Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts on Jacob’s Ladder and Making Deals with the Lord

(Here’s an experience left over from last Christmas in Idaho..)

I was sitting in the Rexburg temple chapel yesterday waiting for the endowment session to start and I was very much impressed by the stained glass window that was in the front of the room. It was a geometric design and for some reason it reminded me of a ladder. I have no idea whether the designers of the window intended it to look like a ladder, but that’s what it looked like to me. I know that many things in the temple are symbolic and are meant to teach truth, and I thought hard, trying to remember where a ladder is talked about in the scriptures. I thought, “Oh! That must be like Jacob’s ladder!”

I couldn’t remember much about the ladder that the patriarch Jacob saw in a dream, so I took one of the Bibles that the temple places plentifully around pews and opened to Genesis. I tell you, I had no idea where in Genesis this story of Jacob’s ladder was found, but somehow I opened right to it—Genesis 28. (Really, the temple is a place where I’ve so often opened the scriptures right to where I need.)
10 ¶ And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.
11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:10-12)
The stained glass window in the temple’s chapel was divided into two identical panels. I looked up from my reading and studied it, imagining angels climbing down one side and climbing up the other. And, to use a scriptural phrase, the eyes of my understanding were opened and I saw that the angels who were descending were coming to earth to be born, and the angels who were ascending were leaving the earth at the end of their mortal life and returning to God to receive their judgment. Essentially Jacob saw a visual representation of the answers to the questions “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?”

This must have been something that Jacob had been wondering. He must have wondered just what he had done to get himself into this predicament. Early in chapter 28 he had been sent by Isaac to Padan–aram to take a wife and he was on the way. His brother Esau hated him after the birthright-supplanting incident. Jacob may have been feeling like an outcast and a vagabond and wondering if he had anything to look forward to and wondering what would happen to him with no family around to back him up. (I suppose Jacob's life situation would be similar to a homeless man's.) He must have been wondering if he'd ever be able to return home and see his family in peace. This dream of the ladder gave him a wider view of how his life fit into eternity. His ultimate goal was to return to his Father in Heaven in peace.

There was more to this dream.
13 And, behold, the Lord stood above it [the ladder], and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. (Genesis 28:13-15; bracketed words are mine)
With the angel ladder answering the questions of where he came from and where he was going, the question of what he had to look forward to was answered with the Lord's promise that Jacob would one day inherit the land he was sleeping on, have numberless descendants, and be a blessing to everyone on earth. This promise makes up the Abrahamic covenant of property, progeny, and priesthood. (One of my religion teachers at BYU called them “the 3 Ps”.)
16 ¶ And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.
17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (Genesis 28:16-17)
Why did Jacob call that place the “house of God”? Because the Lord had made a promise to him and instinctively he recognized that any place where you happen to see the Lord and He makes you a promise is special, and must remain sacred to the memory forever after. A place where the Lord is willing to appear can become a temple, a dwelling place.

Why did Jacob call that place the “gate of heaven”? From his dream of the angel ladder, he realized that earth was the halfway point to returning to God and that the covenant that God made with him was necessary for him to return to heaven.

Why was he afraid? He realized that where much was given, much was now required, and having received greater light, if he sinned against it, he would receive the greater condemnation.
18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el [house of God]: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. (Genesis 28:18-19, bracketed text is mine and comes from the footnote in front of Bethel)
Okay, the above stuff has been sitting in my flash drive for months, because I’ve been puzzled about something. The part that I have been confused about is what comes right after the above verses:
20 And Jacob vowed 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 raiment to put on,
21 So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God:
22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
(Genesis 28:10-22)
The thing that confused me is that here Jacob has just had this dream in which he’s seen angels and he’s seen God and God has made him this great promise, and when he wakes up, he makes a promise that seems backward. “If God will do all these things for me, then He’ll be my God.” He still asks to return to his earthly father in peace, and he’s asking for the blessings before he will give his allegiance. He’s making a deal with God. Highly irregular, if you ask me. You just don’t do that with God! How could he do that?!

Well, today the thought came to me that Jacob had grown up in the midst of the Canaanites with all their false gods and idols, so maybe he was testing to make sure that the Lord really had power before he would serve Him. But wait, he knew enough to value the birthright blessing, so he surely he already had a testimony. Maybe he was making the promise out of desperation in the moment of extremity. Hmmmm… It may be that we just don’t know exactly what Jacob was promising to change about himself to make the Lord his God, besides paying tithing, and making Bethel a shrine to God.

Of course, the thing about testing God is that He often tests you right back to see if you will do what you promised to do, even if it is hard, once He has done for you what you wanted. The Lord gave him Rachel and Leah and a numerous posterity and much cattle and riches and then… tested his faith as Jacob was about to meet Esau again. (Remember, Jacob left Esau when Esau was in a jealous rage. This is Esau who was coming now to meet Jacob with an army of 400 men and who could very well wipe out Jacob’s entire family and pillage all he had gotten.) It’s not quite clear what this threat to Jacob and his family had to do with Jacob's promise to have the Lord as his God, but it might have something to do with Esau’s previous hostility to things of the Spirit as manifested by his scorn of the birthright and his marriage outside the covenant. Perhaps Esau was strongly “anti” and had no scruples about using force to get his way. (Perhaps the test for Jacob was this-- would he try to conciliate his brother by turning his back on God, or would he cling to God even though his brother appeared to be determined to kill him for it?) It is in this context of uncertainty and danger that Jacob wrestles with an angel (!) for a blessing (!) and wins in spite of getting his leg pulled out of joint (!) and receives the blessing (!) and is given the new name of Israel (Genesis 32:28) which memorializes how he has prevailed with God. Happily, when he meets Esau, all bad feeling seems to have abated. (And certainly, giving massive gifts of cattle to Esau before they met didn’t hurt Jacob’s case.)

Amost as an afterthought, as Genesis 33 ends with Jacob settled in Shechem, we get this little verse:
And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel . (Genesis 33:20)
El-elohe-Israel means “El (God) is the God of Israel”, according to the footnote. God had done all Jacob asked, so Jacob was keeping his end of the deal to give his allegiance to God, sealing it with a sacrifice on an altar named specially for the occasion. (But this was probably only a formality, because the real work had been done by the trial of his faith.)

So what does this teach me? I think it has taught me that it is permissible to promise to do something for the Lord if He will do something for me. We are used to the idea that if we do what the Lord asks then He will bless us, but we don’t have much experience with promising the Lord something if He will do something for us. Perhaps we need to become more acquainted with this. I know this had made me do some serious thinking. It’s certainly not something one enters into lightly. How about you? What do you really want? What would you promise to do for the Lord for it?

Image credit: 2007 Intellectual Reserve, Meridian Magazine, http://www.meridianmagazine.com/arts/080211temple.html.


Rebecca Irvine said...

What great insights! Love your blog and will be back. Thanks for visiting my blog as well.

Chas Hathaway said...

Interesting. I'll have to read more about that one. I love this chapter, because of it's reference to temple ordinances.

Good post!

- Chas

Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks for your support and comments, Becky and Chas!

Jared said...

I love how you see gospel symbolism in so many things. It's a great gift. :)

Michaela Stephens said...

I just found this neat poem about Jacob's wrestle with the angel here..


.. called "Jacob, to Esau" by Danny Nelson