Biblical Words 
Holy places are hidden from profane eyes, and people blessed by God’s Spirit live side by side with the unrighteous.
The Torah reading presents Jacob’s dream – and his “ladder” – at
Last Sunday’s reading showed Jacob outwitting his not very bright brother Esau, but now he has had to run away from Esau and his parental home to save his life. That brings him to spend the night at a place that is secretly holy, a place later called
, that is,
beth-El, the “house” of the high-god
The ancestor stories in Genesis not only established kinship lines and
tribal friends and enemies in the greater Israelite world, they also identified
and sanctioned holy places. In the critical events of their wanderings
the ancestors encountered awesome and numinous powers. To name such powers and to mark them
as sacred places was work that belonged to the ancestors. Later generations did not discover new holy
places; they were guided by those ancient encounters with the holy, and they
revered and enhanced the great sanctuaries that the ancestors had
Jacob’s vision at
is an archetypal example of a sanctuary
legend. In the dream Jacob sees a sullam, a word occurring only here in
the Hebrew Bible. Let’s dwell a little
on this word that gave us “Jacob’s Ladder.”
The Greek translators used the word klimax, which means a scaling ladder (which was slanted toward the wall of the besieged city) or a stairway, and that Greek is probably the source, through Latin, of the English “ladder.” For the Hebrew sullam, the older Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906) gave simply “ladder” as the meaning, but more recent Hebrew lexicons, with more comparative material from other Semitic languages, give the meaning “stepped ramp, flight of steps” (Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Study Ed., tr. M.E.J. Richardson, Leiden: Brill, 2001, Vol. 1, pp. 757-58.) What the word probably meant in Israelite times was a staircase running from the ground up the side of a temple tower, perhaps to some landings part-way up, and then to the most holy sanctuary on the very top of the sacred mountain. The model is the Mesopotamian ziggurat, which is also reflected in the plan for the
“with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4).
tower of Babel
In Jacob’s dream the top of this staircase (“ladder”) reached to heaven – the most holy place at the top – and the messengers of the gods (“angel” means messenger in both Hebrew and Greek) went up and down this stairway carrying orders from the heavenly council to all parts of the land. This was the vision in Jacob’s dream, that this very spot was secretly the place where the high god of heaven conducted business, where all the critical decisions for the human realm were made and set underway.
Reconstruction of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, based on surviving ruins.
Jacob makes the appropriate responses. He confesses the revelation. “Surely there is Yahweh in this place — and I did not know it!” (my translation). He has the appropriate fear before the numinous. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God [Elohim], and this is the gate of heaven” (verse 17, NRSV).
Jacob then set up the stone that had been under his head and made it a maṣṣṣebah (“pillar”), one of those sacred standing stones that the Judeans would later hate and destroy. And he poured oil on the top of this stone, anointing it as Moses anointed the Tabernacle when he sanctified it for holy use (Exodus 40:9).
The Promises. In the midst of all this sanctity of the place, however, the Lord had spoken some powerful words to Jacob in the dream.
Everything that had been promised to Abraham is here promised to Jacob, as if for the first time: (1) “…the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring”; (2) “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you [they] shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south”; and (3) “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (verses 13-14). With this IOU in hand, Jacob can set himself up as a great figure of destiny without reference to Abraham.
There is, of course, a promise more specific to Jacob’s own situation – as Abraham had a promise specifically about his own son.
Jacob’s promise is that God will take care of him and give him prosperity on his journey to the old country, which lies ahead of him (verse 15). In the ending of the passage, not included in the Lectionary reading, Jacob makes a deal with the God of Bethel. If he will protect Jacob and bring him back safely to
Jacob will establish that sanctuary and support it with a tithe of his goods
(Genesis 28:20-22). Bethel
Twenty years later, when Jacob is rich and has a large family, he makes a proper pilgrimage to Bethel, builds an altar, and worships the God who did it all for him (Genesis 35:1-15). The promise to the fleeing refugee had been fulfilled, and he in turn paid his dues.
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.
The Psalm reading is very appropriate to the Jacob story, appropriate to a character who has formerly practiced deception (in his relations with Esau) but is now ready to take a new path.
This psalm is a profound meditation on the God who knows the whole of the inner person, the God who searches hearts. At Bethel Jacob realizes that he can have no secrets from God. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; …You search out my path and my lying down, / and are acquainted with all my ways” (verses 2-3, NRSV).
The speaker also realizes that there is no escaping from God. “Where can I go from your spirit?” (verse 7). Up to heaven, down to Sheol, off to the vast distances of the east (“the wings of the morning,” KJV) or to the far west (“the furthest limits of the sea”) – none will succeed. “Even there your hand shall lead me, / and your right hand shall hold me fast” (verses 8-10).
Finally Jacob surrenders. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; ... See if there is any wicked way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting” (verses 23-24).
He is now ready to travel to the distant land and trust entirely and without reservation to God’s care while there.
The Epistle reading continues Paul’s exposition of the new life in the Spirit.
He finishes the contrast between life in the Spirit and the old life in the flesh. Here the old life is the life of slavery, while the new life is that of children who are members of the family, rather than slaves. Those living in the Spirit are children of God by adoption, and in the Spirit they are empowered to cry out “Abba” to the Father, virtually calling God “Daddy.” Only privileged children of the household can take such liberties, and it is the power of God’s Spirit dwelling in one that bestows such privileges (verses 14-17). (Paul's world was very charismatic, filled with outbursts of spiritual ecstasy. See I Corinthians 14:1-33.)
In the middle of the reading there is a transition, a transition from the present freedom from slavery to the glory that lies ahead. In the present, those living in the Spirit still share the sufferings that the world lays on Jesus and his followers, but Paul urges that those sufferings are nothing compared to what awaits them. The created world, which has been confined to frustration by the era of sin and wickedness, yearns to “be delivered from the bondage of corruption” so that it can obtain “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (verse 21, NKJV).
Thus the whole creation – the good earth – shares in the hope of the Spirited ones, and together they look for the glorious consummation (of which we will hear more in next week’s reading).
The Gospel reading continues Matthew’s parables of the kingdom.
We are in that section of Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 11-13) in which sharp opposition has arisen against Jesus. The Pharisees have begun to plan how to kill Jesus () and Jesus has begun to teach that many are doomed to exclusion from the blessings of the kingdom. The parables are appropriate to this section of the Gospel because they repeatedly show the division between the lost and the saved.
The original parable of the Weeds. (The weeds are called “tares” in the King James version.) If this parable has a “single point,” as good parables are supposed to, it must be that the good and the wicked grow together in the world until the judgment of the kingdom comes. All preliminary attempts to separate the righteous from the evil cannot succeed, or are not in accord with God’s will, though one may be confident that there will be a time of separation, a final judgment. This is the parable as originally told by Jesus to all hearers in verses 24-30.
The parable allegorized. Later Jesus holds a closed seminar in which he explains the more secret meaning of the parable (verses 36-43). This secret meaning explicitly turns the parable into an allegory. Jesus provides a set of equivalents for the actors of the parable.
The one planting the good seed in the field in the first place is the Son of Man. The field itself is the world, the good seed are “the children of the kingdom” while the weeds are “the children of the evil one.” The enemy who sowed the weeds is the devil, the harvest is the time of judgment, and the harvesters who separate the weeds and burn them are the angels commanded by the Son of Man. The conclusion (verse 43) is a shining world freed of the evil-doers who until then have lived in the world in safety side by side with the righteous.
If the parable was not told in the first place to suggest something like this allegory, it certainly invited development in that direction. Jesus certainly did proclaim a coming judgment. He also insisted that many people whom the world takes for “sinners” are in fact those qualified for the kingdom – that is, are mixed with everybody else in the world at large. Thus, there is no easy way to tell sinners from saints. The good people spoken of in the Beatitudes will certainly be separated from the haughty, the self-righteous, the violent – and possibly even the “rich,” as Luke heard the Beatitudes – when the time comes.
The parable giver and the parable interpreter are not in two different camps. The interpreter may have his opponents more sharply in sight, and he may think the harvest is delayed a bit more, but he seeks to keep Jesus’ teaching true to the kingdom message.