A re-imagining of Genesis Chapter 28
“I, Jacob, have left them all behind. Everything I know.”
who doted on him, who manipulated on his behalf, even to the detriment of his older brother, her first-born, Esau.
who had blessed him twice. Jacob felt a twinge of guilt that on both occasions Isaac’s blessing had come at the hand of Rebecca’s (and, Jacob had to admit, his own) deceit. The first blessing was a literal charade, with the blind old man rambling about the fields as he clung to Jacob’s garment (which he had rolled around in to give it that deceptively just-hunted-in scent like that which clung to Esau after a hard day’s work). Talk of the outdoors always bored Jacob so he didn’t pay too much attention to that part of the blessing, but then there was mention of plenty of wine, and people serving him, and nations at his command, and even his own brother bowing down to him (yes!). The second blessing, just last night, was a biggie. Jacob remembered it word for word: That I may find a wife in Padanaram at my uncle’s place. That we may be fruitful and multiply. Then the ultimate: the blessing of Abraham. That I may inherit the land God gave my grandfather Abraham. I’m it. Abraham-Isaac-Jacob. NOT Abraham-Isaac-Esau.
I’m leaving Esau behind. Fleeing from my brother. The man who wants me dead. Who can blame him really? First the whole lentil/birthright exchange. Ooh, I was a nasty bugger. And what a wimp he was. Then snagging dad’s blessing away from him. Well, the race is to the swift as mom always says. Sorry bro if I just happen to be a bit quicker than you. Ironic, really, considering you’ve always been the athletic one and I’m more the indoor type. Adios hermano.
I’m leaving Canaan. The land God gave to grandpa. The everlooming Abraham. Never knew the man and yet he was the most present presence in the house growing up. And just before I’m sent away, Dad promises me this land. Using the same words God used with Grandpa: “I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” Mother and Father always referring to us as strangers to this land. But it’s the only home I’ve ever known. Shit, I have a feeling I’m about to know what Stranger really means.
Jacob was tired. And though he was loathe to admit it, scared and lonely his first night alone in the wilderness. It was getting dark. And this young man, known always as a “dweller in tents” was forced to sleep alone under the stars with the strange noises and growing shadows of the desert. More out of superstition than any practicality, Jacob began gathering stones to delineate his sleeping place. As he did it, making a rough oval just big enough to lie within, he thought of the “national borders” he and Esau used to build with pebbles to separate the tent they shared as boys. Foolish Esau, he never seemed to catch on that by morning th border had mysteriously shifted to Jacob’s favor (Esau always was a heavy sleeper). Come to think of it, Esau did notice but when he went complaining to their mother she would say, “The Lord told me when I was pregnant with you two that I had two fighting nations in my womb and one nation was stronger than the other. Now how’s that for prophesy!”
As Jacob stepped within his wall-less, roof-less shelter and took a couple of rocks to lean his head on, he had grudging respect for Esau the Hunter, who would often stay out for multiple nights to catch venison and even, Jacob remembered him confessing, loved the air and solitude. As Jacob lay down he thought of Grandpa Abraham, and how this sense of loneliness and possibility might have been what Abraham felt when he left his parents’ home behind in Haran on his way to Canaan. And here was Jacob, taking the same journey but in the opposite direction. As he dozed off he felt a sense of connection to Abraham that he had never felt before. As if he had broken through all that had separated them -- the Heroic Image, the generations, the barrier between living and dead -- and had met a fellow man, a fellow wanderer, travelling the same path.
The sleep he fell into was the sleep of this new place. The sleep of the earth and of the future and of the past. And he saw dizzying roads leading forward and backward, to Haran from Canaan and back again, saying goodbye to his father and hello to his grandfather, and a feeling not of walking forward...but of climbing up. And as he got higher and higher the travelers moving past and ahead of him were not men, he realized, but angels. And with terror he lifted his head, slowly and painfully as if it were a boulder, and gazed up to the top of this never-ending ladder.
And there was God. He screamed and fell, but unlike any other dream in which he felt himself falling, he didn’t land and he didn’t wake up. Instead he fell into a voice. And though he had never heard it before he could not mistake the voice of God. It confused him at first saying “I am the voice of the Lord God of Abraham thy father” hunh? Isaac’s my father. “And the God of Isaac. The land upon which you are lying, to you I will give it, and to your seed.” The voice sounded like nothing he had ever heard but the words were familiar. Like those his father repeated at every family occasion, like the blessing Isaac had bestowed on Jacob the night before: “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.” Jacob was getting dizzy. Falling into the falling.
And suddenly he realized that he wasn’t falling, he was being rocked, being held. And the words changed. Became softer. And they reminded him of nothing, and yet they were as familiar as his own blood, his own laughter: “In thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the Earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places wither 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.”
Jacob awoke with a feeling that he couldn’t name. So solid and pleasurable. It made him think of family for some reason, and yet this feeling wasn’t something that ever filled his family home. Not like this. His muscles were relaxed, he had tears in his eyes, and his heart felt like it took up every inch of his body, pumping blood into the dawn around him. He gazed above him, looking through the myriad branches of a tree into the clear pale almost-white blue sky. The pattern of branches and sky was so beautiful and so true in its simple complexity that before he knew what he was thinking a thought jumped into his mind completely whole: This is the House of God. This is the Gate of Heaven.
Holy shit! Jacob jumped up, jumped out of the ring of stones and got down on his knees. Oh my god omigod omigod. I had no idea. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Shit. He had slept here. He had defiled sacred ground. He didn’t know!
But now he knew. And he knew not just that this was the house of God, but that he had been invited in. By the Host himself. And treated like an honored guest. Jacob felt a sense of honor and discovery like none he had ever felt. Greater than when his mother whispered to him that he was her most beloved angel, purer than when his father placed his hands in blessing on his head, far sweeter than when he wrested the birthright from Esau.
Filled with urgency, he began rearranging the stones. And like in the dream, the configuration switched from earthly plane to heavenly as he piled the stones on top of each other. And he found in his sack the oil that his mother had given him -- “for barter or for bribe” if he met trouble on his way to Haran -- and in a gesture more reverent and holy than he ever would have thought himself capable, he poured the oil over the stones, praying aloud to his newfound God:
God I recognize that this is indeed Your House. I vow right here right now in the place that if You will stay with me, and will keep me with you as I make my way, and will keep me fed and clothed so that I make it back in one piece to my father’s house, to Canaan, then you shall be my God. I will put you above all things. I will seek to do your will. And with these stones I give earthly form to your heavenly home, and I acknowledge it as The House of God -- Beth El. And just as you bestow unto me what is only yours to give, I shall give to you a tenth of everything I earn from this day forth.
And Jacob walked on, toward Haran. And as he stepped away from the pillar of stones he felt himself walking through the gates of heaven. But he wasn’t quite sure if he was walking in or out.
Jacob and the Standing Stones photo by David Everett Strickler, Unsplash