Stealing your brother’s birthright can be tricky business and justice between brothers can be swift and especially cruel. Because of the deceit involved in stealing his birthright, Esau vowed he would kill his brother!
In order to escape Esau, with the assistance of Rebekah, Jacob walked north out of the city on a high ridge with the sun warming his face until it finally went down. Dusk gave way to the darkness of night and finding he could no longer see, he sat down, exhausted from running from his troubles. Since he had virtually nothing with him, he made himself as comfortable as possible by lying down to rest on the bare ground. He made a pillow by selecting the softest rock he could find.
Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Sleep came, and it was the kind of sleep where Jacob sunk through darkness for a long, long time before coming to rest someplace very deep and very, very still.
Don’t you find your dream life fascinating? Our dreams are “right-brained windows” that give us a glimpse into the primal emotions and thought processes of our unconscious brain. Dreams give us a chance to see past the “curtains of the conscious” that we hang to protect us from our own thoughts. Dreams are the fascinating underbelly of our sheltered thinking selves. Dreams are the mind’s way of ventilating our deeply felt emotions and on the positive side, they help provide psychological health and even physical health. Dreams are sometimes useful to us to provide self-understanding. Dreams can even be a source of new ideas, energies, and information about our lives.
In sleep, early man believed one’s soul, or consciousness left one’s body, and traveled the sleep world, the world of dreams. The dream world was even considered more real than the physical world. In the dream world of early man, it was felt that one’s soul could travel to distant places in the real world experiencing one’s innermost feelings contacting and conversing with the dead or meeting the spirits and even God.
Jacob was a man between times and places, in a limbo of his own making. The Promised Land was a distant memory and Haran was too far away to consider. Quite literally, Jacob was nowhere.
Sleeping on the bare ground was probably enough to stir the unconscious to sort out these events in a dream. Jacob spun himself a dream where the angels of God were moving up and down a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Thus, we sing, We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder as a way of remembering our ancient forbearer of faith who struggled so honestly about the issues of his life.
Every night the brain restores our emotional life, according to French neurobiologist Michel Jouvet. He “refers to the dream state as ‘paradoxical sleep’ because while the body goes into a semi paralysis the limbic system goes into a heightened state of activity … The dream state, Jouvet suggests, is primarily a cleaning function by which the brain, operating as a closed circuit, rids itself of parasitic modes by creating new information circuits … Dreaming allows us to function in shifting … threatening circumstances.”
Neurologists argue that not only are we wired to dream but also that our innate sense of dreaming is meant to help us have “unifying mystical experiences.” Even Carl Jung noted the importance of our dreams as the way in which we’re not alone in our psyche, especially when our ego releases its command of our conscious thoughts and the unconscious takes center stage unrestrained.
What about Jacob’s dream? Dr. Levi Meier, Psychologist and Chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles says that in the pages of Genesis, Jacob has three special, spiritual experiences, each of which took place at night. It seemed God chose in each case to appear to Jacob to establish an intimate relationship during times of darkness.
The first event was this one: falling asleep in absolute fatigue with his head on a rock and having a vivid dream with the angels of heaven ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Jacob was not as accustomed to being alone in the wilderness as his brother Esau. He was the introverted intuitive one ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of the outdoors. He could easily have perished from hunger or cold, been killed by bandits or wild animals, or simply lost his way and wandered hopelessly. It was a frightening and painful trip and there was no way to avoid it.
Making a trip of that nature forms for all of us an archetypal experience. It’s a model for spiritual and personal growth. Perhaps all of us are called to make the journey into the wilderness. Jesus understood the need to escape the sheltered world so that he could go out into the wilderness where he could deal with his inner self in the form of Satan and to ferret out his own desires from those of God.
Looked at in purely clinical terms, the wilderness experience might be considered something akin to a breakdown or a sickness; in spiritual terms, however, it may be a time in your life that is so significant to your further growth you want to do what Jacob did when he erected a monument to mark the place and the moment. The world is littered with mysterious piles of stones that ancient humankind left as some sign that some encounter with the Divine had occurred.
Jacob had another encounter with God that occurred in the night where he encountered an angel or a divine messenger, and wrestled with him until the break of day. After their struggle, the angel gave Jacob a new name, Israel, indicating that Jacob would be able to deal with any adversary and prevail. This promise was both comforting and empowering, diminishing Jacob’s fear of meeting Esau, as well as all other future confrontations.
His third encounter took place before he went down to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph. God spoke to Jacob during another nighttime vision, saying, “Do not fear to go down to Egypt … I will go down with you, and I will surely bring you up again, and Joseph will put his hand upon your eyes” (Gen 46:2-46). Once again, God promised his constant and continued presence and protection.
Professor Meier says that it was these three great life events that gave Jacob the inner strength and stamina to face whatever befell him in life. He knew he had a personal relationship with a loving, caring, comforting God who would never leave him and who would guide him all the days of his life.
What Jacob discovered was that there is a busy path between heaven and earth, with the messengers of God scurrying back and forth upon it. The good news they bear is the news on Jacob’s lips when he woke up: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”
What had looked to him like no place turned out to be God’s place. What had looked to him like an ordinary pile of rocks turned out to be the gate of heaven, and he set his stone pillow up as a pillar to mark the spot. “Bethel,” he called it, pouring oil on the rock: “House of God.”
Rev. Dr. Keith D. Herron, Intentional Interim Senior Minister
Countryside Community Church, Omaha NE
The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
© Keith D. Herron, 2023
 Jon Magnuson, “Deep Sleep, Are Humans Wired to Dream?” a book review of Michel Jouvet’s The Paradox of Sleep: The Story of Dreaming, MIT Press, found in The Christian Century, June 28, 2005, 32-34
 Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, cited in Magnuson, Ibid. 33
 Thanks to John Sanford for the psychodynamic interpretations of this story (The Man Who Wrestled With God, King of Prussia PA: Religious Publishing Co., 1974)
 Dr. Levi Meier, Jacob, University Press of America, 1994