Ovid, a poet of ancient Roman and a contemporary of Jesus, relates that once upon a time…the gods were quite concerned that they were being ignored. So Jupiter, who was the chief ruling god of thunder, and Mercury, who was the messenger god, visited humanity disguised as poor, beggarly travelers. The idea of gods visiting earth disguised as poor, unknown visitors is quite common among differing cultures and religions. In our own tradition the unknown visitors are most often identified as being angels. In the Book of Hebrews we are strictly cautioned to be kind to strangers because we may be entertaining angels unaware. They quickly discovered that no matter on what door they knocked the people living in the home abruptly and rudely turned them away. Eventually the two gods came upon the ramshackle hut of a poor, elderly couple and although they were incredibly poor they welcomed the two strangers into their home and shared what little they had with the visitors.
The next day, Jupiter and Mercury revealed to the couple who they were. Grateful for being welcomed into the elderly couple’s home, the gods rewarded the old couple with one wish. Much in character, the humble couple’s only wish was to be allowed to stay together until death and also beyond.
Jupiter and Mercury granted the couple’s wish. Instantly the ramshackle hut was transformed into magnificent temple where they lived out their lives. The kindly couple died at the same time and were transformed into two trees standing side by side. The trees stood so close to one another that their branches were entwined in an eternal embrace.
What happened to all the many people who’d refused to extend hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury? They were drowned in a great flood and thus repaid for their behavior.
From Erasmus’ relating the story told by Ovid, over the door way to his home renowned Psychotherapist Carl G. Jung place these words: Called or not called, God is there… And he said the question is: Will you welcome the god or turn the god away? He wrote: “I have put the inscription there to remind my patients and myself: that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Marie-Louise von Franz said “It seems to me to be one of the greatest contributions of Jung and his work is that it taught us to keep our door open to the “unknown visitor.” He also tried to teach us an approach through which we can avoid the wrath of this visitor, which every frivolous, haughty, or greedy host in the folk tales brought down on himself. For it depends only on ourselves whether this coming of the gods becomes a blessed visit or a fell disaster.” “Called or not called, God is there”.
In Genesis 28:10-19 we read that: Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He 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. 12And 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. 13And 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;14and 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. 15Know 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.”
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And 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.” 18So 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. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Our reading puts us right in the middle of the long and fascinating story of Jacob who later will be named “Israel” following his wrestling match with an unnamed assailant at the Jabbok river. He came into the world gripping his brother Esau’s heel. In fact in Hebrew his name in its verbal sense means “to follow” or “to come behind” but as a noun it means “heel.” Our first encounter with Jacob as a young man suggests that he was suitably named.
You remember the story. Esau returns, famished, from a long day of hunting, the conniving Jacob persuades his hungry brother to exchange his birthright for a bowl of stew. Then with Esau’s birthright in hand, Jacob and his mother devise a more audacious scheme. Disguised as Esau, wearing his brother’s clothing and attaching animal skins to his arms and neck, Jacob provides a “counterfeit” meal for his blind father to replace the one that Esau was supposed to prepare. He then announces to his blind father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me” (Genesis 27:19). While Isaac isn’t entirely convinced that he’s blessing the right son, he goes ahead and gives Jacob his blessing. Later Esau alludes to yet another meaning of Jacob’s name when he says, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Jacob might also mean “someone who cheats.”
Now just in case you are upset by the conniving and unethical behavior of Jacob and his mother Rebekah I want to remind you that despite the elaborate deception to gain Isaac’s blessing, Jacob never rules Esau. It inaugurates twenty years of flight, exile and servitude for Jacob and loneliness for this mother who never again sees her favorite child. Those who live by deception suffer by deception.
So, fleeing his enraged brother Jacob left Beersheba for his mother’s homeland in Haran. On the way he has a strange experience at a “certain place.” Resting from his flight from Esau, he spends the night, using a stone for a pillow. In his dream he sees a “ladder set upon the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven. This is no common extension ladder it is a ziggurat stairway or ramp, connecting earth with sky. This is one of the most famous visions in the Bible. Jacob then hears God, who is “standing beside him,” make a declaration of commitment to the covenant. The God of Jacob’s fathers will be with him as God had been with them; God will grant Jacob the Promised Land and abundant descendants to inhabit it and will provide protection wherever he goes. However lonely and afraid Jacob feels, his own brother seeking to kill him, and alone in the darkness, with only a stone for a pillow–God assures him that he need not fear, because God’s protective presence will not waver and God’s promise of a robust future will not go unfulfilled.
Wait, after all isn’t this Jacob, liar and trickster, fresh from clever use of a brother’s gullible hunger and a father’s aged blindness. Wouldn’t you think that God might have something to say about such a blatant disregard for basic rules of family life and sibling care? Might God not have said, “Just who do you think you are, you little lying twit! Do you think you are so clever as to get away with such nasty tricks; do you think that you can deceive me as you deceived your dying father?” Some sort of divine displeasure wouldn’t be out of place. But not here. The great promise and blessing are given without question or remonstrance. Does that give you some hope? It does me.
What do you think is the meaning of the ladder? What is Jacob supposed to learn from it? Who are these angel-messengers, and what does their movements signify? One of the greatest of the Hasidic masters suggests that, presumably, the ladder is intended to represent human beings in this world. Like the ladder, each of us is firmly planted on earth—flesh and blood individuals with bodily needs and earthly desires. But through entering into a heart felt relationship with God, doing God’s will, and becoming the kind of human being God asks for we are capable of “reaching upward”.
But our text goes much further than merely telling us that we can live on earth and still touch heaven. According to another rabbi the ascent-descent of the angels suggests that even the heavens are affected by our actions. It was his idea that when we are obedient to God’s will for his creation we effect a form of cosmic repair thus sending angels upward. And conversely, tragically, when we violate God’s will, we do damage to the very cosmos—we force angels downward and “shrink the heavenly hosts.”
However you might want to understand this interpretation, the thrust of it is clear: God, too, is affected by the choices we make. It seems beyond question that the quality of human life on earth is deeply impacted by the decisions we make and the course of action we take; the daring of this bit of Jewish theology is that the quality of God’s life is impacted. In Abraham Heschel’s memorable terms, the God of Judaism is not Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover but rather the Torah’s radically affected “Most Moved Mover.” So, accordingly, seeing the ladder and the angelic motion taking place on it, Jacob learns his own potential and of its potential cosmic repercussions.
Another early Hasidic Master offers yet a different way of understanding Jacob’s dream. The ladder filled with upward and downward motion is a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth. There are times when we are in “expanded consciousness” and feel a deep connection to God and God’s will and, in those moments we are “ascending the ladder”. But there are also times when we are afflicted by “contracted consciousness” and feel far away from God and then we are “descending the ladder”.
There is nothing wrong with this up-and-down process. It is an inherent piece of the spiritual life. In fact, it is crucial that we understand that our descents make possible fuller and richer ascents. Just as in a human relationship, distance or crisis in the moment can often lead to a more profound sense of connection and intimacy later; so in our relationship to God, a period of descent can culminate in a more genuine connection to God. This, the old Rabbi tells us, is “descent for the purpose of ascent.”
You might want to notice that God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid. It is as if God seeks to reassure him: “This very sense of alienation and dis-connection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.”
When Jacob woke from his dream, not only the place was changed by God’s presence, he is a changed man. Professing God’s presence in this rather ordinary place, Jacob builds an altar, converting his stone “pillow”into a memorial that marks a life-altering encounter with God. He calls this place “Bethel” — house of God, professing that God is here, on the way right there where Jacob finds himself.
God’s interruption of Jacob’s anxious journey, which displays God’s renewed commitment to Jacob in his own right, does not contain a single word of judgment regarding Jacob’s prior actions with regard to his brother and his father. Rather God’s address to Jacob contains one unconditional promise after the other. In this grace-filled encounter, we see how God can transform an ordinary stone and an ordinary place into something special; a place where God’s presence has made a home in the world. Similarly, this trickster who has deceived his father and brother, and who since birth has lived in strife with the people around him can be transformed by God into a richly blessed person who serves as a source of God’s blessing to others.
The lyrics of U2’s song “Yahweh” offers an intriguing perspective on this ability of God to transform ordinary things, people and places into something special:
“Take these shoes; Click clacking down some dead end street; Take these shoes; And make them fit.
Take this shirt; Polyester white trash made in nowhere; Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean; Take this soul Stranded in some skin and bones;
Take this soul–And make it sing”
The good news—bidden or unbidden God breaks into our world of fear, terror, and loneliness. Jacob’s dream, which he dreamed somewhere in the middle of nowhere, opens to him a whole new way of being in the world. Finding oneself encompassed by God’s presence transforms our world. So there it is – bidden or unbidden, in the most fearsome and lonely places of our lives, God is there and not with judgment or condemnation but with promises and protection.