10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “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; 14 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. 15 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.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
The history of the Patriarchs is filled with incongruities. It would have been improbable enough for a landless clan of nomads to be chosen by God. But then we read their line is continued with the child (Issac) of an old man (Abraham) and his post menopausal wife (Sarah). Then their son Jacob, gains ascendancy through outright lies and cheats his brother (Esau) out of his inheritance. These are the improbable instruments of God’s hand. The abiding Hebrew faith is that God acts inside of human history and outside of human expectations. We don’t get to figure God out. He will throw a curve ball. There is an aphorism I like—”Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” In this case, it would read “God shows up where we would least expect her.”
Whether we are emotionally or physically ungrounded, God shows up. Whether we are old and beyond our time, God shows up. Whether we are an unexpected joy and blessing, God shows up. God even shows up for the self seeking and the conniving. Do not imagine for a second that we can predict or manage God’s presence. That simple truth is amazingly hard to live with. It offers grace beyond human understanding and calls for gratitude. It also reminds us of the uncertainty and dependency that goes with believing there is something greater than us.
Jacob was the second child and birth order determined inheritance. As such, he had no claim to the family assets. If he was to secure his life, he had to resort to less honorable means. First, Jacob exploits his brother’s hunger and persuades Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of food. Then Jacob tricks his blind father into believing that he (Jacob) was Esau in order to receive his father’s blessing. When directly questioned about his identity, Jacob lies. I would expect that most of us would expect God to disapprove of such tactics. I would like to but that was not the case with Jacob.
Today’s narrative today finds Jacob escaping his brother’s wrath. “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41) In the face of Esau’s fury, Rebekah tells Jacob he needs to flee. In the course of two chapters, we have two major reversals. A cheat and a liar gain both the father’s blessing and the family inheritance and almost immediately the ‘blessed one’ becomes a fugitive. He stops for the night and has only a rock for a pillow. His plans for a wealthy secure life were not working out so well. In this totally unexpected place and circumstance Jacob discovers God’s presence—as well as God’s promise of an entirely different way to live.
Jacob was living in an ‘every man for himself’ world. Do whatever it takes to advance your own cause. Jacob’s world was a zero sum world—there was only one birthright and only one blessing. It is an ordinary consequence of ‘survival of the fittest.’ As human as such thinking is, it leads to winners and losers, it requires constant vigilance. As Jacob abruptly learned, his victory lasted as long as he could hold it. Whether he realized it or not Jacob was living as if God’s promises to Abraham did not really apply to all people.
Then Jacob has a dream and his life was changed. God appears to Jacob simultaneously above him and beside him. In verse 13, the Hebrew preposition is the same for both ‘above’ and ‘beside’. Various English translations choose one or the other. I like the confusion in translation because I believe both are true. God is always above us and always beside us. If we only look above, we risk missing God beside—and of course, vice versa.
Then Jacob is told God’s care extended to all people— “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” This is a very different than the self seeking life Jacob had been living. Finally and equally unexpected, Jacobs’s epiphany occurs in an ordinary rather than hallowed place. A random campsite is not where Jacob would expect to experience God. There was no ‘high place’, no alter much less a temple. The place became Holy because it was a place that Jacob learned something new about God. This passage suggests those places are around us every day, if we can but notice.
In FIRL, I asked where people had experienced God in unexpected places. The list included a heron sweeping over the water, early morning reflection on a patio, fishing before dawn and watching the sun rise, sitting in the midst of the Great Migration on the Serengeti, and, particularly unexpected, finding peace in the middle of a medical crisis. I have had more addicts than I can count who have told me they were grateful for their addiction. They wouldn’t wish their struggles on anyone but their recovery had led them to places they could not have imagined. In each of these life experiences people discovered God’s promise to Jacob for themselves: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” That is a promise that belongs to us all.
It requires spiritual discipline to stay mindful—to stay open to God’s presence in places we would have never imagined. When God visits, it is important to notice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need altars of remembrance—it may be a rock pillow, it may be a patio, a photograph or stories that are told and retold. Each can remind us that God is present to fallible and deeply flawed people. God’s care extends to us all. God shows up in the desolate places as much as the awe inspiring.
Remember God’s promises. Prepare for God’s unexpected presence. For, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Let it be so.