Magazine article The Christian Century

The Stony Dreamer: Jacob

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Stony Dreamer: Jacob

Article excerpt

WHAT KIND of man was Jacob Biblical narrators rarely offer a description of character. Instead they record actions and leave the hearers to make their own judgments. Jacob's narrator offers us a long series of Jacob's actions to ponder. Jacob was a trickster and a cheat. He took his brother Esau's birthright and accepted the blessing that was meant for the oldest son.

Genesis 25:28 makes it clear that he was a mamma's boy, the previous verse offers a one-word description of his character, a word variously translated as "simple," mild," "quiet" and "retiring." So what is a retiring mamma's-boy trickster like? We must watch carefully.

Jacob needs a life. Although his grandfather's servant had brought his father a wife, Jacob must find his own. Although his grandfather's servant traveled with a retinue that included ten camels, Jacob travels alone. Indeed he travels as a fugitive, hurrying out of the range of his brother's murderous rage.

One evening he stops at "a place," a word that in Hebrew connotes a "sacred place" (see Gen. 12:6), so we are prepared for the encounter Jacob will have there with God.

Two small corrections to our traditional understanding may help us with this passage. First, Jacob takes a stone and places it not under his head as a pillow but rather "at his head" as protection (see I Sam. 26:7). It could therefore have been a sizable stone: the next morning he will lift it to make it a sacred pillar.

Second, what Jacob saw in his dream was not a "ladder" but a "stairway" (New American Bible, New Jewish Version; and see New Revised Standard Version). Some years ago, at a site 25 miles northeast of Bethel, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a divided stone staircase leading from the city down to its water source; the staircase was evidently divided in order to separate the ascending from the descending traffic. It is likely that Jacob dreamed of such a staircase.

The narrator wants to underscore the fact that Jacob continues to be involved with stones. Later, when he arrives at Haran, Jacob rolls a stone off the well, a stone so large that one person could not be expected to move it; still later, when he returns to Canaan, he sets up another pillar at Bethel.

But for now Jacob sleeps, dreaming of a stairway connecting earth with heaven, a stairway bearing the ascending and descending traffic of divine messengers. As he dreams of God standing beside him, we wonder: Did God come down the stairway? …

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