People have always been fascinated by their dreams.
Dreams can situate us in a land of horror or joy, transport us to places real or fantastical. In dreams we relive the worst or best days of our past, or venture into the maybes of our future.
Often our subconscious takes us on a trip through our anxieties. I still have dreams in which I’m teaching school and am completely unprepared for the class that’s about to begin. The students are unruly and I have nothing in my notes—I’m not even sure what subject I’m supposed to be teaching. I haven’t taught school in over 25 years, and I was never unprepared. It’s not difficult to figure out that I’m a person who fears being disorganized.
Modern psychology has many theories to get at the meaning of dreams, but the history of dream interpretation is as ancient as dreaming itself.
In the book of Genesis, many dreams are recorded, including the one from this week’s lectionary of Jacob at Bethel.
Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob might’ve wanted to believe that the dream was a result of sleeping with a rock for a pillow, but he came to the conclusion that God was with him. This made him afraid, probably for good reason.
Was the blessing because Jacob was such a good guy? He was anything but. He wasn’t on the road because he just wanted to take a holiday. He was fleeing from the brother who wanted to kill him. Jacob had tricked his older twin, Esau, into trading his rightful inheritance for a bowl of stew, and had subsequently tricked their father into giving Jacob the blessing due his brother. After this double whammy, Esau threatened Jacob’s life, and their mother told her younger, favorite son to run away.
Run he did. Jacob would be gone for many years, and in that time he’d do other rotten things.
So why the dream we call “Jacob’s ladder”? Jacob didn’t find it particularly comforting that God had joined him on this journey, because he knew he’d acted like the spoiled son he was. Why a blessing instead of a curse?
The blessing, I think, comes from exactly the same place as the fear. The idea that God is everywhere can be less than soothing if we’ve done things we aren’t proud of. (And we have.) Even so, God gives a blessing: I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.
God’s presence isn’t dependent upon our perfection. God doesn’t leave us alone when we’ve messed up, ruined our relationships, or skipped town. God sticks with us. The presence, we might hope, helps keep our rough side in check, calls into question our bad decisions, nudges us toward better ones, pulls us back to the places we’ve failed so we can make amends.
That’s what happened to Jacob. He moved to a new place, made new enemies, was sometimes good, sometimes devious. Eventually he made his way back home and renewed a rocky relationship with Esau. He never became a heroic good guy. God loved him anyway and chose never to let go of him.
That’s the stuff dreams are made of.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011