Archive for March, 2014

Stairway to Heaven

Posted in Uncategorized on March 31, 2014 by ancienthopes

We lift the story of Jacob’s dream from its historical moorings to look at it from another angle, transforming it into an allegory so we see that this dream becomes “Everyman’s” dream, and specifically, the Christian and his/her encounter with Christ. Jacob is “everyman” on the run. He bears the burden of his sinful self, and this he cannot leave behind; it dogs him everywhere he goes, spoiling everything he touches. The sun has set and night is upon him. This signifies his spiritual state. He is in the dark about himself, and cannot understand why he is the way he is. Exhausted, he finds a stone and lays his head upon it. Stones do not make comfortable pillows. They are cold and hard, and here it symbolizes his sorrow, pain, loss, in short, stony grief. Sleep here is relief from his chaotic consciousness, but also stillness in which God can break through to him.

Supernatural breakthrough comes with the dream. The stairway to heaven is Christ on His cross. The vertical beam bearing His body bridges Transcendence above and creation below, uniting heaven and earth as His incarnation unites His divinity and humanity. The horizontal beam embraces all with His outstretched arms. Christ as the risen Lord YHWH stands above it, inviting “Everyman” to ascend. Angels ascending and descending reveals all the unseen help from the spiritual realm that God provides for the ascent, for the no one can ascend on his own. With the dream comes a promise. The promise of the Lord Jesus Christ is that “Everyman” has a specific role to play in the cosmic scheme of things, and God is going to bring this about through him, be with him, and in the end, bring him home. This promise awakens faith in “Everyman” that God has his best in mind for him even when circumstances are dark and incomprehensible. The way, though, is the way of the cross. We too must be lifted on the cross of self sacrifice, embracing death to self. This is the way one ascends the stairway!

Awaking from his dream is awaking to a whole new reality that was always there but never seen. Bright with praise and awe, everything is new (II Cor. 5:17, “If anyone be in Christ, everything is new!”). Awakening is illumination, insight into the nature of things, and a sense of God’s presence. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” (28:16). Enlightenment inspires a vow to serve God and worship. “Everyman” pours oil over the stone of suffering, the oil being the overabundance of the Spirit of Christ in his soul, transforming his life’s pain and sorrow into a pillar of praise and worship. It will become a significant building block in God’s cosmic temple. “He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev. 3:12).

Who is Jesus Christ to millions of believers over the past two thousand years if not the “stairway to heaven?” What a perfect picture of the Christ encounter! In Christ this dream was made accessible to not just a few, but to all races, cultures, and countries.

We have abstracted elements of this story and ascribed to them completely different meanings than the historical story, creating a parallel story that is timeless and speaks the truth of the Christian experience, making Christ central to the text. Yet, this timeless parallel story, this allegory, if you will, is completely faithful to the spirit of the historical text. In fact, the historical story is deeply spiritual in and of itself, and demands that the reader make some application to himself. For the Christian, we see how Christ naturally fulfills and completes this wonderful old story.

Jacob’s Temple Encounter

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2014 by ancienthopes

Jacob was driven out of the land of promise out of fear of his brother Esau, and flees Haran out of fear of his uncle Laban back to the land where, he thought, his brother waited for him with ill intent. At these most vulnerable moments, it is no coincidence that Jacob had an encounter with God at Bethel when he began his journey out of the land of promise (Gen. 28:10-22), and again when he re-entered at the Brook of Jabbok (32:22-32). We are stunned with how God guided, protected, and cared for Jacob as he was thrashing around in his troubled life, in troubles of his own making. This provides for us a profound meditation on grace, sheer grace. In this post we will focus on Jacob’s “ladder dream.”

Jacob’s “ladder” dream at Bethel is nothing less than cosmic in scope. It demands a comparison with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9. See “Babel, The Culmination of the Fall” in Nov. 18, 2013). Obviously, what the Patriarch saw in his dream was beyond our crude conception of a stick ladder with wooden rungs leaning up against a cloud. Most probably it was a ramp-like structure with its base set on the earth with its top touching the “heavens” (So Westermann). “Heavens,” of course, should not be understood as a location somewhere “out there” in outer space. Rather, it is a symbol for the spiritual realm where God “dwells.” The ancient Babylonians attempted to storm the heavens, or spirit realm, by their own power with their own ramp and occult tower. By contrast, God extends His “temple ramp” to Jacob by grace when he was least looking for it, and certainly when he least deserved it. This divine act offers hope for all helpless and yearning souls. Babel’s ramp is about human ability and approaching God on our own terms. Jacob’s ladder is about grace, the supernatural activity of God’s Holy Spirit working in our lives, and the divine invitation to aspire to God. In a nutshell, the Babylonians were attempting to regain Eden with a tower made with “hands,” while Jacob gains access to Eden, the Cosmic Temple of God made without hands, by grace (See “Faustian Patterns” in Nov. 25, 2013). Notice Jacob’s terror and awe in this numinous place (28:17).

From this moment on, the analogy of the ladder became one of the great symbols for all those hopeful for a glimpse of God in His holy Temple. Jesus Himself directly employed this imagery when He presented the perceptive Nathaniel with those wonderful words, “very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). The Church was not slow to pick up on this. The twelve steps of humility in the great rule of St. Benedict were inspired by the imagery of Jacob’s ladder. Following this lead, St. Bernard of Clairvaux saw twelve steps of humility ascending to God, and twelve steps of pride descending away from God. Dante ascended the Celestial ladder which took him from the seventh level of paradise to the eighth. St. John of the Cross speaks of a “secret ladder” of faith and love. Milton, when describing the end of Satan’s cosmic journey from Hell’s gates to Eden’s garden, portrays this desperate spirit pausing before a ladder which connected heaven with paradise, filled with angelic activity. When he finished his dark deed, this ladder appeared no longer. Rather, a bridge of “asphaltic slime” built by his consort Sin and their son Death linked earth with the open gates of hell. Since then, easy is the descent to Hell, and difficult is the ascent to God. The great question in life now is, “Who shall ascend the Mountain of God, and who shall stand in His Temple” (Ps. 24:3). Thus we are left with a paradox; this ladder is extended to us out of pure grace, but ascending costs us everything we have.

But let us get back to Jacob. He knows that to leave the Promised Land jeopardizes his claim to creation blessing and firstborn rights that link him to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and in effect, the Temple of God. So after the dream he makes a vow that if God brings him back, YHWH would be His God, and building upon his “pillow” stone, he would erect a temple. His vow to tithe is directly linked to worship and Temple. We do not know how these vows took form once he re-entered the land, but we do know from this formative encounter that land as mountain/temple was central to Jacob’s cosmology and spirituality. His ladder dream links the Promised Land to Heaven.

Jacob the Jerk

Posted in Uncategorized on March 17, 2014 by ancienthopes

Leah’s sons were not as magnanimous with their father as Leah was. They resented the way their mother was treated. Moreover, when Rachel died, Jacob merely transferred his devotion to her sons, especially Joseph her first born. In Jacob’s heart this lad was indeed his firstborn, although he had been preceded by Leah’s six sons and Dinah as well as four sons from his concubines. The rich coat he made for Joseph not only showed his father’s favor but most probably was a priestly garment (Gen. 37:3). In those days the eldest son served as priest of the family, a prerogative of the firstborn and heir to the family name and fortune. By his insensitive and flagrant favoritism, not to mention his obvious dislike for the mother of six of his sons, Jacob created a volatile environment within his family. It did not help that the young Joseph enjoyed his position too much, tattling on his brothers when they did wrong (37:2) and informing them about the dreams in which the family bowed down to him (37:5-11). In his arrogance Jacob could not read the danger of the situation. If he had, he would not have sent Joseph unprotected to check up on his older brothers, who were near Shechem at the time taking care of their father’s herds.

It is here that we enter into what has been called the “Joseph Story” proper. When the brothers saw Joseph coming, all the rage that festered in their hearts over the years finally gave way. They were at the point of murder. However, Reuben stepped in and proposed they toss him in a pit, thinking that later he would rescue him (37:21ff.). On the surface, this places Reuben in a favorable light, especially when we consider that his position as the firstborn was most threatened by Joseph. This is true as far as it goes but one would expect him as firstborn to command respect with the brothers and deal with them plainly rather than plot to save his brother behind their backs. He comes off as weak. By contrast, Judah has more sway with the brothers for he is the one who comes up with the idea of selling Joseph for profit. The brothers take to this idea, and when Reuben returns, he finds an empty pit. Reuben failed in his responsibility as firstborn to protect his brother; he feels this and tears his clothes in anguish. They take Joseph’s coat, bloody it with animal blood, and present it to their father. The moment when Jacob recognizes his favorite son’s coat and concludes that he is dead is indeed moving; he breaks out into an inconsolable state of grief, so dour that it would dog him, so he thought, till life’s end when he “descends to sheol” (37:29-35). For the first time we feel for Jacob.

We must, however, step away from the pathos of this moment and view Jacob’s life up to this point with a cold, objective eye. What we find is not at all pleasant. He is a man of strife; he cheats and robs from his youth. He cannot be trusted by anyone, especially those in his own family. His attachment to Rachel because of her fine looks suggests that he is superficial, hopelessly led about by his senses. Indeed, he sets her up as an idol, and likewise after her death, her sons Joseph and Benjamin. He is incapable of loving his wife Leah or showing her sons common respect. There is nothing to draw God or man toward him. It remains a mystery for the ages that God favored Jacob over Esau or anyone else for that matter. Chaos swirls about him; he is the very hub of his household hell. Let us here revert to a colloquialism so as to describe this man: he is a jerk. When we hear the noble and august phrase “the God of Jacob,” it really means “the God of the Jerks!”

However repelled we may be by this man, we must consider the fact that Jacob wasn’t all that offensive to himself. In fact, like most of us, he rather liked himself. He simply didn’t have the advantage of seeing himself as he really was in all his squalor, printed in inspired script for all the ages to view and judge. And so it is; jerks tend not to see themselves as such. No doubt he would have come to a very different conclusion than we have above if he had heard the epithet “The God of Jacob.”

Now many of us are not theologically naive about sin and its serious effects in this world. All too often, however, our doctrine of sin becomes a theological point that we abstract from ourselves. We swiftly pardon our foibles, and may even subconsciously be entertained by them, but are just as swift to loath them in others. The fact is, until we see ourselves as jerks, we can never have the God of Jacob, for if God is not the God of the jerks he surely cannot be the God of Jacob. In our lucid moments we see this, and shake our heads and confess, how could God set His love on me? This is exactly the same question we ask about Jacob. We are Jacob! We are the jerks!

Jacob’s Wives

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2014 by ancienthopes

Fleeing his brother Esau, Jacob ran into the arms of his uncle Laban. In this man Jacob met his match. One is moved by the romantic way Jacob met his daughter Rachel by the well, reminiscent of his father’s good fortune (Gen. 24), and is led to think that finally something good will happen to Jacob in a natural way without manipulation, without deceit (Gen 29). Justice, however, dogs him, and he himself is deceived as he once deceived. Jacob agrees to work seven years for Rachel but ends up with Rachel’s homely sister on his wedding night. Laban swindles seven more years of free labor out of him for the woman he loved. At the end of the fourteen years, Jacob wishes to return home but has nothing but the wives he “bargained for,” even though his labors made Laban rich. The two cheats try to outmaneuver one another in striking a deal that would set Jacob free with some compensation (Gen. 31). In the end, Jacob resorts to primitive genetics─or more likely, sympathetic magic─to manipulate Laban’s herd to his favor. After six more years Jacob becomes rich, and has got to deal with the jealousy of Laban and his sons. The tension mounts and Jacob makes his break, sneaking off at an opportune time. Laban pursues and catches up with him, and one is left with the impression that things would not have gone well with Jacob were it not for God warning Laban not to harm him. These two men deserved one another.

One can only imagine what life was like for Jacob’s wives. At first glance, it would seem that Rachel’s lot was more advantageous than Leah’s. She was beautiful of form and appearance and became the central object of Jacob’s passions (29:17). Rachel was Jacob’s idol. Yet this status never brought her the happiness she may have once thought it would. She is barren and becomes a rather pitiful creature when she resorts to giving Jacob her maid Bilhah so that she can somehow credit some of his offspring her own (30:3). In her desperation she is reduced to bargaining with Leah for her mandrakes, an aphrodisiac thought to possess powers of conception (30:14ff.). There is a certain cloud over her life: she steals her father’s idols as they fled from him (31:19). Theft and deceit, of course, run deep in her family; her father was a cheat, and her aunt Rebekah was not above deceiving her own husband, robbing the family blessing from her firstborn for her favorite son. If Esau took after Isaac, Jacob took after his mother Rebekah’s side of the family. Jacob and Rachel had much in common─blood, lies, and cheating. The narrator of the story portrays the irony well. Imploring her husband “Give me children lest I die,” (30:1) Rachel dies young giving birth to her second son (35:16ff.). Rachel suffered under the illusions that beauty would bring her the happiness that it promises, and that children would fill the great void within her heart.

Of all those Jacob offended, and they are many, we feel the most for Leah, his other wife. Her humiliating plight is underscored by the fact that her rival sister had the power to determine whether Jacob would sleep with her or not, judging from the deal she had to make with Rachel concerning the mandrakes (30:15f.). Evidently, sleeping with Leah was something Jacob loathed─a practicality done out of necessity for offspring. Tradition says she had weak eyes, and she paid dearly for it (29:17). In her misery, however, Leah is the first in our story to leave her darkness and illusions behind, and ascend to God. Her spiritual journey corresponds to the birth of her first four sons (29:31-35). God saw that she was hated and so granted her the power of conception. Full of expectations after she gave birth to her firstborn Reuben (meaning “See, a son”), she assumed that Jacob would love her now. Things did not work out the way she anticipated, and perhaps out of protest she called her second son “Simeon” (derived from the verb “to hear”), for though God had heard that she was hated, the situation did not change. Holding out hope, she called her third son “Levi” (derived from the verb “to join”), thinking that now at last Jacob would be affectionately attached to her. Something finally happened in her soul at the birth of her fourth son. She let go of her wifely right to be loved and demands on her husband and attached herself to God. She named the child “Judah,” meaning “YHWH be praised.” Her soul was filled with YHWH, the Eternal One, beside whom her husband made a poor idol. Ironically, Jacob’s last request was to lie next to Leah in the family burial tomb which housed Abraham and Sarah, a most illustrious place in Israel (Gen. 49:31). Leah is the first to make the ascend to God in the family.

Jacob or Esau? Take Your Pick!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2014 by ancienthopes

We have argued that Canaan is a symbol of Eden. Be this as it may, Jacob never found paradise in Canaan. Rather, it was a place of darkness for him and for his family. We find that we cannot even entertain the idea that Jacob, linked to God as he was through promise, was all that good or godly of a man. In fact, we are hard pressed to find anyone in his family that strikes us as “spiritual.” What we find are individuals laboring under their own darkness and illusions.

We begin with the birth of twins, Jacob and Esau, whose pre-natal warfare made the womb, otherwise the safest place in the human cycle of life, a battlefield (25:19-34). Jacob fails in his desperate attempt to beat his brother to the door, but, possessed with an offensive stubbornness of character, grasps his brother’s heal on the way out, thus earning for himself the unattractive name ya`aqob meaning “insidious one,” or “he takes by the heel,” which may have carried the English connotation, “a heel.” As for Esau, there is something freakish about his début reminiscent of tabloid magazines; a hairy infant with an unusual red, or earth-toned color. His outward appearance paralleled his earthy character. He preferred hunting and the outdoors, and to his parents distress, Canaanite women (26:34f.). Jacob was a predator of a different sort. He is styled as urbane and cunning, possessing insight into the weaknesses of others so as to gain advantage. He understands his brother’s sensual appetite and concocts a “red” stew that conformed to his brother’s physique and temperament. True to his character, Esau grunted, “Let me jaw down some red stuff, this red stuff here,” selling his first-born status to Jacob for a pot of stew. Later, Jacob steals his blind father’s blessing from him (Chapter 27). This episode likewise centers on appetite. Isaac is reduced to a mere omnivorous biped in his old age, granting his blessings on the basis of his craving for wild game. He is not the grand old patriarch we would expect, blind in more ways than one. Esau had much more in common with his father than one would think.

Esau symbolizes sensual man and the animal urge for immediacy, but overall comes off as a decent guy. He is a “man’s man,” the kind one could “kick back” and enjoy watching a football game with. In the end we see his good nature come out when he forgives his brother for his crimes, a thing not common in a land where enemies are enemies forever, and curses are hurled through generations. He even made an attempt to smooth things over with his parents by marrying a “good girl” of Abraham’s stock, albeit through Ishmael the outcast (28:9). The fact that Isaac preferred him to Jacob may well have had something to do with the fact that he was the more likable of the two, apart from the old man’s appetite.

Esau’s great illusion was that he thought that he could ignore spiritual matters. When we compare this failure with Jacob’s vices─a man who simply operates with no integrity, who would stab his own brother in his back, moving about with no morals, manipulating by deceit, pestering and grabbing from birth, and anxious to get to the top whatever it takes─we are tempted to treat Esau’s lack of interest in spirituality as a slight oversight. After all, if someone is basically a “good guy”, what’s the problem if he doesn’t take interest in spiritual things? When we consider, however, that from this “oversight” came the nation of Edom, the fountainhead of a race that would forever be hostile to God’s people throughout its history, we find that there is no such thing as a “slight” illusion. Illusions are dangerous in whatever form.

Personally, I find it a hard matter to choose between the two. If pressed, I think I like Esau better. The more important question is, on what basis does God choose Jacob over Esau? The text makes it clear that there is little in Jacob that makes him attractive at all. True, he possesses a desire for the birthright that links him to Abraham and Isaac, and for the blessing that would link him to creation, but achieves these by cunning and deceit. But all this speculation ultimately falls to the ground; It was all settled, as far as the text is concerned, in the womb before birth.