The most meaningful Bible stories for me are the ones where I can identify with someone in the text. Sadly, I often can relate to the self-righteous religious leaders in the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Sometimes, I identify with the disciples, but usually when they are confused and doubting. Finding connections in the Hebrew Scriptures is a little harder for me. The story of Jacob and his transformation to Israel is surprisingly meaningful for me.
Jacob, son of Isaac, patriarch of the Jewish people and central Biblical figure is as flawed and imperfect a person as you will find in the scriptures. As I read his story, his greatness seems to be a birth rite and not something he has earned. He is clever but not righteous in any way. There are legendary stories of him outsmarting a dim-witted brother named Esau. Finally, he steals Esau’s birthright from an elderly blind and confused Isaac.
The account of his servitude to his uncle and marriages is almost comical. Yet, his persistence and cleverness eventually pay off and he finds himself to be as wealthy a patriarch as his father and grand-father.
The story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel is the part of his story I relate to. He succeeded in stealing his brother’s birth right, but it has upset Esau. Remember Esau was a prolific hunter who was impulsive and prone to making bad decisions. I think Jacob knows that his life is now in danger in his own home. So instead of staying to reap the reward of the birthright he is off to see his Uncle and hopefully find refuge there.
In this text he is alone and lays down with a stone for a pillow. His vision famously revolves around a ladder or staircase which extends from earth to heaven. Angels going up and down demonstrate how close we all are to heaven’s doors.
In this unlikely place Jacob has discovered that the connection to heaven is as close to him as the rock he is sleeping on. It is interesting to me that the Lord appears at his side and not at the top of the ladder. God has come down to where Jacob is. There is a great message in all of this. Jacob did whatever it took to steal Esau’s birth rite. Yet, now he leaves his home empty handed and afraid. In the midst of all that imperfection and crisis, God is revealed to him.
This unlikely place has become sacred to Jacob and sacred to generations who come after him. Bethel, house of the Lord, becomes an important concept in worshiping God.
I am always on the lookout for my own Bethel. What every day ordinary place will open my eyes to see how close we all are to Heaven. I take comfort in the Jacob story, God coming to him when his life seems to be falling apart is a great lesson that God is with each of us at all times and all places.
Theologians call this concept the omnipresence of God. I just take comfort in knowing that the next ordinary place I come across could become my own personal Bethel.