ladder at a time. It also seemed undignified for angels to be climbing a ladder.
Instead we should picture a large ramp stairway leading up to the highest heaven. What Jacob was dreaming about was a ziggurat, much like the one that was in the center of Babylon. We talked about that earlier when we discussed the Tower of Babel. A ziggurat is a man-made mountain on which the gods would dwell. Leading up to the top of the ziggurat was a long ramp with stairs in it. During religious festivals the priests and the king would ascend the stairway and confer with the gods on top of the mountain. Then they would tell the people the will of the gods. This is what the author of Genesis had in mind when relating Jacob’s vision. Religious experience is shaped by the images we are accustomed to. It would be expected that Jacob would see God through the images of the religious practices of his day – or that the author of Genesis would portray the vision in this way. Jacob saw stairs leading to the house of God. This is another bit of evidence for Genesis having been written after the defeat by Babylon. Babylonian religion is reflected in this and other stories, but what is most important is the meaning given to these religious symbols.
The angels in this account function much like the priests in Babylon. They are God’s messengers who ascend and descend, like middle-management in a large organization. They relay the instructions of the CEO and take questions up to him. One thing that is instructive is that Jacob sees divine messengers rather than priests performing this role. Human mediators are not required for Jacob to interact with the divine realm. Another interesting thing is that the ziggurat is only a vision. Jacob does not erect a tower in Bethel in order to reach God. The connection between the divine and human realms can happen whenever God chooses. Jacob simply slept on a rock and was granted access to God. There was no architecture or elaborate rituals involved.
Even more intriguing is the fact that the angels and the stairway were ultimately unnecessary for the vision. They merely provided the dramatic backdrop for Jacob’s encounter with the LORD. God speaks to him directly without mediators. There is a translation dispute in this passage. The NIV states that the LORD appeared above the stairway and the angels. The NRSV says that the LORD stood beside Jacob. The Hebrew text is ambiguous, and here we see how theology can affect translation. The NIV consistently emphasizes God’s transcendence, holiness, and majesty. The NRSV prefers to focus on God’s intimacy and presence. In this case, I think the NIV is correct. It fits the context better for God to appear at the top of the stairway rather than below, but either way, God speaks directly to Jacob. Rather than appearing as a stranger on a journey the way he appeared to Abraham, this time the LORD appears as El, the high God enthroned on high with angels serving him.
Promises: The vision is less important than what God says. He tells Jacob that the covenant he made with Abraham will be continued through him. Before he left Beersheba, Jacob had referred to the LORD as Isaac’s God. Now the LORD is claiming Jacob as his own. The God of Abraham and Isaac will be the God of Jacob as well. The promises given to the grandfather will be fulfilled in the children of the grandson. The covenant extends through time, through the generations, and through the wanderings of the people. Despite the fact that Jacob had deceived his father and cheated his brother, the LORD has chosen him as the bearer of the covenant. No mention is made of Esau. Perhaps God appeared to him in a different fashion and made a different covenant with him. We’ll never know. We have the record of Jacob’s descendents and their journey with God. We have the promise that through Jacob “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This is an extraordinary prophecy. It means that even the family of Esau and Ishmael will be blessed through Jacob’s descendents. As Christians, we see this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ who takes away the sin of the world and is a light to the nations. It is a prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled, but it should guide our actions and attitudes. All families of the earth are to be blessed by those who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The truth of Scripture is not in logic or archaeology or science or history; it is in daily living. When Christians, Jews, and Muslims bring blessing to all the families of the earth in the name of the LORD our God, then the Scriptures will be proven true. When the Bible is used to oppress rather than liberate, to harm rather than heal, to bring death rather than life, then we have stepped outside of the promise made to Jacob.
The LORD also promised Jacob that he would be with him wherever he goes. This was an important message to give to the exiles in Babylon. They needed to hear that God was with them in exile, just as he was with Jacob. The LORD God is not confined to a Temple in Jerusalem or to a shrine in Bethel or to a ziggurat in Babylon. God is with his people, and he expects his people to follow him.
Conclusion Jacob still has a long journey with God, and he has much to learn. We see this in the way that he responded to his vision. He made a vow that if God would indeed fulfill his promise and protect him on his journey, then he will worship him. If he is able to return to his family one day and prosper in his affairs, then he will return to the sacred place where he saw God and he will worship him. The vision and the promise were not enough for the trickster, Jacob. He hedges his bets and will not commit himself to God until God has proven worthy. Walter Bruggemann and other commentators view Jacob’s vow as a sign of his religious commitment and acceptance of the covenant, but I’m not convinced. Jacob had a religious experience at Bethel, a mystical vision, but he does not yet have faith. If God does what he says, then he will be Jacob’s God. It will be another 20 years before the trickster wrestles with God and learns to trust. Next week we’ll follow Jacob to the home of Laban where he falls in love with Rachel. We’ll also see how easily the deceiver is deceived.