Things Of Heaven And Of Earth

Torah portion Vayetze covers twenty years of Jacob’s life – and as you undoubtedly know, so many things happened to him during these years that as always, I have to restrain myself and choose carefully the few topics I am going to comment on today. As always, I will try to focus on the parallels and the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, since this is an important theme for most of my readers.

Connecting Heaven and Earth

First of all, it’s impossible to speak about this portion without talking about mentioning Jacob’s dream. At the end of the last Portion, Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there. We will recall that this happened after the story of the “stolen blessing” – the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac while pretending to be Esau – and that Jacob was actually fleeing from his brother. Homeless, scared and exhausted, on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran, Jacob stopped at a certain place to rest for the night. “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven.”

“Jacob’s Ladder” is one of the most well-known human encounters with God in the Bible, and there is a very clear allusion to this ladder in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. However, we first find an indirect allusion to Jacob’s encounter in Jesus’ words about Nathanael (preceding his mention of the ladder): “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!”[1] Jesus seems to apply here the most basic Jewish hermeneutical methodology: kal v’chomer, “an argument a fortiori”. When Jacob had his dream in Bethel, he was running from the wrath of his brother after deceiving his elderly father. If God, in His grace and mercy, revealed Himself to Jacob, even after this deceit, kal v’chomer, how much more will the same God reveal Himself to true Israelites in whom there is “no deceit”!

Then Jesus represents Himself as the “true ladder” connecting earth and heaven: the ladder by which God’s revelation and God’s salvation comes from heaven to the earth: And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[2] There is no doubt that Jesus alludes here to Jacob’s dream and suggests that from now on, the Son of Man will play the role of this ladder—bridging the gap between earth and heaven. In another verse, John makes it very clear that the Son of Man is the only one who came down from heaven, and the only one who has ascended to heaven: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man”[3].

Through his dream, Jacob received the revelation from God and the confirmation of the same promises that God gave to Abraham and Isaac. According to John, through the Son of Man, his followers will also receive the revelation and affirmation of the previous promises: “hereafter you shall see the heaven open...” Jesus came as a transcendental, eternal and universal Son of Man[4] – and by referring to Jacob’s dream, at the very beginning of his Gospel, John attunes his readers to this heavenly, transcendental aspect of Jesus: to Jesus being “Son of Man” and connecting heaven and earth.

Crime and Punishment  

Our next episode happens twenty years later, on Jacob’s way back. In Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return to his land, along with his wives and children. Their whole departure (or rather flight) was so unseemly though, that the Torah accuses both Jacob and Rachel of the hideous sin of theft, using in both cases the same word: “to steal”. Not only did Rachel steal (ותגנב רחל) “the household idols that were her father’s”, as you probably remember, but to our great surprise we discover that Jacob “stole the heart of Laban(ויגנב יעקב את-לב לבן)[5] because he did not inform him that he was leaving and taking with him all his wives and children, i.e. Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. Almost never do we find in the Scriptures an explicit moral judgment – but in this case, the Torah uses a very strong word, and we can’t just ignore it.

Jacob leaves, but after some time Laban overtakes him and accuses him of both the fact that he had run away, as well as of stealing his idols. Overtaken and accused by Laban, Jacob is absolutely convinced that, as a matter of principle, there couldn’t be any stolen goods in his camp. To the depths of his being he is insulted by such suspicion. Indignant at the accusation and not knowing of his wife’s theft, he invites Laban to search the whole camp swearing that the one who stole would die. And Laban commences his search.

Laban searches all the tents but still doesn’t find his idols. Rachel had sat on them, and the story seemed to end favorably. Was it really the end, though? Do you remember that shortly after arriving back in the land, Rachel, still a young woman, unexpectedly dies in childbirth? Most readers don’t see any connection between this death and Laban’s search in chapter 31. Yet, the Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: “With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live”.[6] This oath was fulfilled—not by Laban, but by God Himself: the one who had stolen the teraphims, had to die.

The Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives to her son – Ben-Oni – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob didn’t want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin, “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since right hand in the Bible, often symbolizes an oath.

There are some spiritual laws that Scripture tells us about—unseen and often ignored, they are nonetheless just as inviolable as the law of gravity. That’s why the oath of Jacob ends up with Rachel’s tragic death. The connection is lost in translation, but the Hebrew Scriptures make it clear. Moreover, a generation later, this search for the stolen idols, which were never found, reverberates in the search of her son Benjamin, who, though he stole nothing, was accused of theft[7].

Inner Transformation

It is very interesting to watch Jacob in this episode. With his reverence for God, Jacob knows well that stealing is sin, and even the thought that he might somehow be mixed up in theft is unbearable to him. Despite all this, however, he is not aware that he has sinned against Laban—but he doesn’t sense that to “steal a heart”, or to deceive, is also a sin. However, the Hebrew word ganav makes it very clear: to steal a heart is also a grave sin in God’s eyes! And this is something that Jacob will soon learn because, even though he is not aware of it, he is on the way to the most important encounter of his life—and the most profound change of his heart.

Jacob is caught by this search on the road to the Jabbock, on the way to the place he will call Peniel, where he sees God face to face[8] on the road to the meeting that would forever change his name, character and his very life. He will then be able to understand that, not only is outright visible theft a sin, but the “theft of a heart,” while invisible to the naked eye, is also sin. Thus, we are starting to see what is really important to God: even though twenty years have passed, and so much has changed, and all the external circumstances of Jacob’s life have changed completely, yet, the most important change and transformation in God’s eyes is the transformation of his heart—and the most clear criteria for this transformation will be reconciliation with his brother. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen”. Next week, we will watch together this amazing transformation and the equally amazing reconciliation of the two brothers.

 

Excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  here.

Also, if the articles on this blog whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding wonderful eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

 

[1] John 1:47

[2] John 1:51

[3] John 3:13

[4] For those interested in this topic – you can read my articles about Son of Man on this blog, for instance: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/messiah-son-man/

[5] Gen. 31:19-20 (in the Hebrew the word “steal” is used in both verses).

[6] Gen. 31:32

[7] You can read More about this parallel between two searches in my book “If you are Son of God”.

[8] Gen 32:30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nick

    Thanks Julia, the picture gets bigger! I went back and read your three part post on The Son of Man from 2017 developing the concept of an earthly as well as transcendental Messiah. Perhaps we are all supposed to be “ladders” living in a constant state of flux combining the physical and the spiritual, thereby moving toward Wholeness/Holiness.
    With gratitude, Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Nick, for being such a faithful and such an interested reader. I always look forward to your comments, they always give me some food for thought. John is making clear that now the Son of Man is this “ladder” between heaven and earth – but perhaps you are right, perhaps we are all supposed to be “ladders”? I’ve never thought about it in this way. So I am also very grateful!