If we know anything at all about Jacob it is that he had a dream one night that included a ladder. One cannot have
grown up in the church and attended church camp and not have sung "Jacob's Ladder" thousands of times!
The truth of the matter is, there’s not much in the song about this story of the dream of Jacob portrayed in Genesis.
The ladder referenced in the song and our scriptures actually had no resemblance to what we normally think of when
we think of a ladder today. It wasn’t a step-ladder with rungs on it. Almost all the commentaries agree that it was
probably something more like a ramp or an escalator or a set of stairs like one would see in front of a monument or a
Perhaps the place where this beautiful and wonderful and meaningful old African-American spiritual is most at odds
with the actual Genesis story is in its reference to us climbing “higher and higher.” Because, you see, the real message
of the story is about God’s coming “lower and lower” or “closer and closer” to old Jacob and thus symbolically
toward us. The Old Testament story of Jacob and his dream doesn’t have anything to do with a good or holy person
getting better and better and thus climbing, figuratively, “higher and higher” and thus approaching God through their
merits. No, it’s really about a rather bad person, a fugitive, (Jacob) not deserving in any way to be approached by
God, being approached by God. (1)
The truth of the matter is that if ever there was a man who didn’t deserve to be paid attention to by God, it was Jacob.
He was a liar and a cheat, a jerk. Let me remind you of a few things about ol’ Jacob and why he was out in that
desolate place using a stone for a pillow in the first place.
Jacob’s misbehavin’ started the day he was born to Isaac and Rebekah. In fact, he was named Jacob because of the
way he came out of the womb. He was a twin - the second born of twins. And, as his older brother, Esau, was coming
out, Jacob grasped Esau’s heel as if trying to pull him back so that he could be the first one born. The name Jacob
comes from the Hebrew word that means “a heel” or “the one who takes by the heel.” From the day he was born, it
was obvious that Jacob's goal was to get ahead any way he could. Jacob would take advantage of any weakness he
saw in another - even if the other was his very own brother - even if it was his very own father!
Perhaps the worst things Jacob ever did, at least the ones the writers of Genesis felt compelled to record, were the
ones when he deceived his dad and took advantage of his brother. Esau was an outdoorsman, a hunter. Jacob was a
man more comfortable with hanging around the house.
These differences in personality created an obvious sibling rivalry. It probably didn’t help matters that the parents
tried to live their lives through the boys with each favoring one or the other - Isaac favoring Esau because he often
brought him wild game which he had a real taste for and Rebekah favoring Jacob because of his helpfulness around
The day Jacob took advantage of Esau was after Esau returned from some time out in the wilderness apparently either
too tired even to prepare the game he had bagged or with nothing to show for his several days of work. Jacob was
cooking some stew and Esau was starved. Esau begged for some of the stew. Jacob saw a chance to take advantage
of his brother. He refused to share his food unless Esau sold him his birthright. Esau’s birthright was that all the land
that was his fathers would become his upon his father’s death since he was the firstborn.
Well, it didn’t take Esau long to figure out that he was going to die if he didn’t get something to eat and that the
birthright of a dead man was worthless. And so he agreed to Jacob's offer and received the promised food.
The second episode, the one that resulted in Jacob’s fleeing, happened several years later. Isaac was getting up there
in years, blind, and concerned about how long he was going to make it. He sent Esau out to kill some of that wild
game he had a real taste for and promised to bless him before he died if he did.
Well, enter the one who only had eyes for Jacob, his mother Rebekah. She was listening and she concocted a plot that
would allow Jacob to receive the blessing Isaac had promised Esau. Now, I don’t even want to try and understand
these two sorry parents who favored one child over another - it’s simply beyond my comprehension. Rebekah’s plan
was to have Jacob go get two of the young goats from their own flock. She would prepare them and Jacob would wear
some of Esau’s best clothes and cover his hands and neck with the skins of the goats so that he would feel hairy like
his brother, Esau. Although Jacob was fearful that he’d be caught and get cursed instead of blessed and although Isaac
noticed the discrepancy between the hairy skin and the voice, the plot worked and Jacob received the blessing.
When Esau found out, he was livid. He’d taken all he could from this jerk of a brother and so he let it be known that
as soon as his dad died, it would be lights out for his brother. Once again, ol’ mom stuck her nose into the situation.
She got wind of the threat and convinced Jacob that it would be best for him if he left and went to live with her
brother, Laban. She convinced her husband, Isaac, it was a good idea also by lamenting about how bad she would feel
if Jacob married a woman from the people of that area instead of one of her own people. Isaac bought her argument
and sent Jacob on his way with his blessing.
It was while Jacob was on his way to Uncle Laban’s that the scene described in today’s passage happened. Jacob
stopped for the night at a certain place - at this time not yet a significant place, just the place he happened to be when
the sun went down - he stopped for the night at a certain place and in his hurry to get away from his angry brother he
apparently forgot a pillow and had to use a stone for one.
I find Jacob’s use of a stone for a pillow both intriguing and a bit humorous. Whenever I read this story I am reminded
of the times on retreats and Circuit Rider bus trips (a mobile retreat on a converted bus) when I forgot my pillow and
had to use my gym bag for one - a gym bag full of shoes and a hair dryer and numerous other not so soft things.
But, my real intrigue with the rock is the way its role changed in the story from a rock on the ground, to a rock under
a head, to a pillar to mark a sacred place. And I think the reason it plays all these different roles in the story is
theologically significant. My sense is that the stone referred to represented more than the simple physical stone on
which Jacob laid his head that night. My sense is that the stone was both a literal rock and a symbol of all the evil
Jacob had ever done. When Jacob went to sleep that night he not only had a rock under his head, which probably
caused him some physical discomfort, but he also had a lot of things running through his head about why he was out
on the road in the first place. Those thoughts had to have been the source of great psychological discomfort. The two
together would certainly explain a restless, dream-ridden, nightmarish night.
We’ve all experienced such nights in our lives - nights when our actions or words or thoughts have their way with our
ability to sleep - nights when we just can’t seem to shut out those things we’ve done wrong - nights when sleeping is
difficult because of everything we’re thinking about. There are simply some things that practically scream out to us in
the middle of the night, “Get down on your knees and confess what you’ve done and ask for God’s forgiveness.”
I think those were the kinds of thoughts that ran through Jacob’s mind that night when he dreamed about an escalator
and the movement of angels up and down it and God talking to him. The lonely and weary and rotten Jacob became
aware of God’s nearness in a place he did not expect and as a result he marked the “certain place” thus claiming it to
be a holy place, a place where he encountered God, by making a pillar of the rock that had been a pillow under his
head the hours before.
What I believe happened to Jacob that night was that he became aware in a new way that despite the mess he was in
because of the wrongs he had done - the sin in his life - God cared about him and had a plan for the rest of his life.
And as a result of his sensing the nearness of God with the aid of the stone become pillow, he used several such
pillows to make a pillar to mark the place.
Now, there are several things in this story that provide us some helps as we experience our journeys of faith. The first
one is that God is present all the time, everywhere, and in everyone and we can become aware of God’s presence in
the most unexpected ways, places and people. God can be known in the midst of joyous occasions and in the midst of
very depressing events in our lives and in the midst of the day-to-day routine of living. God-events happen when we
least expect them and sometimes through those we least expect. (2)
I had an experience in my own life once that reminded me of this truth. We were new owners of a cottage and a used
pontoon boat that came with the cottage purchase. It was the 4th of July weekend and several people who have places
on Indian Lake had encouraged us to take in the fireworks on our pontoon boat. They also offered us words of caution
about the condition some of the drivers of the other boats might be in and suggested that we might want to try and
stay on the edge of it all our first time. (Apparently drinking and driving isn't just a problem on our roadways.) Well,
we did as they suggested: we anchored our boat about 15 minutes before the firework display began in an area where
there were very few other boats. Then I turned off the boat’s motor. Part of our conversation while we waited for the
show centered around our concern about alcohol consuming boaters and the scary time after the fireworks and how
we would have to make a quick get-a-way to avoid them.
Well, to make a long story short (and to lessen how terrible I am portrayed), when the fireworks ended I couldn’t get
the motor to start! It quickly became apparent that our battery was dead. My wife made one of those suggestions
wives just shouldn’t make to their husbands when things appear beyond their ability to deal with: “Bill, why don’t
you ask one of those boaters going by us to help us.” I knew I should but I just couldn’t bring myself to - male pride,
you know. (I probably should mention here that I had chosen to leave the boat radio on during thee fireworks against
the preference of my wife!)
Finally, after a dozen or so had passed us by with several commenting on how difficult it was to see us because of
how dim our lights were, it became obvious I was going to have to admit my human frailty and ask for help or there
was going to be no help left. At about the same moment, a boatload of people went by and one of them shouted back
to us, “Need some help?” And I, cringing with every male hormone in my body screaming for me not to, said, “Yes.
Our battery is dead.” And they maneuvered their way over to us.
To say everyone on our pontoon boat was relieved would be an understatement. Our rescuers first offered to tow us
back to our cottage. And then one of the passengers remembered they had jumper cables. It seemed like it took
forever for them to get in the correct position so that the two batteries were near enough to one another for the jumper
cables to be used.
Now, although the rest of the passengers on our pontoon boat apparently weren’t aware of it at the time, there was a
reason they took their time moving - one of their female passengers, apparently unable to hold it any longer and too
drunk to care, was relieving herself a few short feet away from where my head hung over my boat so that I could
have a good grip on theirs. Yes, they had definitely been partying the night away out there on the lake!
It was while this was going on that one of those God-moments hit me: I was being helped by someone I was hoping to
avoid. I, the self-righteous one, was being helped by someone I was judging. To be sure: this is not a condoning of
drinking and driving, either on a boat or in a car, but it is a reminder that God does indeed show up often in the places
and the people we least expect. (Now, it probably will influence a few more giggles if I mention that I first used the
illustration the same summer it happened with my insurance agent who also served the church as a trustee at the
time, and he wasted no time sending me a boating manual!)
Another group of related things I think it's helpful to note in this passage is that God cares about us no matter what
kind of people we’ve been or are - that God has a plan for our lives - that God reaches out to us because God is a God
of grace - that God can take the rocks of our lives and make use of them for good - and that as a result those mistakes
of our lives, those sins, those evil thoughts and deeds become markers of the occasions when we encounter God. The
rocks in our lives that disturb our sleep and disrupt our lives can become pillows of discipleship if we let God come to
us and heal us of the guilt those rocks produce in us. God can change us and make us new. The rocks in our lives can
become pillars marking those places where God has touched us.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, God wants to, is ready to, do great things in us - through us - with our lives - if we but
let God. You are invited today to hear the good news in a new way - in a personal way - that God cares about you - no
matter what the sins are now that are eating at your soul and controlling you with guilt. God loves you and forgives
you and can help you make something of your life. You are invited to face the rocks in your life today and to believe
the good news that God has a plan for you despite what has been controlling your life in the past.
Won’t you consider letting God heal you, forgive you, today? Let God change the rocks in your life into
pillows of discipleship.
1 Justin W. Tull, “Stairways of Heaven,” Wrestlings, Wonders and Wanderers! (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1992).
2 Robert Cueni, “Empowered By a Vision,” Tenders of the Sacred Fire, (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1995).