Jacob's Dream And A Ladder That Reached The Sky
( Originally Published 1921 )
"I wish I had a ladder that reached the sky. Then I would go up to the top and see what was there." So said a boy whose eyes sparkled with delight after an evening's talk and study of the stars. That was many years ago. The boy is a man now, and it may be that he has found a ladder such as he desired.
For there are ladders that reach the sky, many of them—no, not made of wood which you have to climb, but very much better and safer, for they have this advantage, there is no danger of falling off and getting hurt.
Did you ever visit an observatory and look at the moon through a telescope? Did n't your breath come in little gasps of astonishment as the great ladder of glass let your eyes climb to the sky and pry into the moon's secrets? The telescope is one kind of a ladder, and a fine one; but there is another and better one. It is of this one that I am going to tell you. A boy found it and used it, and when you read about him you will know how to find such a ladder for yourself.
His name was Jacob, and he lived before there was any such thing as a king or a queen or a president. There was no government at all except the law which the head of the family made for himself and his children and all his descendants. It was what was called the patriarchal age. Then all the different relatives lived together as one large family, or tribe, and were ruled by the father, or possibly the great-grandfather, of them all. His word was law. No one ever thought of disputing it. His sons, themselves often white-haired men, obeyed him as a little three-year-old child obeys its parents today.
In the "beginning time," as we call the patriarchal age, there were no priests and no churches. Each family had its own altar, around which the family gathered while the father, or the eldest son if the father were absent, performed the service.
Upon the death of the father the eldest son succeeded him in authority, receiving a double share of his property. It was the same then as it is now in countries where there are kings; when the king dies his eldest son becomes the ruler, and this son's brothers and sisters become his subjects and must obey him. To be the first-born son—girls didn't count— and to have all the privileges of the first-born was often coveted by the younger sons.
The two boys of our story were twins, and as different from each other as black is from white. Their mother had no difficulty in telling them apart for they didn't look alike. Esau, the first-born twin, was strong and sturdy and a great hunter, while Jacob, the younger, was a quiet but keen-witted boy and not very strong. Esau was rough and hairy, but Jacob's skin was smooth and soft. Of course Rebecca, their mother, loved Jacob more than she did his sturdier brother. What mother does not feel more tenderly toward the child she thinks is weaker than the others?
Their father, Isaac, a gentle and kindly old man, took great pride in the strength and power of his elder son, Esau, and often went with him to the fields to hunt. Esau was a most successful hunter, and was never afraid even of the fierce wild beasts that he often met while he was chasing the harmless wild animals.
Sometimes he was away from home for days at a time, digging pits in the ground or setting traps by which he caught the deer. He carried nets with him by which he snared the birds, and of course always remembered to take his bow and his quiver full of arrows.
In those "beginning days" there was no convenient market around the corner where one might buy a juicy steak or tender chop and have dinner ready in half an hour. In those days when anyone was hungry for meat, he usually had to go out and hunt for it, and then kill and dress the animal before it was ready for the cook. Think of waiting a week before you could begin to get the dinner !
You ask why people did not use the sheep and cattle from their own flocks and herds instead of hunting wild game? Sometimes the domestic animals were killed for food, but not often. Remember that a man's wealth in those days was counted by the number of sheep, goats, camels, and cattle he possessed and also by the number of slaves he owned.
"What about the land?" you ask. The people moved about so much with their tents and cattle that very few of them owned much land. They had not reached the "settling down" age. Their goats and cattle gave them milk and butter; their goat skins made warm mantles and soft beds. Then, too, their sheep and goats were often slaughtered for their religious services. The wild animals were plentiful and did not have to be fed or cared for; they cost the people nothing but the labor necessary to hunt them.
Esau had been away on one of his hunting trips and had caught nothing. Perhaps the deer had broken his nets and he had found his traps and pitfalls empty, or the birds may have flown so high that his arrows could not reach them. Days away from home and nothing to take back with him! No doubt he was ashamed to return and face his father, who was so proud of him, and who loved to eat the savory food made from the venison Esau brought him. Sleeping in mountain caves or out in the open fields wet with the falling dew was a strain on the strongest hunter. Esau must have been so chilled that even the noonday sun did not warm him. Added to this was his disappointment at getting nothing for his toil. Enough to make anyone tired and weak, was it not?
He turned slowly homeward, very different from the happy hunter who with springing Steps usually returned laden with game. His eyes must have lighted up with pleasure when he saw Jacob sitting in the door of his tent eating his meal of red lentil pottage, with possibly a bit of meat in it and flavored with onions. Jacob was a thrifty fellow,, with always enough and to spare. He would take pity on his hungry brother and share his dinner with him, thought Esau, as he hastened his steps and greeted Jacob.
"Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint," said Esau.
Jacob looked at him coldly. There was no sympathy for his brother in his face or voice as he replied, "Sell me first thy birthright."
What an astonishing request ! Who but Jacob would ever have thought of buying a birthright?
Esau had often made fun of his brother and his quiet habits. Sometimes he had felt con-tempt for his timid twin, whose only weapons were his shepherd's sling and his staff. But the hunter was hungry; he was now the weak one and Jacob the strong. Jacob's work had been protecting the weak, while Esau's had been slaying the strong and the fierce. We shall see which made the stronger man of the two, the one whose courage slew wild beasts or the one who cared for the gentle sheep.
Esau, glorying in his great physical strength and the power it gave him, recognizing no other force but that which belonged to his muscles, was impatient. He must have whatever he wanted at once or he was likely to forget that he wanted it. But Jacob was used to waiting. Out under the silent stars when he guarded his sheep at night he must have learned the lesson of patience.
Yes, Jacob had used his thoughts while Esau had used his muscles, and each had grown in his different way. Now the mighty hunter was sick with hunger. This frightened him and he answered :
"Behold, I am about to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?" Besides, he may have thought, the blessing of the birth-right is a long way off, and this good dinner is right at hand.
Foolish Esau! The present is but for a moment, the birthright is for a lifetime. Why can't you learn from the brother you despise as feeble? Jacob would not want the birthright if it were worthless. The very fact that he values it should teach you its worth.
But no, Esau rushed headlong into the trap Jacob had set for him. He vowed to his brother that he would give up the right of the first-born, and sat comfortably down to his mess of pottage.
From each of the brothers we turn sadly away—from Jacob, who saw in his brother's need only an opportunity for his own selfish gain, and from Esau, who had no thought for the responsibility of his birthright and the duties which went with it. He traded it for a moment's pleasure as readily as a baby would drop a diamond and grasp eagerly at a scarlet pebble.
But the reckoning time came to each. Isaac, their father, was growing old and wished to give Esau the blessing due the first-born. Esau made himself ready to receive it. He had forgotten his bargain with Jacob—forgotten that, according to that bargain, he had forfeited the blessing. Even had Esau remembered that he had sold his birthright, he who knew no other way of settling a difficulty except with a sword, probably felt that his peaceful brother Jacob would not contend with him. Again did Esau make a great mistake. His fists were powerful, but they could not battle against Jacob's wits.
Jacob, with the help of his mother, Rebekah, cheated his brother out of the blessing by a trick, and his father bestowed on him the rights of the first-born.
Esau was angry, bitterly angry, at the fraud his brother had practiced, and threatened to kill Jacob as soon as their father should die. Rebekah was badly frightened when she heard Esau's threat. In haste she called Jacob and told him to go at once to his uncle Laban's home in Paddan-aram.
"Tarry with him a few days, until thy brother's fury turn away; until thy brother's anger turn away from thee, and he forget that which thou hast done to him; then I will send and fetch thee from thence; why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?"
Rebekah knew her elder son's nature. Esau was quickly angry and as quickly over it. Whatever he said or did was hasty. Esau acted twice before he thought, whereas Jacob thought once, twice, and probably many times before he acted.
Poor mother ! That which she feared came upon her. The tricks she had used to keep her sons separated them forever from her.
Rebekah had been obliged to make some excuse to get Jacob away from home, so she had said to Isaac, and probably to curious neighbors: "I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?" Then Jacob's father had said to him, "Go to Paddan-aram and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother's brother." And Jacob went, after receiving from his father an added blessing.
Rebekah would not have smiled so brightly the morning she kissed Jacob good-by had she known that she was never to look upon his face again. She must have stood and watched as he made his way across the plain that she might see him wave his staff just before he disappeared among the shadows of the rocks. It was a long, tedious journey from Beer-sheba, Jacob's home, to the home of his uncle in Paddan-aram, and one beset by many dangers for a lonely traveler.
Although Jacob's friends and neighbors probably called him dutiful, he knew better. He was being driven from home through fear of his brother. He saw that the birthright he had bought, instead of at once giving him-the ease and comfort of the eldest son, had really cost him his home and made him a wanderer. He was a thinker, but he had to learn what King Solomon said years afterward : "Guard ever your thoughts with all care, for from them come the issues of life."
He had quite as much contempt for his brother Esau as that brother had for him. Esau cares for nothing but physical things, thought Jacob; he is rash and hasty and uses his sword too often.
Yes, Jacob, but your brother has used his strength honestly. In that he is better than you who have used your strength dishonestly. You have not yet heard the commandment : "Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain." That means, you shall not misuse any gift which God has bestowed upon you. You have used your head, while Esau the light-hearted has used his fists. But you, with the birthright you have bought, are an outcast, while Esau rests safely at home.
The journey was long, the way often rough and dangerous. The gleaming eyes of hungry beasts that prowled close to his nightly fires, and the howls of wolves eager for their prey, kept Jacob awake at night. By daylight, men, often more cruel than the beasts, might attack him unless he was so fortunate as to fall in with a slowly-moving caravan. Now and then a solitary traveler would overtake him and offer him a ride upon his camel. Then their ways would part and Jacob would be left alone again.
One evening, weary and heartsick, he paused to rest. The place seemed safe and free from fierce wild beasts. It would make, he thought, a good place to sleep for the night. He built his fire and shivered as he held his hands out toward the blaze. The sun had set, and long shadows began to creep along the ground; the hills were throwing their blanket over the valley for the night. What was more natural than that Jacob should be thinking of his mother! It was the hour when the family would be eating their evening meal and laughing gaily as they sat around the overflowing bowl which contained their supper, and into which they dipped their hands as they helped themselves. He closed his eyes to make the vision more real, but the howl of a wolf from the distant rocks and the scream of a lone wild bird roused him from his reverie and made him realize his solitude.
Of what was he thinking? That the birth-right for which he had so carefully planned had so far brought him only misery. He was beginning to see that God's gifts cannot be bought; they must be earned.
According to oriental custom, he could not give back the birthright. It was his, and he must keep it. Hard as it weighed upon him, he knew that he must give his life for the purchase he had made.
How ? Wait, the story will tell us.
The place where he camped was rough, stony ground, but it was better than the dampness of the field. He found a stone which would make him a pillow, and, resting his head upon it, he fell asleep—then he found the ladder.
"But that was only a dream," some of you may say.
What matters it? If one finds in a dream that for which he is looking, is it not as good as finding it in the waking hours? Of what had he been thinking when he lay down to sleep? Turn back in the story and it will tell you. He was beginning to see what you will remember the prophet Micah said years after-ward : "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good ; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness?"
Birthrights were nothing. It was character which counted. Jacob, the homesick wanderer, knowing that he needed to be shown a better way than the one he had tried, was then taught of God.
"And he dreamed ; and, behold, a ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and, behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, Jehovah stood above it."
Tortured and tormented as he had been by fear of his brother, obliged to make this journey which exposed him to the many dangers from which he shrank, Jacob learned in his dream that earth is not after all so very far from heaven. God's presence, as a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, is over all. "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool."
The mean thoughts of envy and selfish love of gain were being stilled as the messengers of God descending and ascending whispered to him of kindliness, mercy, and truth.
Yes, Jacob knew that the God who had called Abraham and had blessed his father, Isaac, was now speaking to him, and into his softened heart there crept the certainty of the promise : "I am Jehovah, the God of Abraham thy father and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
"Be blessed!" There must be some change in him before he could be a source of blessing. So far he had blessed neither his own family nor himself. He was a fugitive from home and dated not return. He had gone out with the curse of his brother's hatred resting upon him. But he meant to return, and if God would be with him in his home-coming, that return should be a blessing to all. He had thought only of himself and his own gain, until into his awakened heart there crept a desire—faint at first, but it was there—to be of use to others.
God promised more to Jacob than the land upon which he slept. His descendants should not only inherit all this beautiful country but He also assured Jacob that Jehovah his God should always be with him. "And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of."
The vision faded. Jacob awoke, but he was a very different man from the Jacob who fell asleep. The loneliness and grief had gone, and a trust in a Power higher than any he had ever known was comforting him.
"Surely," he said, " Jehovah is in this place; and I knew it not . . . this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
The sun was just peeping over the hilltops when Jacob arose and began to get ready for his day's travel. The morning air smelled sweet and fresh; everything seemed happy and gay. Had he been David, he would have said,
" The mountains skipped like rams,
The little hills like lambs."
The birds were singing, and as the sun rose higher it shot its golden rays directly across the stone which he had used for his pillow, making it glitter and sparkle in the sunshine. Jacob lifted it up and, drawing a flask from the pouch he carried, he poured oil upon it and made a vow to Jehovah : If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, and Jehovah will be my God, then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house ; and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
"There he is bargaining again," I hear some of you say. But remember, his good resolutions are new. Do you expect him to be perfect at once? Why, that is more than we ourselves do. The people we find between the leaves of our Bible are like us, and in them we see ourselves as though we were looking in a mirror. Do you say Jacob hasn't changed any? Read again the vow he made to Jehovah. What did he promise?
"I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
Think of it, the grasping Jacob, whose eyes have looked with no pity on another when that other's need could be turned to his own gain ! The small, narrow soul which wished only to get something is beginning to think of giving, and that generously.
From this time on Jacob's life was one of service. It was in this way that he had to give his life. For twenty years he served his uncle Laban, fourteen years for his wives, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his flocks and herds. Yes, he did wrong during those twenty years, but he never forgot the lesson of the ladder — the love of God means service.
In serving, Jacob earned the birthright he had bought. Through service he at last deserved it. Esau with his sword became the conqueror of another people and drove them from their land and country. On him the blessing could not rest. Jacob in blessing others was blessed himself ; in serving others he him-self was served.
Twenty years was he away from home. The lessons of those years were often hard and bitter, but through them all he served. The ladder which reaches from earth to sky is service-giving instead of getting.
Jacob had caught a glimpse of the heavenly ladder. Years afterward the seed of Jacob, in whom should all the families of the earth be blessed, said on the sunny slopes of the Judean hills, "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth."