Scripture: lectionary 383: Genesis 28:10-22. Psalm 91:1-2,3-4,14-15. Matthew 9:18-26:
Already we are into readings about Jacob after just one chapter about Isaac and the blessing of his son Jacob yesterday. We rapidly catch up with Jacob as he is asleep and has a powerful and mystical-like dream in which he sees angels (messengers of God) ascending and descending on a ladder. We are reminded that Jesus refers to this dream of Jacob in chapter one of the Gospel of John where Jesus gathers some of the disciples of John the Baptist to be among his own. The last verse of chapter one refers to the dream and is shared with the disciple who best represents being a descendant of Jacob, namely Nathaniel whom Jesus calls a true Israelite without guile (John 1: 47, 51). Israel is the God-given name for Jacob so the conversation fits well with the dream event of the third great patriarch Jacob.
Because of the overwhelming power of this dream, Jacob vows to trust and believe in God and to commit his life to the God who created him. Dreams, of course, depend on our human experiences through the senses but often they have a revelatory touch to them. Certainly, the dreamers in the Bible had very meaningful dreams that led them to be guided by God or informed about their future. We think immediately of Jacob’s son named Joseph (the one with the coat of many colors) who is called by his brothers in an unfriendly manner, “that dreamer.” We also know that Joseph the spouse of Mary, the mother of Jesus, had several dreams as we know from Matthew’s Infancy Narrative. Matthew, incidentally, is the evangelist who gives the most verses on dreams in the New Testament.
Jacob had rested his head on a stone which he immortalizes after his dream and names the place Bethel or “abode (house) of God.” Research indicates that it is more of ramp or stairway arching into the heavens rather than a vertical ladder. The stone also may have been more for protection than used for a pillow. The expression “ the place” is mentioned three times and refers then to a holy shrine that is Bethel that becomes famous as a sacred place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. There is a blending of several traditions and redactions in this passage from Genesis; both the Yahwist and the Elohist are seen with the verses.
There is no doubt that dreams are important to certain persons in the Bible and to many people today. The symbols that often arise from dreams are helpful in seeing certain things within ourselves and within our concerns. But that is another area than our interest in the pericope for our meditation. One of the helpful dimensions of the dream of the ramp or stairs is that they represent virtues that ascend and that there is a relationship between them and God coming down from above and ascending from our own strengths and virtues when we cooperate with God.
In the Hebrew commentary ETZ HAYIM the Sages may be crediting Jacob as the first person able to find God in the midst of darkness. The Evening Prayer Ma-ariv is said to have been instituted by Jacob. I found this following statement very helpful for the spiritual life: “We ascend toward God one step at a time, making one small change in our lives and stabilizing it before we take another step. Sometimes we slip and miss a step, falling back, but we recover and keep climbing. Most people do not leap toward God in one great burst of enthusiasm.” (Etz Hayim, p.166). Amen.