Genesis 28:10-22 (HCSB)
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there because the sun had set. He took one of the stones from the place, put it there at his head, and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching heaven, and God’s angels were going up and down on it. 13 Yahweh was standing there beside him, saying, “I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your offspring the land that you are now sleeping on. 14 Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south. All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 Look, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.” 18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that was near his head and set it up as a marker. He poured oil on top of it 19 and named the place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me.”
According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his book “God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning”, the quote from Jacob in verse 16 is more accurately translated as “God was in this place and I, I did not know.” Note that the word “I” is used twice. “God was in this place and I” is said, then “I did not know.”
Also note that the angels were going up and down – not down and up. This is in verse 12. They are already here on earth, going up to heaven. They aren’t just up there, coming down to us. They are here, with us. God came down to be with Jacob and stood next to him.
God is here, with us. God sends messengers to be with us, intermediaries. They are already here, we just can’t see it.
Perhaps what Jacob was saying was that God was here with me, all along. I was unaware of it.
So Jacob (not yet named Israel) set up a rock – an altar. Because he was altered. His perception was changed. He wanted to remember – this place is special. God was here. Here was where I woke up.
Yet it became A place, rather than an idea that God is with you. Jewish tradition says that same place was where Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac, many years before. It also says that it became the site to the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple, many years later. It became a fixed place – not an idea. God’s presence was there, and only there, not everywhere. This is a very limiting and dangerous idea.
Let us see what Jesus said thousands of years later – This is when he calls Philip to be his disciple. Note at the end what he says to Nathanael, Philip’s friend.
John 1:43-51 (HCSB)
43 The next day He decided to leave for Galilee. Jesus found Philip and told him, “Follow Me!” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law (and so did the prophets): Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!” 46 “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked him. “Come and see,” Philip answered. 47 Then Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said about him, “Here is a true Israelite; no deceit is in him.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Jesus answered. 49 “Rabbi,” Nathanael replied, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus responded to him, “Do you believe only because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” 51 Then He said, “I assure you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Note that Jesus says in verse 51 that the angels will be “ascending and descending” – going up and down, exactly the same as Jacob. Jesus knew the scriptures well, and he too noted that God’s messengers weren’t just coming down to us. They are already here with us.
God’s presence is already here, with us, right now. Don’t set up an altar. Here isn’t the place. Everywhere is the place.