Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place, and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed and saw a stairway set upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven. Behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Behold, Yahweh stood above it, and said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give the land you lie on to you and to your offspring. Your offspring will be as the dust of the earth, and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. In you and in your offspring, all the families of the earth will be blessed. Behold, I am with you, and will keep you, wherever you go, and will bring you again into this land. For I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken of to you.”
Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” He was afraid, and said, “How awesome this place is! This is none other than God’s house, and this is the gate of heaven.
This short passage contains three themes that are repeated throughout Scripture:
Jacob’s dream of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending represents that we do not live in a dualistic universe where there is divide that cannot be crossed between the divine and the human, or the sacred and the profane. Jesus is the incarnation of the divine in the human. When he dies on the cross the veil that separated the Holy of Holies in the Temple from the outside is torn in two. In the Catholic tradition, we both venerate the tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept, and reach in and eat the contents.
Jacob receives precisely the same promise of abundant divine love and attention that his grandfather, Abraham, received. God’s promise to Abraham that His covenant will endure generation after generation is fulfilled. It doesn’t mean that Abraham’s decedents will not experience suffering. Far from it, as they will find themselves enslaved in Egypt in the next book. But it means that God is with us, exults in our successes, but especially suffers with us in our pain and failures. Isaiah will prophecy the arrival of a messiah named Immanuel, or “God is with us” – a story that Matthew relates at the birth of Jesus.
And finally, Jacob is awed by his encounter with God. Our deepest intuitions of God are paradoxical. On the one hand, God is with us; a familiar Presence and our most intimate relationship. On the other hand, we can’t help but feel our smallness in the presence of God. Rudolf Otto called this feeling “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, the numinous, the utterly ineffable and overwhelmingly holy – the feeling our creatureliness in the presence of our Creator. Martin Buber put it this way:
O, you safe and secure ones. You who hide yourselves behind the ramparts of law so that you will not have to look into God’s abyss! Yes, you have secure ground under your feet, while we hang suspended looking out over the endless deeps. But we would not exchange our dizzy insecurity and poverty for your security and abundance … Of God’s will we know only the eternal; the temporal we must command for ourselves…