Sunday, August 7, 2011

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.


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