Stairway to Heaven

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Genesis 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 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. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 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; 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. 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.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 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.” 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. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

“Stairway to Heaven” 

You might say that Jacob was caught between a rock and a hard place.   He had left home so fast that he barely had time to pack his toothbrush, his mother hustling him out the door minutes before the tidal wave of Esau’s hatred threatened to sweep them all away.

Perhaps you remember the story.  Jacob was caught in a drama that was much larger than himself, a conflict between mother and father where they each pitted their favorite child one against the other.  It’s been done before.  And since.  Of the twin brothers, “Esau” was technically the first one out of Rebekah’s womb, which made him the legal beneficiary of all the rights of the first born son: property, wealth, power, privilege.  But smooth skinned, clever Jacob, the younger twin, was Rebekah’s favorite. 

And so the minute the opportunity presented itself, Rebekah whispered her plan into her Jacob’s receptive ear: “Pretend that you are your brother Esau, receive the blessing that is meant for Esau, but the one I want you to have.”  It was if the blessing had magical properties, a life of its own, once it was spoken, it couldn’t be taken back, even if it was bestowed under false pretenses.  It had been easy enough for Jacob to trick Esau into handing over his birthright for a mess of stew.  Now for the big challenge. 

One might hope that Jacob would have enough integrity or backbone to reject his mother’s command to steal the blessing by devious means, but he only points out the obvious flaw in her plan, and together they work around the problem. Jacob will wear animal skins in order to best be mistaken for his hairy brother by his father whose eyes are too cloudy to see the difference.

The plan went off without a hitch. Jacob got the prized blessing, and all of the power and authority that went along with it.  But it came at a great cost: Jacob, the trickster, earned the hatred of his brother, he had to flee for his life, and he would never see his mother or father again.  The dim-eyed Isaac could not look Rebekah in the eye where her deceit was plainly written or see the anguish of betrayal etched on poor, humiliated Esau’s face.  Isaac could only peer into the darkness with his cloudy eyes, forever mistaking shadows for his lost son Jacob as he remembered the light that had gone out of his family’s life,

Jacob was between a rock and a hard place.  The hard place was the destroyed family trust he had left behind and the rock was the pillow beneath his head as he lay down to rest after the exhausting day of breaking the heart of everyone he knew.  You’d think Jacob would lie there awake, the rock digging into his skull, images of the day flashing before his eyes.  You’d think he would be cursing the circumstances of his birth, or rationalizing his deceitful behavior, or worrying about whether Esau would find him in this God-forsaken place and slit his throat while he slept. 

But our man Jacob slips into the arms of sleep like a waiting lover.  And he dreams.  What kind of dreams might you have if you had just done something hateful and devious and uncaring and callous to the people who loved and trusted you the most?  Would you dream of monsters chasing you, their faces changing into your enraged brother before you woke in a cold sweat?  Would the dream rocks around you clatter together to form a giant rock God who hurls boulders at you? Would you dream of a God who sat on a throne with a multitude of fierce angels at his side, a God who was ready to punish and condemn you, a God whose eyes were not cloudy but saw you clearly and whose face reflected disappointment in you?  Would you dream that you stood before a court of judges, confessing your unworthiness? 

Jacob, dreaming between a rock and a hard place, didn’t have such dreams.  No, his dreams are numinous; saturated with a sense of holiness.  Now here is where I’d like to stop the narrative and say: “Hey, wait a minute, is there no fairness here?  Can not Jacob at the very least toss and turn and stare into the accusing stars all night long?”  But no, it seems that our lad Jacob sleeps the sleep of an innocent man.

Go through this scripture passage with a fine-toothed comb for any sign of Jacob’s capacity for honest self-reflection and you will come up with nothing.  Examine Jacob’s sleeping face with a magnifying glass and you will see no worry lines there, no evidence of remorse or regret or of a guilty conscience.  I’d like to shake Jacob awake and demand that he march right back home and apologize.  I’d like to snatch him bald-headed and insist that he give the blessing back and spend the rest of his life making it up to his family. Honestly, I’d like to recommend that the whole lot of them, Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, Jacob, and rest of their kith and kin go into family therapy and examine their behavior under the unrelenting microscope of honesty.

But nothing that supports our common notions of justice or fairness or morality or emotional health happens here.  Instead, Jacob is given what the poet David Whyte calls a “dream-ladder to divinity.” (From “Everything is Waiting for You”)  Jacob’s dream has all the marks of what theologian Rudolph Otto called The Numinous, the foundational experience of religion.  In Latin, Otto described these experiences of the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  It is a mystical sense of Holy Otherness, and the feeling that arises in response to the Numinous is a theological cocktail of terrified awe, titrated by an awareness that the Sacred presence is merciful and gracious.  Numinous.  Such was the dream Jacob had there, between a rock and a hard place. 

In the dream mysterious, angelic presences are moving up and down this amazing stairway to heaven.  And God stands beside Jacob and makes promises about land and descendants, things held in high regard as signs of God’s favor.  But most importantly, the promise of God is the promise of presence. “I will be with you.” The stairs become Jacob’s guide to things to come.

Here’s the astonishing truth held in this ancient story: that God comes to us when we least deserve it.  That God comes to us when we have made an absolute mess of things.  That God comes to us when we are totally unconscious of the wreckage we may have left behind.  That God comes to us, taps us on the shoulder, whispers in our ear: “I’m right here with you.” 

Oh Jacob, you don’t deserve such love, such compassion, such forgiveness.  You don’t deserve such kindness and understanding- you don’t deserve such tenderness there at your worst and most unworthy.  But honest to God, neither do we. 

Yet, here it is.  AMEN.




  • Pastor Meg Hess