Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Power of a Dream

The Power of a Dream

Genesis 37-41

August 14, 2011

First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

Christina Berry

Genesis 37:1-4

1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers, they hated him even more.

"Listen to this dream. We were binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves bowed down to my sheaf."

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, "Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me."

Even his father rebuked him.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph after his brothers, and they conspired to kill him. They threw him into a dry well, and when some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, and sold him for twenty pieces of silver. Then they slaughtered a goat, and dipped Joseph’s robe in the blood. They took it to their father, Jacob. They told their father, “Our brother Joseph was torn apart by wild animals.” Jacob recognized the beautiful robe he had made for his son. Then Jacob tore his garments, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted.

Meanwhile the Midianites had sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard. He worked as a slave in Potiphar’s household. The Lord was with Joseph. Potiphar saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. Potiphar made Joseph overseer of his house.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, "Lie with me." But he refused and said to his master's wife, "How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"

One day, however, she caught hold of his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. She called out to the members of her household and said to them, "He came in to me to lie with me, and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside." When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, he became enraged. And Joseph's master put him into the prison, where the king's prisoners were confined. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.

It happened then that the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the Pharaoh, and they were put in jail with Joseph. One night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.

They said to him, "We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them."

And Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me."

The cupbearer and the baker told Joseph their dreams.

Then Joseph said to the cupbearer, "Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office. But remember me when it is well with you.”

But to the baker he said, “Pharaoh will lift up your head—and hang you."

Three days later, Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer, but the chief baker he hanged.

Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

After two whole years, Pharaoh awoke from a troubling dream. He sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, "There is a young Hebrew who interprets dreams.” Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it."

Joseph answered Pharaoh, "It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." Then Pharaoh told Joseph the dream, and Joseph told him what the dream meant: seven years of surplus, followed by seven years of famine. Stockpile the surplus, Joseph said, so that in the famine you will have grain.

Pharaoh said, ""Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people." Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph's hand; and put a gold chain around his neck. He gave Joseph his daughter as his wife. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command; and they cried out in front of him, "Bow the knee!" Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.

So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea. The seven years of plenty came to an end; and the seven years of famine began, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread.

Genesis 41:55-57

55 When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do." 56 And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

From the first breath he took, Joseph, son of Jacob, was the embodiment of a dream, the symbol of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. He was the living hope of God’s promise to Israel, and the beloved child of his mother Rachel, who had died after giving birth to Joseph’s brother Benjamin. Even though Jacob had twelve sons, it was as if Joseph were the only son, the prince of the family, dressed in a royal robe. His dreams, of the sheaves of his brothers bowing to him, of the eleven stars and even the sun and moon of his parents bowing to him, his dreams were gifts, promises, foreshadowing fulfillment in the future.

Even as his father tore his clothes and grieved inconsolably, Joseph was encountering the waking world, a world of power and empire, of temptation and privation. The dream lived within him, and God was with him. Even as he was imprisoned, and enslaved, even as he was unjustly accused, even as waited to be remembered by one whom he had saved, Joseph relied on God’s promise, and God was with him.

Somehow, in God’s providence, Joseph had the ability to interpret dreams. He was no ancient Freud, seeking out psychological symbolism, paving the royal road to the unconscious through the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker. Whether it was divine gift or intuitive perceptiveness, Joseph could understand dreams.

The disgraced cup-bearer’s dream was of vines and drink: "In my dream there was a vine before me, and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh's cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand."

Joseph easily saw the meaning: in three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you. Likewise, the baker’s dream related to his work: "… there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head." Again, Joseph easily saw the meaning: in three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head in a noose. When the predictions came true, the cup-bearer forgot his promise, forgot Joseph, until two years later another dream was told.

The Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams: seven fat cattle emerged from the Nile, only to be eaten by seven starving cattle; seven ripe stalks of grain grew up on a stalk, and were consumed by seven withered heads of grain. The young Hebrew, still languishing in prison, was brought forth.

God had remained with Joseph, and now, God would provide for him.

Joseph once again could reach into the dream world and extract meaning: seven years of bumper crops, followed by seven years of drought and famine. Not only could he see what God had told Pharaoh, he could recommend a strategy. “Appoint an overseer, and manage the surplus. Store it up against the day of famine. The oversupply will not last forever; there will not always be bounty. Prepare yourself for a time of shortfall and a time of need.”

Joseph was not recommending himself, merely advising the king on how to face the famine.

He had not succumbed to fear, or let his spirit be crushed by slavery, or fallen prey to seduction. He had not withheld his gifts or failed to help another, nor had he withheld bad news. He had held fast to the dream.

Now he stood at the fulcrum of faith and fear – on the one side, a retreat into worry, inaction and need. On the other side, an advance into confident action, and real work in the real world. And God was with Joseph. The dreams of God do not evaporate in the halls of empire, and God’s faithfulness does not vanish in hard reality of daylight. The dream lives within God’s people and cannot be vanquished.

If our consciousness were likened to an aquarium, our unconscious, the source of our dreams, would be like an ocean. In the depths of that ocean God moves within us, an endless current of hope and courage, a fount of faith, even in the face of drought, even when we wrestle with want, or the fear of want even when we feel our lives have become waking nightmares.

God’s dreams cannot be shattered, and cannot die. In faith we hold fast to them,

no matter what empire threatens to enslave us, no matter what forces might seek to seduce us, no matter what mysteries life brings us. In every circumstance, just as God was with Joseph, God will be with us.

The promise of the God of Israel is that when we hold fast to the dream, the Spirit works among us so that the captives are freed, and the hungry are fed, and the righteous are justified.

The promise of the God of Jacob, the God present with Joseph, is that God’s dream of justice will not die. The forces of the world may seek to harm you, empire may seek to enslave you, the dishonest may try to discredit you, but God will be with you, leading and guiding you.

Even as God was with Joseph, God will be with you.

That is the power of the dream.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Esau’s Answer

Esau’s Answer

A sermon on Genesis 33:1-20 preached August 7, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL (c) Christina Berry

Genesis 33

1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5 When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, "Who are these with you?" Jacob said, "The children whom God has graciously given your servant." 6 Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7 Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8 Esau said, "What do you mean by all this company that I met?" Jacob answered, "To find favor with my lord." 9 But Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself." 10 Jacob said, "No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. 11 Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want." So he urged him, and he took it. 12 Then Esau said, "Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you." 13 But Jacob said to him, "My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir." 15 So Esau said, "Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me." But he said, "Why should my lord be so kind to me?" 16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. 17 But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the place is called Succoth. 18 Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram; and he camped before the city. 19 And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem's father, he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

When dawn broke that morning, Jacob was afraid. He was weary, and hurting, and afraid. He’d wrestled all night with some kind of messenger from God, wrestled and prevailed, and come away with a limp, and with a new name, Israel.

It was time to face up – face his fears, face the facts, face his brother. When you know you’ve cheated someone, it’s not easy to look them in the eye. When you know you’ve been cruel or careless with someone, it’s not easy to let them look you in the eye.

When you are afraid of what someone might do, it’s not easy to come hobbling into their presence, obviously unable to run if they decide to attack you. Jacob was not only afraid for himself, he was afraid for his family, especially his wife Rachel and her son Joseph. He had lots of children, and another wife, but it was Rachel and Joseph that he loved the most.

Having had experience in taking from others what they most loved, having had practice in stealing the best of another’s life, Jacob worried that it might now happen to him. Every time he thought about Esau he was flooded with feelings: feelings of shame and sorrow, the loss of a brother’s love, but also a sense of triumph, of having won that unspoken competition between brothers.

It’s a contest that has its start the moment we are born, whether there is open antagonism or not – who will win the blessing? who will receive the birthright? is there enough to go around? does mother love ME? does father love ME? who does mother love best?

Jacob had undoubtedly won the fight. But the last word he’d heard from his brother was that Esau planned to kill him. Well, no time to waste worrying. He’d find out soon enough what his brother’s answer would be. As the first rays of sun broke across the gray horizon, Jacob saw Esau coming, with hundreds of men behind him. In fear for the lives of his children, Jacob assembled them, with his beloved Rachel and Joseph at the rear. He himself, his stomach churning, went out ahead of them, bowing humbly, his head down like a whipped dog, refusing to meet his brother’s eyes.

Esau came toward him in a rush, his arms out, and Jacob steeled himself for the blow of fist or spear or sword. But the blows did not fall. Instead, the arms of his brother encircled him, and Esau fell on his neck and kissed him, and wept. The tears leapt to Jacob’s eyes, even as his emotions swirled within him.

Night after sleepless night Jacob had played scenes of reunion in his head – picturing himself brashly justifying his actions to his angry brother, imagining himself bravely fighting back his brother’s violent blows, fearing himself cowardly enough to turn and run.

But he had never imagined this, never expected this, never thought he would receive forgiveness, never dreamed of reconciliation. He had come with gifts to offer, he had come in humility, he had felt shame and fear.

Such a far cry from their last meeting, when he had come to take gifts that were not his, when he had come in arrogance, when he had felt pride, and contempt. It could not be anything but the work of God. He did not deserve this.

All of his life, he had known that God was with him; and now he thought of all the ways he had exploited and misused his family. How could God, El –Roi, the one who sees – still bless him and protect him? This God had promised to bless him and keep him, and Jacob had gladly accepted Elohim’s protection.

This God had promised that he would prosper, and Jacob had richly enjoyed his wealth and prosperity. Through it all, he had cheated and connived, manipulated and lied, stormed and stomped and demanded. As Jacob walked alongside his brother, he thought of all that had led to this day:

His grandfather Abraham, called to leave his home and follow this unknown God, called to trust a promise of something that could not be.

His grandmother Sarah, who laughed at God, then became the mother of a great nation.

His father Isaac, the boy named laughter, whose very existence was an impossibility and a miracle, the gentle patriarch and loving father.

His mother Rebekah, who loved her husband, and loved her sons, but loved him more than his brother.

His brother Esau, strong and simple, cheated by him, by Jacob, out of both birthright and blessing, yet still prosperous.

At Shechem, he built an altar to El Shaddai, the all-sufficient God, built a pillar of stones to the God who gave him the name of Israel. He piled the stones high, so that all would know: El-elohe-Israel: God alone is the God of Israel.

Jacob had contended with God, and he thought he had prevailed. But he had not prevailed, not with his pride and ego, not with his treachery and lies, not with trickery or deceit. God had prevailed, with grace, with mercy, with love, with the enfolding arms of a brother, the hot tears of a brother’s mercy, and the soft brush of a brother’s lips in a kiss of pardon.

It would be a story that Jacob would tell again and again, a story that would be passed on, and handed down, and passed on, until it reached us here at this table.

We are a storied people, people who stumble around in confusing darkness seeking a story that will illuminate our lives and light our way. We are a people of stories, stories that wind around through the desert, concealing malicious motives from us and springing surprising sincerity on us, pausing at simple heaps of stones, cairns of tribute, altars to God.

The stones of those altars become our stories. They pave a path for us: a path toward truth, and meaning. It is rarely a path of precision, more frequently a winding, meandering road that leads us to a community, a people, a cross, a table. We come from north and south and east and west, we come from situations of status, and from corners of humility, from celebrations of triumph and from the ashes of loss.

We come here, like Jacob, each with our own story, not deserving of welcome, but expecting punishment. We are met here by the God who lives in all the stories of our lives, the God who sees us, knows us, and is all-sufficient to bless us.

We are met here by Jesus Christ, who sets this table, and welcomes us with the embrace of a loving brother, who opens his arms in forgiveness and grace. We are filled at this table with the Spirit of the God of Israel, who provides for us no matter who we are or what we have done.

As you come to this table, you may ask yourself, as Jacob asked, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” Here, in this bread and this cup, you will know the answer, the only answer that could be: forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.


Black Sheep

A narrative sermon on Genesis 30: 25-34; 31: 51-55

Preached July 24, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(c) Christina Berry

Laban shook his head as Jacob walked away. He should have known that it would come to this. His son-in-law wasn’t a bad man. He was pretty easy to get along with. Now he wanted to leave. This left Laban in quite a bad position, business-wise. Jacob seemed to have a real knack as a herdsman. His livestock were strong, and they gave birth to healthy offspring. Jacob took good care of them, and they seemed to thrive – certainly better than the livestock Laban’s own sons were in charge of.

Laban’s girls, Leah and Rachel, seemed to be thriving as well. They had eleven sons between them. Laban sure did breathe a sigh of relief when Rachel gave birth to Joseph. She’d gotten sons by Jacob on her maidservant, but this one was her own, and that made a big difference. He sure couldn’t figure out why Rachel and Leah were always at odds. He hadn’t raised them to be that way. Sure, he’d given Leah to Jacob first, instead of Rachel. Boy, had there been some drama over that one. But that was just the way they did things in Haran. A man doesn’t let his younger daughter get married before the elder daughter. Maybe he should’ve told them before the wedding, asked Leah at least. Maybe just sending Leah in to Jacob, letting him believe it would be Rachel, well, maybe that hadn’t been the best idea. But it had all worked out fine, even if Jacob did get a little bit mad about it. And Laban had gotten fourteen years labor out of Jacob for the bride price. Okay, okay - Leah was unhappy and unloved. And Rachel still wouldn’t hardly speak to him. But he had done the right thing, hadn’t he?

Now, this leaving thing, taking away the girls and eleven grandsons, that was something else. Not just bad for Laban business-wise, but pretty bad family-wise. Wife-wise. Jacob had something up his sleeve with this bargain he’d made; Laban just knew it, just by the way Jacob had asked. “Don’t give me anything,” Jacob had said. “Just give me every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled goats; and that’ll be my wages.” Then Jacob brought up how honest he was; that always made Laban nervous, when you were making a deal and a guy started talking about his honesty. Laban wasn’t born yesterday, and he wasn’t going to let Jacob go easily. This time, Laban would get one up on Jacob.

After Jacob left, Laban called his sons to him. “Boys, go get all of the billy goats that are striped and spotted, and all the nanny goats and kids that are speckled and spotted, and every one that has white on it, and every little black lamb, and take them to that far north valley.”

The boys stared at him. “Daddy, that far north valley is three days away from here!” “I know where it is!” Laban said.

“But Daddy, you promised Jacob…”

“Did I ask for a committee meeting about this?” Laban growled. “Now gather up all the striped and spotted goats and all the black sheep and get moving!”

The boys looked off to the left, over Laban’s shoulder, and shuffled their feet.

“Now?” one of them asked.

“NOW! Get moving!”

Jacob shook his head as he watched his wife’s brothers gather up the flocks and head for the north forty. He’d expected something like this. His father in law was a cheat, no two ways about it. That man would cheat his own brother!

But Jacob had a plan. He’d learned from the old timers that if you set up a striped pole by the watering troughs, the sheep and goats would see them, and bear more striped kids and black lambs. Jacob cut some rods of poplar and almond and plane, peeled strips of bark off, exposing the white of the rods. He cut them long enough to stick into the ground by the troughs. It wasn’t long before he was getting some striped and speckled goats, and some little black sheep. He kept his livestock separate from Laban’s, and only bred the strongest ones. Pretty soon, he was wealthy, with huge flocks, and plenty of servants too.

Then he overheard one of his brothers-in-law, talking to a herdsman. “Jacob has used our father's wealth to make himself rich at our father's expense.”[1] Jacob didn’t have much use for whiners and blamers. But he noticed Laban didn’t treat him the same anymore. It had always been a good partnership; but now Laban was acting standoffish. It was definitely time to leave.

He wasn’t sure how Leah and Rachel would react to the idea, so he sat down with them one night after supper. “Listen, I notice that your father has changed toward me; he doesn't treat me the same as before. But the God of my father hasn't changed; he's still with me. You know how hard I've worked for your father. Still, your father has cheated me over and over. But God never let him really hurt me. Over and over God used your father's livestock to reward me.” I even had this dream where an angel of God called out to me, and said, “Jacob! I know what Laban's been doing to you. I'm the God of Bethel where you consecrated a pillar and made a vow to me. Now be on your way, get out of this place, go home to your birthplace.'"

Rachel and Leah said, "It’s not like he’s treated us any better! Aren't we treated worse than outsiders? All he wanted was the money he got from selling us, and he's spent all that. Any wealth that God has seen fit to return to us from our father is justly ours and our children's. Go ahead. Do what God told you."[2]

Jacob loaded the children and his wives on his camels. He gathered all his livestock and all of his possessions. He packed up every last thing he had, and he managed to keep it quiet. The children didn’t even whisper a hint to their grandfather. For once, Rachel and Leah were getting along, laughing as they packed their household goods, joking with him and with the boys.

When Laban went out to shear sheep one morning, Jacob’s family caravan moved out toward Canaan. They were three days down the road, across the Euphrates, almost in Gilead, when Laban finally found out. Predictably, Laban rounded up the family and came chasing after them. He caught up to them in the hill country. Jacob saw them coming, so he left their tents pitched, and sat down and waited. They looked down the mountains at the winding train of camels as it crept up the slope like a brown snake in the green grass. By the time Laban arrived in the mountains, all of Jacob’s camp waited expectantly, almost eagerly, anticipating the confrontation between Laban and Jacob.

They helped Laban’s men pitch their tents when they arrived. Laban wasted no time in storming up to Jacob, so angry he was almost spitting.

“What do you mean,” said Laban, “sneaking off like that, taking my daughters off like prisoners of war? Why did you run off like a thief? Why didn't you tell me? I would have sent you off with a great celebration – music, timbrels, flutes! But you didn’t permit me so much as a kiss goodbye for my daughters and grandchildren. It was a stupid thing for you to do. If I had a mind to, I could destroy you right now, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, 'Be careful what you do to Jacob, whether good or bad.' I understand. You left because you were homesick. But why did you steal my household gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid. I thought you would take your daughters away from me by brute force. But as far as your gods are concerned, if you find that anybody here has them, that person dies. With all of us watching, look around. If you find anything here that belongs to you, take it.”

Neither Laban nor Jacob noticed that Rachel, who had been standing off to the side, turned and hurried back to her tent. Rachel hadn’t really thought much about taking her father’s household gods. She’d been in her parents’ tent while Jacob was packing up. She’d heard what her brothers had said about her husband. And she knew what her father was trying to do, trying to cheat him out of the promised pay. Her father was a liar, and a thief, that was all there was to it. So she took the gods, the small wooden figures that looked like people, like dolls a child might play with. It was easy to conceal them under her robes and pack them in with her clothes.

She didn’t really know what she was going to do with them. They were of no use to her, for her husband, and therefore she and her children, worshiped the God of Abraham and Isaac, this god who honored the younger over the elder, and who made promises and kept them. Even Leah didn’t know Rachel had the gods, and Jacob certainly didn’t know. And Rachel wasn’t really certain why she had taken them. They belonged to the head of the household, so maybe she was thinking of Jacob. They were also fertility aids, and heaven knew she needed help in that area. Her little Joseph, the one son of her very own, was a gift, but she still hoped for at least one more.

Deep down, she thought, she had taken them simply to get back at her father. Her blood boiled every time she thought of how he had treated her, and Leah, too, for that matter, like prize breeding stock, or interchangeable merchandise -- “Oh, you love my daughter Rachel, do you Jacob? Well, here, have Leah. Sure, you can have Rachel too. Just give me another seven years free labor.” Were they camels, or goats, she and her sister? To be traded at her father’s whim? All those years she had blamed Leah, but it was really Laban, their father, who had put them in this terrible situation.

There wasn’t really time to reflect on that; she could hear Laban and his men coming. They’d already practically ransacked Jacob’s tent, and then Leah’s, and of course found nothing. She sliced open a camel cushion and stuffed the little gods inside. She quickly sat down on the cushion and looked up, blank-faced, blinking at the flash of sunlight as Laban and his men came into her tent. Her father had blood in his eyes, now, he was so frustrated. Laban hated to lose. Rachel pinched the inside of her hand. She thought if she didn’t, she might start laughing. After they’d looked high and low for the gods, Rachel said to her father, “I would stand up, Father. I’m not being disrespectful. But it is that time of the month – I need to stay seated.’

Laban glared at her and stormed out of the tent. He was so blinded by the sudden sunlight, and by his anger, that he nearly ran into Jacob.

Jacob lit into Laban: “Alright, Laban. Just exactly what is it I have done to you, that you badger and accuse me and my family this way? Have you turned up ONE SINGLE THING that belongs to you? No? No! That’s because everything I took with me belongs to ME! For twenty years, I broke my back for you. I never threw a party with a roasted ram or goat from your flock. If a wild animal killed one of the animals, I paid for it – actually, you made me pay whether it was my fault or not. I worked day and night, in blazing heat and freezing cold. I slaved away for FOURTEEN years for two daughters, and then put in another six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not stuck with me, you would have sent me off with nothing! But God knew how it was, and how hard I had worked, and last night El Shaddai rendered his verdict."

Laban had tried to interrupt, and Jacob’s threatening hand had stopped him.

Now Laban erupted. “Those women are my daughters, those children are my children, this flock is my flock - everything you see is mine. But obviously there is nothing I can do about this, or about your ingratitude. I propose that we make a covenant - God will be the witness between us."

Jacob took a stone and set it upright as a pillar, then called his family, "Bring stones!"

Everyone carried stones and heaped them up.

Laban said, "This monument of stones will be a witness, beginning now, between you and me." It is also called Mizpah (Watchtower) because Laban said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.”

Jacob exchanged glances with Rachel and Leah – they wanted to believe it was a blessing, but it sounded more like a warning.

Then Laban went on:“If you mistreat my daughters or take other wives, even if there are no other witnesses, your God will see you and stand witness between us.” Laban gestured at the stones. “This monument of stones and this stone pillar that I have set up is a witness, a witness that I won't cross this line to hurt you and you won't cross this line to hurt me. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor will keep things straight between us.”

Rachel was tempted to point out that Laban had hardly set up the stone pillar, that in fact, Jacob and his family, her family, Leah’s family, had built that monument. But she thought it best to keep silent. That night, Jacob worshiped on the mountain and offered a sacrifice, then called all his family members to a meal. Laban got up early the next morning, kissed his grandchildren and his daughters, blessed them, and set off for home.[3]

Leah wept a little to see him go, but Rachel stood in stony silence, her arms folded across her chest, watching the long caravan as it wound north back to Haran. Then she turned, reached out one hand to her son and the other to her sister, and walked back to her tent in silence. Leah took Rachel’s hand, carefully, concealing her surprise. She followed Rachel back to her tent and helped her prepare the morning meal.

That night, the two sisters sat in companionable conversation and waited while the servant lighted the oil lamp.

“We will probably never see father again,” Leah said. Rachel nodded.

Leah watched her little sister tuck her boy Joseph into bed. “I will miss mother so much. And I think I will miss father, too. Will you?” Leah asked.

Rachel shook her head. “We have Jacob. And our sons.”

“And each other,” Leah said softly.

Rachel held out her arms, and Leah came to her, holding out her own arms.

As they embraced, they wept.

Then Leah stepped back, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. “I wonder what happened to father’s household gods…” she mused.

Rachel raised an eyebrow, and a mischievous smile played at the corner of her mouth.

“You didn’t!” Leah said.

“Ssshhhhh!” Rachel said. “You’ll wake my boy!” then she burst out laughing herself.

They laughed together quietly until they were in tears again, then kissed goodnight, and went contentedly to sleep.

Jacob heard them, and wondered what they found to be so funny. He was lying on the ground near the dying fire, staring up at the stars. Thoughts of Laban had been pushed from his mind, for he knew that soon they would be entering the land called Edom, which means “red,” called so because of the presence of his brother, Esau, the wild red hunter from whom he had stolen both birthright and blessing.

Jacob’s stomach churned. The God of his father Isaac, of his grandfather Abraham, was with him. But would that God protect him from his brother’s revenge? God would indeed watch between Jacob and Laban, but what would God do between Jacob and Esau? Jacob would not sleep well that night. He lifted up his prayers to God, asking, beseeching the Holy One to fulfill the promises made at Beth-el, and bring him and his family safely back to Canaan.

Jacob prayed then, but he did not have words for what he desired. He thought of his wives, and his sons, his parents, his brother. Perhaps this God of the covenant could turn things around, lead him home, make things right in his family. If he was to be the father of a great nation, Jacob thought, God must be a mighty and powerful God indeed. Jacob thought of his dream, of those angels ascending and descending on that broad stairway from heaven.

He heard again the voice of El Shaddai, -- speaking directly to him! – saying “Know 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."

It was more than a dream. It was a covenant.

The last bright stars dimmed as the first rays of sun broke over the mountain.

Then Jacob rose, gathering his cloak about him, and went to wake the camp to prepare for the journey home.

[1] The Message

[2] The Message

[3] The Message

Stairway from Heaven

A sermon on Genesis 28: 10-22 preached July 17, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(c) Christina Berry

Genesis 28:10-22

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He 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. 12 And 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. 13 And 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; 14 and 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. 15 Know 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." 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!" 17 And 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." 18 So 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. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you."

Several days into his journey, Jacob stopped looking over his shoulder. It still seemed possible that Esau might find him and kill him, but he was far enough now from Beersheeba that he’d have plenty of time to hide, and plenty of distance to see his brother coming. Jacob hoped that his mother Rebekah was right, that someday he’d be able to return to Beersheba. He couldn’t have known that Esau had left home as well, going the other direction, toward their Uncle Ishmael.

Jacob stopped to rest in the shade of a tamarisk tree, and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He gazed across the landscape, looking north toward Haran, then back to the south, toward Beersheba. It had only been a few days, but it seemed like years since he’d stood at his father’s bedside. He replayed the event over and over again in his head, his mother tying the goat skins onto his hands and neck, the smell of his brother’s robe as he put it on, the watery eyes of his father Isaac, the quavering sound of Isaac’s blessing. He had done the right thing, he told himself, and Esau simply needed to accept this – even though Jacob was the younger, he was the one God had chosen. So the taking of Esau’s birthright and blessing were all justified, even if he had done it through deceit and cunning. That’s what Jacob’s mother Rebekah had said.

She had provisioned him well – these servants and food and money would easily get him all the way to Haran. But Jacob couldn’t shake the sense that Esau was tracking him, couldn’t push away the rising tide of terror that washed over him when he lay down at night, couldn’t suppress the tightness in his gut when he pictured his brother’s face.

Jacob was no outdoorsman. They had stopped in every city along the route, through the markets and the crowded streets of Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, sleeping at public houses, watering their pack animals, re-stocking their food supplies. But Jacob couldn’t avoid the miles and miles of rough, rocky scrubland that lay between him and his Uncle Laban’s home.

It all began to look the same after while; the same dawn breaking over the stony hills, the same tamarisk, pines and oaks, the few hardy iris and rockrose growing in their shade.

Jacob watched a hapless rabbit racing for cover as the shadow of a falcon glided across the ground, then shifted rapidly into the swooping falcon itself: talons sharp as daggers lifted the squirming creature away into the shadowlands.

The sun’s warmth drew out a mixture of smells: eucalyptus, pine, earth, the sweat of the men and the animals. After some hours, they stopped for a brief lunch in a grove of trees, surprising a few roe deer grazing there. [i] Jacob thought briefly of his brother the hunter; if Esau had been with them, they’d be having venison for supper.

They journeyed on, northward, toward the house of Laban. As dusk crept across the hills, Jacob called the traveling party to a stop. They made camp and sat down to a simple supper.

Restless, Jacob left his men by the fire after supper, and climbed a small hillock, looking for some flat and level place to sleep. The place where he lay down was at least smooth, and he folded his coat over a stone to make a pillow. Staring up at the gathering night, gazing at the stars as they slowly appeared in the inky sky, Jacob remembered the promise, the covenant made to his grandfather Abraham, to his father Isaac, and by rights, also to him: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) He fell asleep trying to count the stars, thinking about the great nation that God had promised.

As he slept, he dreamt.

He might have said, if you had asked him later, after the other dream, that this dream was like waking from a nightmare. “Odd,” he would say, “that when I was awake, I was frightened and disoriented; but in this dream, sleeping, I felt the clarity of wakefulness, and calm.” In the dream, in front of him there appeared a staircase, and on it, messengers of heaven traveled up and down, ascending up to heaven, descending back to earth. But that was simply the prologue, the presentation. At the heart of the dream was the covenant.

For as Jacob, transfixed, watched the procession of angels, the Lord spoke to him, spoke to him in the same voice that had spoken to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. The Lord repeated the promise: a great nation, a great land, a great blessing. But there was still more: I am with you, the voice of the Lord said. I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you.

When he woke, his eyes were opened to the holiness that was all around him. Jacob built a pillar of stone, and called the place “Beth-el,” for it was the house of God, and the gate of heaven. Then he spoke to the Lord, offering up a bargain: If you will be with me, and supply me bread and clothing, if you will bring me back to my father’s house in peace, you will be my God, and of all that you give me I shall return one-tenth.

Later, when Jacob told it to Rachel on their wedding night, he heard the youthful arrogance of his promise: IF you will do these things, THEN I will…

Jacob could hardly believe that he had said these things, and lived. Had he really had the temerity to attempt bargaining with God almighty?! But Rachel only gazed at him admiringly. She remembered when she had first seen him, as he came to the well at Haran, on her father Laban’s land. There he stood, talking to the shepherds as she approached with her flock. He turned and saw her, then turned back to the shepherds, obviously asking about her. Unconsciously, her hand went to her face. He gazed at her, and she lowered her eyes. Jacob waited until she lifted her gaze back to him, then went to the mouth of the well and rolled the stone back. He led her flock to the well, and watered them there. Something about his strong back as he moved the stone, and his gentle motion as he gathered the flock made her heart beat faster. Rachel suddenly had butterflies in her stomach.

Who was this man?

It was as if he could read her thoughts, because he then spoke to her. He was her cousin!

He hugged her and kissed her, as was appropriate for a relative. Such a fine looking man, so strong, so kind! As he kissed her and embraced her, he held her for a brief moment longer than her male cousins normally did. She felt indescribably happy. So strange, to be so moved by simply meeting her cousin! But as she ran to tell her father Laban that his kinsman had arrived, Rachel felt that Jacob, this smooth, handsome man, would become more than just a cousin to her.

During that first month of Jacob’s sojourn with her family, Rachel watched him intently.

He was not an experienced herdsman, but he was sharp, and learned quickly. He was clever, always finding easier ways to accomplish the work. Every day, Jacob made a chance to see her, to slip aside and speak to her, to touch her hand or her hair, to kiss her quickly. Jacob promised that he would ask her father for her in marriage, and he did. Laban thought well of Jacob, so when Jacob asked for Rachel, he quickly agreed.

Rachel ran to her sister, Leah, with the news.

“Sister!” Rachel tumbled into the tent, giggling and giddy. “Jacob asked for me!

He has offered to serve Father for seven years in exchange for me!”

Leah raised an eyebrow, but she smiled slightly.

“Our Father has promised you, the younger sister, first? Before me?” Leah asked.

Leah had turned her back and was fiddling with some sewing.

Rachel was too excited to hear the edge in her sister’s voice.

“Oh, yes, but he is the younger of his family, too, Leah. He has a twin, Esau, born first, just as you were the firstborn of our family. But he has a promise from the god of his family, El Shaddai, God almighty. This god promised to make his family a great nation. The covenant-maker god said that Jacob would be the one to receive the blessing, and Jacob would be the one to carry out the covenant. Isn’t this exciting, Leah? Isn’t it wonderful? This god of Jacob puts the second first, says that the elder will serve the younger.”

Leah said nothing, but laid down her sewing and slipped out of the tent.

The seven years flew by. Jacob said that he loved her so much that it seemed like only days. He said that he would work for her father forever, if that were required. When the seven years were up, Laban began to prepare the wedding feast. There would be a week of festivities. But when the time came for the bride to be presented to Jacob, Rachel’s mother kept her in their tent, and it was Leah who wore the veil, it was Leah who was led by Laban’s hand, it was Leah who was given to Jacob.

Rachel wanted to rush to Jacob, to warn him, but her mother’s servants kept a close eye on her, and would not let her leave their tent. Rachel threw herself onto the ground sobbing as she imagined Leah, LEAH! Leah dancing with Jacob, Leah being led into the tent, Leah laying aside her robe, being taken into Jacob’s arms……no, it was too much. Rachel cried until she was exhausted, until her mother’s maidservant forced her to take some broth and lie down to rest.

Leah did not speak when Laban led her to Jacob. She did not make a sound when Jacob took her to his tent, and she was careful to make sure that no lamps were lit when Jacob took her into the marriage bed. “He can love me,” Leah thought. “I’m a good woman, good and strong. I am the eldest, and the first to be given in marriage. I will make him love me.”

Perhaps it was the excitement, after the seven-year wait, or perhaps he’d had too much to drink, but Jacob did not notice, did not seem aware that it was Leah he clasped in his arms and kissed – until the morning light broke, and he turned sleepily to her, murmuring, “Rachel, Rachel my dove…” When Leah saw the outrage and disgust on Jacob’s face, when he pushed her away roughly, cursing, and strode from the tent at daybreak, she wept, and she knew that Jacob would not love her, would not ever love her. Jacob stormed into Laban’s tent. He stood over Laban, glowering.

“What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve you for Rachel? Why have you deceived me?”

Laban looked up calmly. “This is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of marriage festivity with this one, and we will give you the other one, in return for serving me for another seven years.”

Jacob imagined himself raising his staff and swinging it down on Laban’s head. His hands gripped the staff until his knuckles turned white. He took a deep breath. He would never get Rachel if he attacked her father.

The second seven years went quickly, but there was strife in Jacob’s house. Leah’s first son was born in the first year. She named him Reuben, which means, “Look, it’s a boy!”

Leah said to Rachel, “God has taken pity on me. Now Jacob will love me,”

When her second son was born, Leah crowed, “God has heard me!” And she named him “God-heard” –Simeon

Then the third son was born, and Leah gloated, “Now Jacob will connect with me!”

She named him Judah, which means “connect””

Rachel couldn’t stand it.

She went to Jacob and demanded of him, “Give me children or I will die!”

“Am I God, withholding children from you?” Jacob said angrily.

And so Rachel sent her handmaiden in to Jacob, to conceive, just as Jacob’s grandfather had conceived Ishmael with the slave girl Hagar. It became a competition.

Bilhah the servant became pregnant and gave Jacob a son. Rachel said, "God took my side and vindicated me.” She named him Dan (Vindication).

Rachel's maid Bilhah became pregnant again and gave Jacob a second son. Rachel said, "I've been in an all-out fight with my sister - and I've won." So she named him Naphtali (Fight).

When Leah saw that she wasn't having any more children, she gave her maid Zilpah to Jacob for a wife. Zilpah had a son for Jacob. Leah said, "How fortunate!" and she named him Gad (Lucky).

When Leah's maid Zilpah had a second son for Jacob, Leah said, "A happy day! The women will congratulate me in my happiness." So she named him Asher (Happy).[1]

The sisters grew to hate each other, each of them vying for Jacob’s affection. When Leah’s son Reuben found mandrakes, known to be aphrodisiacs, Rachel demanded that Leah give them to her. Leah said, “Wasn't it enough that you got my husband away from me? And now you also want my son's mandrakes?”

Rachel said, “I'll let him sleep with you tonight – give me the mandrakes.”

Leah met Jacob as he came home from the fields that evening: "I get you tonight; I've traded my son's mandrakes for tonight.”

Leah gave Jacob a fifth son. She named him Issachar (Bartered).

Leah became pregnant yet again and gave Jacob a sixth son, saying, “This time, Jacob will honor me! I've given him six sons!" She named him Zebulun (Honor). Last of all she had a daughter and named her Dinah.

And then God remembered Rachel. She became pregnant and had a son. She said, “God has taken away my humiliation.” She named him Joseph (Add), praying, "May God add yet another son to me."

It seemed that God had fulfilled the promised, blessed Jacob in spite of his deceit, and would indeed make him a great nation. His flocks grew, he prospered; he had eleven sons.

But Jacob grew restless. This success was not enough for him. He wanted to go home. He did not know what awaited him in Canaan, whether his mother would welcome his wives and rejoice to see his sons, or whether his brother would at last kill him. He was tired and homesick, and he longed for something more than worldly goods. He wanted to see his mother again, and to be far, far away from this place where he had been deceived, cheated by his relatives, for goodness sake!

He wanted to go beyond success to significance; he wanted to fulfill the covenant, to be the father of nations. Jacob recalled the promise that he had made to God: this god, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebekah, this God would be his God, and he would give a tenth of all he had to God. Jacob had not yet fulfilled his promise, in fact had thwarted God’s plans for him.

Still, Jacob recalled the promise of God Almighty, the Holy One:

“Know 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.”

God had remained steadfast, and would continue to fulfill the covenant. El Shaddai, the maker of covenants and keeper of covenants, would be faithful. This God had promised: do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will keep you. I will bring you home.

Jacob would put his wives and his eleven sons into the hands of this God.

He would put his future into the hands of this God.

Jacob would put his trust in this God, and no other.