(Lectionary for July 23, 2017)
The next lectionary installment of the tale of Jacob jumps over some juicy stuff in Gen.27: his attempt to trick his dying, blind father out of the blessing of the patriarch with the aid of his protective mother, followed by her weeping demand that her son must never marry a local Canaanite girl and must be sent then back to the old country of Haran to find a suitable mate, followed by Esau’s pathetic attempt to win the favor of his parents precisely by marrying a relative of the family, though he had earlier married two Hittite women, thus poisoning the relationship with Isaac and Rebekah. The very definition of a dysfunctional family is on full display!
So the wily Jacob, “Grabby” is his name and it is well-earned now, after he has purchased with a bowl of stew the birthright of the family from his doltish brother, has stolen the blessing from his aged father, now runs for his life from the fury of that brother, heading back east to the family seat across the Jordan River. The journey is a long one, from Beersheva (the “well of seven” or the “well of the oath”) all the way to the east bank of the Euphrates, some 800 miles on foot. On the first leg of this lengthy trek, Jacob heads north to Bethel, perhaps a 60-mile walk from the southern deserts of the land and stops for the night at “a certain place” (Gen.28:11), more literally “the place,” a translation that provides a more portentous mood to the encounter about to occur. Jacob grabs a local rock for a pillow and settles in for the night. (If you have seen any Egyptian exhibits of life in the ancient Nile Valley, you will have noted the very uncomfortable looking sleeping posts used by any number of pharaohs; rock pillows were perhaps not as odd as they sound!)
However uncomfortable Grabby’s pillow, he has a vivid dream in which he sees a sullam (traditional translation “ladder,” though it is difficult finally to know what the now quite famous word means) set up on the earth, its top reaching the sky, and messengers of God (Elohim here) ascending and descending on it. The next verse is tantalizing in its meaning. “Look! YHWH was “standing near it” (or “stood beside him” NRSV— Gen.28:13). If the former translation is chosen, then YHWH is witnessed by Jacob standing near the sullam, but if the latter is picked then YHWH is in fact standing right next to Jacob himself. In other words, Jacob cannot miss seeing YHWH if the God is standing right next to him. That reading, if it is the one we choose, will have a significant impact on the ending of the account.
Wherever YHWH happens to be, YHWH speaks in a most surprising and finally disconcerting way: “I am YHWH, God of Abraham, your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth; you will spread to west, east, north, and south, and in you and in your offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen.28:13-14). It is nothing less than the divine promise of permanent land and a vast population, first enunciated to Abraham and now reiterated to the sleeping Jacob.
Any reader of this tale should now be rightly astonished! Why would the great YHWH offer this amazing gift of land and progeny to this wastrel, this good-for-nothing liar and cheat, who is on the run from a justly furious brother? Why is there no admonition for the bum? Why do we not hear YHWH say, “So, Grabby, thought you could get away with trickery and deception, huh? Just who do you think you are?” But there is none of that, only the great promise, perhaps accompanied by a mighty organ, thundering a C-major chord.
Jacob wakes from sleep and announces, “Without doubt YHWH is in this place, and I did not know” (Gen.28:16)! His first reaction to this recognition is not worship, but terror. “How terrifying is this place! This is nothing less than the house of Elohim, the very gate of heaven” (Gen.28:17)! The very last thing that Jacob imagined he would find in his headlong flight from Esau is God! After all, he is only after a suitable bride, not a closer walk with the Almighty.
Nevertheless, as the morning dawns, Jacob takes his rock pillow, sets it up as a standing pillar, pours oil on it, and names the spot of his divine encounter Bethel (“house of God,” using the very generic name for God, el, rather than the specific name YHWH). But his subsequent vow provides the genuine fun of the tale, and reminds us of the Grabby we have known. “And Grabby made a vow, ‘If YHWH God will be with me, and will protect me on this way I am walking, and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I come again to my father’s house safely, then YHWH shall be my God, and this stone that I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house; and of all you give me, I will surely give to you a tenth” (Gen.28:20-22).
Here is the most mind-blowing vow in all the Bible! After YHWH has stood right next to Grabby (see above), has given to him without expectation of any return both land and descendants, has promised him that God would give him clothes, food, and safety, and would never leave him alone until all those promises are completely fulfilled, the little twit has the bald temerity to demand that if YHWH would in fact do all that YHWH promised—exactly what YHWH has directly promised—then and only then may YHWH be Grabby’s God, and then and only then will Grabby give YHWH a tenth of the goods! Well, thank you very much, you little weasel! Either this guy is just grabbing for all he wants per usual, or he is completely clueless at Bethel. Knowing Jacob as we ought to know him at this point in his story, I tend to think that grabbing remains his thing even if the grabbee is God!
How like Grabby I am! I want my things when and how I want them, and I expect God to protect me in my grabbing. After all, I recognize the presence of God, at least sometimes, and on occasion I even pause a moment to set up a stray pillar and pour a bit of oil on to seal the deal. Why should I not expect some favors from the Almighty? Have I not made an effort in the right direction? Am I not worthy of some divine favor? So I vow my vows and expect goodies to flow down from the great storehouse in the sky, reserved for the good folk like me. In the next part of the Grabby drama, he will get rich at the expense of another relative and will head back home, comfortable and satisfied, a patriarch indeed with goods and wives and children to spare. Will he never have to confront his greed and grabbing demands on God and humans alike? Will I? The answers are delayed and uncertain. Tune in again next week!
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)