Jacob's Dream

Jacob is Israel.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

September 24, 2017

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Commentary on Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

Jacob is Israel.

This claim centers the Genesis story of Jacob (Genesis 25:19-36:43). Jacob remains an individual in his own right, but over the course of the story he becomes Israel. In the end, Jacob is more than an individual and his Genesis story tells a story about the people of Israel. Every Israelite can recognize themselves in this story; as such, it is remarkably honest and unpretentious. Yes: I, the reader, am Jacob/Israel. This story looks like me.

The center of the Jacob story (Genesis 29:31-30:24), with its explosion of God language, speaks of the birth of almost all of the twelve sons (tribes) of Israel (plus Dinah). The four appearances of God to Jacob are scattered across the story (25:23; 28:10-22; 32:22-32; 35:9-15).

The second appearance of God in 28:10-22, often named “Jacob’s Dream at Bethel,” centers the text to be considered here. Inasmuch as this text speaks of the first appearance of Jacob by himself, it can be said to represent a new beginning for the central story of Jacob/Israel.

Family conflict provides the setting for this portion of the story as Jacob escapes from the hateful threats of his brother Esau. The future for Jacob does not seem bright. He flees toward Haran in northwest Mesopotamia, the city from which the Abrahamic family migrated (and where Jacob will find two wives, Leah and Rachel).

God appears to Jacob “on the way” at this deeply vulnerable moment. God’s means of appearance is unusual; God appears to him in a dream at Bethel, still in Canaan (God also appears to Jacob at Bethel on his return home, 35:1-15). God repeats to Jacob the promises given to Abraham in an especially comprehensive way. God’s promises will shape Jacob’s story as they have shaped the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Jacob’s dream has long centered reports of this story. He dreams that a stairway or ramp (rather than a ladder, despite common pictures) extends from earth to heaven (and back). This stairway is often compared to a feature of temple towers (ziggurats) in that culture whereon it was thought that divine beings (or priests) traversed with communications from God to earth.

This dream story disputes such an understanding. The ascending and descending angelic figures have no specific function. They do not speak or serve as messengers regarding a divine word to Jacob. Rather, God stands beside Jacob (NRSV, 28:13) and speaks directly to him. This may be the reason why, when Jacob refers to this event, he never refers to it as a dream (35:1-9; 48:3). Indeed, when Jacob awakes, he does not speak of God’s presence in the dream, but God’s presence in this place (28:16). The transcendence of God is not compromised by the divine closeness to human beings.

God identifies the divine self to Jacob in familial terms. Strikingly, Abraham is identified as Jacob’s father — in a “family patriarch” sense — and fulfills Isaac’s benedictory wish in 28:3-4.  

God’s word to Jacob focuses on promises and, specifying eight different elements, they are more extensive than usual. The promises include:  land; many descendants; dispersion of posterity throughout the land (13:14-17); the extension of blessing to others through him; divine presence; divine keeping; homecoming, and not leaving. The last four (from 28:15) relate directly to Jacob’s status as a traveler (note that Jacob adds promises of food and clothing to prior lists; 28:20). One helpful way to work with this kind of text is to think of “relationships” and promises related thereto; then, thinking of someone close to you, break out how each promise would be applicable.

Upon awakening from his dream, Jacob realizes its importance and proceeds to interpret its elements. He has some new knowledge and a new sense of what the presence of God entails. He also expresses awe that God would appear to him in such an ordinary place and would pass on the Abrahamic promises directly to him.

The link made between God and ordinary places is especially striking. It is often thought (then and now!) that the presence of God would only be associated with times and places that are extraordinary, filled with miracles, that blow your mind. But here the presence of God, per usual, is associated with the ordinary and the everyday.

Jacob says that “surely” God is with him, even though no clear-cut experience of God could be ascribed to the time or place. This is the “house of God” (Beth-el; see 28:19), the gate of heaven, even though God was not obviously present!  Such has been a common experience of God through the centuries and not often realized!  “House of God” language should not be thought to mean that God’s presence could be confined to this locale. God’s presence in the sanctuary must be considered an intensification of God’s common presence in the life of world.

One word to the reader: be prepared to experience God, to discern the presence of God, in places that do not look especially religious or feel like God would be there.  Connections with the Incarnation could be made here — who would have thought to understand the baby in the manger in such terms.

Jacob’s next response takes more concrete forms. His stone “pillow” is named a sacred pillar to mark the spot. The stone is “anointed” with oil; as such, the stone is so stained that it could be recognized as special by others who pass that way. A legacy of the experience is left for others to see.

Finally, Jacob makes a vow (recalled by God in 31:13). The language of the vow is unusual in that the unconditional divine promises previously stated to this family are now conditionally affirmed by Jacob. If God does not keep those promises, of course, then God will not have been faithful. But this is not a bargain; it is straightforward language used by Jacob in holding God to his promises.

This event in Jacob’s journey is an act of divine self-limitation, for God herein makes unconditional promises. God’s options for future action are now more limited than before because God will be faithful in keeping promises. Come what may, God is a promise-keeper. This promise is a “must” for God’s future and for ours.


Loving God,
Like Jacob, who dreamed of your promises, you have filled us with dreams, too. Show us your promises in our dreams, and give us ability to follow our dreams. Amen.


Blessing and Honor   ELW 854
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart   ELW 800, UMH 500, NCH 290


Spirit of God, Robert Chilcott