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The Important Question about Jacob's Ladder in Genesis 28:10-22

God meets us where we are, whether we expect Him or not.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 28:10-22

In a most unexpected time and place, Jacob discovers he is on the same journey God took his grandfather Abraham on. God renews His promise with Jacob through a vision in a dream, and Jacob is utterly blown away. I guess Jacob was finally ready to learn God's bigger picture. And indeed, we start to see changes in his life.

I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. (10:13)

In honor of last week's AI deepfake section (and the fact that my free credits with Dall-E are about to expire), above is an AI-generated picture of "Jacob's ladder". See the end of the post for a rabbit trail about this.


[Note: we did not study this particular passage when we went through Genesis in 2018.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Unlikely Servants of God

Last week, we learned some very disparaging things about Jacob. And yet, God still used him to fulfill the promises God made to Abraham.


That got me thinking -- who are other people you were surprised to learn was used mightily by God?


[Note: yes, everybody is used by God. Nobody is outside of God's plan for human history. I'm thinking more in terms of actual Christians.]


Truthfully, there are countless examples of this. I certainly didn't see myself as a future church leader when I was in high school or college! But here are some rather dramatic examples:

Brian Welch was the lead singer of Korn (!) (if you don't know them, don't look them up). In 2003, he found Jesus and left the band. He still speaks at churches and drug abuse recovery ministries today.


Some famous celebrities who have stuck to an outspoken evangelical lifestyle include Kirk Cameron, Stephen Baldwin, George Foreman, and George Bush. At the start of their careers, none of them would have said they were on track to be used by God.


One of my favorite stories is C.S. Lewis (the Chronicles of Narnia author). He was 30 before he committed to a Christian faith and went on to have one of the biggest influences on people turning to faith in Jesus by any author of the modern age.


How about you? Who is somebody (maybe here in Georgia) you were surprised to learn had turned into a faithful servant of God?


Of course, you would be well-served to take a look at the people Jesus chose to be the leaders of His church: Peter, Matthew, Paul (Saul), Mary Magdalene, and more.


Having a rough start in life does not preclude you from being an important part of God's plan!


"God Wants to Use Him?"

The follow-up topic is probably something like this: if you knew anything about the music of Korn, and the lead singer of Korn walked up to you to start talking about God, how hard would it be to take him seriously?


We've all had encounters with people who have said that they've had an "encounter with God", and we've been dubious.


We've talked in previous lessons about "false prophets" -- people like Joseph Smith and Muhammad who claim that God has given them a new vision of truth. But Jacob wasn't claiming to teach something new; he was simply passing along the same truth that Abraham had already taught.


So, how do we react when someone tells us that "they've met God" and they're a changed person? Or perhaps someone tells us that God has given them a special vision for our church? In other words, how do we discern if someone has truly had an encounter with God?


I think it would have been hard to take Jacob seriously when he tells his family that they're all going to worship the God of Abraham because he had a vision of a ladder with angels. (And before long, Jacob says this very thing to his family, as we studied in Genesis 35.) And yet, we know that's what happened. We don't want to reject what God is doing in someone's life just because we are skeptical! How do we know the difference?


The Value of a Physical Reminder

In this week's passage, Jacob builds a stone altar to remind him of his encounter with the divine. We've talked about the importance of landmarks and monuments multiple times. Some of y'all do things like write a Bible verse on your bathroom mirror, draw a picture/symbol on your hand to prompt a memory verse, or put a special plant or rock in your garden to remind you of something. It's been a while since I've suggested a topic like that, so let's bring it back! What are physical objects/images you put in places to remind you of something important to you?


I will only speak for myself here -- I get distracted easily. Having something that I see regularly to remind me of something important (like God's love enduring forever) is really valuable. Then I have to be careful that my reminder doesn't become white noise. I sometimes have to remind myself to remember why I have that reminder there. (English -- what an incredible language.)


That's one reason why I'm so thankful for our sanctuary at First Baptist. I don't have to be reminded that "this is a special place". That's essentially what Jacob did with the rock we read about in this week's passage. It would eventually become part of an altar that he would build to help his family worship God.


[One important reminder: Jacob and his family came to think that Bethel was a unique place where God uniquely dwelled. We know that we can worship God anywhere, not just in our sanctuary. And that's partly because we know that God is always with us -- but I'll say more about that in this week's "Big Idea".]

 

Where We Are in Genesis

Last week, we read about how Jacob and Rebekah conspired to "steal" Esau's birthright. We ended right before the part where Esau said he was going to kill Jacob.


Then we have our next interesting twist: Rebekah tells Jacob he needs to hide from Esau in Haran with Laban. She lies to Isaac and says that Jacob needs to go to Haran to find a wife. Isaac thinks that's a great idea and blesses Jacob in his quest to find a wife (that Jacob didn't know he was on).

This map contains the conventional wisdom of where the major locations are in Jacob's travels. He starts out in Beersheba in the south and heads to Haran (Paddan Aram) in the north (basically the same journey that Abraham's servant had taken a generation before). Bethel, the location in focus this week (it's the same Bethel in chapter 28 and 35), is just a bit north of Jerusalem. More about it below.


In short, the journey Jacob is on is him running for his life from his brother, leaving his parents in the process. And on the way, God is going to remind him that God has a plan for his life. (Isaac had two sons; God was going to make it work with one of them, right?)

 

This Week's Big Idea: The Work of the Holy Spirit

The big line this week is, "Surely the Lord is in this place" -- which plenty of older "calls to worship" use. And yes, the Lord is present when we gather to worship Him (Matt 18:19). But He is not restricted to a sanctuary; in fact, He is with us always (Matt 28:20)!


So, how exactly is Jesus "with us always" when we know He is in heaven with the Father? It's time to break out the doctrine of the Trinity. In particular, I'm focusing on what's called the "economic Trinity" -- the distinct roles of the members of the Trinity:

  • The Father sends and gives the Son;

  • The Son obeys and fulfills the Father's will;

  • The Spirit is sent to "affect" salvation in humanity.

Of those, the Holy Spirit's unique "role" is to be the presence of God around all people -- calling them to salvation -- and the presence of God within Christians -- regenerating them and then empowering them to serve God.


When we studied the Gospel of John, we talked a lot about the Holy Spirit. One of the posts went into detail about one of my favorite resources about the Holy Spirit:


That post focused more on the Person of the Holy Spirit. Here, I want to focus more on the Work of the Holy Spirit.


If you remember anything from our study of John, you know that we are always in the presence of God. And Christians in particular are in the presence of God in a special way -- the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.


Above, I listed "regenerating" and "empowering" believers as two of the Spirit's "jobs". Yarnell gives a much fuller list:

  • "The Spirit and the Word were involved in creation together."

  • "The Holy Spirit not only creates but also sustains and governs his creation."

  • "The Holy Spirit superintends the entire process of revelation, 'not only universally in the history of the cosmos and of the nations, but also redemptively.'"

  • "The complex work of the Spirit in the human life of the Son is manifested in the Son's incarnation, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation."

  • "The Spirit's work of salvation as a whole or in its various aspects is often referred to as grace."

  • "The Spirit constitutes the body of Christ, edifies it, and sends it into the world."


That last statement is buried in his final section, and I think it cuts to the heart of the matter as well as any one sentence I've ever read:

The Spirit constitutes the body of Christ, edifies it, and sends it into the world.

In other words, the Spirit turns us (a group of people) into a church. Anybody can call themselves a church, but it's the Spirit's indwelling that makes it meaningful. The Spirit, always with us,

  • turns us into a church,

  • helps us discern God's truth,

  • sends us out as God's ambassadors,

  • goes with us to empower us.

Does that encourage you? I'm blown away by it. I want to give you just a little more about the indwelling/empowering work of the Spirit from the chapter.


Here is a lengthy quote from one section of Yarnell's chapter:

-------

"The Spirit as Companion of the Church

John 14-16 is probably the most extensive teaching on the Holy Spirit in Scripture. Prior to his ascension, Jesus promised to send another parakletos, a legal advocate, encourager, or companion (John 14:26; 16:13), and empowers the church (John 15:26-27).

First, Christ promised the Spirit would help the church through abiding with and indwelling her. According to Carroll, "Jesus in the Spirit" is "present and with His Church forever." The Spirit helps the church by unifying Christians in the one body of Christ (Acts 15:22,25,28; Col. 1:7-8; Phil. 1:27, 2:1-2), by granting gifts for the common good, and by endowing Christians with virtue.

[He follows with a description of the "spiritual gifts" and the "fruit of the Spirit".]

The second promise Christ made concerning the Holy Spirit was that he would guide the church. ... Although the Paraclete promises of John 14-16 were intended in the first place for the apostles, the secondary effects upon the church are profound. For instance, that the apostolic writings are considered Scripture and other writings are not is due to the guiding work of the Spirit upon the historical church. While modern biblical scholars influenced by the historical-critical method may claim "history is silent as to how, when, and by whom [the canon] was brought about," the eyes of faith understand it was the Holy Spirit who brought the church to define the canon. Consensus was reached no later than the fourth century that the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were inspired Scripture. Apocryphal books and heretical emendations of the canonical books were rejected and the New Testament books accepted on the basis of conformity to the regula fidei, "rule of faith," apostolic authorship, and consent by the various churches. Christ promised the Spirit would "teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you." The Spirit accomplished this by providing the church with Scripture and today illuminates it for correct interpretation.

The development of true doctrine occurs when the Spirit enables the church to understand the truth contained within the Word he inspired, truth that at times has been suppressed by fallen man. ... The biblical commentator without the Spirit is spiritually dead; the spiritual man without the Word is dangerously deluded.

Third, Christ promised the Spirit would empower the church to bear witness to Christ. The Spirit witnesses both to divine judgment and mercy. "

------

quote ends


So there you go. As you read this week's passage and think "boy it would be nice to be in the presence of the Lord", remember that you are.

 

Part 1: Stairway to Heaven (Genesis 28:10-12)

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there because the sun had set. He took one of the stones from the place, put it there at his head, and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching the sky, and God’s angels were going up and down on it.

[Forgive me, but I really can't help but invoke two of my favorite Led Zeppelin memes:

And even better:


Okay, tangent over.]


This takes place in Bethel, near a city formerly named Luz. This is about 50 miles from Beer-sheba, so it's likely his second day of travel. Here, Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven -- "Jacob's ladder". (This word only occurs here in the Old Testament; it means something like a ladder or a ramp.)


So, let's stop here for a moment and ask the burning question: why here?


What's So Special about Bethel?

The word means "house of God". Abraham built an altar here when he entered Canaan (Gen 12:8). Jacob built an altar here upon his return to Canaan (Gen 35). The ark of the covenant was kept here (Judg 20:26). Both Deborah and Samuel used Bethel as their "headquarters" (Judg 4:5, 1 Sam 7:16). It was on the southern border of Ephraim's territory (northern kingdom) near Benjamin's territory (southern kingdom), so Jeroboam turned Bethel into one of his golden calf temple locations (1 Ki 12).


What about that makes Bethel a super-sacred place?


I hate to give a letdown, but ... it's not. Look ahead to how God describes the location:

14 Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south.

Now, look at a map of Israel (they put Bethel in red):

Bethel is kinda in the middle of what we call "The Promised Land". I think it's as simple as that. No deeper meaning. It's just a central location in the land God wanted to give to Abraham's descendants.


Now, back to the passage.


I think the bigger thing is to re-ask our question. We shouldn't be focused on "why here?" but rather "why now?". Why would God choose this moment to reveal Himself to Jacob is this formal way? (This is for you to ponder.)


Note that this happens during a dream. I might be reading too much into this, but in Genesis, God seems to use dreams to communicate with people who don't really know Him -- like Abimelech and Laban. (Yes, God gives Joseph visions in dreams, but I think that's to prepare him to be able to speak to Pharaoh.) In other words, this is how God thought best to "introduce Himself" to Jacob.


So, what's with the ladder and the angels?


If you look up artwork on this, you'll find some rather strange things, most of which reinforce the worst stereotypes Americans believe (all of the angels are blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned, and have white bird wings).


Here's what we know -- angels are God's messengers, right? They represent a connection between heaven and earth. They would have awed Jacob. So I think that's the purpose of this vision:

  • The God who speaks to Jacob is the God who commands these mighty beings.

  • The God who speaks to Jacob is the God who is at work in the world.


What are the things about God that have convinced you He really is the God of the universe?

 

Part 2: Jacob Hears the Promise (Genesis 28:13-15)

13 The Lord was standing there beside him, saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your offspring the land on which you are lying. 14 Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south. All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 Look, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

The Lord isn't climbing a ladder. The Hebrew can actually be translated either as the Lord is next to Jacob or the Lord is at the top of the ladder. How you choose to interpret that probably says a lot about what you believe about God. But that's for another day.


This is very similar to the declaration God made to Abraham, which we studied in Genesis 12:

There, I go into much more detail about the importance of God's promise, something that will be repeated throughout the Old Testament:

  • A land

  • A people

  • A God

To save space, I'll point you to that post if you want to remember more about what God has repeated to Jacob.


Anyway, this is why the Promised Land is so important to the Jewish people.

 

Part 3: An Overreaction (Genesis 28:16-17)

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.”

Jacob had what I would consider to be a perfectly reasonable reaction to a first-time encounter with God -- an overreaction.


Remember that Jacob grew up interacting with people who worshiped idols and had a more-or-less pagan understanding of gods. So, when he saw what he saw in his dream, he woke up with a "this must be the place" attitude. I don't think that was God's primary point, but God could work with it. Note that God didn't have David place the temple in Bethel.


I like how the Lifeway material approaches this section: what was an unexpected encounter you've had with God? Jacob certainly wasn't expecting to meet God on this journey! But his journey took him right through the spot God wanted him to be.


I Googled this and was overwhelmed with the number of people who shared a story of encountering God in an unexpected place or an unexpected way. They seemed pretty uplifting and inspiring.

 

Part 4: Jacob's First Steps of Faith (Genesis 28:18-22)

18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that was near his head and set it up as a marker. He poured oil on top of it 19 and named the place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me during this journey I’m making, if he provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s family, then the Lord will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to you a tenth of all that you give me.”

You might react negatively to all of those "ifs", and you should! We don't have an "if" faith today. We know what Jesus has done for us, and we know what our response of faith and obedience should be!


But let's give Jacob a break. In fact, let's talk about that stone. Most people assume Jacob was using that stone as a pillow. But the Bible doesn't say that (and just think about that for a while; do you really think Jacob didn't have something soft he could lay his head on?). A better understanding would be that the stone was part of some kind of ritual. Maybe it was a "good luck charm" to keep bad dreams away. (I couldn't sleep with my feet out of the covers -- something was going to get them -- so tucking my feet under the covers was part of a bedtime superstition for me.) And then Jacob simply turned it into a "talisman of God's presence". We see this in him renaming the site from Lus to "house of God" and anointing that stone with oil. Look, it's a start.


In other words, Jacob has a long way to go before he is a mature follower of God.


But isn't that the case? Should we expect more out of him at this point in his life?


The thing I want to focus on is this seemingly out-of-nowhere "tenth" comment. The first mention of this is Abraham giving Melchizedek a tenth (Gen 14:20). The next mention of this will be God codifying this as a permanent law to the Israelites (Lev 27:30). Some skeptics say that later priests shoehorned the reference to the tenth (the tithe) back into Genesis to justify their later rule. --Or-- we can say that Abraham found a spiritual meaning in the idea of giving a tenth to a priest of God and taught that to his family, and Jacob is the one to say it out loud when he thinks about his relationship with God. (Note: Jacob probably envisions this to mean that he will offer sacrifices to God on an altar. It's not until the law that we learn many other ways the tithe can be used.)


In any event, Christians today have a higher standard than the tithe. And it's not "codified as a percentage". The way I try to explain this to believers is this: "when you think about how much you give to God's causes, either to your church or to another Christian ministry, do you think God is pleased with your offering?"


I view this lesson as Jacob's first steps of faith, just like Abraham took first steps of faith. Everybody has to start somewhere, and like Jacob we might start from a pretty messed up place. But we don't stay messed up. Today, through the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit, Christians take steps toward greater maturity in faith every day.


In other words, we can start where Jacob started, but we shouldn't stay there.


What steps of spiritual growth are happening in your life today?

 

Closing Thoughts: AI and Jacob's Ladder

In my research for last week's section about AI fraud and deepfakes, I discovered that my free credits for Dall-E 2 are about to expire (because they need to make money), so I decided to spend them all on seeing how an AI would "envision" Jacob's ladder.


First, I went to ChatGPT to see how it would create a prompt for a painting. I was blown away by its response:


[from ChatGPT]

"Creating a detailed oil painting of Jacob's ladder as described in Genesis 28 would require careful attention to the biblical narrative and artistic interpretation. In Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob dreams of a ladder set up on the earth, reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. Here's a description of how the painting could be composed:


Title: Jacob's Ladder

Composition:

  • The focal point of the painting would be the ladder, positioned diagonally from the bottom left to the upper right corner of the canvas, representing its ascent from earth to heaven.

  • Jacob could be depicted lying asleep at the foot of the ladder, his head resting on a rock, just as described in the biblical passage.

  • The ladder itself could be depicted as a simple, rustic structure, perhaps made of rough-hewn wood, extending into the heavenly realm, with radiant light emanating from the top.

  • Angels would be ascending and descending on the ladder, their figures ethereal and luminous against the darkness of the night sky.

  • The background could be filled with stars and celestial clouds, suggesting the heavenly realm to which the ladder leads.

  • Surrounding Jacob, there could be elements of the landscape such as rocks, trees, and perhaps a distant horizon, all bathed in the soft light of the moon.


Color Palette:

  • The overall color scheme could be subdued, with deep blues and purples dominating the night sky, contrasted with warm earth tones for the landscape below.

  • The angels could be depicted in luminous whites and golds, with their forms glowing against the darkness.

  • The ladder itself could be depicted in earthy browns and grays, with subtle highlights to suggest its otherworldly significance.

  • The stars in the sky could shimmer with hints of blue and silver, adding to the celestial atmosphere of the scene.


Emotional Tone:

  • The painting should evoke a sense of awe and wonder, capturing the spiritual significance of Jacob's encounter with the divine.

  • Jacob's expression could convey a mix of surprise, reverence, and perhaps a touch of fear as he witnesses the heavenly vision.

  • The angels should appear serene and majestic, conveying a sense of purpose as they move between heaven and earth.

  • Overall, the scene should feel transcendent, inviting viewers to contemplate the mysteries of the divine and the connection between heaven and earth.


With these elements in mind, an oil painting of Jacob's ladder could be a powerful depiction of this iconic biblical story, inviting viewers to reflect on themes of divine revelation, spiritual ascent, and the presence of the sacred in the ordinary world."


I've never thought that detailed about any piece of art I've tried to create. Perhaps that's why I'm not an artist.


Anyway, when I tried to take that into Dall-E 2, the image generator that works with ChatGPT, the results were less inspiring:


And when I put that prompt into Dall-E 3 (the newest version), I got some incredibly detailed art, but I couldn't get it to imagine angels. Maybe it's not allowed to?

And everything it gave me had rain. I'm not sure why. Maybe those are angels and not raindrops?


Long story short, some graphic artists are absolutely out of a job.

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