Gee, Thanks a Lot! - Reflections on Genesis 28:10-19a
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, July 17, 2023
Gee, Thanks a Lot!
Context is always crucial when one reads any biblical text, but that is doubly true when examining Gen.28, the tale of Jacob’s mysterious ladder dream. The story is wonderfully spooky, deliciously important, and delightfully funny all at the same time. The danger of forgetting where we are in the long narrative, a danger made likely by the lectionary’s necessary weekly choice of small parts of the story, is to misunderstand what in effect is actually going on when Jacob sees YHWH and responds in this tale. Jacob, we must remember is running for his life from his enraged brother, and his no doubt bewildered father, both of whom having witnessed the youngest twin dupe his eldest brother along with the aged blind father, tricking them out of Esau’s birthright and Isaac’s blessing. He arrives at the strange and unknown place on his flight from Beer-Sheba to Haran, the old country of the family’s origin.
The text emphasizes the unlikely nature of the spot by using over and over the generic Hebrew word for “place,” maqom, a gerund built on the verb for “rising” or “standing up.” The word means quite literally “a standing place,” and suggests no particular place, no place with any special characteristics, no place where one might expect anything out of the ordinary. But this place will be quite extraordinary indeed! But note how the reader is led to expect nothing unusual from this place: “He approached a place, and stayed there for the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head. Then he lay down in that place” (Gen.28:11). Three times the generic word “place” is used, leading us to expect nothing more than a night’s rest for the fugitive. If you have ever visited a museum of ancient Egyptian artifacts, you will have seen any number of wooden headrests, used for sleeping. They appear horribly uncomfortable to me, but apparently, they were the desired means for a good night’s rest. So it was here as the stone pillow becomes for Jacob a vehicle for a good sleep. It may be a comfortable choice, but it surely leads to a fantastic dream.
“He dreamed. Look! A ramp was set upon the earth with its top reaching the sky, and Elohim’s messengers were ascending and descending on it” (Gen.28:12). The famous “Jacob’s ladder,” the origin of a little pious ditty that too easily becomes an earworm for those who hear it (I know all of you are hearing it now!), is in reality a ramp or stairway, rather like a ziggurat or stepped temple. “Angels” are more generally messengers without specific description, who are moving up and down the ramp. And now, in a very unusual sentence, we are told, “Look! YHWH was standing above it (or it might be read “stood beside him” NRSV), and said, ‘I am YHWH, God of Abraham, your father, and God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your seed (offspring). Your seed will be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread to the west (lit. “the sea), to the east, to the north, and to the south (lit. “the Negev”). All the families of the soil will be blessed by you and your seed’” (Gen.28:13-14). In the dream, Jacob actually sees YHWH (!) and hears YHWH reiterate the great blessing given to Abraham in Gen.12.
And YHWH continues by promising Jacob to guard him and protect him, to be with him always, and to bring him back safely to his land: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised” (Gen.28:15). Now we must remember the context of this astonishing encounter. Jacob, the wily trickster, has fooled his brother and his father, has bilked them of birthright and blessing, and now has received, straight from the mouth of YHWH, complete assurance of God’s presence, God’s protection, and God’s bounty. There is nothing at all in what YHWH says in the way of rebuke or accusation or reprimand. Surely, we would expect YHWH to say something about Jacob’s appalling behavior with his family, but we hear precisely nothing! To the contrary! The trickster seems to get away with all his devious actions.
Well, surely now, in the face of God’s complete acceptance of the man, we can expect Jacob to admit what he has done, or if not contrition, at least some public recognition of the overt favor of YHWH for the reprobate! What we do get is something quite hilarious and thoroughly unexpected. Jacob arises from his dream, takes his rock pillow, sets it up as an altar, pours oil on it to consecrate it, and then vows the following vow: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in safety, then YHWH can be my God” (Gen.28:20-21). Well, Jacob, thank you very much! God has already quite clearly promised all those things to you in the divine speech in your dream. And now you demand all those very things in your vow, and say that if God really does come through with it all, then, and only then, can YHWH be your God!
Jacob, remember, emerged from the womb, “grabbing on to his brother’s heel,” thus marking him as Grabber. At Bethel, his true nature once again is demonstrated. No contrition, no shame, no recognition of who he is, Jacob bargains with his God, demanding fealty from YHWH for his needs, not trust in YHWH for God’s grace and gift. He adds, pathetically, that if YHWH will really do all this for him, Jacob will magnanimously give to YHWH one-tenth of what YHWH must give to him. The promised tithe here sounds grudging and tiny in the face of God’s awesome grace to the devious Jacob.
But so this God seems to be over and again in our Bible; filled with grace and mercy and compassion for all God’s creatures, no matter their actions, no matter their demanding natures. So, we ought not say, “Thanks a lot, Jacob,” but rather “Thanks a lot, YHWH,” for loving us despite who we continue to demonstrate that we are.