Bethel. The story behind “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” Bethel, the place where Jacob first heard God, the God of his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac, speak to him. Bethel—house of God.
I have an affection for the name Bethel. My grandparents lived in Bethel Park as I was growing up, and so Bethel has a warm association, a familiarity. And yet, this story is not about a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. It is about a place named for an experience, in Hebrew, Beth (house) El (the generic name for God). Beth-El (house of God).
Beth-El is so named because Jacob lay down there one night, while he was on the run, and had a dream. He dreamed of a stairway to heaven—a ladder with beings going up and down. He dreamed he heard a voice—God of his ancestors, God who now was HIS God, God who would bless HIM as well. He woke and knew something special had happened. And commemorated it by making an ancient type of altar, oil on the stone, stone on stone. Truly God is in this place. This is the house of God, Beth-El.
So let’s talk about this for a few moments. Here are some things I notice about this important story.
First, God shows up unbidden. God gives a blessing without manipulation, without misrepresentation, without coercion. And that is new in Jacob’s life.
Remember, he took advantage of his “older” brother’s hunger to buy the birthright (the largest portion of the family lands and money) given to Esau just because he was born a few minutes before his twin. Manipulation.
Remember, that Jacob is fleeing Esau’s wrath, is leaving his home, not just to get a wife from his mother’s family, but because he and Rebekah conspired to cheat Esau out of Isaac’s all-important blessing—by dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes (so he would smell like him), and putting kid’s wool on his hands and neck (so he would feel like him). Misrepresentation.
Remember, that later, on his way back from where he is going, he will again meet God at night, in the form of an angel, and will wrestle, will not let go, until he obtains another blessing and a new name. Coercion.
At Beth-El, God chooses Jacob (and actually, if we believe Rebekah, God knew the choice would be Jacob in the womb). But at Beth-El, God makes God’s Self be known. God gives Jacob a sign. God reminds Jacob of the promise given to Abraham and to Isaac before him. This time, this place is all about God. Jacob got that part right, Beth-El.
Then I notice that the promises God makes to these “first fathers” do not seem to change. There are three steady promises—I will give you this land; I will make of you a great people; I will bless you AND all nations shall be blessed through you.
But there is one interesting shift in God’s imagery. To Abraham (Gen. 15) and to Isaac (Gen. 26) God says that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. To Jacob (God’s earlier promise (Gen 13) is renewed) that his descendants will be numerous—not as stars, as “the dust of the earth”—dust that will be able to spread “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.” The promise written in the stars has come to earth, literally.
Seasons of the Spirit suggests that Beth-El is a “thin” place—a Celtic idea crystalized in the saying “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is smaller.” In an article in the New York Times (March 9, 2012) Eric Weiner describes “thin places” as “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine... (As he continues) Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.”
So God meets Jacob at Beth-El on God’s terms. At Beth-El, Jacob sees and hears God’s promises for himself. And he awakens awed, a bit frightened by the experience, and he calls the space “sacred.”
Now I know that there are these “thin” places, these holy sites, for many peoples all around the world. They are specific spots of encounter with a God who is Everywhere, Everywhen (as the Australian aboriginals put it). Maybe we as humans need this concreteness. But Jacob is the one who calls that place Beth-El. Was he listening to what God actually said?
“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.”
Jacob’s stone may mark the spot where the realization happened—but by naming it “house of God” he seems to miss part of the message.
We humans have a history of misunderstanding God. Take the parable of the Wheat and Weeds (or Tares) that Jesus tells in our gospel lesson today. Weeds (evil) has been sown in and among the wheat (good). And when that becomes apparent—the slaves of the Master (that would be us) think that they know how to fix the problem. They know weeds when they see them! Root them out! But wait: Jesus says, there is a problem with that. As Bruce Prewer’s reimagines:
Weeds and Heretics:
Based on Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
I cry, “This will not do at all!
This is a noxious weed
that sprouts in God’s good soil
and spreads its nasty creed.”
In wrath I fume and shout:
“To end this disrepute
I’ll tear the weedlings out
exposing each foul root.”
But as I rave more wild
in my most zealous mood,
[The Master] says: “Keep out, my child,
you’ll do more harm than good;
your folly in my field
would uproot wheat instead;
let things come to head,
or risk your daily bread.”
Copyright Bruce D. Prewer,
used with permission of the author.
The story at Beth-El is at the beginning of Jacob’s journey toward being an adult, being a less tricky person, being a man of God. He does not yet know that he will never see his beloved mother, Rebekah, again. He does not know that he will be tricked by Laban into marrying both Leah AND Rachel, and paying for each of them with seven years of hard work. He does not yet foresee the struggle for God’s blessing, or the need to ask forgiveness of his brother Esau. Jacob will need to remember that God isn’t just at Beth-El, God is a God on the move. God is found wherever we are—for the promises are attached not just to a spot of land, but to people, specific people, and through them, all the descendants of Adam and Eve.
Jacob can’t hear the echoes of Psalm 139—our psalm of the day, which reminds us “Where can I go from your spirit [O God]? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (139:7-12).
Beth-El is a place to be near to God—a place, a time, a story. But it is like a stone thrown into a pond, creating outward ripples that reach even to us.
For we are heirs of that promise:
--that God’s grace comes to us as a gift;
--that this gift comes with a responsibility—to use our blessing to bless all the people of the earth;
--that even though there may be “thin” places, God has promised to be with us, Everywhere, Everywhen;
--and we can be reminded of this whether we look up in the sky at night, or down at the dust by day.
And amazingly this promise is not just for those who live perfect lives, who do it all right, but is also for the tricksters, and the cheats, and the outcasts, and all those who might be seen as weeds. That is the power of Beth-El (God’s abiding with us).
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.