And [Jacob] 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 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 your offspring. (Genesis 28:12-13)
For those of us who grew up in Sunday school, we remember with great affection the many Bible stories of the Bible, especially those of the Old Testament. I can remember the flannelgraph stories about the lives of men like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. We look to see in them models of godly virtue. Certainly there is much in their lives that is commendable such as their faith. But as we look closely we also realize that they also had their feet of clay. The Bible is not hesitant about representing them as such and if we minimize that, then we are in danger of misrepresenting what the Bible is really seeking to portray.
Jacob was certainly such a person. Yes, Esau sold his birthright for a quick meal. How many of us have not been guilty of making rash decisions? But Jacob, Esau’s twin ( albeit younger) brother is not painted in a very favorable light in the Bible. Just think about what the name that was given to him- Jacob means- “cheater”, “deceiver”, “supplanter”, “one who grasps the heel”. His very name itself was meant to convey something important to us. It’s only against the backdrop of the meaning of the name “Jacob” that we can really appreciate the new name given to him later by God. “Israel” means “he strives or contends with God”. When push comes to shove, it is not Esau or Laban, or Isaac that Jacob ultimately had to contend with, but with God.
You see, written in subtle ink between the lines of the text of Genesis is the message of the gospel and God’s grace. The fact is Jacob did not deserve God’s blessing any more than Esau did. This is brought home to us by several key events in Jacob’s life, one of which takes place on the night after Jacob first fled his home and his brother’s wrath for the home of his ancestors in Haran. There God revealed himself to Jacob in a dream in which Jacob witnessed a staircase between heaven and earth, on which the angels of God were ascending and descending. There at that time God reiterates to Jacob the same promise that he had given both to his father and grandfather before him, the promise that a nation would come from his loins and that all nations would be blessed through him. Given Jacob’s immediate circumstances this must have seemed pretty far-fetched.
The staircase almost certainly would have reminded Jacob of another staircase generations earlier in which the inhabitants of Babel had sought to reach God by their own ingenuity. (Babel means “gate of God”) God prevented it from happening by confusing their language and dispersing the people throughout the world. But now God now takes the initiative to provide the staircase in spite of Jacob’s failures and then allows Jacob to name that spot “Bethel” (“house of God”). Two Thousand years later, Jesus said to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus, of course, equates himself with the staircase revealed to Jacob in a dream.
The imagery is pretty powerful. But again, it is all about the gospel. It’s all about God’s grace. Human nature is to erect our towers of Babel to attain God by our own ingenuity and initiative. Human nature is to seek the blessings of God and everyone else by our own efforts, however legitimate or illegitimate they may be. But it is only as we come to an awareness of the limits of our own resources and are cast onto God’s graces, seeking his provision for our ultimate need where ours fall drastically short, that we have access to God’s presence and can truly experience his blessing.
All the Bible stories are great, but only as they lead us to Christ. Yes, there are many things in the lives of the various figures of the Old Testament that commend them as models of behavior, but there is much in their lives that is not favorable for emulation. It is only in God’s dealings with them in a way that leads us to his Son that their stories have any real value.
Pastor Tom Bridgman