The most important thing about the “Jacob’s ladder” story is what we learn about Jacob himself. He can’t take yes for an answer.
Jacob and his mother Rebekah have managed to undermine two of the most formidable ancient power structures, patriarchy and primogeniture. Unfortunately for them they had no viable safeguard against the threat of Esau’s violence. Rebekah’s plan was to wait out his anger. This approach proved to be naïve, but that is for a later story.
When we find Jacob in Genesis 28 he is fleeing for his life to the imagined shelter of Uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. He has supposedly secured for himself both his brother’s birthright and his blessing, but neither seems to be of any value at the moment. Esau remains safely and comfortably at home with all of Isaac’s riches. Jacob is alone, vulnerable, at risk.
Bethel: The Gate of God
The LORD comes to Jacob in the middle of the night. In a dream he shows Jacob the gate of heaven.
Unlike moderns who imagine power resides in our control over natural process, the ancients believed the deity rules the events of earth through commands from heaven executed by heavenly messengers. It appears to Jacob that this place, which will be called “Bethel” which literally means “the house of God” is the intersection between heaven and earth.
If that were not enough, what follows is more dramatic. The LORD himself speaks to Jacob and delivers a two fold blessing. He reiterates the same promise of blessing given to Abraham and Isaac. This blessing includes a promise of a great nation of descendants, the promise of land, and the promise that through Jacob and his descendants all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.
The second part of the message is more immediate. The LORD will be with him, will go with him wherever he goes, will bring him back to this land, and will surely complete all that he has promised.
We might expect Jacob to be filled with peace and gratitude. Neither is spoken of in the text. Instead we have two different reactions, fear and distrust.
The fear is common and completely understandable given the angelic vision. Most Americans seem to assume that exposure to the God of the universe would be a uniquely pleasurable experience. Ancients felt exactly the opposite. Terror is the normal response. Why? Before this being absolute purity, power and light we feel ourselves existentially naked and exposed. It began with Adam and Eve’s hiding. The fear that Jacob felt in his exile from home was nothing compared to the terror at being found naked before the God of the universe.
Jacob’s response was completely in keeping with what was common in his culture. He made a sacrifice with the only elements he had available to him.
There is more to this, however. If there is one thing we know about Jacob it is that he is an opportunist. Jacob received this trait from his mother who shared it with his Uncle as we will see. When Esau was hungry, Jacob pounced and bargained hard for his birthright. When Rebekah overheard Isaac’s plan she pounced, and secured the blessing for her favored son. Now Jacob, despite his fear, sees an opportunity here.
If heaven controls the earth, then the gate of heaven must clearly be prime real estate. Jacob now considers this to be prime information that he perhaps can exploit.
That tidbit is overshadowed by the promise given to him. What is alarming, however, is that even this consummate opportunist seems to miss the major promise, and fix himself on the minor one. Jacob immediately focuses his attention not on the largeness of the main promise, the main message, the one that has been repeated to Abraham, Isaac and now him, he fixates on the second one, the promise of more immediate deliverance, prosperity and protection. This is what Jacob wants.
The most glaring omission of Jacob’s is in fact his failure to recognize that no negotiation is necessary. What he desires has simply been given to him as a gift, unconditionally, freely, but Jacob cannot see it. The passage concludes with the strangest negotiation of all time. He’s given the key to the city, but he drafts a negotiation for a small house instead. Why?
The writers of Genesis are masters of irony. Blindness permeates the family of Isaac. We just left a scene where Isaac is literally blind, only evaluating the world by what he can taste and touch. Rebekah, the skilled manipulator somehow couldn’t see that her machinations would threated the life of the son she loved. Esau, the great hunter couldn’t find the game in time to return to secure his blessing. Now Jacob, the greedy, opportunistic heal grabber who hungers for birthright and blessing when given a blessing so unimaginably immense bargains himself down for a small one.
The irony here is deep. Jacob is given a vision behind the veil. He imagines he SEES the inner workings of God’s management of the universe and supposes he can through his craftiness can exploit this to his advantage. What he cannot see is that the gift of seeing is trumped by the gift of receiving.
When we read these texts in Genesis we should always keep in mind that Jacob the individual, along with other individuals in the story that will become nations stands for the nation. This is not just a story of the election of a person, it is the story of the election of a nation. Jacob’s inability to grasp the what his election means is told as a way of communicating to the later nation of Israel that SHE didn’t grasp the meaning of her election. Rather than resting in the blessing offered to her as pure gift, Israel continues to step outside the blessing given and angle for the blessing as if it were something to be secured from a reluctant adversary.
Imagine the child of a wealthy and generous parent who after hearing repeatedly that they are heir of a great fortune decides they will enter into a conditional, adversarial relationship to acquire this fortune. This is what Jacob does and it is folly.
What Jacob Can’t See
First, from before he was born he was promised blessing. Surely he knew this. Surely this was part of the reason Rebekah favored him and plied her deception to make a way for him. Jacob’s unbelief is probably learned from his mother. He would be heir to the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, a promise far larger than the birthright he angled Esau for, but he couldn’t understand that it was simply pure gift.
Second, he also misread the angelic ladder. He associated it with the place. That association was understandable, but what he failed to realize was that he himself was the ladder. The divine intervention to bless the would wouldn’t be tied so much to the land as to the nation that Jacob represents.
“Jacob’s ladder” as it is known by was more literally a ramp on a Mesopotamian temple. Jacob didn’t need to somehow mark a piece of territory, he himself was the territory. What God would do through him would be to make the project he was building through Jacob into his temple. The descendants of Jacob would become the gate of heaven through which the messengers of God would ascend and descend. Jacob couldn’t see that.
The third thing he couldn’t see was the implication of God’s election of him. Yes, God, the commander of angelic agents would go with him, protect him, and make sure that God’s mission would be carried out through him. Jacob of course grabbed hold of this promise, but in all the wrong ways.
Trading People and Places
In the 1983 movie “Trading Places” Randolph and Mortimer throw silver spoon Winthrop to the curb and exalt Billy Ray Valentine from the streets to the penthouse. Billy Ray, played by Eddie Murphy immediately attempts to take advantage of his new access to wealth. He beings to pocket the fine articles of the penthouse while Randolph and Mortimer attempt to persuade him that he is only foolishly stealing from himself because all of these things now belong to him. He owns the penthouse, he owns the silver, he owns far more than this. He needs a new frame of reference.
A lot of the rest of the Jacob story will in fact be the LORD continuing to convince Jacob of his election, that he is blessed, and that the LORD will accomplish all he has set out to do, and that most of Jacob’s misery is because Jacob simply refuses to believe this truth about himself. Jacob must learn, as Abraham did, that God’s election fundamentally reorders his universe, and his challenge is not to secure his blessing, but rather to learn to live within it.
What Jacob needs to unlearn is the most basic lesson we learn early on in life. That using things is second only to using people.
Isaac used Esau for food and affirmation. Isaac used Rebekah for pleasure and children. Rebekah used Isaac for children and status. Jacob and Esau used Isaac for future security and wealth. Whatever our status as heir we act like thieves and manipulators of people in order to secure our future. Our blindness to the reality of our status as heirs leads us to this behavior. This behavior is so deeply engrained in us that when the gift of the kingdom is explained to us we cannot see it. We cannot hear “yes” because we believe the world is an antagonistic negotiation we must win. We believe God is an enemy we must wrestle with and overcome.
What We Have Been Given
Jacob’s story is not just Israel’s story, it is also the story of the church. Jacob was given an oracle and a dream of a ramp on a heavenly temple. You have been given far more than that. Christ (Jesus and his church) is the temple which is both the house of God and the gate of heaven. In him you were chosen, elect, secure. You were united with him in his baptism, and united with him in his resurrection. What Jacob was given and shown in dreams, you have been given and shown in flesh and blood. The promise given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is fully given to us, and what do we do with it?
Our opportunistic minds immediately and instinctively jump to what Jacob’s did. We immediately attempt to exploit this blessing and favor and imagine we can live within it to secure the petty things we imagine makes up our lives. We attempt to secure from Yahweh the kinds of things that Billy Ray Valentine attempted to secure from Randolph and Mortimer, the silver ashtrays and silverware. What the LORD attempts to communicate to us is that we’ve been given the kingdom, the silver and the gold are in fact incidental.
We do precisely the kinds of things Jacob did. We attempt to barter with God about circumstances that seem definitive but are mostly meaningless. We’re preoccupied with security and prosperity when God wishes to invite us into a vision that is larger than we can imagine. We are given it all, but we simply won’t take “yes” for an answer.
Our silly little negotiations simply reinforce our inability to receive the greater gift and leave us in fear when we should be experiencing freedom and joy.
Now you might say “but my circumstances are difficult. Certainly this isn’t what God intended for me!”
John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis brings this into full view with these words.
10. And Jacob went out. In the course of this history we must especially observe, how the Lord preserved his own Church in the person of one man. For Isaac, on account of his age, lay like a dry trunk; and although the living root of piety was concealed within his breast, yet no hope of further offspring remained in his exhausted and barren old age. Esau, like a green and flourishing branch, had much of show and splendour, but his vigour was only momentary. Jacob, as a severed twig, was removed into a far distant land; not that, being ingrafted or planted there, he should acquire strength and greatness, but that, being moistened with the dew of heaven, he might put forth his shoots as into the air itself. For the Lord wonderfully nourishes him, and supplies him with strength, until he shall bring him back again to his father’s house. Meanwhile, let the reader diligently observe, that while he who was blessed by God is cast into exile; occasion of glorying was given to the reprobate Esau, who was left in the possession of everything, so that he might securely reign without a rival. Let us not, then, be disturbed, if at any time the wicked sound their triumphs, as having gained their wishes, while we are oppressed.
Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Vol. 2: Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (110–111). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
We can’t take “yes” for an answer often because we can’t see our deliverance. Do you believe that all you sins were paid for by the sacrifice of the son of God? Do you believe that you have been set free from the tyranny of the devil? Do you believe that although in the age of decay you will lose everything but your inheritance is held secure outside of it and will be received when you receive a new body, one like Jesus’ that will not decay? Do you believe any of this?
We are angling for ashtrays and silver spoons while the resurrection has been given to us. We hope to make off with the Rolls Royce while we fail to realize we’ve been promise new bodies and a new earth to reign over.
I suspect we are all massively blind to it and only glimpse it in moments when, like Jacob, we have little temporal succor and so we are emotionally open to God’s feast instead of our own puny snacks we usually try to subsist upon.
Upon receiving the dream Jacob should have been completely filled and consumed with joy, security and gratitude. He was not. This is what is offered to you. Will you see your blessing? Will you see the promises offered to you simply out of God’s grace?
We have promises given that are far more complete than what Jacob had. We have Jesus’ teaching, his example, his crucifixion and his resurrection along with the witness to them of the apostles and thousands of years of testimonies of the saints? Can’t we please begin to see? Can’t we please take yes for an answer? Consider the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
If Paul’s prayer comes to fullness in us, we begin to live as joyful, free, generous citizens of this world because we are promised the world to come. If this vision is ours our joy and our peace are so manifest that we actually begin to be able to fulfill the command of Jesus not to worry. We actually begin to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. We actually begin to have the spiritual resources to forgive and live to bless, rather than to use.
Jacob will continue to try to be a user of God and a user of people. He will make God and all around him his adversary and continue to wrestle with them to win. While he will find plenty of adversaries in the people around him, what happens when he meets God will be a surprise, but again, I don’t want to give away the end.
For now it is enough to begin to understand Jacob’s blindness, Israel’s blindness and the church’s blindness. We approach Christmas as if it is a commercial retailer. We approach our parent as if he were an employer, we approach God’s kingdom as if it were a wilderness requiring us to subdue it. We can’t take yes for an answer.