The readings for Sunday are available here.
Jacob is a scoundrel. His mother, Rebekah, is manipulative and enables Jacob’s antics. After lying, scheming, and depriving his brother of his birthright, Jacob flees for his life while his mother tries to make his departure look like a noble quest for a fitting wife.
As far as patriarchs go, Jacob is off to a rough start.
Having fled, Jacob finds himself in the wilderness as the sun sets. Exposed and vulnerable, he takes a stone for a pillow, and sleeps the sleep of the restless. It’s not hard to imagine Jacob questioning the decisions that led him to this moment, wondering what this night would bring. Wondering if he’ll ever find peace, especially in the face of his actions. For all intents and purposes, Jacob is lost and cut off from his family.
Except that God shows up.
Jacob dreams this extraordinary dream of a ladder extending up into heaven, with angels ascending and descending the ladder. And God speaks to Jacob, and assures him that he will be blessed, and that through him the whole world will be blessed.
It’s clear that this encounter was an important moment for Jacob, but it’s also clear that he isn’t a completely changed man. On waking, after marvelling at the experience and renaming the place, he promptly tries to squeeze God for a little more blessing, saying essentially ‘if God will be with me, and help me out, and also give me some nice new clothes, oh – and I could also use some food, and – I know! – make sure that I have a safe and peaceful way back into my father’s house so that I can avoid the consequences of my actions – if all that happens, then I’ll commit to this God!
Indeed, these things do come to pass, and Jacob becomes known as Israel, the one for whom the people of God are named. The name ‘Israel’ means ‘wrestles with God,’ and it is significant that Jacob and his people assume this name.
The whole story is strange, and it raises all kinds of wonderful questions. Why does God choose someone like Jacob to work through? Do the mistakes of Jacob’s past matter? Is Jacob a good person or a bad person? What kind of moral and ethical life are we supposed to live if we want to know God? How is any of this fair to the rest of Jacob’s family?
And then there’s the dream. This image of the connectedness of heaven and earth, with divine messengers coming and going. Is God really present in our midst?
Does God seek us out?
And if so, does anything else really matter?