By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
July 23, 2023
Genesis 28:10–19 (ESV)
10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that 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 to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it 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 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, 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 awoke 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 early in the morning Jacob 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 the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
I have spent a great deal of time repeating the stories of Abraham and Isaac as we have walked through the book of Genesis. I love this book. If you were to ask me which books of the Bible would be my favorite, Genesis would be near the top. The first is most likely the writings of John, and then Genesis. Occasionally I might through Ecclesiastes in, along with which ever book I am currently studying. But Genesis will always be near the top.
I love the stories in Genesis, not because I read them as the history of our physical origin, although that is there. Instead, this book speaks of how God came to us, it speaks of the origin of life with God.
God spoke to Abraham. God spoke to him and promised to make Abraham the father of many nations and his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. I love that promise. Not that I have any genetic claim to this promise but because of the content of the second part of that promise. That Abraham’s descendants would be the light to the Gentiles. The Most High God, chose Abraham as his inheritance after the people of the earth defied God at Babel, but God did not give up on the people. He did not give up on my people, our people. We are among the nations that need light.
I mention Babel because it is important to the story. Adam and Eve, our first parents lived with God in the Garden until their fall. We often regard this as the original sin, but I do not want us to consider that branch of theology right now. After that fall, the people were still together. But shortly after this fall Cain moved away from his father’s house and built a city.
There is a ministry called the Bible Project that has recently studied the concept of the city in their podcast and tomorrow they will be releasing an animated video that highlights the core of what they found through the course of their study. I encourage you all to watch this. But I mention it here because the city is important. We live in a city. A city is where the population lives. It is where all the produce, all the goods, all the crafts go to be distributed. We need the cities as humans because it is the city that gives us civilization.
The first city, however, was built by Cain. The dawn of civilization has its roots not in righteousness but in fear and self-preservation. Cain built his city out of fear. He feared that everyone around him would recognize the mark that God put upon him and would kill him. Even though God had promised protection, Cain did not believe. Cain, like so many of us, chose to do things for himself, he decided to make his own way and provide for his own protection. This protection became the first city.
This fear-based lifestyle took root on the earth. Soon more cities will be built, and more people will take on the lifestyle of Cain. These cities would exhibit power and control over the surrounding land, and eventually their influence would extend to such a degree that it would brush up against the influence of other cities. For a city to continue to grow they would then need to exert influence over these other cities. This is the emergence of nations and nations would then extend to the borders of other nations to form empires. This was occurring throughout the known world. But how do cities and nations extend their influence over other cities and nations? War.
We are told that there was a second great fall in the book of Genesis. Corruption increased among the people. The corruption spoken of is traditionally recognized as the forbidden knowledge of the gods. This knowledge was the knowledge of magic, weapons of war, seduction, and divination. I mentioned in a message a couple of years ago that we could look at all this as humanity consuming the earth beyond subsistence. This corruption saddened God. This wasteful use of the blessing that He had given, the use of God’s grace for manipulation, lusts, and war caused God to act. God was required to save creation from human conquest, and he found one family that still honored him among the multitude. He had this one family build an Ark, and within this Ark God would preserve and restart creation.
You would think that after this reboot, we would finally listen. From this one family God is said to have repopulated the earth. Three family branches. Two were blessed and one was cursed. The cursed family is said to have gone out into the world and like Cain he built a city. The cycle begins again. And for a third time God is moved to action. This third event mentioned in the ancient scriptures revolves around a tower. The people of the city again want to make a name for themselves, so they build a tower to the heavens.
In ancient times it was believed that the gods lived on the tops of mountains. These were places that humans could not easily travel to. The people of Babel decided that if they could not climb the mountains, they would build their own. In their mind they were going to force God to interact with them. They were going to force their gods to do their bidding, if they could only build a tower high enough to reach them.
God was again concerned with the direction that humanity was going. If this tower was built, this colossal monument, whoever controlled the tower could control all the nations, because all people spoke one language. We are told that at that moment God again intervened and confused the languages of the people. And he divided the nations among the sons of God and kept Israel as his inheritance.
Did these stories occur just as the writers of scripture claim? I do not know. I believe that God did act in some manner among the people and something like this may have occurred. I believe it because there are pyramids in Egypt, and Ziggurats in Mesopotamia. These colossal monuments were once used but all at once humanity lost the knowledge of how or why they were built, and after this knowledge was lost it has taken millennia for humans to build anything close to the magnitude. I believe, because there are similar stories in all these regions and yet each of those stories have differences, and as we look at them all it causes confusion even to this day. I believe that God did work in this manner, because from that moment in history to today there has existed a remnant of from the nation that God chose as his inheritance.
Out of Ur God called Abraham, and God told him that he would make his descendants like the stars in the sky. Abraham walked with God, as did the son God graced him with in his old age. But Jacob and Esau quarreled. Jacob manipulated his older brother out of his birthright and then deceived his own father to grant him the blessing as well. Esau was furious and because of his rage, Jacob ran.
Both Isaac and Rebekah encouraged him to go to the land of her father. They had him run over five hundred miles back to the place where Abraham left his own father over a hundred years prior. Jacob ran for his life. He ran because he deserved everything his brother wanted to give. He ran because he knew he deserved death for his deception. We often forget how terrible Jacob was in his youth. We look instead at his life later when he was old, but when Jacob was young, he was a real piece of work.
Jacob and Esau both had flaws. Neither are said to have followed in their father’s footsteps. Isaac was seen meditating in the field and that is what attracted Rebekah to him, and yet we do not hear Jacob and Esau living that same sort of righteousness. All we hear is of Esau’s shortsightedness and whining when the consequences of his choices came to pass. Then we hear of his rage and jealousy against those he deemed responsible for his own failures. We hear of Jacob’s conspiring and manipulation, and again we see his fear as he runs from the consequences of his actions. We are all like Jacob and Esau.
“Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.” We are not immediately told how far Jacob ran that day, but it is implied that he did not stop once he left Beersheba until this point. Later in the story we are told that he called the place Bethel. The distance from Beersheba and Bethel is around sixty miles which on foot is quite far. The world record for how far a person can run in twenty-four hours is about 188.6 miles and that record was set in 1984. Maybe Jacob happened to be on an animal of some sort, we are not told, but sixty miles in a day is a great distance. Many scholars question this, but I think there is a logical explanation, he kept going through one day into the next. And when he could go no further, he fell to the ground in exhaustion. He crawled over to a stone in that place and rested his head on it and he slept.
Jacob is running for his life. For sixty miles he contemplated everything. Each step he took to the north he remembers the journey of his grandfather. Every mile he travels he sees himself undoing everything his family had worked for all these years. Each step goes deeper into failure. And now he can go no farther. He is at the end of himself, and he crumbles to the ground.
When I was in school studying a life of prayer and looking into the practice of spiritual direction, I learned that many professional spiritual directors would encourage their clients to enter contemplative prayer after they had exercised. The more strenuous the exercise the better, and most would encourage you to pray after lifting weights. I had always wondered about this, but the reason is that our bodies will become more completely relaxed after this sort of exertion. I think this is what we are seeing here with Jacob.
“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it…”
I mentioned the three failures of humanity as we made our way to this point for a reason. These were stories that the people of these ancient nations knew. They may have come in different forms, some may have called Noah, Gilgamesh, but the stories would be similar. Because these people were not as distant as we think. They traded with one another. And as they traded, they shared cultural insights and stories along with other news. We know that the nations of Mesopotamia and Egypt had vast amounts of trade because we have read the documentation of this. What Jacob sees in this dream appears to be a stairway to heaven. The very thing the ancients sought to build, he is seeing before his eyes and standing at the top is God the Most High.
I want us to just stop and consider this for a moment. Consider what Jacob might be feeling. So often we do not read this story in complete context. We take this out and just think of it as a nice little story that happens on some cool evening while Jacob is relaxing. But Jacob is running for his life because he stole the birthright and blessing from his brother. He is running because he is a man of deception and that has all come back to bite him. He is running because he is corrupt and worthless. And he sees God standing there, looking down at him.
Then God speaks to him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God knows who he is. He knows his father, and his father’s father. And Jacob knows that he has not followed in his father’s footsteps. “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 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 in you and your seed (or offspring) shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
Imagine what you would be thinking at that moment. You are running out of fear for your life. You have left your father’s house with only the clothes on your back, everything you had is gone, left behind because you had done something stupid. And now God is looking down on you, and he repeats the same promise to you that he had spoken to your grandfather. Why? Why do I deserve this? What have I done to gain this favor? Nothing.
God did not choose Israel because they were better than everyone else. They are just like us. But there is a difference, God chose to redeem humanity through them. It is through their history and their sacred writings that God gave His wisdom and light. He could have chosen anyone, he chose them. This does not mean that they get a free pass to paradise, it only means that the knowledge of God begins with them, with Abraham.
Jacob lays there on the ground gazing at this stairway, listening to the words being spoken to him, and he has a choice to make. Will he believe or not?
God continues, “Behold, 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 knows what Jacob is thinking as he is laying there on the ground. He knows that Jacob believes that he has just lost it all. He is running out of the land of Promise, and God assures him, “I will be with you as you run, and when you are ready to stop running, I will bring you back here where you belong.”
Jacob woke from his sleep, and he was afraid. He thought that he could have stumbled onto sacred ground without knowing it. He was confused, afraid, and in awe. But something changed that night. He left Beersheba toward Haran, and he came to a certain place that night and rested as the sun set. He ran nonstop for a day. He ran until he could run no more. He woke up and instead of running again, he built a pillar. He piles up stones and places the one he used as a pillow on top and he pours oil on them.
Oil is important in the ancient world. It is vital to survival. It was used as medicine as well as food. It was a great source of healthy energy and something that Jacob would need for the next five hundred miles he would travel. He left with minimal rations. He left in a rush. And he builds this pillar, this altar at that place and he pours this life sustaining liquid on the altar. Why? He has made his choice.
He will continue the journey to Haran, but he goes for a different reason. He stands before this pillar and he looks up to the stone on top and he says, “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, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 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 give a full tenth to you.”
Jacob trusted in himself prior to this moment. Jacob’s faith was to obtain what he wanted however he could. That lifestyle set him on a path of destruction, and he ran out of fear. He heard the stories of his grandfather’s faith and the faith of his own father, but that was not the life he chose before, he wanted more. He wanted the blessing, he wanted the birthright, he conspired to take what he wanted even though it was not freely given. He was a liar and a thief. He was Jacob the heel grabber and deceiver. He ran, as so often we do. He ran because he was afraid. As we do also. Yet God was with him even before he knew him. And he is with us. God was working in Jacob’s life, and he met him where he was that night. And he will meet you too.
God fulfilled his promise to Jacob. He brought him back to the land of his father. God fulfilled the promise to Isaac, and he did make his offspring into a nation. God fulfilled the promise that he made to Abraham. The light has come into the world, Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world to make disciples, and that he would be with them even to the end of the age. God has fulfilled his promise through Jesus and will continue to reverse the damage our nations of cities have caused through those of us that believe in his name and entrust our lives to him. Do we have faith? Or do we run in fear? Will we continue down a path of destruction and seeking to get what we want however we can? Or will we live as stewards of God’s blessings? Will we live as takers, or will we be a blessing to our community? Will we and our Meeting become Bethel to those who need rest?
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