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He (Jacob) 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.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
This quote has often been attributed to Shakespeare. While it sounds like it could have come from Macbeth, the author is Sir Walter Scott. It is from his epic poem titled Marmion. (Scott is likely best known for his historical novel Ivanhoe.)
Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive! It could have been written about much of the early life of Jacob. Jacob finds himself lying on the ground with a stone for a pillow; in solitude, helpless, cut off from family resources, and on the run. All as a result of a plan to deceive.
Genesis tells us that (Genesis 27:1) “When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau;” his plan was to confer his blessing of him as the oldest son before he died; effectively naming Esau as the family leader with all that that entailed. Recall that Isaac love Esau while Rebekah loved Jacob. Esau was a hunter and Isaac loves venison so he sends Esau out so they could have a feast of fresh game together as celebration of this blessing being conferred. Rebekah overheard Isaac’s conversation with Esau so concocts the plan with Jacob to take advantage of Isaac’s blindness and pretend he is Esau and receive the blessing from Isaac.
Rebekah and Jacob are successful in deceiving Isaac. Esau is furious and plans to kill Jacob. Rebekah has a contingency plan—send Jacob away to her brother Laban’s home until Esau’s anger abates and then she will send for him when it is safe to come home. So, how to get Isaac to agree? She expresses her fear to Isaac that Jacob might marry a Hittite woman; “my life will be ruined if he does this,” she complains. You know how you do this to make the other person feel as if it was their idea all along. Isaac takes the bait and decides to send Jacob to go Laban’s house (tribe) to find a wife. So Jacob takes off.
1. Marcus Dods, a 19th century Biblical scholar, introduces the story of Jacob’s flight and dream this way. “It is so commonly observed as to be scarcely worth again remarking, that persons who employ a great deal of craft in the management of their affairs are invariably entrapped in their own net.” This is where Jacob finds himself. Rebekah, and likely Jacob, think Jacob’s sojourn to uncle Laban’s will be for a relatively short time. What Rebekah never took into account was the cunning of her brother Laban; that Jacob would fall head-over-heals in love with Laban’s youngest daughter Rachel, and that Laban would take advantage of that to marry two daughters to Jacob and negotiate fourteen years of Jacob’s work in return. But that’s a story yet to come.
So it was that Jacob found himself lying on the ground with a stone for a pillow; in solitude, helpless, cut off from family resources, and on the run out of the reach of his brother. It is here that God makes himself known to Jacob. You might have expected that God may abandon, certainly chastise, one so engulfed in the outworking of his own deceitfulness. But God has only a word of grace. We must be sure to never take God’s forbearance as condoning Jacob’s behaviour any more than that Christ’s love for us means whatever I do has his seal of approval.
“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.” The gracious promise of God is extended to Jacob. A promise Jacob is invited to receive by faith—just as Abraham and Isaac before him.
When Jacob woke from his sleep he 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.” It wasn’t that Jacob was unaware of the omnipresent nature of God as if surprised that the God spoken of at his home by his father Isaac was also here as well. What shocked Jacob was that God would condescend to meet him here.
This is the gospel. God has come among us in Jesus of Nazareth and meets us here. We are all sinners fallen short of the glory of God caught in webs of our own self-deception. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” says the prophet Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 17:9) Yet, God’s word to us is one of grace and love. The promise to any who would believe is liberation from the power and penalty of sin and life eternal in him. The judgment for our sin he has taken upon himself.
Jesus Christ has come for each of us and meets us in the particulars of our lives calling us to himself. Whenever the gospel is announced we hear his voice calling us to believe. In Jesus Christ we meet the very gate of heaven, to use Jacob’s phrase; the one through whom we come to the father.
2. 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. Here is Jacob in the moment of loneliness and abandonment unsure of what lay before him and what he discovers in this encounter with God is that he is not abandoned nor alone. The ladder was a visible symbol of the real and uninterrupted fellowship between God in heaven and his people upon earth. These angels of God are carrying up the wants of his people bringing down assistance and protection. When all the world is silent and we feel alone or cut off we are not. The world of heaven is buzzing with activity for our sakes.
The dream discloses the true reality of the world in which we live. Earth is shot through and through with spirituality. I have sometimes been asked I believe there are other sentient life in the universe besides humans. Given the biblical witness to angels my answer is yes. In the Bible angels magnify the glory of God on earth, therefore the earth, the world, human history are never ultimately bleak. Evil-ridden, yes; pain-ridden, yes; incapable of saving themselves, yes. Nevertheless because “our great God and Saviour” (to quote Paul) cherishes his creation, and because the angels magnify God’s glory on earth, God’s glory in our world, God’s glory in the midst of our history, our situation is never finally bleak. However desperate Jacob may have though his situation it is never ultimately bleak. For that glory which the angels find everywhere we are given eyes to see here and there, and one day we too shall see it everywhere as the kingdom of God, hidden now, is made manifest to all.
When you come upon the word “angel” in the Bible know that either it refers to “the angel of the Lord”, God himself acting as his own messenger, stamping himself unmistakably upon us and altering us forever after; or the word “angel” refers to that spirit-creature whose witness to God is unambiguous just because its service of God is unrelenting. Notice that Jacob knows he has been addressed by God. Then you must think of the heavenly host, myriads of angels which surround us especially during those episodes when our own resources are slender and only the resources of him who sustained his Son will do for us. And then you must remember that wherever we struggle in life, our struggle is finally spiritual, and will be until that day when the earth is no longer troubled and the kingdom of God has eclipsed the kingdoms of this world for ever and ever.
Angels bear witness that God’s creation is rich, richer than we have always thought; the creation is profoundly spiritual, pervasively spiritual, finally spiritual.
Most people think not. Most people insist that the material is real. To be sure, Christians would never deny that the material is actual. Trees and mountains, buildings and bridges are not imaginary. Nonetheless, Christians would also insist that there is a spiritual dimension to the creation much deeper than trees and mountains. Some people would argue that the realm of aesthetics is more real than the real of the material. Music that lifts the soul and transcends moments, art that makes it seem you are being drawn into the scene depicts: all of this is oceans deeper than sticks and stones. Oceans deeper that it may be, it is yet not deep enough: the really deep depths everywhere in the creation are not finally aesthetic; they are finally spiritual.
Since this is the case, then everything we deal with every day has profound spiritual significance; everything has profound spiritual significance just because the heavenly host, the angels, surround everything at all times. Take the matter of hospitality. The unknown writer of the epistle to the Hebrews states, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. With our shallower understanding we tend to think that hospitality — feeding someone in our home on Saturday evening — is to meet a physical need (for food), as well as a social need (for company), as well as a psychological need (for interchange with other minds). But if the universe is pervasively spiritual, profoundly spiritual (this is what the notion of angels means) then hospitality is fraught with spiritual significance. Our hospitality, after all, is an act which unfolds before God; it has to do with people who are creatures of God, people whom God longs to know and bless as they in turn know him.
3. Jacob dreams in an instance that shows us that earth is shot through and through with the spiritual. Another was to say this is using the metaphor that N.T. Wright is fond of using—overlap. The two worlds—heaven and earth—are not identical but there are points of intersection and overlap. This is what Jacob expresses, in some measure, when he speaks of the place of his dream as the gate of heaven. Jesus Christ is this intersection.
Think for a moment of what a wonderful consolation this dream was for any poor outcast, who felt she had spoiled her life; the story of Jacob assured any such person that there is a staircase reaching from the pillow of the lonely fugitive from justice up into the very heart of God. Israelites were familiar with this vision as the interchange between Jesus and Nathaniel shows (John 1:43-51). Under his fig-tree, whose broad leaves were used in every Jewish garden as a screen from observation, Nathaniel was praying; declaring to his heavenly Father his ways, hos weaknesses, his hopes. Just as Jacob was surprised to learn that God know all about him and his situation, so was Nathaniel when he found the Jesus could penetrate his leafy screen and read his thoughts and wishes. Then Jesus said, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51) Of course, Jesus is reference Jacob’s experience as an instance of understanding what is happening to him now in meeting Jesus.
The true staircase by which heavenly messengers ascend and descend is the Jesus Christ. It is he who bridges the interval between heaven and earth. You cannot tell whether Christ is more divine or human, more God or man—solidly on earth as this massive staircase by his real humanity, by his thirty-three years’ engagement in all human functions and experiences of life, he yet is familiar with eternity, his name is Emmanuel, God with us, (or he that came down from heaven). In him we find a love that embraces us as we are, in whatever condition, however cast down or defeated, however embittered and polluted—a love that stoops tenderly to us and fills our hearts with hope.
Listen to God’s promise to Jacob. “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.” (Genesis 28:15) When all other friends fail our hope is in the Lord. Recall our Lord’s promise to his people. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
4. Philip Yancey, in his book Prayer, writes, “I have learned to see prayer not as my way of establishing God’s presence, rather as my way of responding to God’s presence that is a fact whether or not I can detect it.” He then cites Rabbi Abraham Heschel (20th Century Jewish theologian and philosopher): “Contact with (God) is not our achievement. It is a gift, coming down to us from in high like a meteor, rather that rising up like a rocket.”
When Jacob awoke in the dawn of the succeeding day the staircase was no longer visible yet Jacob knows himself addressed by God. In the chill of the morning air and in the bleakness of the rocky hillside Jacob is convinced that the staircase remains—he names the place, Bethel (House of God). The sky seemed as far from earth as t did yesterday, his track over the hill as lonely, his brother’s wrath as real; but other things had become real not the least being the promise of God to go with him wherever he went, now blazoned on his heart giving him fresh courage.
Jacob’s concluding vow (Genesis 28:20-22) may cause discomfort since Jacob appears to be bargaining with God, requiring God to fulfill every promise before Jacob will acknowledge him at Bethel. This interpretation of Jacob’s vow as a calculated set of conditions fits well with his character as a striver, one who prevails in his wrestling with humans and with God, to be given the new name “Israel” (Genesis 32:28).
Another interpretation that attends more precisely to the grammar of the vow places the emphasis on Jacob’s intention to return to Bethel, in recognition of what God has done. Rather than setting conditions, Jacob simply paraphrases God’s promises—to be with him in the journey, to protect and provide for him in every way, to return him home finally (Genesis 28:15, 20-21)—in other words, to act as Jacob’s God.
Friends, faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. It may be an “if you come through God” way of beginning or a rehearsal of Christ’s promise to save. In either case it is always a response to God coming to us: Christ making himself known. Like Jacob, the day after that beginning looks like the day before. But something else has become real. The assurance of His presence with us.
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.