10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring, 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So 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. 19 He called that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at first.
There are a number of incidents in the Hebrew Texts where dreams are featured as the main theme of a story. In this particular text, we find Jacob fleeing from his family because he had just swindled his brother out of his birthright. He is running from Esau, fearing for his very life when he is forced to stop for the night. In one Jewish commentary, the author indicated that God caused the sun to set earlier than normal so that Jacob would stop in that exact location. He also stated that the location was important because it was the site where Abraham had taken Isaac to be sacrificed.
I will confess, I do not read Hebrew and cannot compete with the exegetical skills of a Rabbi, however, I don’t see those facts in the text. What I do see is that Jacob ran until it got dark and then he stopped for the night. From a psychological perspective, I can imagine that Jacob’s fear that his brother, Esau, might find him, is what caused him to have strange dreams. Our minds are constantly trying to deconstruct our day to make sense of all that data we’ve taken in.
What is fascinating about this dream is that it was a deeply religious or spiritual dream and Jacob wasn’t really a religious or spiritual guy at this point. In fact, what we find with each generation of the Hebrew legacy are men who have to be shown again and again who God is and why worship of God is important. This dream reveals to Jacob the fundamental connection between heaven and earth and that there is a natural flow between the two; one does not exist without the other.
As I was working with the passage, I was trying to remember a single moment in my life where the presence of God was so unmistakable. After twenty minutes of deep thought, it was hard to just pick one. But I quickly hit the pause button to ask an important question: “Was it really the presence of God, or was it all in my head?”
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know which is true, but I would like to believe that it was the unmistakable presence of God. If this is true, though, I also have to ask, “Why do some people have experiences that they determine are the unmistakable presence of God, and other people never have those experiences, sometimes to the point that they no longer believe in God?”
I don’t know. I really don’t. This is why I say all that time that I don’t REALLY know who God is or how God works in the world. For years as a child, I tried to do some crazy mental gymnastics to justify my belief in a God who constantly intervenes in the lives of people – a God who heals, who rescues, who protects – because I was taught this. The Bible is full of stories where God behaves in these ways. But there are too many other people who have never had these kinds of experiences. People die everyday even though they have spent hours praying for healing. Children are swept away in flood waters even though thousands of people are praying that they will be rescued. Folks from all walks of life have to endure all kinds of persecution from haters, sometimes to the point of death, even though they believed in their hearts that God would somehow protect them.
These are difficult theological conundrums to wrestle with. How do we continue to believe in a loving God when there is so much hatred in the world? Are heaven and earth really connected, or is this what we like to tell ourselves when we can’t sleep at night?
When I read scripture, I am constantly looking for hope and compassion. Whether this was a real dream or not, there is something profound about the connection between our reality and the reality of a transcendent being. The ladder that connects earth to heaven does have any special powers, but it does represent the flow of energy from one place to the next. The ladder doesn’t facilitate heart-felt conversations, lovefests, or even peace-keeping marches. It simply illustrates God’s desire to be in relation with us.
I used to think that having a relationship with God meant that God was going to fix it all. I was taught this in church. People of faith, true faith, were somehow loved more and protected more by God. When bad things happened to good people, it was always explained away as a lack of faith. Jacob didn’t lack faith; he really didn’t have any kind of faith at all. He was on the run from his brother because he was a cheat and a liar. And yet, God chose to reveal something magnificent to Jacob. The connection between heaven and earth signifies God’s connection with all living beings. It is a reminder that we, too, are creatures, created in the image and likeness of God, placed on earth to have human experiences.
We have this moment, and this moment only. What we choose to do with our moments is entirely up to us. If we choose to make the most of our moments, we will engage in acts of kindness, compassion, and love for our fellow beings; we will look for ways to bridge the gaps that keep us divided.
This profound moment in Jacob’s life is when he begins to understand his purpose here on earth. Jacob’s path, though, would continue to unfold over time, it wasn’t revealed to him all at once. The same is true for us. Every person we meet on earth has something to teach us – good, bad, or indifferent. It is our job to learn from each encounter—to connect heaven and earth—and bridge the gap. To heal and mend the divisions in our world, we must embrace a vision where all things are connected and it really is up to us to make a difference one person at a time.