We’re studying Genesis 28:10-22 for Sunday, November 18: the story of “Jacob’s ladder.” Along with our Jewish cousins, because this text happens to be the first episode in the Torah portion Va-Yeitzei, which comes up this week.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve been making our way through the saga of the patriarchs and matriarchs. This text is the next major episode in the saga, the sequel to the story we read last week:
Having cheated his [ever-so-slightly] older brother, Esau, out of their father’s blessing, incurring Esau’s murderous wrath as a result, Jacob now leaves town at the urging of his mother Rebekah. His official purpose is to find a more suitable wife than the kind of local Hittite women Esau has married. His immediate purpose is to put plenty of distance between him and his brother.
Jacob will find a wife, of course – two, in fact, thanks to a trick of his Uncle Laban’s; he’ll father twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel and a daughter, Dinah, who will set in motion a plot twist that will cast a long, long shadow over the Hebrew Bible. Most of that will happen in this same Torah portion.
Up until this time, there’s no mention of Jacob having had any direct contact with God. That’s about to change.
CLOSER READING: Jacob is the clear protagonist of this story; he does almost all the action, and makes two speeches. God doesn’t do that much – maybe God doesn’t need to do much more than appear, which IS a lot all on its own – but God says a lot, and what God says really matters.
Jacob goes a day’s journey from Beer-sheba, his point of departure, on his way to Haran, where his mother’s brother Laban lives. We know it’s a day’s journey, because he stops “because the sun had set.” Literally, the sun went into heaven – our first indication that this is a place where going into and out of heaven is possible?
The text emphasizes this place: the word “place” repeats three times in rapid succession in v11, and twice more in Jacob’s exclamation in vv16-17. It might also be worth noting that this “place” is closely associated with Jacob’s experience – that is, with things Jacob does and says. God doesn’t use the word “place.”
The word head turns up in a couple of pairings. Jacob uses a stone for a pillow for his head, and then dreams of a ladder with its head [literally] in heaven. Later, he takes the stone that he had under his head and anoints its head [literally] with oil. Is this meant to remind us that Jacob is being designated the “head” of the family?
Jacob dreams. Dreaming is a privileged vehicle for divine-human communication. Past readers have wondered whether the ladder, angels, and God are dream-visions, or actually there in the landscape, upon Jacob’s waking from some other dream.
In any event, all three elements of the scene are subject to the behold or lo! word (Hebrew hineh), something like our “Oh! Here’s …” – the point is, the ladder, the angels, and God are immediately present, whether inside or outside Jacob’s dream.
There has been a lot of thought about what the ladder represents – history, for instance, or the human lifespan, which is hopefully an ascent to God, or … ? Because it is so wonderful, it seems like it must mean something more wonderful than a literal ladder, perhaps.
We might wonder why the angels are ascending and descending, and might want to explain why angels, who normally live in heaven, are first going up and then going down. Maybe (according to some midrash) these are guardian angels who have been accompanying Jacob on his trip through the promised land, and who are about to hand him off to the protection of other angels who can do things outside the land of Israel. On the other hand, maybe this is just a figure of speech, and the angels, who live in heaven, are really descending first and then ascending after that despite the way the text says it, so there’s no mystery at all.
God is profoundly encouraging to Jacob. God (YHWH) introduces Himself to Jacob, as the God of Abraham, his father, and of Isaac. Technically Isaac is Jacob’s father, so why name Abraham as his father? To emphasize that God views Jacob as the legitimate recipient of Abraham’s blessing and promise?
God’s promises to Jacob are lavish and reminiscent of promises made directly to Abraham. They include land, many descendants, (literally, “seed”), and blessing for “all the families of the earth,” which implicitly carries with it reputation and honor among all those families.
God doesn’t seem to be holding Jacob’s questionable behavior vis-à-vis Esau against him. [Maybe because God knows how everything is going to work out in the end.]
Jacob wakes up – which might be evidence in favor of the dream-vision reading – and immediately attributes the event to the place. Why is that? Why not think God had something to do with this, for instance? But no, the place is what Jacob thinks made the event happen … Causal thinking fallacy, possibly? But after this and from now on, Luz-that-turned-into-Bethel will be an important place.
The rabbis suggest that Jacob would not have slept there if he had known it was a holy place.
But now Jacob is afraid. That’s new. So, he wasn’t afraid before, when he was cheating his brother, or even when his brother was threatening to kill him, but now that he has had a vision of God and angels and received an enormous blessing, now he’s afraid. Let’s pay attention to this.
Because his next move is to make a response to the experience.
He performs a complex act of worship: sets up a stone pillar, we don’t know exactly how large this was, and anoints it with oil. [Some readers wonder where he got the oil. But, he probably didn’t leave home with no provisions for the journey, and oil would presumably be a staple, so is this really a mystery?]
And he makes a vow, imposing a condition on the situation in the process: if God will do this, that, and the other thing, then YHWH will be my God, and this will be a place of worship, and I will tithe whatever God gives me – so, God, if you give me a lot, I’ll tithe a lot, and if not, well, then, not so much.
I wonder whether the difference between Jacob’s fear in v17 and his more considered response of the later morning, his “after having had that first cup of coffee” response, is significant. Jacob up until now in the story has been accustomed to being in control of things. He thinks ahead. His plans work out. He knows what’s what. The vision of heaven disrupts that: there is no knowing what’s what in the face of that, there is just finding himself in an awesome place [literally, a place that makes-afraid, that makes-tremble], being completely taken by surprise … so maybe that speech in v17 captures Jacob’s first, overwhelmed impression, while the one in v20 reflects a kind of “getting a handle on things,” “getting a grip.”
An effort to manage this God thing.
We know how well that turns out for him …