The Bible is a subversive book. It subverts our assumptions about life, about good and evil, about where God is and where God isn’t; it often subverts even what seems like the obvious meaning of the story it tells. Few passages are as subversive in this last sense as the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-22. And few are as funny, though in my experience most commentators don’t seem to get the joke.
Let me briefly set up the story. The Jacob story begins with a divine oracle delivered to Rebecca, wife of Isaac (Genesis 25:23). Rebecca, who is pregnant with twins who already are jostling each other in the womb, goes to an oracle to inquire of Yhwh what is going on. Yhwh gives her a gnomic saying, the concluding line of which goes, “The greater will serve the lesser.”
It’s easy to suppose that this line means that the older twin, Esau, will serve the younger twin, Jacob, especially since the word I’ve translated “lesser” often means “younger.” This is the way that many translations take it. The NIV, for example, does precisely that, reading, “The older will serve the younger.” But this is not at all what the storyteller intends. The storyteller leaves a good deal of ambiguity about who is the greater and who is the lesser—who will serve whom. In the end, it’s not Esau who bows before Jacob, but Jacob who bows before Esau and calls him “lord” (Genesis 33:13). Even then, the storyteller leaves it up to the reader to discern who is actually the greater and who is the lesser, and what those terms might mean in any case.
From there, the story develops on two levels: the level on which Yhwh operates and the level on which the family of Jacob operates. While Yhwh works out his sovereign purposes, the family scrambles to game the system. This is the theme of the twin stories of the Birthright (Genesis 25:27-34) and the Blessing (Genesis 27). In each case, the human drama—the “Oh, dear, who’s going to get the blessing?” drama—is silly. Can you really sell a birthright for a mess of pottage? The birthright is not Esau’s to sell or Jacob’s to buy; it’s built into the cultural code. And can you really steal a blessing? (For more on this, go back to the previous post in this series: https://peripateticpastor.com/2021/11/23/can-you-steal-a-blessing-the-story-of-jacob/)
The two levels, the divine and the human, touch at two significant points: the wrestling with God story (Genesis 32:22-32), which I will come to in a later post, and the story we are about to look at, Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22). (You may wish to open your Bible to the story before moving on; don’t worry. I’ll wait.)
As is usually the case with these narratives, there’s a lot going on in the story. It’s best read together with the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Both stories are about tower temples, what the ancient people of Mesopotamia called “ziggurats.” The most famous of these was Etemenanki in Babylon, a mud brick ruin during the time these stories were written (on this see my piece on the Tower of Babel story: https://peripateticpastor.com/2021/11/11/the-tower-of-babel-the-divine-preference-for-diversity/). Both stories are told with the same ironic sense of humor. Both stories mock a cultural center. The Tower of Babel story mocks the pretensions of the city of Babylon and its partially ruined ziggurat; the Jacob’s ladder story mocks the pretensions of Bethel, the central shrine of the northern kingdom of Israel according to 1 Kings (12:22-33).
As the story opens, Jacob is fleeing Esau. On his way to Harran, his ultimate destination, he is said to “bump into a place.” Note that this unnamed “place” he bumps into is in fact Bethel. Bethel had claims to long antiquity. See Genesis 12:8 and 13:3 in the Abraham story (and the archaeological record). It was occupied fairly continuously from the Middle Bronze Age. Further, it’s often thought by scholars that Bethel was the place where some of these stories, including the Jacob story, were memorialized. In other words, Bethel claimed Jacob. The storyteller is deftly putting down these claims. “Nothing there,” he’s saying. “Jacob just happened to bump into a nothing place.”
What was there, according to the story, were large stones. One of these Jacob takes and places at his head. Nowhere does it say that this big rock, which later becomes a memorial standing stone, was a pillow. That mistaken idea is entirely the work of translations like the NIV, which has, “he put it [the stone] under his head.” The Hebrew does not say “under his head.” It says, “At his head.” The stone was not a pillow; it was a backing so that no one—read Esau—could sneak up on him from behind.
With those preparations in hand, Jacob falls asleep and dreams. The dream is of a ziggurat set up from where he is lying to the edge of heaven. (As the Led Zeppelin song has it, it’s a stairway, not a ladder.) This ziggurat accomplishes what the Tower of Babel builders were trying to do, build a tower that reaches to the heavens (Genesis 11:4), but the ziggurat in Jacob’s dream is not made of mud brick or held together with tar like the Tower of Babel; it’s entirely non-material, made up of the stuff of dreams. Or, better, of promises. What it represents is the care of Yhwh for Jacob.
From the top of this spiritual ziggurat, Yhwh speaks. First, he gives to Jacob the patriarchal blessing, originally given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Jacob is thus placed in the line of blessing with all the implications of that. Second, Yhwh promises Jacob that wherever he goes, Yhwh will go with him and will someday bring him back to this same place. Unlike the mud brick ziggurat in Babylon, Yhwh’s staircase to heaven is portable. It goes where Jacob goes.
This anticipates a comment Jesus makes to the Samaritan woman in John 4. She asks a 1st century puzzler: Where should we worship, Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim? Jesus answers, “The time is coming and now is here that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). God is not fixed to a place but covenanted to a people, a point that the New Testament develops at length in other passages.
The message to Jacob is that he has been chosen for God’s purposes, something I will explore in another post. God is not fixed to a place; God is fixed on a people. But notice what happens next. Jacob wakes up, and the first thing he says is: “Wow! [My rendering of Hebrew ‘ākēn] Yhwh is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” This is precisely the opposite of what Yhwh has just said and symbolized with the ziggurat in the dream: not that this is a sacred place but that Yhwh, will go wherever Jacob goes.
The storyteller isn’t done yet parodying Jacob’s misapprehension of what God has said. He has Jacob going on to say, “What an awesome place this is. This place is nothing short of the house of God [bet ‘el, “Bethel,” in Hebrew] and the gate of heaven. For Jacob it’s the place not the promise and presence of God that matters. And to mark the place, he does what people did at that time: he sets up a standing stone, a maṣṣēbâ, to mark this as a place of encounter with the ineffable. Many of these standing stones can still be found in the Judean desert. And he names the place, of course, Bethel, although as the storyteller acidly puts it, “it used to be called Luz.” “Luz” is a word that can mean something like “treachery.”
And then Jacob takes a vow. Such a vow. He promises that if Yhwh God goes with him and protects him, gives him food and clothes, and brings him back in peace to the house of his father, he will make Yhwh his God. He will make Yhwh his God! Oh, and he will also make Bethel a shrine and will give a tithe to the Yhwh.
It’s hard to escape the notion that the storyteller has in mind not just Jacob here but his own religious contemporaries, whom he must have regarded as being shallow and selfish. This little scene is a richly turned parody of a certain kind of religious person who is to be found everywhere. Like Jacob this kind of religious person thinks that they are doing the choosing and that they are the ones with bargaining power: if you bless us, Lord, we’ll give money to the church. After, of course, we’ve paid our taxes and set some aside for our retirement. . ..
Religion is often in the service of the idea that God can be contained: in a place, in a shrine marked by a pillar, or in terms of service by giving a tenth but not all of one’s life. Religion is what Jacob offers Yhwh. It’s what Bethel, the famous shrine, represents to the storyteller. But religion is not what Yhwh is about. What Yhwh is about is the salvation of the human race—the blessing. And it’s not that Jacob has a choice here. He has been chosen as the one through whom the blessing will come to all people. The blessing is not just for him but for the world. The rest of the story begins to unfold what that means, and in posts to come, I’ll look at how that works out in the life of Jacob.
So, you see, this little story is filled with humor and pathos and irony and deep biblical truth. Perhaps I should leave it there, but before leaving this story—a favorite of mine—I should say a word about interpretation. One of the dangers of biblical interpretation is that we read the text flat. We read it as if these Hebrew writers were incapable of humor and irony and subtle nuance. But these writers are all these things: funny, ironic, subtle, and deep. We must read their stories carefully to get at what they are doing, and we get at that best if we read with a sense of delight. No wooden telling of moral tales here in the Bible. No Sunday School simplicities. What we have are stories that are alive with surprise and significance, even for jaded 21st century readers.
When I was in seminary, it was often said that these stories must be read as and especially preached as pieces in a theological scheme. The scheme was sometimes called “salvation history” or a “redemptive historical” approach to the Old Testament. It was often portrayed as a counter to what was called “moralistic” preaching. In this kind of biblical historical peaching, one always ended with Jesus with the result that these wonderful Old Testament tales were usually reduced to pale anticipations of the New Testament, which they are not.
They are explorations of what it means to be the people of God and who that God is. In this case, everything about Jacob reflects on the people to whom he gave his name, his new name, Israel. And reflecting on the people of Israel, it also reflects on those belatedly grafted into the line, the New Testament people of God. This story ponders both religion—Jacob’s response to the dream—and what it means to be chosen of God. It does so on its own terms. We should engage it on its own terms, not in terms of some theological scheme or other. The story does indeed lead to Jesus, but we should stop, ponder, and enjoy what happens on the way.