The Summer of ’17: Jacob’s Ladder and Esau’s Tragedy

Every year, without fail, we sang the chorus Jacob’s Ladder at church camp. Sung by a hundred Long Island high schoolers, it was interminable. (It never sounded like this. Wow!) We certainly had no idea this was a Negro Spiritual with a history that stretched back 150 years or so.

So we sang it. We sang the life out of it.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

Soldiers of the cross.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 11.51.27 AMWe sang the next verse.

Every rung goes higher, higher,

Every rung goes higher, higher,

Every rung goes higher, higher,

Soldiers of the cross.

And the next, which began, “Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” You can figure out by now how it continued.

We ended with the last stanza, which was a little more rousing because it had a dollop of guilt loaded onto it:

If you love him, why not serve him?

The problem is not the song (though the way we sang it was a problem) but that it’s often all we know about the story of Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28:10-19, this week’s lectionary text.

The story is so much bigger, better. Another stunner in a long line of stunners in the book of Genesis.

Here, with his head on a stone, Jacob has a dream in which God reiterates a promise first made to Abraham and Sarah, then to Isaac and Rebekah, and now, finally, to Abraham and Sarah’s grandson.

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 to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

This promise, in one form or another, pops up at various places in the book of Genesis, just in case we thought that God, who is otherwise pretty invisible—there are very few thunderbolts thrown—had backed out of the human drama. (Who could blame God for that?!) It’s like the Cascade Mountains after a takeoff from Seattle; peeking through the clouds, you see Mount Baker, Mount Rainer, Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Adams. They pop through the clouds, a line of them, the way these promises punctuate the human drama in Genesis.

In this story, the cushion for the promise is a dream: a ladder between earth and heaven. What’s so important about this dream? I’ve got five things for you to think about.

  • A sad son. What precedes this dream is really pathetic—and it’s about Esau. Esau saw that his father “Isaac had blessed Jacob” and sent him to find a wife not from the Canaanites (the inhabitants of the land). So what did Esau do? He imitated Isaac by taking a(nother) wife, Mahalath, Abraham’s granddaughter. We talked last week about sibling rivalry. It’s pathetic. Esau wants Isaac’s approval, so, like Jacob, he too marries a woman not from the Canaanites.
  • A brother blowing it. Esau doesn’t pick a granddaughter through the line of Isaac but through Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham and Hagar. If he did it on purpose, he was a screwup. If he did it without realizing it, he was a loser. Either way, Jacob is still the pretty boy.
  • A divine snub. Jacob gets the dream, wouldn’t you know? Not Esau. The rich get richer. Why can’t Esau have his own dream? Why can’t Esau spend a night at the Gate of Heaven?
  • An uncommon adventure. Jacob was scared poo-less. It says as much: “And he was afraid.” I think it’s better to translate this, “He was scared poo-less (more or less)” because he then says, “This place is frightening!” (It’s the same Hebrew root.) Don’t be tricked by a translation like “This place is awesome.” That’s too tidy and trendy. And let this be a lesson to us. We sometimes think people in Bible-times had lots of visions, boatloads (like Noah) of God-experiences. They didn’t. Nope. This was a big-time exception–and Jacob knew it.
  • A useless oath. Jacob didn’t let the promise sink in. He had a vision, a very active one, by the way, of angels going up and down, but the main point, that God would be with him, just didn’t sink in. So afterwards, he made a vow: if God would be with him and take him home, he’d make the stone pillow a shrine and call it God’s House and, more important, give a tenth of his stuff to God. You see? Jacob didn’t get it at all. He bargained for what he already had, what God had already said.

For a bunch of mostly white, teenaged Long Islanders, the chorus, Jacob’s Ladder, was boring. Atonal, too. But its real problem is that it’s all many of us know about the real story and what comes before and after it. Not any more. Read this week’s lectionary—the whole of Genesis 28—and listen to this podcast to discover some other things you’ve missed in this profound story of how you can meet God.

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The podcast is available at the website of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston.

Photo: Jacob’s Ladder (woodcut from Luther Bibles of 1534 and 1545)

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