Genesis 28—The Stairway to Heaven
After reading about Isaac’s dysfunctional family in Genesis 27, we wonder how that family could be the one in which God was at work revealing Himself, and through which God would send the Savior of the world. Isaac had willfully tried to supersede God’s will, Rebekah had conspired the deception of Isaac, Jacob had lied repeatedly and pulled off the “great birthright heist”, and Esau was just an overall scumbag. It must seem clear to the reader that God’s covenant provisions of the land, the seed, and the blessing of Messiah are in jeopardy. In Genesis 27:41-46, we see the immediate sequel to the stolen blessings. Esau resolved to avenge the trickery of Jacob by murdering him. Rebekah’s scheming and manipulation again rose to the occasion to block Esau’s intentions. She played on Isaac’s desire that Jacob not marry a Canaanite, but someone from their own people. It is decided that on the surface, Jacob was going 500 miles to Haran to find a wife, but we know it is to flee from Esau by taking refuge with her brother Laban. The whole mess must have been humiliating for Jacob to have to run away with his tail tucked between his legs. I’m sure it was a terrible weight to carry to be hated and threatened like that.
It Seemed like a Good idea at the Time
In the end of Genesis 27 and the beginning of 28, we see the consequences of all the scheming of Gen.27. Isaac and Esau had been on the same page, but now face to face with the will of God, they take divergent paths. Isaac was convicted by the Word of God and became conformed to God’s will that Jacob would be the next Patriarch to receive the covenant promises of God. In contrast, Esau went further away from God by threatening to murder Jacob, and Esau married yet another pagan idol worshipper (28:9). For Rebekah and Jacob, we can identify at least four results of their deceit. First, Rebekah lost the child she loved (Jacob), and she gained another horrible daughter-in-law with Esau. Rebekah never saw Jacob again. Secondly, Jacob had to flee in great fear for his life to Uncle Laban who taught him that turn about is fair play. Uncle Laban turned out to be the King of deceivers, so Jacob the deceiver would be deceived for 20 years. Jacob, who had wanted to rule, now became a servant to Laban. Thirdly, Jacob who had wanted to be rich, was now impoverished. We find that out when he arrives in Haran and has nothing for a dowry to pay for Laban’s daughter, and so must work for seven years for her (29:18). The fourth consequence was that a once proud man was now humiliated and disgraced by scandal back at home. Now, we the students have a problem—the covenant is in jeopardy because Jacob the heir is leaving the land. What will God do?
The Stairway to Heaven
In order to understand the events of Genesis 28:10-17, we must first understand Jacob’s state of mind. Jacob was, for the first time ever, alone in a dangerous country walking 500 miles to an unknown place. Behind him was the fear of the murderous Esau, and in front of him was the fear of the unknown. Because of the wealth of Isaac, Jacob had always had many servants taking care of him and protecting him, but now he was alone with hostile Canaanites everywhere. Would Esau come after him? Would he ever see his family and home again? With no money in a foreign land, how would he make out? Added to all this, he was alone. He didn’t even have a tent, because Genesis 28:11 says he laid down on the open ground with nothing but a stone for a pillow. Nevertheless, in Genesis 28:12-17, we find out he is not alone. In spite of all his sins, God was with him and protecting him. God here assured him that Jacob would be blessed and he would return home, but the essence of God’s message was “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go”.
Jacob’s dream in Genesis 20 has always been called “Jacob’s ladder”, but the word “sullam” in Hebrew that is translated ladder is only used here, and therefore we don’t know exactly what it means except by the context. When they first translated the Greek and Hebrew Bible into English in 1611 with the King James Version, they translated it ladder, but stairway is probably a better translation. In a theophany, God appeared to Jacob for the first of many times in his life. Jacob saw a great stairway stretching from earth to heaven with many angels going up and down from heaven to earth. This revelation of God to Jacob revealed God’s interest and involvement in the events on earth as God ministered to His people through “messengers” (angels). Hebrews 1:14 gives us the best definition of what angels do, “Are they all not ministering spirits, sent out (by God) to render service for the sake of those who are saved (believers)?” Jacob was never alone and need not worry, and that dream assured him that God was with him, and he was under God’s protection. In Genesis 28:13-14, Jacob saw the glory of God above the stairway and heard God’s promise which was a transference to Jacob of the Abrahamic covenant promises of the land, the seed, and the blessing. Earlier Jacob had schemed to steal that blessing, but now God graciously gave it. Verse 15 had to have given Jacob the most comfort because God assured him that “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”. What better promise could a person receive than for God Almighty to tell them “I am with you”? In spite of his current impoverished state, Jacob was very rich in God’s promised blessings.
Amazed at that awesome dream, and with a renewed fear of God, Jacob named that place Bethel, which means “House of God”. Jacob also made a vow to the Lord, which showed good intentions, but proved that he was still more of a sinner than a saint. He gave a conditional promise that if God came through and brought him successfully back to the land, then the Lord would be his only God, and he would tithe to the Lord. It occurs to me that since God is the only true God, and has already blessed Jacob, that there should be no conditions to Jacob’s vow. God deserves his worship and fidelity solely based on who God is. Jacob was a work in progress with a long way to go who thinks he can bargain with God. Unfortunately I am convicted also of my own many prayers in the past that were also bargains. How many times have we all prayed prayers like, “Lord if you will just get me out of this mess, then I will…” or “Lord if you will give me such and such (my object of desire), then I will…”
Christ’s Reference to Jacob’s Ladder
In the Gospel of John 1:51, the author gave the account of Jesus calling His disciple Nathanael. Nathanael had truthfully believed in Jesus as the “Son of God”, and so Jesus recognized him as a believer saying, “Truly I say to you that you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (Jesus).” Most theologians agree that Jesus was identifying Himself as the stairway to heaven. Jesus is the access to God, and just as angels symbolically travel back and forth from earth to heaven on the stairway, so also has Jesus bridged the gulf for us between heaven and earth. Notice that Jesus said the angels were descending “upon” Him. In a sense, Jesus is Jacob’s ladder. There are no believers for angels to minister to without Jesus, and there is no relationship for us with God without Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.
“I Am With You”
The essence of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28 was that he was not alone, but God was with him to protect him, provide for him, and bring him back safely. He could live joyfully if he would just believe in and trust God for his deliverance. In thinking about the ramifications of this, it occurred to me that God may have made this promise to each and every one of the believers in the stories in the Bible, so I checked it out, and yes He did. Therefore God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and all those men and women of faith who came after them was that God would always be with them. Still, I struggle with what that means because every one of those characters went through hardships and trials throughout their lives. The apostle Paul gave us great detail about his hardships in 2 Corinthians 11:23-25, “imprisonments, beatings, danger of death, five times I received 39 lashes…beaten with rods, stoned…” If God was with him, then why did all that happen to him? I can think of at least eight reasons:
- We shouldn’t mistake time for eternity. God may not seem to be with us in the short run but He clearly is in the long run (1 Peter 5:10).
- Don’t mistake the physical/material for spiritual. God is with us spiritually, not necessarily materially. God promises to take care of our needs only.
- God has an infinite/eternal perspective as opposed to our finite perspective. God’s plan/wisdom is beyond us to comprehend at this time (Rom.11:33-34).
- God has a ministry to us in the midst of trouble. The ministry is not to do away with trouble, but to test and refine us through the trouble (Deut.8:2-3, 1 Peter 4:12)
- When we read passages like Romans 8:28 “all things work together for good”, we need to continue to v.29 “to become conformed to the image of Christ”.
- God uses trouble to humble us so we can be of service (2 Cor.12:7-9)
- We need to redefine success. The world defines success as wealth, power, accomplishments, but biblical success is OBEDIENCE BY FAITH
- God is with you to manifest Himself, not you. We are ambassadors for Christ, not ourselves (2 Cor. 5:20).