Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bible Road Trips: Jacob Going to Haran

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures. 

Jacob's Ladder
Read Genesis 28:10-22

Have you felt estranged from family members, and avoided crossing paths with them? Have you ever moved in order to get away from a certain situation? Sometimes we leave particular places and don’t want to return, or we feel it inadvisable to return. I once read a story of a person who was caught up in a bad local situation and, once it was revolved, he moved away. He said that enough time had passed that he could return, but he probably wouldn’t.

When we read of Jacob in our lesson, he has embarked upon a long, uncertain journey, from Beersheba to Haran, that is, from the southern region of Canaan to the northern regions of what is now Syria by Asia Minor. At the end of Genesis 11, Haran is the place where Abram and his family settled before God first called Abram. It’s a long way from Beersheba!

But Jacob needs to get out. He has cheated his brother Esau out of his future. His brother is bigger than he is, and he’s angry. Jacob may not survive an encounter. So on the advice of his co-conspiring mother, he flees, to meet his mother’s brother. At least on the surface of things, Jacob has spoiled his own future and hopes for a new beginning.

But on his way on this journey, Jacob stops his travel for the day, finds a location, rests his head upon a stone. Perhaps he pads the stone with some of his clothing and thus props his head to sleep as comfortably as he can on this ground. Dreams are strange and disturbing when we’re upset, and his dream was, too, but it was also a vision: he saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder, and the Lord introduces himself as the God of his father and grandfather. The Lord reaffirms the covenant with Abraham to Jacob.

Jacob woke up and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (vss. 16-17). He realizes that he had been in a place of great holiness and divine power, perhaps dangerous to an unholy person like him, where the Lord and the angels were close by. The word “awesome” in this sense means evoking awe and dread. Consequently, Jacob dedicated his stone as a divine totem to the God and called the place “house of God” (Beth-El). He made a vow to be devoted to this God of his family.

I always loved the Bible verses that depict God in terms of strong places. The Hebrew word machseh poetically describes God as a refuge and dwelling place (Psalm 46:1, Deut. 33:27, et al.). In fact, when I’m traveling---when I read the Bible in my lonely hotel room, for instance---these are often the kinds of verses I seek out. I need to feel at home in God, to feel reassured that God is always with me.

The word “place” (in Hebrew makom) is a good word, too, and has been used as a name for God in the Jewish tradition; God is “the Place” (HaMakom), that is, The Omnipresent. Although God had special worship places to which people traveled, like the Tabernacle and the Temple, God was never limited to one location, as if God were unavailable elsewhere. God is already where we are, and in fact God has gotten there first!

Jacob stumbled onto (or was invisibly led) to a place where God become known to him. Much later in scripture, Jesus portrays himself as the new Temple (John 2:19-21) and affirmed that now he is the “place” to go to know God. Jesus is here when we read the Bible, experience, fellowship, worship, hear the preached Word, and partake of the sacraments. Jesus is here whenever we call upon the Lord, and even when we do not. He is here with us, any place we may be, at home or away. Surely his words “Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) are among the most comforting in all of Scripture, a good page in the Bible to turn to for assurance at home or away!  

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