11-The-Dream-of-Jacob

“The Dream of Jacob” by He Qi

Scripture can be found here

We meet Jacob this week, and that in itself is a bit of a surprise. Though last week we were immersed in the drama of Isaac—the long awaited child of promise, whose life was suddenly in jeopardy because of the test God imposed on Abraham—Isaac recedes into the background as Jacob grabs center stage via the utterly despicable and yet somehow oddly impressive feat of stealing his brother’s blessing.

Jacob thus lives into his name, which means “heel-puller,” a euphemism for “scoundrel” (grounded here in a fanciful birth narrative in which the competition between the brothers gets off to a rip-roaring start in the womb and shows itself in the aforementioned heel-pulling during the birth, Genesis 25).

We enter the story just as Isaac, described as old and practically blind, sends his firstborn Esau to hunt up some of his favorite food, it is implied, for a kind of final celebratory meal before he expires (Genesis 27:1-4). The Narrative Lectionary leaves out the rather fascinating dialogue that follows, in which the idea to trick Isaac originates with his wife, the mother of his twin sons, Rebekah; and in which the younger son Jacob shows some misgivings about the plan, as he realizes he might not succeed in impersonating his brother, (parents, close your eyes: can you still distinguish one child from another? Besides, “Esau” means “hairy” or “rough”); he worries that his father may think he is mocking him (Genesis 27:6-12).  Our passage describes a deception that is evidently good enough, as Isaac notes the voice to be Jacob’s, but trusts the hairiness of the hands to be Esau’s. The blessing is given to the younger son.

The notion of “blessing” in this story bears some consideration. The blessing conferred in Genesis 27:27-28 (again, not a part of our passage) settles once and for all the issue of succession, giving Jacob all the rights and privileges of the first born, including the inheritance of the covenant promises first given by God to Abraham. The blessing functions as a last will and testament. In this sense, the answer to Esau’s plaintive, heartbroken question in Genesis 27:28 (“Have you only one blessing Father?”) is, Yes: Isaac has only one blessing—only one of this kind, anyway.

After the drama of the stolen blessing comes another kind of drama, one that takes place in Jacob’s dreamscape. On the run from his furious elder brother, Jacob comes to “a certain place” where he will rest for the night. Lying on the ground with a stone pillow, he dreams of a ladder set on the earth that reaches to heaven, and which has angels ascending and descending. He dreams, too, of God’s reiteration of the covenant promise to him. Upon waking, Jacob recognizes the power and presence of God in the dreamscape, and marvels. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!” That gorgeous sentence is my first suggestion for a possible preacher’s path.

On a “Frequently Asked Questions” page about the Narrative Lectionary, the creators emphasized four main themes that might be lifted up as preachers move through the readings:

  • Scripture as a story of creation and re-creation.
  • Scripture as a story of belonging.
  • Scripture as a story of God working through unlikely people and institutions.
  • The importance of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian Faith.

Though all these themes could probably be traced in the story of Jacob, he who pulled a fast one in his smelly-pelt costume has to be the consummate “unlikely person” through whom God will accomplish God’s plans. This is a second possible path.

A third and perhaps more “off-road” direction for preaching is suggested by Noam Zion in “Sibling Rivalry Redux: Jacob and Esau”:

Truth be told, in Genesis, Jacob the younger brother never rules Esau the older. The stolen blessing of supremacy won by Rebekah and Jacob’s deception is never consummated. Rather, it inaugurates twenty years of flight, exile, and servitude for Jacob and loneliness for Rebekah, who never again sees her favorite son: The clear lesson is that those who live by deception suffer by deception…

And finally, the crowd-sourced preaching direction:

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold,

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”

According to composer Robert Plant (who co-wrote “Stairway to Heaven” with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page), the lyric “was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand…” Or, as Kathryn Zucker Johnson pointed out, “… there was a wealthy woman who thought she could buy her way into heaven… or trick her father Jacob into giving her what was really Esau’s.”

What about you? What path are you taking with this rich family saga? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Stairway to Heaven Edition (Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17)

    1. I know what you mean Robin… I’m no closer to choosing a “path” even though I had to do some advance work with the passage. There is just so much there.

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  1. Thanks for the background on Stairway to Heaven. I think that will need to be in my sermon somewhere with my Baby Boomer-Gen X crowd. And thanks for adding narrative lectionary to the blog!

    I’m musing on the question, how does Jacob’s narrative not justify getting away with it? I can imagine anyone who has been one-upped would have a hard time with Jacob receiving God’s blessing. I think the fact that Isaac’s blessing does not come to pass is important, that it is God’s word that holds true.

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    1. Dawn, thanks for your comment!

      I have been thinking about this issue of “getting away with it.” The remedy for that would seem to come from Rebekah, who actually receives an oracle predicting Jacob’s supremacy in response to her desperate prayer while pregnant (Genesis 25). One could view her tricksterism as only serving to fulfill that prophecy.

      The more I think about the passage, the more I am drawn to the “spaces between” and Rebekah specifically. One critique of the NL has been the dearth of female characters represented in the narrative. Who better to illustrate “God working through unlikely/ unexpected people” than Rebekah?

      Peace.

      Pat

      Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I initially thought I’d probably focus on the stairway to heaven part of the story…talking about Thin Places and blessing. Now I’m considering adding in the missing verses (so reading 27.1-23, 30-35, and 41 before picking up at 28.10-17). I’m not sure why it feels important to me to include all that story, but I think there’s something about thin places not always being only about the physical place, but also about the spiritual place we are in at any given moment. In other words: I suspect that the way God comes to Jacob has something to do with the experience he has just had, and I don’t want to miss the background. Or something.

    I do know that we are singing Great is Thy Faithfulness, Gather Us In, How Lovely Lord How Lovely (psalm 84), and Love Divine All Loves Excelling. If I had a more flexible music ministry, I would ask them to sing John Bell’s “Today I Awake”…it would make a great introit or anthem.

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    1. Teri, I really like where you are going with the “thin places” not being limited to physical space. Clearly one of the thin places is that dreamscape!

      Thanks for being here!

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    2. Teri, I feel it is important to tell the bigger part of Gen 27 too. But, I am dying to play Stairway to Heaven, much to the tremendous disdain of the song leader and organist, and want to talk about the surely God is in this place aspect of the Gen 28 story. I don’t know if what I plan to do would work for you. I am in a small UCC congo that may have greater flexibility. I plan to read the Gen 27 (and maybe, but probably not, the Gen 25) story from Ralph Milton’s The Family Bible. It won’t take super long and the whole congregation will get the back story and why Jacob is on the run. We have one set of brothers that always seem to be at each other’s throats (they’re my sons) and this story intrigues them.

      BTW, thank you for posting some of your liturgy on Liturgy Link. I cannot figure out where the search command is on the site so that I can search by scripture. However, when you have posted according to the NL the last couple of weeks, it has been easy to find. I like your writings.

      Lynn

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      1. Thanks Lynn! I talked to my LiturgyLink co-conspirator and we got the search box re-installed…we’re not sure what happened to it, but it’s returned to the sidebar where it belongs.

        I like the idea of reading the earlier part of the story perhaps during the children’s moment and/or from a different Bible…possibly. gah! this is hard. (lol)

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  3. Hi everybody. I just discovered this NL discussion…thanks, Patricia! Someone in my Bible study…a man, incidentally….mentioned wondering how Rebekah felt about all this, and then someone else mentioned the prophecy that she was fulfilling. So perhaps God is turning the social order on its head already by giving prophecy to a woman and favoring the “lowly” 2nd born.

    I AM going to go the Stairway route though. It came to me in worship yesterday that there’s STILL a stairway, with angels coming and going. In certain places it’s more visible, sure. And that’s as far as I am on a Monday.

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    1. I love this… the stairway still here, more visible in some places than others. Again, the thin places where our encounters with God seem more possible!

      Thanks for being here Chickpastor!

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      1. Rebekah….she’s kind of a witch in The Red Tent, which I remember loving. Also, I am in love with Jacob’s phrase, “God is HERE! And I had NO FREAKIN IDEA!” (translation mine)

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        1. I too am leaning on the God is here…and I didn’t know it angle. I am not as far along as I would like to be on Thursday afternoon. I am looking at a quickish recap of the beginning of the story to get to the night in the “certain place” then looking at the dream content and Jacob’s response. I think the John passage in which the Son of Man is the ladder may come in, but I’m not sure on that. I think I just have a hard time not bringing in the gospel reading somehow.

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  4. I laughed out loud when I got to “And finally, the crowd-sourced preaching direction: ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…'”
    It fascinates me that while it’s the Rebekah-inspired deception that creates this blessing-stealing opportunity, the LORD nonetheless chooses to bless that deception with the Abraham-promise. Since God is certainly not bound by any blessing-inheritance legislation (let alone deception and outright theft), it’s abundantly clear that God CHOOSES to bless this fugitive scoundrel Jacob, thus beginning a long history of God choosing to bless scoundrels… like me.

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    1. Tim, I agree… God is NOT bound by human contriving; the whole thing God’s idea in the first place. Rebekah and Jacob’s deception simply helps God’s plan to come about.

      So, a question: what is the difference between this family moment in which they ‘help God’s plan along,’ and the family moment earlier in Genesis when Abraham and Sarah use Hagar to ‘help God’s plan along’? Why is one blessed and the other doomed?

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  5. This is great stuff Pat, thanks. I especially like the reminder of what the post-blessing actually looked like for Jacob and Rebekah. The WP podcast really emphasized God meeting us in our sufferings and leading us to God’s promise. I’ve been thinking of telling a series of stories ending each one with “Surely The Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” The question is will I be bold enough to name some recent church conflict in a story and repeat the same line.

    By the way, that recent conflict is with the music department so Stairway to Heaven will be in Sunday school only.

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  6. Oh, I like your idea so much I am seriously contemplating a change of the sermon title and a complete imitation of it on this end.

    And Oy on the conflict. Oy. So sorry. Love and support from here, as always.

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  7. I enjoyed the comments, thanks everyone! One thing my daughter and I hold in common is a love for the same music-so much so, she named her dog Sir John Bonham! My favorite theme of this story is how we are constantly surprised to find God in places and people and at times when we least expect it, especially when we find God within us, even in our worst moments!
    Terry

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