Genesis 28:10-19a - link to the NRSV text
When I was in elementary school, we would regularly take field trips to the Science & Technology Museum of Atlanta, commonly referred to as SciTrek, where we were exposed to the wonders of science. Going there and seeing the various exhibits, including a high voltage traveling arc (aka a ‘Jacob’s Ladder’), I remember a sense of having my world opened in new ways. The way I viewed everything around me began to change; no longer was the world restricted just to what I knew through my own observations, no longer was the world restricted to my family, my church, my neighborhood, but those experiences were some of many that began to open my mind to the wider reality around me.
Maybe that’s a little bit how Jacob felt after his visionary experience. Fleeing from his father’s home and the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob finds himself in what the text refers to as a “certain place,” setting the stage for the etiological explanation of the cultic site Bethel, or “house of God,” in verses 16-19.
Jacob’s interests to this point in the story are strictly material: his desire for the birthright and inheritance of his brother prompted his actions, which lead him to flee to protect his physical life. Jacob finds himself in the desert with no means of shelter or sustenance other than what he might find as he goes. The text emphasizes Jacob’s status as destitute and cut off, of being in a place of exclusion and exile, by noting that the only thing he had to provide comfort in the night was a rock for a pillow. No blanket or tent or other means of comfort; just a hard stone on which to lay his head.
Nothing in the text suggests that Jacob has no thought of or about the LORD; instead, he is tired, afraid, and on the run when he stops at the place that will be known as Bethel. And it is here that Jacob’s world is expanded for the first time and he starts to see the broader reality around him.
Jacob has a vision of what is traditionally referred to as a ladder that goes from the earth up to the heavens, though what the author intends to picture here is most likely the stairway or ramp of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, which were understood to be a place that linked the heavens and the earth.
The point isn’t the messengers or the stairway or any of the visuals of the experience. This is not some symbolic, apocalyptic-style vision that tells deeper truths about current or future events. The real true meaning of the vision occurs after the brief description of what Jacob saw: “And the LORD stood beside him and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac’” (Genesis 28:13).
It is Jacob’s theophany, the revealing of the God of his ancestors to this person in this time and in this place. It is here that the promises of God to Abraham and Isaac become more than just the promises of the past, but becoming the promises to him also. The vision of the stairway to heaven, the angels ascending and descending drive home this point: that God is there, present, and standing with Jacob. God is not just off in some cut-off, distant realm but present in the world, active, as signified by the rapid movements of God’s agents coming and going.
And God promises that this presence is not restricted to just this place, this beth-el, this ‘house of God.’ The image of the LORD standing beside Jacob in verse 13 is one that the LORD gives to Jacob to take with him for comfort. Language of protection and providence burst from the mouth of the LORD towards Jacob: “Know that I will be with you…will keep you…will bring you back…I will not leave you” (Gen 28:15).
Jacob’s eyes are opened to the wider workings of God, that he is part of a larger reality, that God has things in store for him beyond his own human plans and schemes. This does not mean that Jacob is immune to his own shortcomings or the schemes of the world around him; following this event, Jacob will be suckered by his Laban and then retaliate with his own devious plot. But it is here, in this place, that Jacob begins his own journey to be the continuation of the covenant between God and humankind.
And Jacob responds to that promise; he takes that stone, his only piece of material comfort (if you could call it ‘comfort’) and stands it up as a memorial stone, anointed it with oil, and thus commemorating the visionary experience he had just gone through. And being there, in that place where his eyes were opened, Jacob looked at the world with new eyes. “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” (v. 16). It was an opening of the eyes and maybe even an opening of his heart.
Those eye opening moments, those moments and experience that expand our horizons, that open us up to God and God’s workings in the world often come in strange places and at strange times and in strange ways. For Jacob, it was in a place that held little to recommend it, at a time he was not looking for it, and in a way that emphasized to him that though the world viewed him as destitute and alone, the LORD was there beside him.
Jacob’s vision at Bethel speaks to one of the core beliefs of biblical faith: the Creator God, the God of Israel, the God of the covenant is not a God that abandons or ignores but is a God who is ever-present. Even in the dark times of life, when the biblical writers speak from their own places of abandonment and exile, there is usually a conviction alongside their laments, a conviction that God is somehow, someway still present and at work, that the promise still holds.
The journey of faith is often filled with these Bethel moments, moments of loneliness and fear and despair that are transformed by the presence of God standing beside us. And sometimes it is only after we emerge on the other side of the trouble that we see where God was at work, when we take stock and look back and see that “the LORD was present in that place—and I did not know it!”