Light from the Sidra


Genesis 28:10 - 32:2. Haftarah Hosea 12:12 – 14:10

One of the great money spinners of Hollywood is horror movies. A frequent theme of the horror genre is the house that is a doorway to Hell; and where the door has been left open.

A significant theme in the Bible is the places in which earth meets heaven. Since Adam and Eve were driven out of Gan Eden, mankind has been attempting to get back to paradise. Some of the dead end routes we have gone down in the last century or so have been Communism, psychedelic drugs and music festivals. Joni Mitchell sang of the mother of all music festivals, the 1967 Woodstock festival, that it was an attempt to get “back to the Garden”. Throughout history, for most people the way of choice for getting back to the Garden has been religion.

The way back to Paradise and the Tree of Life will be opened by the “Seed of the woman” crushing the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15) and any other way will turn out, at best, to be a dead end; at worse, because God closed the way to the Tree of Life, any attempt to reach to the tree other than God’s way will be fruitless rebellion. The tower of Babel was an attempt to reach heaven. The builders probably didn’t really think it would literally reach the dwelling place of God but, as a temple, it would be the place where they could touch the Infinite. In Isaiah 14, the king of Babylon imagined that because he had subdued the nations with little difficulty, he could ascend to heaven and usurp the throne of the universe. Both attempts ended in tears or, more specifically, one in confusion and the other in damnation.

In the history of Israel, God began to open the way back to himself. The tabernacle in the wilderness and, later, the temple in Jerusalem, would be the places at which heaven intersected earth. But, unlike at Babel, when the Tabernacle was erected, God came down to dwell in it; the Israelites did not ascent to him. Being finite, mankind will never be able to build a stairway to heaven; if we are going to get there, we will always be dependent on God letting down the ladder from his end.

In this week’s Sidra, having upset both his father Isaac and his brother Esau, Jacob leaves home to find a wife from among his own people and stumbles across the stairway to heaven.

Jacob was a resourceful character; he lived off his wits. But even the great patriarch would reach a point some twenty years later, when he would come to his wit’s end and have to cast himself on God. Smart people rarely see a need for God, and Jacob was smart. He outwitted his older brother, taking advantage of his slow wittedness and his hunger to trick him out of his birthright. He even succeeded in deceiving his father to seal the deal and obtain the blessing of the firstborn.

But as we open Genesis 28, we find Jacob heading east, partly to find a wife from his father’s clan and partly to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. On his first night away from home he dreams of a stairway to heaven on which the angels of God are ascending and descending. In the dream, God speaks to him: “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you lie I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants [Hebrew: zerah, “seed”] shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your [seed]. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done whatever I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15, Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures: the New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

When Jacob wakes he recognises that what he had experienced in the night was too vivid to be nothing more than a dream; the place where he slept is nothing less than the house of God and the gateway to heaven. He responds to the dream by making a deal with God: “If God remains with me, if he protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house—the LORD shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God's abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (Genesis 28:20-22, Tanakh, New JPS Translation).

At this point in Jacob’s life, the LORD, Yahweh, is not his God. When Jacob deceived his father Isaac, he referred to Yahweh as his father’s God (27:20). Jacob has yet to learn that he can’t manipulate Yahweh. He will need to learn that God doesn’t bless on the basis of what we will give to him. Yahweh has already told Jacob what he will do for him; and he has asked for nothing in return. He will bless Jacob and his seed because of his unconditional covenant with Abraham.

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