Genesis 28: 10-19
10Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know 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.”
16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Dreams, like all interpretation, like all Scripture, the same vision can yield more interpretations than we know how to hold. Dreams in the Bible are especially portentous as they yield the truth of God. And I am always a bit wary to speak of the work of dreams because I fear I may overstep my authority. Although I have a Master of Divinity, contrary to popular misconception it’s not actually a Master of Divination.
But symbols have weight, which you know if you’ve ever awakened and said, “Ah, what did that mean?” And so today I share not an answer but a puzzle: how can one text hold so many truths that are true and different and so many ways this dream can be interpreted and entrust you to the work of finding which one is most faithful, most hopeful and most transformative for you in this time and moment? For today we are going to explore not one interpretation of Scripture but four. I promise we’ll get out at 11:00.
The Scripture today comes from the book of Genesis, from the origin stories of the Jewish tradition. Jacob is a descendant of Abraham and has been battling with his brother, Esau. They were twins that were borne in the womb fighting and it finally came to a head where Jacob stole the blessing from his brother, Esau. And Esau was so enraged that Jacob fled for his life. And where does he end up but here, somewhere in the wilderness between two points that actually matter, in the middle of nowhere where a rock looks like a decent pillow. He is at a low point, in many of his own making, and not knowing where to go. And in this lowness he has a dream. As a Seventeenth Century commentator would say, “Any Israelite would have been willing to take up Jacob’s pillow provided he might have Jacob’s dream.” In it he sees a ladder that leads from earth all the way to heaven and on it he sees the angels of God ascending and descending. He hears the voice of God who says words of promise: a gift of land, a future of promise and the hope that wherever he may go God will be with him. What do we make of this ladder? And picture it if you can with its feet in the earth that goes all the way to heaven.
Our first interpretation today comes from the Jewish tradition, from a Hasidic Master from the 18th Century Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Now first to let you know that the hermeneutic of Scripture, the way we read Scripture, is different in the Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition there is a great tradition of Midrash, of holding the word as sacred but seeing within it gaps and holes where a sacred imagination can fill in. One might, for example, read the list of a story of Scripture and notice that one of the children is missing and then use that as an interpretation for where exactly that child was during that time. You might see a contradiction in Scripture and instead of seeing it as an issue see that there is an elaborate story about how it isn’t a contradiction at all.
So, Levi Yitzhak says this: The ladder in Jacob’s dream, that’s us. That is humanity with our feet grounded in the earth that can stretch towards heaven through the work of spiritual practice. And when a person follows the law, the Torah, and follows God’s way in the world, then the angels move upward. And when we sin, when we fall away from the ways of God, that’s when angels descend.” But here’s the incredible part of this image for him: for we picture this ladder and angels moved by each of us, by our choices, by our ways in this world, all held in the heart of God, constantly moving, constantly shifting, God constantly in flux as humanity rises and falls. Sometimes we have an image of God who is apart from this world, who is distant or cold or unmoved, and what this Rabbi imagines is the opposite. Every day, what is God? God is the one who is affected by our choices, who feels within God the glories and the struggles, who feels within God the shifting movement of humanity. For when we feel small in this world, instead hear that the heavens themselves are effected by our choices as kindness stretches higher, and justice moves higher and prayer moves higher, and how the heavens themselves are broken when our hard heartedness and cruelty and brokenness, when on this ladder we see the ever-moving being of God who is in relationship with us.
Another interpretation: Another Hasidic master Ephraim of Sudlikov. (There is no victory in shrinking from new names.) His interpretation is this: Instead of our actions he sees this ladder as representing the experience of the religious life, as there are times we feel great closeness to God: when the holy is near, when we are lifted high and drawn closer to God and Torah. And there are these times when we are brought low, when God seems at a distance. The Rabbi does not seem to sense this feel of being far from God as a failing, but instead as a necessary part of the religious life, for he sees that it’s those times away at a distance that allow for a greater ascent than we could have managed before. And so he sees these as religious masters that show to Jacob that this is what the fate of life will be. For where is Jacob at this moment but a place of aloneness and isolation and it’s at this low point, this point of coldness, that he experiences God in new heights and new ways. We know this experience of distance and closeness has been spoken of in the faithful of all religions. You read the letters of Mother Teresa and how for years she cared for the poor with graciousness, even within her heart as she felt a spiritual distance, a coldness, a sense that God was far away. I find there is a great gift in this reading, for sometimes it can feel like we are only being faithful when we are at the highest reaches, when God feels close, when we are in the embrace of warm spiritual experience and feel with fullness the holy. But instead, the Rabbi sees all of the ladder as part of the faithfulness of God, that in times of closeness and times of away instead we hear the promise that God will be with Jacob wherever he may go, that near or far God has not left him.
A third interpretation this morning: We have finally made our way to the Christian tradition. There is a very old Christian hermeneutic to look for analogies in text. From the early church fathers and especially in medieval tradition they interpreted text especially in the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of allegory, to say, “This symbol here, this is what it really means,” and you need the clues in between in order to interpret. And so, more interpreters than I can quote together instead said, “This wooden here, this ladder that reaches from heaven to earth,” the Christian interpreters look at this ladder and instead see the cross; they see Jesus who descended to earth to be present and real, to show us what love looks like. And as he was brought low we see the angels that are lifting us as we are lifted with Christ into new possibilities, new relationship, that God has a vision of a kingdom of God where justice reigns and peace is full and where we live with righteousness and grace with our kindred and what do we think that allows us to create such a vision on earth?: What do you think would bring heaven near, but Jesus, who shows us how to welcome all and love all? Speak truth even if it means the powers of this earth might bring us low. Entrust that power of God is more, is greater. What is the form that the ladder might bring the earth and heaven near but Jesus?
Finally, I have one more interpretation this morning that has no fancy names. It’s not in a book; it occurred to me this week. I will leave it to your interpretation about whether this is divinely inspired or not. It was inspired by this: I read last week about a beach in Florida. A sudden riptide pulled two children away from the shore and one by one the family that tried to help them was caught in the same tide, pulled out by an overpowering wave. Nine people were caught in the tide; there was no lifeguard. Calls had been made to help and it seemed unlikely that help would arrive in time. A crowd gathered at the shore: beach goers, strangers, an unknown collection of humanity staring at the dots and the distant cries and feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Someone suggested throwing a rope out to them but no one had a rope. They had nothing but themselves. The folks on the beach started a chain: the weaker swimmers on the beach and the stronger out in the water, eighty people linked together as the strongest swimmers brought those who were stranded to the chain where they were handed one after another all the way to safety on the shore. Out in the depths they were handed one after another until finally all nine made it to the shore and the eighty came in as well and they cheered and then they disbursed. For the record, I have read that this is actually incredibly dangerous, so be careful y’all. But in response to a sea that threatened them whole, eighty strangers, rather than holding back, reached out hand-in-hand to grasp one another and pull from the sea.
And so, what are the climbers of the ladder, but rungs knit together by God that God might build a bridge from heaven to earth. Wherever we are, what is our job but to be sure we are reaching down to earth to those who feel lost and alone and up to heaven to the promise of God. Perhaps we might not first seek our own salvation but seek to serve that God might see fit to use us to connect earth and heaven, staying grounded in the suffering of others and keeping us grounded as well in the hope of God to create a bridge where there was none.
And so, we hold this image together of a ladder that God does not leave us on our own. And so we hold the blessing of a text whose words speak in a multitude of possibilities. And so, my beloved, let us be doers of the will of God knowing that our actions move the holy more than we can know. Let us in the highs and lows of the spiritual life breathe within us easily knowing that wherever we are today we are not far from the holy. Let us find in Christ the one who builds bridges where there are none and may we, each of us, be so bonded to God that links us to neighbor and stranger alike that we might create a trellis on which God can move and bring heaven near. Amen.
© 2017 Lisa Horst Clark. All rights reserved.