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Passage: Genesis 28:10-22

Genesis 28:10-22 – Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

Summary

God encounters Jacob in a dream as he journeys out of the promised land and, for the first time, confirms that he is the chosen one to carry on the promise.

Analysis

This text is generally recognized as one of the "pillars" in the Jacob story. It depicts Jacob on a journey back to the "home country" to escape Esau's wrath. Staying the night in the open country, he has a remarkable dream in which he sees a stairway or ramp (not a ladder!) that extends from earth to heaven. This scene may be compared to the stairways attached to temple towers in the ancient Near East; they were considered microcosms of the world, with the top of the tower representing heaven, the dwelling place of the gods. Priests traversed the stairway providing communication between heaven and earth. This story is a polemic against such an understanding. In the dream God speaks God's own word, indeed a string of personal and communal promises, and is personally present with Jacob.

Dreams are an important vehicle of divine revelation in several Genesis texts (see 20; 28:10-22; 31:1-3; 37; 40-41). Unlike in our post-Freudian understandings, dreams were not thought to be a witness to a dreamer's psychological state, working out stress, anxiety, or subconscious fears. Dreams were believed to be a means in and through which actual divine encounters took place. When Jacob refers to this event, he speaks of God's presence "in this place" and not in a dream; elsewhere too he speaks of divine appearance and never of dreams (35:1-9; 48:3)

The text demonstrates that God's transcendence is not compromised by closeness; God indeed comes near to Jacob and speaks a long list of promises to him.