Monday of Week 14 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 28:10-22

Today and tomorrow we read of two strange experiences which Jacob has. On the way from Beersheba to Haran, Jacob stops for the night. Haran, we may remember, was the place between Ur and Canaan where Abraham lived before moving down to Canaan. It was there, too, that he had found Rachel, the wife of his son Isaac.

Using a stone for a pillow, Jacob lies down to sleep just where he is. As he sleeps, he has a dream. He sees a staircase reaching from the earth right up to heaven. And on it there were angels or messengers of God going up and down. We normally speak of “Jacob’s Ladder” but, in fact, the Hebrew word sullam, means a stairway.

The image in Jacob’s dream is derived from the Babylonian ziggurat or temple tower. On the outside was a flight of brick steps leading to a small temple at the top. As we saw in our earlier readings from Genesis, the Tower of Babel was modelled on such a tower.

The angels or messengers of God going up and down the staircase between earth and heaven are a sign that the Lord is offering to be Jacob’s God. Later, Jesus would tell Nathanael that he would:

…see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

Jesus himself becomes the stairway between heaven and earth (see John 14:6), the “only Mediator between God and humankind” (1 Tim 2:5). He is also called the Pontifex or Bridge-maker.

Jacob then sees God standing above him and speaking to him. This continues the image of the ziggurat where the god is present at the top of the tower. And God identifies himself to the sleeping Jacob:

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac.

Then come the promises: The land on which Jacob is lying will be given to him and his descendants. Once again God promises – that his descendants will be as numerous as specks of dust on the earth; that they will spread in every direction; and that all the tribes of the earth will bless themselves by Jacob and his descendants. God promises to be with Jacob and his descendants always, and to bring them back to this land. God will not desert them and all of his promises will be fulfilled. In this God is unlike the gods of pagan religions, who were merely local deities giving protection only in their own territories. Here God assures Jacob that he will be with him wherever he goes.

This promise, of course, has relevance to the later periods of exile. Jacob then wakes up and realises:

Truly, Yahweh is in this place and I never knew it!

If he had known, he might not have chose just that place to have a sleep. He is filled with fear:

How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than a house of God; that is the gate of heaven!

“This” refers to the stone used as a pillow while “that” is the staircase of his dream.

To commemorate his experience, Jacob takes the stone he had used for a pillow and sets it up as a memorial stone, consecrating it with oil. A ‘memorial stone’ (in Hebrew, messaba) might vary in shape or size, and would be set upright and usually intended for some religious purpose. The custom of erecting such ‘sacred pillars’ went back to the pre-Israelite period and their pagan associations were often retained. For that reason, later Israelite religion forbade their being erected (see Lev 26:1) and ordered the destruction of those with pagan associations (Exod 34:31).

The stone used as a pillow now marks the place of God’s presence. The place, formerly known as Luz, is now named beth El – “a house of God”. Jacob anoints the stone with oil as a formal act of worship and consecration. Practices of this kind were common in the Canaanite world and in the Semitic world in general, but as already mention, were later condemned by both the Law and the prophets (see Exod 23:24).

Before leaving the place, Jacob makes a final vow. If God keeps his promises and protects Jacob, then Yahweh will be his God, the stone he has set up as a memorial will become the house of God. It is not fully clear about the concept of God at this point, especially with terms like “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob”. The later concept of a unique universal God seems yet to be conceived. Each of the people of those days had their own protecting god who had to be served. The Israelites had their God too, a powerful God, a God who was always with them wherever they went, but not seen as the God of other peoples.

Several of the Church Fathers later saw in Jacob’s ladder an image of the providential care God exercises on earth through the ministry of the angels. Others saw in it a foreshadowing of the incarnation of the Word who linked heaven with earth – Jesus as the Mediator mentioned above. The liturgy makes use of v 17 (“How awesome is this place…”) in the Office and Mass for the dedication of a church.

The story is a continuation and a confirmation of the covenant promise God had made earlier with Abraham. The same promises are now made to the grandson, who, as we shall see, will be the father of the Twelve Patriarchs, from whom all God’s people are descended. And that promise reaches down to Jesus himself and through him to us, who are the ‘spiritual’ offspring of Jacob. In a sense that Jacob or the Israelites could never have imagined, God’s people – with Jesus as Lord – have become a blessing for countless millions of people all over the world.

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