Signpost for Sunday, July 23 2017 (18th Ordinary Sunday): Gen 28:10 – 19a; Ps 139:1-12, 23-24; Rom 8:12-25; Mt 13:24-30, 36-43.
It was once a common belief that if you slept with your head against a sacred stone you would dream oracles. Associative magic was a strong part of early religion. Jacob is about to leave the country. He is leaving at the place where his grandparents entered the land years ago. When they arrived they built an altar there. A place for worship set up by an ancestor is about as sacred as it gets. Try to close a church when the grandchildren of the founders live in the district and you will find that out. The grandchildren may never darken the doors from one Christmas to the next, but they will dominate the congregational meeting when the closure is discussed. Associative magic still exists!
The dream is full of messages for Jacob. He has won his father’s blessing by a trick, and has to flee alone, but he sees many people coming and going on that ladder. In God’s dream he is no longer alone. He has tricked his father, and that is very impious, but the ladder leads to heaven, so he is not cut off from God. Heaven is still “up there” in those days!
Early religion tended to identify God with a certain place, perhaps more widely with a tribe or tribal area (country?). It was hard to think of God as being universal. If two nominally Christian countries are at war, they both expect God to back their side. Islam and Christianity and Judaism all tend to say that they worship the same God, but when one attacks another, that must first be denied, so that the resultant war is not fratricide within God’s family.
So Jacob is seeking comfort as he prepares to leave his land and the sphere of influence of his God. His dream offers a great hope. God will be with him outside that land, and will return him home safely. And he renews the promise made to Abraham (this is probably the main reason for this story!) that his descendants will be like the sands of the desert. No wonder Jacob (as Abraham before him) calls the place Bethel – the House of God.