I think of Joseph as the dreamer of dreams, but it seems his dad had dreams of his own. The image of Jacob's ladder, of a stairway leading to heaven with angels going up and down it, rings in our collective consciousness. Jacob's ladder--it's been used to describe the beams of light slicing through the clouds, a child's toy of blocks and ribbons, electrical rods with a spark dancing between them, and a torturous exercise machine
In that place, in that time, a common monument was the ziggurat, a huge rectangular structure with stairs leading up its face toward heaven. At the top of the ziggurat was probably a shrine, dedicated to the worship of the moon goddess. The parallel wouldn't be lost on Jacob, who saw a ladder that went much higher than a building, the a place much safer than a shrine.
The symbol also was not lost on Jesus, who told Nathaniel, "You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of Man." There are so many layers to this story of Jacob as the father of nations, dreaming of Jesus, the savior of nations...of the Lord standing at the top of the staircase making promises to Jacob, and of Jesus being the staircase that leads Jacob and his people to heaven... Jacob knew when he woke up that he was in a special place, so special, he took the stone he'd used as a pillow (ouch), turned it on end, and left it as a pillar, a witness that what had happened there.
Jacob wasn't the only one dreaming in this story, either. Laban had his own dreams. Lest I think dreams are a revelation from God to his faithful followers, I keep reading to see that Laban practiced divination and worshiped his own gods. Besides, he was a greedy sneak and a liar, to put it mildly.
Jacob's marital relations with his two wives and their servants read like a soap opera. It was a household of jealousy and intrigue, laced with moments of triumph and vengeance.
Here's a story that popped out to me, one I never heard in Sunday school--the story of the mandrakes.
These are not the gnarly little plants that you have to get potted while they're babies so they don't kill you when they attack you. They're an herbal medicine and they're meant to cure infertility. Leah's son Levi found some and brought them to his mother like a good son would do. I can just hear it.
LEVI: "Here, Mommy. I brought you some roots that will help you have another baby."
LEAH: "Thank you, darling. I'll brew them up right away."
RACHEL: (tapping on door) "Did I hear someone say they've got mandrakes? I've been dying for some mandrake tea. Can I have some?"
LEAH: "Well, I don't know..."
RACHEL: "I'll let Jacob spend the night with you."
LEAH to LEVI: "You heard her. Give her the mandrakes."
I guess in a way, the mandrakes did help Leah get pregnant.
The story goes on to tell of how Jacob controlled the color the sheep and goats he bred would be based on what color sticks they looked at while drinking water, how Rachel stole the family idols and said she was on her period so she wouldn't have to get off her camel and reveal the stolen idols. It's a complicated story. There's lying, trickery, idols, hard work and dedication, true love, rivalry, jockeying for power, and more intrigue than an adventure movie.
With all the themes it dances around, the one I keep coming back to is the fact that Jacob somehow worshiped the one true God while everyone around him had the whole pantheon as a backup plan. When we lived in Africa, I wrestled with how to treat the voodoo priestess who sold me sugar, the men in the voodoo market who called out to me as I walked between their stalls of dried animal parts and amulets, the Christian friend who consulted the witchdoctor when her child was sick. But I never wanted to take part in any of their rituals or to pay homage to their gods.
Now, back in suburban American, the thought of having other gods is much more subtle. We don't typically bow down to or feed actual idols, though we do have our own gods set up on TV stands in a prominent place in our living rooms or tucked into our wallets. Lately, though, I actually found myself bowing down in front of a statue of Buddha in a yoga class. I had to struggle through whether to keep going to class if Buddha was going to be sitting in front of me. My teacher has graciously agreed to leave Buddha tucked in his closet on the mornings I am there, though I'm sure she doesn't understand my objection. The last thing I want to do is close a door on relationships because I am too judgy. On the other hand, I have to live with myself and doing the child's pose in front of sitting Buddha is too reminiscent of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be comfortable.
What else do I bow down in front of without thinking about it? What else consumes my thoughts, my dreams, my time? I have my list, some parts of which are easy to identify, others of which I'd rather not acknowledge to myself much less in public. Like Rachel sitting on her camel, using her time of the month as an excuse, I justify my habits and vices as normal expressions of my culture. And, for some reason, I'm resistant to even name them much less work on them.
God convicts at the most inconvenient times. Thanks a lot, God. Thanks a lot.
This Week's Torah Portion:
Hosea 11:7-12:12; Obadiah 1:1-21
Photo credit: Giorgio Samorini via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA