28:10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.
28:11 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.
28:12 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.
28:13 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;
28:14 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.
28:15 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.”
28:16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!”
28:17 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.”
28:18 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.
28:19a He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
MIDRASH ON GENESIS 28
Jacob is a surprising choice to be “the father of a great nation” given that he is on the run from his brother’s wrath after deceiving Esau out of his birthright. The biblical G_d at times seems to privilege vision, potential, and passion over moral uprightness. Being “good” sometimes isn’t nearly as critical as willingness to be big—big enough to contain and enact G_d’s dream.
G_d appears to Jacob in a dream—apparently in human form—as dream interpreter. The archetypal image of the ladder with angels ascending and descending is ancient, symbolizing an opening, or a “thin place” , a gateway connecting the eternal and temporal. In Egyptian mythology the ladder appears in the myth of Horus’s enthronement as son of Osiris as a symbol of communication between heaven and earth. As New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, points out The Koran speak of a “ladder into the sky” and of “the Lord of the Stairway”. In Greek mythology Aristides reports how we was healed by a vision of Sarapis and Asclepias, who revealed “ladders which mark the boundary between the upper and the nether world”.
Mircea Eliade (Shamanism, Princeton University Press, 1964) notes that shamans were initiated by climbing a tree or ladder, symbolizing their calling to be intermediaries between the temporal and eternal. Native Americans have a ladder leading to an underground kiva. “The Dyak people of Borneo enacted ritual rebirth initiations that included an ecstatic journey to the sky on a ritual ladder.” He gives many more examples of the relationship between shamanism and the ladder connecting heaven and Earth.
Jacob “descends” into the unconscious (dream state) and is opened up to numinous dimensions of Reality. When he is touched by the numinous, his interior (and moral) transformation begins. The dream of his small self (gaining status and wealth by any means) is subsumed by the dream of G_d ( being the progenitor of a nation that would be a light unto the world). This is his ascent—a higher vision of what is possible. With that vision, a portal opens up between heaven and earth, upon which divine guides can now have access. Jacob himself becomes the ladder or as Wink puts it, “the leader becomes the ladder”, upon which angels ascend and descend.
This marks Jacob’s awakening: “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” This describes the human condition of spiritual ignorance. Ignorance is also a spiritual condition which seems to be a necessary stage of development for humans. Sri Aurobindo devotes an entire chapter to spiritual ignorance, this condition of being unaware that we’re involved in a numinous, Spirit-suffused adventure (The Life Divine). We get by as long as possible in the mundane realm of the small self and the cultural projects it conjures. We remain small when we are being called to to live large.
I do not know by what grace it happens that some awaken to the discovery that G_d is wherever we lay our heads. In the words of Psalm 139 from this week’s lectionary reading:
139:7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
139:9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
139:10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
139:11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
139:12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
139:24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Bethel (the house of G_d) is wherever we lay our head. We need no Temple or house of worship. We can be on the run from ourselves, the deeds we’ve committed, from our un-lived and un-loved lives; we can be enacting all the schemes and dramas our egos can conjure up, and not know that what our lives are essentially about is this flight from the all-surrounding numinous. And then, by some mystery, we discover that we are the incarnated beings that connect the heavens and earth, and that given half a chance, angelic messengers will ascend and descend upon the ladder that is our life, in support of the divine dream—the full realization of the creature-creator known as Human.
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