Over the next two weeks I would like to reflect on two moments of spiritual awakening in the life of Jacob in the book of Genesis.
Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel might be regarded as the father of the nation of Israel. According to the story of Israel, his son’s offspring became the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now when one talks about having a spiritual awakening, one normally thinks of people who are in some way holy or saintly. But if truth be told, Jacob is described as something of a scoundrel in his early life.
Even his name itself suggests this. The name Jacob has two possible meanings in Hebrew. The first possible meaning is ‘heel-grabber’. And the second possible meaning is ‘supplanter’. In the first shade of meaning, Jacob is described as holding onto his twin brother’s heel as he came out of the womb. This is undoubtedly a legendary detail that was intended to describe in story form, something of the character and personality of Jacob. To grab onto some-one’s heel would be to trip them up. In the second possible meaning for his name “supplanter” this rather aptly describes his relationship with his twin brother, Esau. Esau as the older of the two twins, having come into this world just moments before Jacob, had all the rights of the firstborn son, which in ancient Hebrew culture were significant. But as the story unfolds, we see how Jacob first takes advantage of his brother in a vulnerable moment and tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright, and then, with the help of his mother, he steals his father’s blessing, which in Hebrew culture should have been reserved for Esau as the firstborn.
Jacob is no saint. He is a ‘heel-grabber’ ready to trip his brother up and take advantage of him. And he is a supplanter, being willing to use manipulation and deception to take from his brother what is not rightfully his.
Jacob is symbol of the heel-grabber and the supplanter in each of us. That part of us that is willing to use subtle and not-so-subtle manipulation and deception to get our way. That part of us that is willing to step over others if necessary in order to ensure our own success.
As can be expected, Jacob’s deception and manipulation alienates him from his brother Esau. And as Esau’s resentment and anger towards Jacob smoulders and then ignites, he vows to kill Jacob after their father has died.
Again with the help of his mother, who was clearly playing favourites in the family, Jacob runs away north to the country of his uncle Laban to escape his brother’s murderous anger.
What Marshall Davis says about the story is that it is very reminiscent of the story of the prodigal son. They both leave their father’s house for a far away country. Both eventually return home, and both have stories of spiritual awakening.
It is on his first night on the run that Jacob has his first spiritual awakening experience. We read that when he reached a certain place he stopped for the night because the sun had gone down. Taking one of the stones that was lying about, he made his bed under the stars and put the stone under his head as a pillow.
It is one of those details in the story that cries out for some explanation. I can’t imagine resting my head on a stone for a few minutes, let alone for a whole night. I wonder if it is in fact a symbol, that when we have done something we know has been wrong or harmful we no longer experience the softness of life. Even sleeping can become hard and difficult.
During his sleep, Jacob has a dream of a ladder, or a stairway between heaven and earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it. And suddenly Jacob discovers that God is present with him. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the same image to speak of his own spiritual experience. Interesting, despite Jacob’s sin and deception, God doesn't bring a message of judgement or anger against him, but rather blesses him and promises to be with him: “I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you.”
Even in the midst of our sin and deception, God (or Reality with a capital R as Michael Dowd refers to God), promises to be with us and to watch over us, continuing to nurture us in order that we might flourish into who we really are.
As the story proceeds, Jacob wakes up from his dream. Marshall Davis suggests that this could be read both literally and symbolically. A change has taken place in Jacob. He has woken up to a depth of life that he had previously been unaware of.
So, in his now awakened state, Jacob declares: “Surely the Lord or the Eternal One is in this place and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God: this is the gate of heaven.”
As Marshall Davis says, it is a powerful passage filled with symbolism. The gap between heaven and earth is bridged by a stairway. Heaven and earth are united in a reversal of the creation story where God is said to have divided or separated the two.
So Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence in an ordinary place, in the temple of creation. This wasn’t what people would have called a holy site. It was simply a matter of Jacob becoming aware of something that had always been present but which he had missed all that time. It is a reminder that in the most ordinary places of this world, God is present. As one ex-colleague used to put it, there are no God-forsaken places in this world.
In the words of Marshall Davis, the House of God is not a holy building. It is everywhere. In the open countryside. It is here and now. Wherever we are is the gate of heaven. But later on, Jacob’s descendants took this statement literally, as religious people tend to do, and they built a temple on that spot and named it Bethel, meaning the House of God. Religion always has the danger of fossilising and literalising the spiritual experience of a spiritual ancestor, leaving an outer shell often with very little or just a faint sense of the inner experience.
It is for this reason that in this denomination, there has been a tradition of making a distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. The religion of Jesus is the way he lived and taught and acted in this world. The religion about Jesus refers to all the religious traditions that have grown up around Jesus and which sometimes have the danger of becoming an empty shell where the living spirit of Jesus, how he lived and taught and interacted with people can so easily be lost.
So may you, in those moments when it feels like you are sleeping with a stone or rock under your head, dream a new dream with Jacob, of a ladder uniting heaven and earth and earth with heaven, and wake up to discover the wonderful truth that God is in this place here and now, in the beauty of a flower, in the miracle of an insect, in the playfulness of a child, in the smile and the handclasp of a dear friend. May you discover that God is in this place and you were unaware of it, and that this, sacred here and now, is the very gate of heaven. Amen.