The Stairway to and from Heaven Genesis 28:1-22


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Genesis 28:1-22

The opening verses of chapter 28 finish the story told in the final paragraph of our chapter 27. Our real interest this morning is vv. 10-22.

Text Comment

v.2       Isaac simply told Jacob to “go.” He still didn’t know that Jacob was “fleeing” eastward to escape Esau’s vengeance. [Sarna, 196]

v.4       Isaac seems here to be chastened, speaking and acting finally as he should have long before this. Realizing that Jacob was the son whom the Lord had chosen, despite Isaac’s best efforts on behalf of Esau, he now recognized that Jacob could not marry a Canaanite woman. So he sent him to the extended family using words very similar to those Abraham had spoken in 24:3 when he sent his servant to the same place to find a wife for Isaac. And again he blessed Jacob with the blessing of the covenant. This was the first time that Jacob was explicitly and intentionally identified as the heir of the promise to Abraham.

v.5       A summary statement. The actual journey eastward will be described in detail in a later paragraph. In a delicate narrative touch Esau is mentioned because he will be the subject of the next small section. [Sarna, 196]

v.8       Esau, to Isaac’s great discredit, apparently only learned at this point that his father was displeased with his having married Canaanite women. Esau may have been a dimwit in spiritual matters, but that hardly excuses Isaac. Notice too that Esau seemed concerned only about his father’s opinion, not his mother’s. But we’ve said enough about the disunity in that family.

v.9       Esau is a tragic figure. He loved his father and wanted to please him; he longed for acceptance, but he had no spiritual sense and so chose the wrong remedy. “Oh, you want me to marry within the family. I’ll marry an Ishmaelite.” But Ishmael was the rejected son of Abraham and a daughter of his family was unlikely to be someone committed to God’s covenant with Abraham.

v.11     The seemingly redundant “because the sun had set” is now taken by scholars to lay emphasis on the darkness that now pervaded Jacob’s life: driven from home, a vengeful brother lying in wait behind him and an uncertain future before him.

The fact that the place is nameless, even though we later learn it was near a sizeable city, indicates that at the time the particular spot where Jacob stopped for the night had no particular significance.

v.12     “Stairway” or “flight of steps” is preferred by most scholars now rather than the older “ladder.” It would hard be for angels to ascend and descend on the same ladder! Here we don’t have man attempting to ascend to heaven as at Babel, but heaven connecting itself to earth.

In the ancient world it was common for people to sleep in the precincts of a temple as a way to induce the gods to reveal their will in a dream. But it is made clear here that Jacob was not seeking or expecting any encounter with God and had made no preparation for it. The narrator is disassociating what happened from any pagan practices.

v.13     Just as Jacob was being driven from the Promised Land the Lord confirmed his title to it. [Sarna, 198]

v.14     The covenant the Lord made with Abraham and then with Isaac, was then and there made with Jacob. We might have expected the Lord to undertake a review of Jacob’s shameful past. Instead he was promised a golden future. [Waltke, 389]

v.16     God is omnipresent, as we know; he is everywhere. But that does not mean that his presence is not concentrated in certain places or made known at certain moments. “Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them” never meant that the Lord isn’t also present everywhere all the time.

v.17     Skateboarders and marijuana users have ruined the word “awesome” in our day. The old English terms capture the idea better: “dreadful” or “awful.” By the way, this phrase “gateway to heaven” is another nail in the coffin of the idea, still far too often assumed, that the Hebrews had no concept of life after death or of heaven.

v.18     Jacob worshipped God using the forms of his day.

v.22     Responding to God’s gracious initiative, Jacob made a vow of commitment and loyalty to God. This is not the first instance of the tithe in the Bible. Remember we have reference to it in Genesis 14 when Abraham gave a tithe of the spoils of war to God’s priest Melchizedek. But here in this way we learn that Jacob had become a giver not simply the taker he had been. [Waltke, 394] It is an intriguing question, not answered in the narrative: to whom would Jacob have paid his vow, to what sanctuary or to what priest or by what other means? [Sarna, 201]

With chapter 28 the biography of Jacob as an independent personality, the patriarch of the next generation of the covenant family, the man who would eventually give his other name, “Israel,” to the descendants of Abraham, well and truly begins. And it begins in darkness and difficulty. Through those difficulties, stretching over the next twenty years, his character would be tested and transformed. We are told virtually nothing about the journey from Canaan to Paddan Aram apart from a single momentous incident, an extraordinary encounter with God himself.

Jacob is presented in the early part of his biography as an archetype of the son of an overprotective mother. [Sarna, 197] In 25:27 we read that while Esau was a man’s man, an outdoorsman and a skilled hunter, Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. He was, we might say today, a homebody, if not a mama’s boy. No doubt he was given a warm send-off by his parents, but it is not difficult to imagine his fears and his loneliness as he set off from home on the long journey eastward. It hadn’t been his idea to leave; it was his mother’s. But he was certainly as afraid of Esau as Rebekah was. See him as he turned to wave one last time before that turn in the road that would take him out of their sight. Were their tears in his eyes? I suspect there were.

I remember very vividly the first time I was far from home and knew I would not be going back for a long time. I had just turned 25. I was lying in bed in my sister’s apartment in Edinburgh. The next day Florence and I would take the train to Aberdeen to begin our life there. Three long years of doctoral studies lay before me. And suddenly I was terrified. Alone with my thoughts I wondered: what if I’m not smart enough to do this? What if everyone knows how to do this except me? What if I fail? The tears welled up. I’d never had an experience quite like before, but, then, I’d never set out on a journey that would take me so far from home for so long a time. I couldn’t call home; we would have no phone. There was no email in those days; no texting; and home was thousands of miles away on the other side of a great ocean. I didn’t expect to see my parents or my home for at least three years. I suspect Jacob felt much as I did that first night away from home.

That night Jacob found himself in an open field near a sizeable city. Why didn’t he go into town? He was not poor; indeed he came from a wealthy family; no doubt he had money. Was he too shy to seek out lodging as a stranger; too afraid? In any case, he made to spend the night in the open and finding a rock for a pillow he lay down to sleep.

And when asleep Jacob had a dream – a dream so vivid and so powerful that he knew exactly what he was seeing and could remember it all – a dream that was unmistakably a revelation from God! He saw a stairway connecting earth and heaven. On the stairway angels were ascending and descending and presumably at the top of the stairway stood the Lord himself. And from that majestic position the Lord spoke to Jacob and promised him all the promises he had made first to his grandfather and then again to his father. And then he added new promises just for Jacob: that he would preserve him in the place where he was going and that he would bring him safely back to the Promised Land in due time. As I think about this and what it must have meant to Jacob, I can’t help but think what it would have meant to me if I had been given a similar dream that night in Edinburgh and the Lord had told me that all was going to be well, that I would finish my dissertation before the three years were up, that we would have a wonderful sojourn in Scotland, and that Florence and I would, in fact, contrary to our expectations, get to go home during our three year stay in Aberdeen!

Remember, Jacob would have grown up knowing all about the promises that God had made to his grandfather Abraham and then repeated to his father Isaac. Those words would have been a sacred part of the family lore and a large part of the family identity, and now they were being repeated to Jacob. His father had blessed him, even if only because he had too, but now God had blessed him as well! Jacob knew well enough the power of those promises. They had made a mother out of an old woman long past child-bearing years. They had made two wanderers, two homeless refugees – Abraham and Isaac – into men of great wealth and power. By these promises Jacob was linked to the marvelous history behind him and granted the privilege of carrying the salvation of God forward into the future of his family and of the world. This is what the promises of God do for us! They join us to the history of salvation behind us – that whole history from Abraham to Jesus Christ and from Christ to Pentecost and the apostolic foundation of the church, and then to the history of God’s people since that time (that is what Paul says; the gospel and your embrace of the gospel made Abraham your father, he told a congregation of mostly gentiles, that because they were believers in Christ their forefathers had come out of Egypt and through the parted waters of the Red Sea) – and they make us bearers of those same promises to the next generation.

The pagan deities were attached to particular places; they didn’t move. But the living God was everywhere and so he could bless his people wherever they were. Think of Jacob’s state of mind as he lay down to sleep. He couldn’t go home, much as he probably wanted to. Esau was there and his father expected him to find a wife in Paddan Aram. He had no idea what lay ahead of him. He was not the adventurous type. And here he was out in the middle of nowhere. But there, in a field, he was given to see the traffic between earth and heaven, the coming and going of angels that is constant but otherwise unseen. He might have been traveling away from home, but his father’s God was as surely with him in that field as he would have been at home in his mother’s tent!

When he awoke he was a different man. His sense of defeat, his loneliness, his fears were gone! God was with him and he now knew that wherever he went and whatever he did God would be there to keep him and bless him. His life had become a catastrophe, but that night God had visited him and transformed it into a grand adventure.

Jacob is said to have been astonished, awestruck, and terrified by what he had seen and heard. True enough, the living God had appeared to him, the God of indescribable majesty. But we never read of either Abraham or of Isaac having Jacob’s reaction to the God’s appearance to them. Why this reaction in Jacob’s case? One of the finest commentator’s on Genesis suggests, with what I think is rare perception, that we should understand Jacob’s reaction in this way.

“Jacob’s exceptional emotional response requires explanation. Undoubtedly it lies, at least partially, in his realization of the baseness of his behavior toward his father and brother. He must have been beset with feelings of complete and deserved abandonment by God and man. Having fallen prey to guilt and solitary despair, he is surprised that God is still concerned for him.” [Sarna, 199]

In other words, part of Jacob’s powerful emotional response was due to the fact that God had appeared to him, of all people, to him after all that he had done that was so impossibly shameful. This was the revelation of God’s grace and mercy to Jacob and he would never be the same man again. No wonder his response upon awaking the next morning! He embraced the truth that had been revealed to him with all his heart and vowed then and there to build his life on the foundation of God’s presence and God’s Word. In the words of the old gospel song, from now on, Jacob told the Lord, he would be “standing on the promises.”

This point is emphasized in the narrative. The narrator makes a point of telling us that Jacob’s vow mimicked the promises the Lord had made to him. In v. 15 God said, “I am with you” and in v. 20 Jacob said “If God will be with me.” In v. 15 God said, “I will keep you” and in v. 20 Jacob said, “If God will keep me.” In v. 15 God said, “I will bring you back to this land” and in v. 21 Jacob said, “If I will come again to my father’s house.” In v. 15 God said “I will not leave you” and in v. 21 Jacob said “The Lord shall be my God.” Jacob wasn’t expressing uncertainty when he said “if the Lord should do such and such a thing.” He meant only that if such is what God has promised me, then this is what I will do and must do. And then, to signify and seal his vow Jacob set up a pillar as a witness and a memorial of what had happened there, a place to which he would eventually return and build an altar. For this reason Bethel would become a sacred location to Israel and a place where for some years the tabernacle would be situated.

Do you see how clearly – if in other words – the gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed in these ancient events and texts? The initiative of God to bless his people with his presence, his forgiveness, his salvation, and his many great and precious promises, on the one hand, and, on the other, his people’s response in faith, gratitude, and commitment. This is the utterly unique character of the biblical religion. All other religions – every philosophy of man that has ever been, is today or ever shall be seek to secure God’s favor by earning it in some way. Only in the Bible do we read that God bestows his favor freely, personally, even often surprisingly, and then men and women respond to God’s initiative with gratitude and love.

And how many times, uncountable times, has what happened to Jacob happened to those who became his spiritual descendants. There is a paradigm of Christian experience in Genesis 28.  He found the house of God, the gate of heaven, at night in a field near Luz. Others have found that same house, that same gate, and have lifted their eyes to see that same stairway, on sick beds, or death beds; while reading the Bible or some other book; while sitting in a church service, or walking along a road, or in conversation with a friend; in the midst of a storm at sea; or as a child in a home. And, then, throughout their lives they were given again, a time or two, another brief glimpse of that stairway.

In 1527, well into the Reformation, Martin Luther went through one of the darkest periods of his life. He was inclined to depression and this experience of it was the worst.

“For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell… Christ was wholly lost. I was convulsed with despair and blasphemy against God.”

This was Luther’s dark night of the soul. But it was out of those days and that experience of a tortured conscience, of fear, and of despair that would come Luther’s mightiest hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. If you had asked Luther the name of that place he found himself during that dark night, like Jacob he would have said, “It was the house of God.” Indeed, he would call it in his hymn “The mighty fortress of our God” or, in the translation of Thomas Carlyle, “the safe stronghold.” But, like, Jacob, he would also have said, “The Lord was in that place but I did not know it.” But he became aware of it and his hymn was his pillar and the oil poured over it. [Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 370]

Did the Lord send angels to help Martin Luther in that dark night? Was there the same traffic from heaven to earth that Jacob had seen long before? In Hebrews we read that the Lord sends his angels as ministering spirits to help those who will inherit salvation. He didn’t tell Jacob precisely what the angels were doing, but he showed them coming to earth from heaven and returning. Obviously they were doing something when they got here! And so it has continued ever since.

Some of you are familiar with the famous poem of Francis Thompson, the English poet who lived from 1859-1907, the poem entitled The Hound of Heaven. Thompson had significant influence upon both G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. Phrases familiar to us, such as “with all deliberate speed,” used in a famous Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, and “A Many Splendored Thing,” used in the title of a famous novel and the movie made from it are taken from Thompson’s poems.

I fled him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled him, down the arches of the years;

I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from him, and under running laughter.

Thompson was describing his own experience. The son of Roman Catholic parents he had once thought to become a priest, but was rejected as unsuitable. He turned his attention to medicine but failed his examinations three times. He ran away in disgrace and confusion to London where he fell into drug addiction, opium in his case. He was reduced to homelessness and sold matches and newspapers to survive.

Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

Came on the following feet,

And a voice above their beat –

“Nought shelters thee, who will not shelter Me.”

In his despair he contemplated suicide but the Lord sent a friend to help him find peace with God and Christ. Do you remember how he described the turning point? This is not actually from The Hound of Heaven but from another of his poems. [The Kingdom of God]

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)

Cry – and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,

Cry – clinging Heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water,

Not of Genesareth, but Thames.

In Jacob’s case it was in a lonely field near the city of Luz. For Thompson it was not Luz but Charing Cross, a part of London near the Thames River. The place is unimportant because God is everywhere. The top of that stairway is always heaven but the bottom is wherever a man or woman, boy or girl, is found to whom God makes himself known. Sometimes, just a few times usually in a single life, believers can almost see that stairway themselves. I remember a time when the bottom of that stairway suddenly and unexpectedly lay right where I was lying on the living room floor next to a record player. Such places will always be the house of God and the gate of heaven for God’s people. But then, as Jacob understood, everywhere is Bethel for those who trust in God.

Do you remember the conversation that Jesus had with Nathaniel in the first chapter of the Gospel of John? Philip had found his friend Nathaniel and told him that he had found the Messiah. When Nathaniel went with him to meet Jesus, the Lord had said, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” Nathaniel naturally wanted to know how the Lord knew anything at all about him. And Jesus had replied that he had seen Nathaniel when he was still sitting under the fig tree, before Philip had found him. Nathaniel had heard enough. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” To that comment Jesus replied:

“You believe because I told you I saw you under a fig tree. You shall see greater things than that. I tell you the truth, you – and the “you” is plural there; you and all those who believe in me as you do – you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

That is the Bible’s way of connecting the dots, of telling us that the Lord Jesus himself is the stairway to heaven, the gate of heaven, the way to heaven. He is the connection between earth and heaven! All the promises that God made to Jacob and which then are repeated over and over again in the Word of God, all of those promises are realized and fulfilled in the life, the death, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The same promises made that night to Jacob are made to all believers in a way appropriate to their circumstances. They are made to you! He will be with you, he will be your God, he will keep you, and he will bring you to the Promised Land in due time. And if that is so, as it is, let us do what Jacob did and live ever after standing on those promises, grateful beyond words that they have been made to such as we are!