Do you dream at night? Or, the better question is, do you remember your dreams, because experts tell us we all dream, and we need that REM time in which we dream in order to be healthy. But some folks remember dreams, and others do not. Some people write their dreams down right away in order not to forget them. Some keep dream journals. Psychologists generally regard dreams as a roadway to read the unconscious mind, to better understand our innermost thoughts and feelings. There are books and experts to interpret dreams. Some common elements in dreams are said to symbolize certain things – like, being chased, which is a common dream, is said to mean you are running from something; water can represent emotions, whether cloudy or clear, calm or turbulent; death may not symbolize death as much as the end of something, in order to make room for something new; flying (without a plane) is also a common dream, and can symbolize freedom; and so on.
We certainly put a lot of stock in dreams, but not as much as did the people of biblical times. Dreams, or “visions of the night,” from a root word meaning “to see,” were regarded in the ancient near East as messages from supernatural powers, from gods. Nightmares, or frightful dreams, were seen as the work of sorcerers or evil spirits. Dreams as messages from God were so valued that kings would try to induce dreams to help them make decisions by sleeping in temples. Even wise king Solomon did this (I Kings 3). Some biblical dreams were easy to interpret, like King Abimelech’s dream after he took Sarah from Abraham, who told him she was his sister. In the dream, God told Abimelech that she was not Abraham’s sister, but his wife, and that if the king took her as his wife, he would die. (Gen. 20). In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph clearly heard in a dream that he was not to divorce Mary but to take her as his wife, that the child in her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And the wise men clearly heard in a dream not to go back to King Herod after visiting and worshiping the baby Jesus, so they went home another way. (Matt.1 &2)
But other dreams were cryptic and needed interpretation. The Old Testament Joseph had dreams of sheaves of wheat bowing in the field to his sheave, and the sun, moon and 11 stars bowing down before him. When his brothers heard these dreams, which he interpreted as them bowing down to him, they sold him into slavery (Gen.37). And while Joseph was in captivity, the Pharaoh had dreams that no one else could interpret. Joseph’s interpretations got him out of prison and into a position of authority in the Pharaoh’s kingdom. In the Old Testament especially, dreams were seen as conveying messages from God, and often needed interpretation either directly from God, or from someone who prayed to God, like Joseph or Daniel. God spoke to kings and prophets and other individuals through dreams.
So, in our passage today, this rascal Jacob had fled his home after stealing the birthright of his brother and the blessing from his father, Isaac. This patriarch of the faith for many religions was far from a perfect man. He seemed to follow his own desires more than the will of God. But as he slept, while fleeing from his brother’s wrath, and with his head on a rock, he had a dream. In this dream, angels, or messengers from God, went up and down a ladder between heaven and earth. Note that the ladder of ancient times was more likely a building called a ziggurat. You have a picture of one on the bulletin insert. They were safe places for priests, and may have also inspired the story of the building of the Tower of Babel. Ziggurats were thought to be places where earth touched heaven.
In this dream, God spoke to Jacob, telling him that God would give to Jacob three blessings – the blessing of God’s presence, the land and numerous offspring, and restoration to his home. Walter Brueggeman refers to these blessings as “accompaniment, protection, and homecoming.” These are basically the same blessings God gives throughout the Book of Genesis, to Abraham, to Noah, to Isaac and Jacob. These would be blessings that would reassure these men and their families of a future with a place to live, with children, and the protection of God through it all. They would fit the aspirations and needs of most people in ancient times. But instead of being the work of many gods, as was often believed, these blessings would come from the one true God.
Jacob had not expected this dream. He had not prayed to God before he lay down, as far as we know. Yet God appeared to him with a message of blessings. Jacob, in response, made an altar of rocks in this place, and anointed it with oil. He named the place Bethel, meaning “house of God.” Jacob honored this as a holy moment and a holy place. And then he continued on his journey away from Esau, and met his future wives and father-in-law (which we will talk about in coming weeks. We will also learn more about another vision of God for Jacob, as he wrestled with a messenger of God all night.) Still the trickster for his own sake, perhaps Jacob needed a little more interaction with God before becoming the man of strong faith who still inspires us today. He was far from being a perfect man. Yet God chose to speak to him, to bless him, to act through him to bless generations, to basically form the people of God through his progeny.
But the text tells us that Jacob had some thoughts about this dream from God. He restated the blessings God had given him as conditions for his following God. Perhaps Jacob was still not quite convinced about this God. Maybe Jacob still had some growing to do in his faith life.
We can take this, and any story in the Bible, at face value, and just see it simply as a dream vision of God coming to an individual, and go no further with it. Or we can try to figure out what this story tells us for our lives today. Walter Brueggemann says that Jacob made a vow to God after this experience, that indeed his life was changed, and that he left this holy place with a new sense of call. Brueggemann reminds us that God can fulfill promises even with those who trick or deceive, that God can work through even those we would see as unworthy, or even as unfaithful.
And maybe we can take this passage and delve more deeply into the concept of dreams, as we wonder if God still talks to us through dreams or visions. If dreams of the night give us insight into our psyches, then maybe they inform the dreams we have by day. Our dreams can motivate us. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “I have had dreams. I have had nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of the dreams,” said Jonas Salk, the man who found a cure for polio. The influential playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “You see things and you say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” And (one more!) John Lennon wrote in his song, “Imagine:” “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”
Maybe we can even see through the Bible stories an incentive to follow dreams. Though the Gospels do not record Jesus dreaming per se, his birth stories are surrounded by dreamers being informed by God – Zechariah, Joseph, and the wise men, and perhaps even Simeon, who was guided to the infant Jesus by the Spirit. But Jesus did have visions of the world in ways that differed from those around him. When he read Scripture in his hometown about God anointing him to free the captives, to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, his townspeople ran him out of town. Jesus often conflicted with the Pharisees and Saduccees on interpretation of Scripture. They often called him out for performing healings, acts of mercy, on the Sabbath. Jesus’ vision of the world turned worldly ideas upside down – “Love your enemies,” “Do not judge, lest you be judged,” “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” and so much more. Jesus encourages us to dream beyond ourselves, to dream of a world that treats all people like the little children who came to him.
So maybe we can see in this not so perfect Jacob, a trickster, a liar, a man who ran away from the truth rather than facing it, a glimmer of God’s sense of humor but also God’s justice that can regard all people with the same respect and love. Maybe we can, as a young senator named Barack Obama in 2006 wrote, have “the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary,” to have what he called “the audacity of hope” in the midst of a world of turmoil and division (Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 356). For if we are to dream, we need to dream beyond ourselves. Our dreams need to focus on things that our faith calls us to do, like ending homelessness and poverty and bringing justice for those who cannot seek it for themselves, or protecting this earth that God created and gave to us for care, and making the world a safe and hospitable place for people of all races, genders, and religious persuasions because we are all God’s children.
When the winds and fires of Pentecost swept through the crowds in Acts 2, and people of all nations understood one another, some people sneered and thought these Spirit-filled people must be drunk. Yet Peter stood up to defend them, and quoted the prophet Joel, saying that God would “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17). Emboldened by the the dreams given to them by Holy Spirit, the disciples went on to establish the Christian church. Much can be done by following dreams. We have but to seek to know where God is in our dreams, and to then trust God.
As Brueggemann says about this dream and appearance of God to this imperfect man Jacob, “The startling element is not the appearance of God, for religious phenomena are still with us in all sorts of ways. But here the amazement is not in the appearance of God. Rather, it is God! The element in the narrative that surprises Jacob and seems incredible to us is not the religious phenomenon of appearance. It is the wonder, mystery, and shock that this God should be present in such a decisive way to this exiled one.” “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob, “and I did not know it.” Take that thought out with you as you leave this place today. Take it with you all week long, and see what a difference it makes.
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” May the visions of a loving God guide us all our days and nights. Amen.