And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, 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."
Asleep on his rock pillow under the stars and perhaps also under a tree, Jacob has a dream. He sees a ladder stretching from the ground upwards into the heavens. He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder to/from the earth and heaven. I do not know what ladders looked like in those days, but if angels were going up and down it, this ladder was either wide enough for movement in two directions or some angels were going up one side of the ladder and other angels were descending opposite them on the other side – each being careful not to interfere with each others’ steps. On the other hand, perhaps the angels did not even require to actually touch the ladder as they went up and down. It really does not matter, for this was after all, a dream.
The text tells us that the Lord Himself stood above the ladder at the top, in heaven, and He spoke to Jacob. As He had done to His father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham before him, God very clearly identifies Himself to Jacob. While in Jacob’s case the text clearly says God appeared to him in a dream, this was not true for his father Isaac. In one case, “the Lord appeared to him and said,” (see Genesis 26:2) and in the other, “the Lord appeared to him the same night” (Genesis 26:24). Whether or not Isaac was sleeping at the time, we do not know. In the case of Abraham, we know the Lord simply “said to Abram” (Genesis 12:1), “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying,” (Genesis 15:1), “the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,” (Genesis 17:1), “the Lord appeared” (Genesis 18:1), and “God tested Abraham, and said to him,” (Genesis 22:1). When we put all this together -- the dream of Jacob, God coming to Isaac in the night, and the vision of Abraham -- we can safely say that one way God spoke to His people in those days was through dreams.
And God tells Jacob that He will give him and his descendants the land he is sleeping on. Furthermore, his descendants will grow in such numbers that they will spread out in every direction from there. Finally, because of Jacob and his descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed. Sound familiar? It is the continuation of the covenant God had made through Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, and then his father Isaac, and now Jacob himself. Clearly, this was the lineage through which God intended to fulfill His covenant with Abraham. For decades now, the world has been witness to the situation in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. As I watch it unfold with no apparent end in sight, I often reflect on this very promise God made to Jacob. Knowing that all aspects of the promise will eventually come to pass, I often wonder exactly how and when Jacob’s descendants will bless the Palestinians (as one of those ‘all the families of the earth’). I believe that aspect of the promise will be ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ. I personally look forward to it with great anticipation. I do not know all the details of how it will come about (later parts of the Old Testament and the New Testament give us a lot of clues), but I have discovered that God has an amazing way of making the seemingly impossible or improbable come to pass.
Once again God assures His chosen vessel Jacob that he is not required to experience the fulfillment of the promise alone. God will be with him wherever he goes and eventually God will return Jacob and/or his descendants back to the land He has promised them.
Now the next line may present a problem for some readers and it does for me too. You will remember that at the outset of this series we indicated that we would be reading and developing the contents of scripture as they are presented in the text, rather than relying heavily, if at all, on the personal thoughts and interpretations of well-known Bible commentators. We do this now with the phrase “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” The positive here is twofold. First, it is God that will accomplish what He has promised; not Jacob or his descendants. We do not need to fret about the ‘how’ of it all. Secondly, God will be there with Jacob and his descendants until all the covenant promises are fulfilled. And these positives are true for each of us as well, in our own lives. We can count on God to do what He wants done in our lives that is beyond our means. And God is and will be with us throughout everything that He has planned for us to accomplish. But what are we to make of the latter part of the phrase? Does “until I have done what I have promised” imply that when God completes the accomplishment of His plans for us He will leave us?
The Hebrew word for ‘leave’ is ‘azab’ and some of its translations include 1) to depart from, leave behind, leave, let alone, 2) to leave, abandon, forsake, neglect, apostatize, and 3) to let loose, set free, let go, free. I believe what God was saying to Jacob and his descendants through him was simply that He would not “leave them alone or set them free to do as they wished” until His work in making this promise reality had been finished. I remember the days when I had to oversee the daily homework or other longer projects of my children. I remember telling them “I won’t stop bugging you until it’s done”, “when it’s done, you’re free to do as you like”, or “I won’t leave you until we’re finished.” In no way did any of those statements imply that I was going to stop being their father once the project was complete or that I would leave them physically or even emotionally. And somehow, they understood that. A decade or so later and as late as yesterday I asked one of my daughters that works with me whether or not she had made a certain phone call I had asked her to make that was to our mutal benefit. Her reply was interesting, “No, but I will tomorrow if you hassle me about it.” Not if you ‘don’t hassle me’ but if you ‘do’. We all need someone to lovingly hassle us into doing things we may otherwise not do. And I believe God was promising that to Jacob that night in that dream.
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