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A Journey through the book of Genesiswith Willow Creek Community Church

Read Genesis

Week 4/Day 3: Ziggurats, Portals, and the Nearness of God

Willow Creek Community Church

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord.

~ Genesis 28:12–13a

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In Genesis 28, Jacob departs to Mesopotamia and along the way has a remarkable dream. In this dream, he sees “a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” It is likely that the structure Jacob envisions here is what is frequently referred to as a ziggurat. Ziggurats were stepped, pyramid-like structures built throughout ancient Mesopotamia that were designed to be like portals to the divine realm. The Mesopotamians believed that the stairways featured on ziggurats made it possible for the gods to descend from the heavens to their temples on the earth below. In this way, people could have access to otherwise distant gods. 

Interestingly, what Jacob sees in his dream corresponds in part to what we know about ziggurats. Like the Mesopotamian gods, the angels of God ascend and descend on the stairway. However, Jacob’s dream departs from Mesopotamian beliefs in one critical way. God Himself has no need for the stairway. It is significant that in this story God never uses the stairway Himself. He is depicted as standing on the earth, beside the ziggurat (the Hebrew phrase translated as “above it stood” is better translated as “beside it stood” as we see in Genesis 28:13). The point is that God can travel to and from the earth, and all throughout the earth, as He pleases. He does not need a stairway to be with His people. 

The significance of this for Jacob was that God could be with him wherever he went. As God says in verse 15, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go . . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Likewise, the significance for us is in recognizing that God isn’t distant from us. God is with us, even when we, like Jacob, find ourselves alone, uncertain, and journeying to unknown places.


Genesis 26:34–28

Jacob Takes Esau’s Blessing

34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. 35 They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

27

1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.”

“Here I am,” he answered.

2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your equipment — our quiver and bow — nd go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.”

5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.’ 8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”

11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.”

13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.”

14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made.

18 He went to his father and said, “My father.”

“Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”

19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”

20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”

“The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.

21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.”

22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked.

“I am,” he replied.

25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.”

Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.”

27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said,

 

“Ah, the smell of my son

is like the smell of a field

that the Lord has blessed.

28 May God give you heaven’s dew

and earth’s richness — 

an abundance of grain and new wine.

29 May nations serve you

and peoples bow down to you.

Be lord over your brothers,

and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.

May those who curse you be cursed

and those who bless you be blessed.”

 

30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”

32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”

33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him — nd indeed he will be blessed!”

34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me — e too, my father!”

35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”

36 Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”

37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”

38 Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.

39 His father Isaac answered him,

 

“Your dwelling will be

away from the earth’s richness,

away from the dew of heaven above.

40 You will live by the sword

and you will serve your brother.

But when you grow restless,

you will throw his yoke

from off your neck.”

 

41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”

42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”

28

1 So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him. Then he commanded him: “Do not marry a Canaanite woman. 2 Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. 3 May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. 4 May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.” 5 Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau.

6 Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, “Do not marry a Canaanite woman,” 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. 8 Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; 9 so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”


Exploring the Text

1. Considering what we learned in today’s reading about ziggurats and staircases in Mesopotamian and Biblical traditions, what do you think Jesus means in John 1:51 when He says, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man?” How does Jesus function as a stairway or portal to Heaven?

2. Before Jacob’s departure in Genesis 28:3-5, Isaac gives him two major covenant blessings. What were those two blessings? These blessings are a theme throughout Genesis – why are they so important? 

Reflection Question

3. The short passage in Genesis 26:34-35, give us an insight into Esau’s heart. He marries not one woman, but two. Both women are pagans. And both women make life difficult for Isaac and Rebekah, their in-laws. Then again in Genesis 28:6-9, Esau learns of his father’s disapproval of his wives and instead of divorcing them, takes a third Canaanite wife. This certainly seems spiteful! For Isaac and Rebekah, we might consider how they felt watching their son make so many poor decisions and stray from God’s commands.

How have you seen this played out in your own life? Is there anyone in your life who you have watched make poor decisions to satisfy his or her own desires? How has their life been affected by their decisions? How have you responded?