In some ways, many of the heroes of our Bible stories were people of questionable character from dysfunctional families.
Take Jacob, whom God would give a new name: Israel (Gen 35:10). Jacob the supplanter, the schemer. When his older twin Esau was famished and thinking with his stomach, Jacob talked him out of his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29-34). Later, he and his mother Rebekah conspired together to steal the special blessing that Isaac wanted to give Esau. They accomplished the deed by taking advantage of Isaac’s failing eyesight (Gen 27:1-38).
So much for closeness between twins. Twice, Jacob did his brother dirt, and Esau wanted to kill him. Literally.
Rebekah knew that Esau was planning revenge, so packed her precious Jacob off to her brother Laban, concocting a story for Isaac’s sake (Gen 27:41-46). When night fell, Jacob lay down to sleep and had a strange dream:
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.” (Gen 28:12-15, NRSV)
This is covenant language, an astoundingly gracious promise to a man whose story thus far makes him anything but deserving. A ladder joins heaven and earth; the place where Jacob is sleeping is sacred. (The NIV has “stairway” instead of “ladder” — but to people of my generation, “stairway to heaven” has other associations, and I’d rather not go there.)
Jacob awoke from the dream with fearful awe. He exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:17, NRSV), and renamed the place Bethel, meaning “God’s house” (vs. 19).
Jacob was a deceitful man, but one blessed by a gracious God. Nathanael, as saw in the previous post, was an Israelite without deceit (John 1:47). But he, too, was blessed by the same covenant God, part of the same story reaching back to Jacob and beyond. And when Jesus told an astonished Nathanael that he and the other disciples would see heaven itself open up, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51), he was drawing on the imagery of Jacob’s dream at Bethel.
The message: for those with the eyes to see, Jesus himself was the place where heaven and earth came together.