In the lectionary reading for today, we encounter Jacob on the way. Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life; a vagabond somewhere between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future.
At exactly this point of limbo, landless, rootless and with no real prospects for the future, God meets Jacob at a place of no particular significance and transforms it into the house of God.
The pericope starts with a flurry of activity when at least eight waw consecutive verbs are used in verses 10-11 (including the first verb in verse 12) to describe Jacob leaving Beersheba, going toward Haran, "stumbling" (literally "striking") upon no particular place, and because the sun was setting, staying there for the night. Here Jacob took one of the stones of the place, put it under his head and went to sleep. Amid this fervent activity of a man on the run (as evident in the death threat in the previous chapter; Genesis 27:42-43), a dream that mirrors the flurry of activity of his waking life, interrupts Jacob's sleep.
He dreams in verse 12 of a ladder that reaches to heaven with angels (messengers) of God going up and down on it. One probably should not think of a ladder in the contemporary sense of the word, but rather something like the Mesopotamian ziggurat; a ramp-like structure that served as a divine sanctuary through which heaven and earth were connected. This stairway to heaven does not give Jacob access to heaven; rather, God speaks to Jacob where he is, denoting God's immanent presence rather than a faraway removed God calling from a distance. It is significant that this surprise encounter completely comes from God -- breaking into Jacob's state of sleep which signifies a brief cessation of anxious fleeing.
In this divine speech, God reiterates the promises that God has made to Jacob's ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. With this gesture, God emphasizes that God is not only the God of the first and the second generation. Rather at the point at which Jacob is most vulnerable, God asserts that God is also the God of Jacob.
This promise of God in verses 13-15 is the 8th reiteration of the promise of a land of their own that has repeatedly come to Abraham and Isaac, and the 7th direct or indirect promise of becoming the father of a large nation. God's promise to Jacob also contains the 5th and final statement regarding the nations being blessed by means of the patriarchs and matriarchs -- a powerful reminder that Jacob's life should not be governed by self-interest and self-aggrandizement, but by becoming a channel of God's blessing to others.
Moreover, God also promises Jacob that God will be with him -- a promise that is even more imperative given the fact that Jacob is traveling far away from home, entering an unknown future in an unknown land. This promise of God's presence and protection has deep roots in Israel's communal memory, e.g., the beautiful priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 that holds up God's safekeeping and blessing in the wilderness, as well as Psalm 121, a psalm of ascent which prays for God's protection on the way.
A promise that is unique to Jacob is that God promises to bring Jacob back home (verse 15) -- a promise that speaks to Jacob's unique circumstances of being a man on the run, but also a promise that for the displaced community in the exilic context in which the Pentateuch probably received its final form, was all the more poignant.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, not only the place has been changed by God's presence, but also he is a changed man. Professing God's presence in this rather ordinary place, Jacob builds an altar, converting his "pillow" -- just another stone from that place -- into a type of memorial stela that marks the life-altering encounter with God. He calls this place without a name "Bethel" -- house of God, professing that God is here, on the way right there where Jacob finds himself.
The lectionary reading ends at verse 19a, however, one conceivably could also include verses 20-21 in which Jacob makes a vow that shows his commitment to God. In this vow, Jacob recapitulates God's statement in verse 15, showing something of the new sense of vocation that now marks his journey into the unknown that will be undertaken with God as traveling companion.
It is significant that God's interruption of Jacob's anxious journey, which displays God's renewed commitment to Jacob in his own right, does not contain a 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 man 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"
Finally, the lectionary text in Genesis 28 attests to the ability of an alternative reality to break into a world of fear, terror, and loneliness. In this text, Jacob's dream, which he dreamed somewhere in the middle of nowhere, permits the dreamer to imagine an alternative way of being in the world, as the dreamer is encompassed by God's presence that has a transformative effect in the waking world.