It happens quite often. Doug and I are having breakfast, and he says “I had the most unusual dream last night…” and then he proceeds to tell me in incredible detail what he dreamed about. Often, I’ll say “Where do you think that one came from?” Sometimes he surmises that he had that dream because he had heard bad news about someone the prior week who now was in the dream. Sometimes we would speculate that it was because he was worried about something, or because he was excited about a new plan he was about to carry out, or even because he ate too much spicy food for dinner!
That’s the way we try to interpret dreams, isn’t it? We assume there is something that causes a dream, and we can figure it out. That’s a very modern view, that ties dreams to our physiology or to our psychological state. Brain scientists take EEGs of people as they dream. They think most dreaming occurs during a part of the sleep cycle called “REM sleep.” One brain scientist says that dreaming is the brain processing all the stuff that’s sitting in our short-term memory from our waking times the day before; another says it is the processing of things in our long-term memory.
Psychiatry has had a shot at understanding dreams as well. Sigmund Freud thought dreams were the way we visited our unfulfilled wishes; Carl Jung thought they were full of symbols that required complex deciphering. The early psychotherapist Alfred Adler thought that dreams were our way of figuring out solutions to complex problems. Who knows which of these views is correct? But we do have this persistent notion that our brains work while we are asleep to reflect on our lives, and our dreams are the way we do that. Sometimes they’re fun, sometimes they’re frightening, sometimes they’re incomprehensible.
But all these ways of figuring out what dreams are about are reflective of a modern point of view.
In ancient times, dreams were something very different. Dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention. Sometimes understanding dreams would require someone with certain special powers – remember Joseph of the coat of many colors, who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams? But the clear understanding in those days was that dreams were not something that was concocted in one’s own psyche. Dreams were messages, sometimes complex ones, that came from an outside source. In fact, they often came directly from God.
The Bible is full of such references, of course, and one of the most famous ones is the dream we heard about in our passage from Genesis this morning. It’s about Jacob, that troublesome son of Isaac. The fellow who stole his brother Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. The troublemaker and trickster. The thief of the birthright and the blessing of his father.
Their father Isaac is on the verge of death, and Esau has said he will kill Jacob after their father dies. Rebekah, their mother and Jacob’s co-conspirator in the plan to steal Isaac’s blessing from Esau, hears that Esau is out for Jacob’s blood and warns him. Isaac, on his deathbed, sends Jacob to find himself a nice girl from among their own tribe rather than one of the local girls – haven’t we heard that before? – and he is off to Paddan-Aram, where his mother’s people are, to find a bride. He is also on the run, because he knows Esau is feeling an itch for revenge.
At this point we realize that Jacob is a thoroughly unsympathetic character. He has been awful to his brother. He has lied to his father. He has enlisted his mother, who favored him over Esau, in his crimes. It is very difficult to like Jacob.
And that is what makes what happens next so odd.
Jacob stops to rest overnight, on his way to Paddan-Aram. He finds a spot to rest, grabs a rock from the ground, and uses it as a pillow. I can’t imagine using a rock as a pillow, but it’s all that’s available – he had left in a hurry – so he uses it.
And then he has a dream.
Now we would expect he might have a dream about his brother chasing him off a cliff, or his father weeping in heaven because of his bad behavior, or even about a camel standing on his neck and causing it to hurt. This would comport with our modern understanding of dreams as reflections of what is going on in our lives.
But Jacob’s dream is true to the ancient form. It is a message from God. First he sees a ladder with angels going up and down the rungs. Then God speaks: "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."
I don’t know about you, but I would have expected a dream from God to say “You’re really a sad excuse for a human being. Go back and ask everyone’s forgiveness, and maybe then I won’t smite you!”
But here is God, seemingly rewarding Jacob despite his bad behavior. And in the background, those angels keep going up and down the ladder.
Why would God give this gift of a promise beyond imagining to someone like Jacob?
Was God trying to make the point, once again, that the work God has in mind can be done by even the most dysfunctional people? Was God applauding the fact that Jacob was so desirous of the birthright, that blessing that would bring with it the leadership of the great nation promised to his grandfather and father, that Jacob ‘s unsavory methods were overlooked? Was God moving Jacob along a path to be able to appreciate the gift of leadership, on-the-job-training, as it were?
One clue might be the other image in the dream, the angels going up and down the ladder.
What about that ladder? Well, we think of it as a stepladder, but a more apt description of it might be a narrow passageway, even a conveyer belt of sorts through such a passageway. Some rabbis have spoken of the ladder as the steps to a more perfected self, sort of a self-improvement ladder, but I think it is instead what Jesus talked about when he instructed his followers to “enter through the narrow gate,” and when he said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,” the eye of the needle being a very small door within a larger city gate. That thin little passageway separating the divine realm from the earthly one, that doorway to heaven, is the place that God’s messengers pass through as they carry out their work.
Angels are those messengers. “Angels” in Hebrew is “Malak,” a word that means either an earthly messenger or a divine one. They are the carriers of what God wills…they are going back and forth between heaven and earth, bringing those divine instructions to earth and reporting back to heaven. So perhaps the angels in the dream represent exactly what is happening at the moment of the dream. A message from heaven is coming to someone on earth. The angels may be the planters of the message into the dream, or they may be affirming God’s message to others so they understand what is happening to Jacob. The angels, that parade of them cycling through heaven and earth, are the reminder of the ever-present God who guides God’s people.
So what do we understand of this dream? God employs yet another unlikely person to do the work of building a nation. God reaches out directly – through the dream – to let that person, Jacob, know what lies ahead. God subtly lets Jacob know that guidance from heaven will keep on coming, an endless stream of messengers carrying that guidance.
So that’s the dream. We know how Jacob reacts – he is stunned by it. As with all people who behave badly and then receive surprising grace, he is shaken that the God who knows exactly who and what he is has chosen him in this way. He knows the ground on which he stands is a thin little passageway between earth and heaven, that narrow gate that the angels pass through. So he consecrates and marks the ground and names it. It is Beth-El, God’s House, now, not merely a rocky stretch of desert.
Jacob is transformed by the dream. God has shocked him into recognition of what he is to become, and it is more than a little frightening.
But those are dreams of ancient times….we don’t dream like that today, do we? It’s more the dreams like Freud and Adler talked about, our psyches working out what’s on our minds during the day…or is that really so?
Can we imagine our dreams as the place where we trust we can communicate with God without our doubts and fears getting in our way? Where we do not block out the possibilities that God might set before us, because in dreams we do not defend ourselves from those possibilities? Can we hope that we can sense God’s presence in our dreams, because when we are awake there is so much noise around us that gets in the way?
I cannot say that I’ve had a dream where God spoke to me directly. But I do know that I’ve had dreams where I’ve become calm about a difficult situation before me, and where I’ve gotten some clarity about what I should do.
Adler and Freud would say this was internal – my own mind working out what it needed to work out. I wonder about that. Maybe dreams are times when we are in that narrow gate between heaven and earth, and God’s whispers can be sensed, and in those moments an inspiration or a blessing comes to us. It’s not science. It’s theology, a very different thing. I embrace the dream, and the narrow gate, and the possibilities God sets before us, however the message arrives and whomever the messenger may be.
The image above is a different kind of Jacob's ladder - an electrical one. It is a device for producing a continuous train of large sparks which rise upwards. The spark gap is formed by two wires, approximately vertical but gradually diverging away from each other towards the top in a narrow "V" shape.