"The Ladder Between Heaven and Earth," by Zachary Helton
After Jacob tricks his father and steals his brother’s blessing, he escapes into the desert. The familiarity of his home and family now far behind him, he journeys out in fearful anticipation of what comes next.
Let us now find ourselves in this story, ancient yet ever new.
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he passed the night there. He took a rock and used it for a headrest and lay down to sleep there. During the night he had a dream: there was a great ramp, starting on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and messengers of God were going up and coming down the ramp. YHWH was there, standing on it. YHWH said: “I am YHWH, the God of Sarah and Abraham, and the God of Rebecca and Isaac. Your descendants will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the ground; you will spread to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south, and all the tribes of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. Know that I am with you. I will keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this land; I will not desert you before I have done all that I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke and said, “Truly, YHWH is in this place, and I never knew it!” He was filled with trembling and said, “How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” Jacob rose early the next morning, and took the stone he had used as a headrest and set it up as a monument, and anointed it with oil. Jacob named the place Bethel—“House of God”—though before that, the town was called Luz. This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
Anna collapsed into the ground in a reclining position next to her grandfather. They stared at the fire in front of them. Anna’s robe would be covered in dust, something to be reckoned with tomorrow, but now she hardly cared. Exhaustion clouded out her ability to think about it. The Babylonian family she served was, to put it mildly, awful. Her ill-tempered mistress was perpetually dissatisfied with Anna’s work, and her mistress’s sons were terrors. She rarely had dealings with the family’s patriarch, but when she did, she always felt uneasy at his wandering eyes. She had only been with them for three months, but already she wondered now how much longer she could take it. Not that she had a choice.
She knew her grandfather’s work was even more taxing as he spent long days as a stone mason in the service of the governor, who had a reputation as an impatient man. She wondered how long his aging hands would be able to keep up the work. Everything in her life seemed to be deteriorating before her eyes. Oh, how different things had been in Judah. How she longed for the days before the invasion that had killed her father, before the deportation in which her mother, likewise, was lost.
The old man’s voice, crackling like the fire, brought her back into the moment. “Granddaughter,” he said with the inexplicable smile he always wore, “how is your spirit?” She struggled to understand his calm, as she always did, but she was also quick to surrender to it. She always found it soothingly contagious. She had grown to treasure the old man’s presence. Her frown grew deeper as she considered what her life would be after he passed.
“I feel as though I’m carrying my weight in rocks,” she answered honestly. “They rest on my shoulders and in my stomach. Grandfather, I don’t know how I can take another day of servitude. My grief sears me like a hot iron. I am alone, like a cub separated from its pack.” She felt her eyes growing hot, but pushed away the feelings that threatened to overwhelm her. “We know no one. We have no temple,” she said matter-of-factly. “The peace of Judah and the presence of God are far behind us, and we will never taste them again.” She spoke the words from a bitter mind, which was safer than speaking from her heavy heart.
Her grandfather moved closer and wrapped his old cloak around them both. For a moment they just sat together, looking into the fire.
“Have I ever told you,” the old man asked, breaking the silence, “about our father Jacob?”
Anna smiled in spite of herself. “A thousand times, Grandfather,” she said in false protest. In truth, she loved his stories, which were the stories of their people. They’d been told for generations, changing and moving ever so slightly with each telling. They were living stories, and in this place, cut off from their homeland, they seemed more important than ever. Even if it was only to provide a moment of merciful escape, Anna hoped the old man would tell his story in spite of her teasing. Her hope was answered.
“Oh yes, certainly,” her grandfather said. “I’ve told you of his unlikely ascent, of his reputation as a scoundrel and thief, of his boldness to wrestle with the Living God until he limped away with a blessing… but tell me, have I told you of that strange night in the wilderness? After he’d escaped his murderous brother, seeking after the house of his uncle, Laban?”
This caught Anna off guard. This was actually, somehow, a story she did not know. “Tell me, Grandfather,” she said with a genuine curiosity it seemed only he could inspire.
“Well,” he began, tightening the cloak around them, “Jacob was a natural born trickster. From the moment of his birth, he was grabbing at the heels of his older brother. Twice in his life had he cheated his brother out of the birthrights that should have been his, and this last time he had gone too far. Their father was blind, you know, and Jacob fooled the poor man into giving his blessing to him rather than his brother, the first born.”
“I know, Grandfather,” Anna interrupted, her impatience getting the better of her. “You’ve told me this story! But what of the wilderness?”
“I was getting there!” The old man said, “Hold your horses! Now, where was I? Ah. When his brother found out what had happened, he vowed to avenge himself. Every breath a threat of murder. So, Jacob and his mother concocted a plan for his escape. Under the guise of looking for a wife, Jacob fled to his uncle’s estate in a faraway land. That is where this story begins.
“For days and days, Jacob travelled alone across treacherous terrain – his family behind him, his home a distant memory. All familiarity had turned to sand and ash, and he journeyed on, holding tightly to the memories of what he’d lost. He spent many a sleepless night lost in his own resentment and guilt.
“Then, one day as the sun was disappearing beneath the bleak horizon, Jacob collapsed in exhaustion and loneliness. Pulling up a stone on which he would rest his head, he experienced a rare moment of surrender, loosing himself in suffering and sleep.
“That night, as Jacob slept, he dreamt he opened his eyes to find himself at the base of a ziggurat, a stair-stepping pyramid that seemed to reach into the heavens. In his life, he’d seen a few of these made-made mountains meant to bridge heaven and earth, but never in his life had he seen one quite like this. With the base of the great ramp at his feet, its top truly did reach into heaven, and angles ascended and descended its stairs.
“He sat in awe, hardly daring to believe what he saw, when he noticed a figure standing over him. The figure seemed at once far away and uncomfortably close, on every step of the pyramid at once. Jacob realized, his heart skipping several beats, that he sat in the presence of YHWH! Over him stood the God of Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah. Words failed him, but rather than fear, all he knew was the peace and joy of this being’s presence. All Jacob saw was the unfailing grace in the half-smile of God’s shining face.”
Anna tried to imagine the beauty of the scene her grandfather described. She so desperately ached for the peace, the justice that God encompassed. To have such Shalom right there, to be able to touch it so intimately… she envied the exile Jacob. Her grandfather went on, his voice slow and soft.
“‘My child,’ God said to Jacob in a musical language that sounded so familiar. When God spoke his name, it was a name different from his own, yet at once more fully his than any other. ‘My child, know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you, nor will my loving-kindness depart from you even beyond the end of your days.’ And with that, the hand of God reached out tenderly and brushed Jacob’s face, and he woke from his sleep with a gasp. It was still night, but somehow the darkness was as light to him. The world was vivid and clear. Am I truly awake? he wondered. And he was. He was nothing if not truly awake.
“‘Surely God is in this place,’ Jacob said, nearly breathless, ‘and I did not know it. This place is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.’”
As he spoke, Anna watched as her grandfather picked up a stone at his feet, turning it over in his hand. “The next morning,” he went on, “Jacob took the stone he’d put under his head, anointed it with his meager supply of oil, and set it up as a marker to remember God’s presence.” He regarded the stone in his hand. “That simple stone was more truly a ladder between heaven and earth than the tallest ziggurat in the richest empire. Jacob knew from that point on that no matter his suffering, no matter his loneliness, no matter his feeling of separation from joy and peace… that he would never truly be separated from it. God, who was the source of all these things, would never be further from him than his own breath.”
His story ended, and they both sat in silence except for the crackling of the fading fire. They watched it fire burn, sparks shooting up every so often as the wood shifted and sank.
“Granddaughter,” the old man again broke the silence, “I hear your feelings, and those feelings will rise and fall like waves, like circumstances, but the truth is: you could no more be separated from God, from peace, from joy… than a flame could be separated from light.” She was silent as she took in his words. Giving her space, her grandfather began quietly singing an old psalm. She recognized it from what felt like a different life.
Where might I go from your Spirit?
From the image or breath we share?
Where might I hide from your presence?
Whether heaven or death you’re there.
If I sail on the wings of the morning,
Or sink deep in the depths of the sea,
Still your right hand will hold me,
For your life will live on in me.
“Grandfather,” Anna interrupted after a few stanzas. “I hear you, but how am I to believe that God is here? Here of all places? Each day is misery and brokenness. We are leagues from God’s joy, and if God is here as you say, surely it is with a rod of punishment.”
To her surprise, her grandfather smiled again. “If your God is a despot on a throne, sitting atop a pyramid judging the iniquity of the people, then yes, I’m afraid this suffering is a story of punishment, and you had best change into your sackcloth.” He nudged her playfully with his elbow, but she was unmoved. “And yes,” he continued, “if your God resides in a temple, a building, a nation, a way of life, then God is indeed far away. Either way, granddaughter, you will spend your life striving for this God, reaching out for it, scaling the ziggurat to touch a heaven you will never quite grasp. Such is a life of suffering and disappointment. But granddaughter, this is not who we are. We need neither ziggurat, nation, nor temple. We need no stairs to connect us with heaven, because heaven is already here. The Temple is right here,” he tapped his chest with his wrinkled hand, “and The Kingdom of God is among us, at hand.” He gestured around with his rock. “Surely God is in this place, whether you know it or not.”
“How?” Anna asked. “How can this possibly be true?”
“Because, granddaughter,” he responded gently, “God is not any of those things. God is the immortal, immovable Spirit that burns at your core, even if you cover it over with fear and illusion. God is the breath breathed into Adam’s lungs, the same breath you took in the moment you were born. God is the image in which humanity was made, and the same image you see when you gaze into a still pond. These are not things from which you can separate yourself, or be separated from. You may lose sight of them, and they may be covered over, but they have not gone anywhere.” He tightened his arm around her for a second. “God is the Great Loving Consciousness, the ability to care for one another and work towards shalom. Is that not here, in this moment?
“How can God not be in each moment? Even in the wilderness, with everything he loved behind him, how could God not be with our father Jacob? Such is the boundless nature of God’s grace.” He moved away and turned so that he could look in his granddaughter’s face. “The only thing that separates us from God, granddaughter, is the thought that we are separated from God. God’s presence is your birthright. In this ever-changing landscape of life, you must learn to find it anew, and anew, and anew – to be mindful of it in and through all things. This is the unending work of being human.”
Was it possible, she wondered, that here in the midst of the ache and isolation, of disruption and disconnection, there was a deeper truth flowing beneath it all? She imagined calm cool water beneath the ocean waves crashing violently on the surface, a surface she felt trapped upon.
“And how do I go about this work of being human” Anna asked with a note of annoyance, “of uncovering this God who hides from me? How do I get around that which covers God?”
Her grandfather smiled patiently. “You do not,” he said. “You cannot get around it. You go through it. God is not found in spite of anything, but within everything. Many are the narrow paths that lead you to God, awe, suffering, prayer, meditation… but none lead you to escape. There are none which do not take you into the heart of your pain or call you to look deeply at that which is around you… but then each path leads you out into a spacious clearing on the other side.” A moment passed. “So, granddaughter,” he said. “I ask you again. How is your spirit?”
Anna again felt that fear and loneliness, the despair rise up in her chest, but this time, as her grandfather had said, she stayed with it. She didn’t seek to escape it or push it away. She leaned in, and leaned into him, as her body was wracked with sobs. It truly did feel as though it would overwhelm her, as though she were walking through death. She did not know how long they stayed there, holding one another, but eventually, to her astonishment, the feeling that had risen in her fell once again like a wave. In its place there was peace, a calm relaxation she did not understand. They sat with this for a long while, this Spirit of Shalom she had never felt in quite this way. Her grandfather began quietly chanting his psalm again. Eventually, Anna smiled. Surely God is in this place, she thought to herself, and I did not know it. She looked up to face her grandfather.
“You may call this place Babylon,” the old man said after a moment. “You may call it exile. You may call this…” he gestured to the dusty landscape around him, “the dirty, shared courtyard of a poor, old man… But do you know what I call it?”
“What do you call it, grandfather?” Anna asked reverently.
He looked back at the fire and smiled. “I call it the House of God.”