A reflection by Dan Spragg – Journeying into the new …
There are a few interesting things about Jacob’s encounter with the divine as he slept with
his head on a rock. Here’s three!
The reason he was on this journey in the first place: Jacob you will remember is the
youngest son of Isaac. Esau was the oldest. The oldest son, of course, was in line to receive
the father’s blessing and inheritance etc… But, remember Jacob deceived his old and
virtually blind father by dressing up and pretending to be Esau, which somehow worked…
And this led to Isaac giving his blessing to Jacob. Esau was furious and set about to kill Jacob
and so Jacob is told to run and not return until Esau’s anger had subsided. After this Isaac
sends Jacob away to family residing in a foreign land which is the journey Jacob is on. So his
journey is partly running away from his brother who wants to kill him, partly running
because he has been sent away essentially banished from his home and family. Which is all
his own deceitful fault! It’s good to note that this isn’t the only time Jacob’s character or
lack of it perhaps that gets him into a less than straightforward situation.
The next interesting thing is the dream itself: Jacob’s ladder is how the dream is titled most
often. Scholars generally agree though that Led Zeppelin got it right though when they
wrote the song ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The ‘ladder’ was most likely pictured in Jacob’s mind
as an ancient religious temple called a ‘Ziggurat’ which was a large earth mound with steps
leading up from the bottom to the top. It would have been a very familiar image to Jacob.
In the ancient cult religions, this was where they would lay their sacrifices to whatever god
they were trying to please at the time… the special person such as the priest would climb
up the stairs and lay their offerings at the top to please the gods, and they’d then all hope
for the best!
What this communicates is that any effort to relate to the divine was all on human effort
and was very much one-way traffic from the ground to the top… humanity trying to reach
the gods and the heavens in order to bless their miserable existence down below. Jacob’s
dream though seems to communicate quite a different story. Jacob is asleep, the dream
came to him, it is not his own doing and there is two-way traffic on the stairs… Which all
goes to say that God is the active party and is establishing a relationship-based way of life
between humans and the divine. God initiates a responsive dynamic relationship as
opposed to a one-way striving/works-based transaction. This isn’t new for us, but always a
The third interesting thing is Jacob’s first words after he wakes up: “Surely the Lord is in this
place—and I did not know it!” Which tells us of his surprise and hints at a sense of ‘waking
up’ not only literally after his dream. Jewish commentators often talk about this as Jacob’s
‘awakening’ in a spiritual sense. In fact, it is really interesting to note that the literal
translation of the Hebrew reads like this: ‘Surely God was in this place and I, I did not know’
The double ‘I’ seems to make one of them redundant so we always read it in English as
‘surely God was in this place and I did not know it…’ But Jews for thousands of years, much
longer than us, have believed that no word in the scriptures is there for no reason… So,
surely God was in this place and I… I did not know it…This changes the emphasis and
understanding significantly. God was not only in the place and Jacob was unaware but also
that God was in the place and within Jacob, and it was Jacob himself who was not aware of
it. There is a strain of thought in Jewish commentary which believes the ‘i’ the majority of
the time to be talking of the ego. God was in the place and within Jacob himself, but it was
the ego which got in the way and did not let Jacob be aware of this truth… How often do
our ego’s get in the way of us knowing what is true? Of hearing what needs to be heard? Of
learning, of growing, of understanding where we need to be or what we need to do? The
ego is far more interested in self-protection, self-promotion, and self-importance which we
see play itself out in politics or in the sport of boxing among other places. We ourselves
while not politicians or boxers are not exempt. The Ego captures our attention at many
points in our lives. Surely God was in this place and I… I did not know, for I was the one
deceiving myself and stopping myself from knowing.
There is some significant stuff in here. Like, how often is it that someone’s character is what
lets them down? We might be the most skilled person in the world at what we do, but
ultimately if our character is immature then we are most likely to stumble and fall at some
stage. And, how often is it the familiar things to us which end up being how God seeks to
build a life with us? Everyday items like wine and bread (communion), water (baptism),
meals shared around a table, taking a moment to look at the mountains, or images like
breath, and wind, and fire. The kindness of a friend or even a stranger. How often is seeing
the familiar in a new light often when we are refreshed or come to know something new
most significantly. Jacob saw a familiar religious symbol that meant one thing then God
redefined it to mean something completely different which changed a lot. The redefined
staircase was now symbolically saying – Humans and God are able to interact with each
other in a dynamic, two-way relationship rather than an invented transaction where we
strive and strive to earn God’s approval.
Apparently, the word ‘remember’ occurs in the bible far more times than the word believe.
I would say here that we would do well to remember this story in times when we might find
ourselves striving for God’s (or anyone else’s) approval. That’s not what God wants for us.
The redefined stairway to heaven shows us that – God desires a relationship with us and
God is not above making the first move…
Which leads us to the point about the Ego: Surely God is in this place and I… We would
want to finish that sentence saying, ‘I want to know it…’ Surely God is in this place and I…
(and) I want to know it. Which may mean we have to get over ourselves! …and be open to
new things …be open to learning and growing …be open to confronting the hard stuff that
we don’t want to deal with …be open to noticing the stupid things we do …the unhelpful
behaviours we engage with time and time again …the energy we use to appear successful
or like we have it all together …the little white lies we tell convincing everyone that we’re
fine when actually we are struggling with all sorts of things… What good does letting our
ego rule accomplish? Any good psychologist, teacher, coach, mentor, or spiritual leader will
tell us that getting out from behind our ego often means confronting hard things, of doing
hard work on our own baggage… (which we all have despite how ‘together’ we are) but if
we do, then that is where we discover who we actually are. In Jacob’s story, it took him
more than this encounter to discover himself for who he truly was and in doing so link
wonderfully with God’s life and participate in God’s blessing of the world. This tells us that
the ego takes some hard yards to move beyond, but if we do, that is where we can uncover
the timeless truth of this story for ourselves which is that God says to us always, “I am with
you” which we would say is a central thrust of biblical faith. A promise made by God
multiple times throughout the biblical narrative and ultimately in the name given to Jesus
of Nazareth – Emmanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23).This God says to us each and every day,
wherever we find ourselves no matter where we are in our stage of faith and life.
A number of years after this story, Jesus, a descendent of Jacob talked about it like this. The
time is now, the kingdom of God is near, it is at hand… and he described God’s life present
with us as a mustard seed – so small that you can hardly see it yet it grows prolifically into
something magnificent. He described it as being like yeast – an unseen thing that comes to
life and causes the whole loaf to rise. He described it as like treasure found in a field that is
so valuable it is worth selling everything in order to attain it. And, he described it as a pearl
that is so fine an example it is worth more than all we already have.
God is with us – wherever we are – no matter what kind of journey we are on. And God’s
presence with us is not because of our own doing – it is a gift – it is grace – it is because God
wants to be with us and more than that God wants us to know that God is with us.
With all that goes on in our lives – all the relationship dramas, all the family tensions, all of
our character flaws and our ego trips, all of our apparent failing and striving and falling and
getting back up again. All of our goodness and beauty, all of our mistakes and darkness.
With all of this it can be hard to see God’s presence in our midst – all of our stuff gets in the
way – but, surely God is in this place and in each of us, and we want to know it and so it is
good for us to go searching, to be on the lookout, to attempt to take notice of the unseen
but potent and valuable treasure that God’s life with us is.
Surely God is in this place and in us…