YEAR A: PENTECOST 10
July 17, 2011
The lectionary readings skip over the intriguing story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac and theft of his brother’s blessing (Genesis 27). In one stream of tradition in Genesis, the reason for Jacob’s flight from the promised land is precisely because he has cheated his brother and fears for his life. His mother, Rebekah, helps him (see 27:41-45; cf. 25:28). However, another stream of tradition has Jacob go to Paddan-Aram, the place from which Rebekah came, in order to acquire a wife. There is no hint of the strife or deceit of the preceding narrative. Rebekah and Isaac are anxious that Jacob not marry one of the Canaanite women as Esau has done (cf. 24:2-4 and 26:34-35). The interest in this subject is not primarily to cast a negative light on Esau’s character but to separate Esau unequivocally from the line of blessing. The writer establishes the proper patriarchal lineage, and hence the ‘lineage’ of the promise.
The approval of Jacob in the narrative is made clear by stressing his obedience to the wishes of his father and mother (28:7). As he sends him away, Isaac blesses him (28:6) again. There is no emphasis on the exclusion of Esau from the blessing, only a stress on the line of Jacob that will be blessed and receive the promise. Moreover, the reference to ‘being fruitful and numerous’ (28:3) is an allusion to the blessing of humanity in Gen 1:28. Somehow, in this family God’s intent for creation is embodied.
The second half of Jacob’s blessing is concerned with possession of the promised land. Jacob’s journey from Beer-sheba toward Haran is the reverse of Abraham’s earlier journey (Gen 11:27-12:9). The repetition of the promise of the land in ch. 28 underlines again that immediate events are not determinative for the outcome of the promise, even when those events seem to undo the course of the promise thus far.
Jacob’s journey is interrupted as he nears the border of the land. He spends the night at ‘a certain place’ which remains unnamed at first. Dreams were thought to be one way of communication between deities and humankind. In his dream, Jacob sees a ‘ladder’ (NRSV) set up on earth with its top reaching heaven. Divine messengers go up and down on it. The Hebrew word sullam, from the root sll ‘to cast up’, is more properly translated ‘ramp’. Yahweh stands ‘beside him’ or ‘beside it’ (i.e. the ramp). The Hebrew is ambiguous, and perhaps deliberately so. The language reveals this place to be sacred. It is the language of the later temple, the place of the presence of God and his divine council (messengers).
The bulk of the dream report reiterates the promise to the patriarchs. The promise of land is restated first, almost as a reassurance of Isaac’s blessing earlier (v. 4). Much of the promise we have heard before. Its language is familiar. References to descendants being like ‘the dust of the ground’ and to the four corners of the land (v. 14) echo the words Gen 13:14-17. Mention of all the families of the earth being blessed recalls Gen 12:3. What is new here, is the reference to Yahweh being with Jacob and keeping him wherever he goes, and of bringing him back to the land and not abandoning him before Yahweh has done all he has promised. Of course, this makes sense in the immediate context, but it is also important for Israel much later in its history, when it is forcibly taken into exile in far off Babylon.
Through Jacob’s dream we learn more about being people who live with God’s promise. In the story of Abraham, the matter was whether faith or doubt in the promise would prevail. In the Jacob story the matter is one of how the promise will be achieved (see comment on Pentecost 9, Gen 25:19-34). In today’s reading there is a further complication. There is a call to faith in Yahweh’s continuing presence as Jacob leaves the promised land. In Israel’s faith, distance from the usual place of God’s presence could be devastating. Jacob had to grapple with a promise that was deeply concerned with ‘a land’ but was not confined by that land. As we move through Jacob’s story we find that God only appears at places in the land or at its borders (Genesis 28 and 32). That does not deny God’s guidance in a foreign land, but it does mean that guidance will not be the same as it has been experienced so far. As with the servant of Abraham in Genesis 24, divine guidance will be for Jacob less visible and less apparent than hitherto has been the case. Nevertheless, it is no less reliable.
We have seen earlier that a divine speech at the beginning of a larger narrative is capable of initiating a new future for the characters involved, a future not confined by human perceptions. Divine presence and guidance will not be manipulated by Jacob in the story to follow, nor will it be restricted by his all too human weaknesses. The references to the place where Jacob spent the night confirm this. He acted quite unawares at first in this ‘certain place’. After his dream he renames the place Bethel (= ‘house of God’). This innocuous place turned out to be the very house of God. Jacob will discover God’s presence in the most unexpected and ordinary of places and circumstances.
As God proclaims he will be Jacob’s ‘keeper’ we are reminded of the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), where the former declared himself not his brother’s ‘keeper’ or protector. Just as at the end of that story Yahweh acted to protect Cain, so now he will ‘keep’ his promised one who flees in fear for what he has done to his brother. Jacob has yet to learn that he is dealing with a God who ‘keeps’ all his creatures, worthy or not.
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