Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. It’s about Jacob and that famous ladder of his, but there’s much more to it than that. The format is a little different from my usual style, but each verse is so rich and significant, I decided to breakdown the text one or two verses at a time. I hope you find it helpful and that your Sunday worship is wonderful.
Genesis 28:10-19 NIV
10. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.
Okay, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind this brief verse. Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.
And why is that? you ask. Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers — even though they are twins – who are as different as night and day. When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.
But Jacob is not the first born, which galls him to no end later in life. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home. But Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real macho dude.
And, it gets worse. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies. (Did I say Esau is a bit dramatic?) So, anyway, Jacob says, “Okay, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.
Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by, oh, maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was. So Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.
But it gets even worse.
Isaac is really old and blind by now. So, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make Esau’s famous stew (apparently all the guys in this story know how to cook stew) and bring him some. Then, Isaac says, I’ll give you a blessing.
Rebekah, the mother, overhears this conversation. She wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, fills him in, and cooks a goat for him – as quickly as you can cook a goat.
She puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather dainty, hairless arms to fool Isaac. By the way, nobody ever accused families in the Bible of being perfect.
So, Jacob goes into Isaac’s room with his stew. Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long. Are you sure you are Esau?” To which Jacob replies, “Yes, father, I’m Esau!”
Isaac is skeptical, to say the least, and he tells Jacob to come closer so he can touch him and confirm he is indeed Esau. Jacob does so, and Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So he pronounces his blessing on Jacob.
Now not to excuse what Jacob and Rebekah are doing to deceive old, blind Isaac, but I’m sure Jacob rationalizes that the blessing of the firstborn is rightfully his because Esau sold it to him for a bowl of stew.
In the meantime, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)
Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.
Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Wow.
11. When he 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.
Okay, so back to our story. Jacob travels about a day’s journey and reaches “a certain place.” Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than it’s nighttime. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
Debbie has been having neck problems, and we have tried every possible remedy. Finally, she saw a physical therapist, and is now getting regular neck massages from Gayle Wright. I’m sure you wanted to know that.
But, before she did that, we bought several different pillows. We’ve tried buckwheat pillows, down pillows, latex pillows, fiberfill pillows, and so on. We have a lot of pillows. But we finally found a memory foam pillow with a cooling gel top that she really liked. So we bought one. Then I bought one because I was jealous of her having the good pillow. I will not tell you how much they cost because I am embarrassed to tell you how much they cost. But they are really comfortable. Really.
But Jacob was apparently not as picky as Debbie and I are because he selects a nice firm rock for a pillow. No wonder he dreams strange things.
12. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get Jacob’s ladder and the song by the same name. But, of course those spoilsport biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway or ramp that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Like the Tower of Babel. So, instead of singing the spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder, it might more likely be Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven!
Not the same, I know, but that’s what they tell us. In any event, the stairway or ladder connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers (because that’s what angels are) are going up and down from heaven to earth and back. This idea of heaven meeting earth will be formalized in the Tabernacle and then permanently in the Temple. But this is our first glimpse of the heaven and earth connection.
But here’s the important part in verse 13:
13. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.
In the ancient world, at the top of the ziggurat God was to be found. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so the biblical writer uses a familiar image of the stairway, and God is at the top looking down.
God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”
Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.
Let’s read the next verses to see what God promises to Jacob.
14. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
15. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God promises Jacob five things.
I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. (v.13)
Your descendants will be numberless, ubiquitous, and a blessing to all peoples. (v. 14)
I am with you and will watch over you…(v. 15)
I will bring you back to this land…(v. 15)
I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob.
16. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.
Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too.
I visited my Dad from last Sunday to Wednesday. Dad is 97, or closer to 98, as he told a couple of folks in Douglas while I was there. He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed foot drop. Apparently his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission.
He flew into some dangerous situations in both Europe and Northern Africa,
and was the first plane to land in Algiers after it was liberated.
But when he developed foot drop, he couldn’t operate the plane’s controls, and came back to the US to recover. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor until the war was over.
But the day after he was sent for medical treatment, his group of C47s came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed.
Dad told me that story, and then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”
Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!
But Jacob also realizes that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense, God is here, not just was here. “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens:
17. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
18. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Jacob recognizes that he is in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.
And so Jacob names that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words, beth which means house, and el which means God. Bethel, the house of God.
And then he takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, erects it as an altar, pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.
Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time. –