Men Who Slept
We are very pleased to have another of Andrew Borland’s series on “Men Who Slept.” These articles are unusual and appealing. They are to be enjoyed and their truths are to be practised.
Few Bible stories are better known than that of Jacob, the supplanter and cheat whose name was changed to Israel because his nature was transformed through the night-long encounter with the anonymous wrestler by the brook Jabbok. Perhaps the best known incident in his life-story is the sleep and dream outside the gates of the city of Luz. The experience was entirely unexpected, and was so unusual that it altered Jacob’s attitude to God and to life. He learnt in a night a lesson which he had not learnt in all his previous experience at home with his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. Brought up as a nomad, tending his father’s flocks, the probablility is that as a faithful shepherd he had spent many a night with the open sky for his canopy. He was accustomed to the silence of the open spaces, and was not afraid to be alone.
Never before, however, had he spent a night like the one he passed outside the gates of the city of Luz. On previous occasions he was on territory near enough to the tent dwellings of his family and their servants, but on this occasion he was far from home without the presence of his sheep, and unprotected in any way. He had been accustomed to life in the open, wandering about with his father and mother as they moved from well to well seeking watering places where they might dwell with their flocks. Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents, an unsophisticated person who knew only the simple life of a countryman.
One of the family establishment, he was a source of comfort to his mother who showed favour to him more than she did to Esau his twin brother. Esau was a rover, a hunter who loved the open country, where he could meet with others. In the course of his excursions he had visited the encampments of the Hittites, and, caring nothing for the feelings of his parents, he took two wives who were a grief to Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob on the contrary had remained unmarried up until the time of his flight from home.
The story of his sleep is briefly told with that economy of words for which the Bible is well-known. “Jacob went out from Beersheba and went towards Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place and tarried there all night because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place and put them for his pillows and lay down to sleep, and he dreamed” (Gen. 28:10-12).
Beersheba had been the camping place of Isaac where he had found water for his flocks, and there Jacob had had his home. There he had witnessed his father build an altar for the worship of the God whom Abraham had honoured by building altars to His name. Jacob was much impressed by the conduct of his father, for on future occasions he referred to God as The Fear of Isaac. Far from home, now, at Luz, he evidently had lost the sense of God’s presence, until he had that experience which came while he slept at the place he later knew as Bethel, the House of God.
Look now at the man who was sleeping.
He was probably forty years of age. He was both a cheat and a liar. He had cheated his brother Esau twice, and had deprived him of his birthright and his father’s blessing. He had deceived his father and blantantly lied to him, abetted in his act by his scheming mother. Now a fugitive from the vengeance of his brother, tired and disappointed, he had arrived at Luz when the sun was set, and had found to his dismay that the gates were shut. Entrance was impossible. He must spend the night in the open.
That was an unforgettable experience. R. L. Stevenson has a most interesting description of a night when he slept in the open as he was travelling in the Cevennes in Central France with his donkey, but his surprises were not comparable with those which Jacob had on that night alone outside the gates of Luz. While Jacob slept he saw sights invisible to the natural eye, and heard sounds which he could not have heard otherwise. God revealed Himself. God spoke to him. While he slept he dreamed, the content of the dream being under the control of divine revelation. That revelation was meant to assure him that the God whom he had learnt about with his father and mother now left far behind was omnipresent. He was as near to him at Luz as He had been to him at Beersheba.
That God can be everywhere it is difficult to learn and hard to appreciate, but it is an important lesson to learn if we are to have confidence in the presence of God wherever we may be. Brother Lawrence, the lay member of a monastic community, near Paris, learnt to practise the presence of God amidst the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. It is good to remind ourselves frequently that ‘God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable’. The Psalmist gives expression to his experience: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me” (189:7-10). Jonah had a similar experience so may we too, when occasion arises.
Jacob also became apprized of that fact that God was interested in him as an individual; as much interested in him, as He was in Isaac and Rebekah, away back in Beersheba. When Sir Humphrey Gilbert was drifting down the Gulf Stream where he knew his vessel would sink, he assured his crew that heaven was as near by sea as by land. That is always true.
A second lesson he gained was this. Heaven was not like brass. It was open to the spiritual traffic of earth-dwellers who wished to make use of the access there. He saw the heavens open. He saw a stairway which reached from earth to heaven. He saw angels ascending and descending. He saw the Lord stand at the upper end of the stairway. There were no obstructions. Angels kept the line of communications open, and that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper; and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:5-6).
How did Jacob react to the vision and the voice? He showed complete acquiescence in the plan and purpose of God. He was willing to go on, trusting that God would be with him and he would care for and provide for him. Such an attitude displayed both faith and courage. We are apt to forget that the exercise of faith does not dispense with the display of physical courage. Jacob represents the missionary setting out on a new enterprise, with the conviction that he is being called of God, and has the promise that God will be with him. Yet that knowledge does not entirely take from him the fear of dangers in an unknown pathway. Even the undertaking of a new bit they carried messages up to heaven, and brought down the answers. Obviously Jacob was meant to understand that God could be reached from anywhere on earth. Wherever Jacob went he was assured by the promise of God, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest (28:15), That assurance is given to all who seek to know the presence of God. Quoting from Joshua one and Psalm 118, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews affirms that God has said, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee; so of service may tax our courage, such as setting out to visit a new and difficult district with tracts. Yet in any service any one may have the same promise as Jacob had, “I will be with thee.”
But Jacob had another reaction. He made a promise. “If God will be with me, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear … of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee” (Gen. 28:20-22). Jacob is generally suspected of having a “bread and butter” religion, but he should not be wholly condemned, for many a Christian, professing to have had a higher revelation than Jacob, has not yet reached the generosity of the tithe. Why did Jacob make that promise? Had he any precedent? The probability that his father taught him by example, and Isaac in turn had learnt it from his father Abraham who gave to Melchizedek a tenth of all the spoils of his victory in battle (Gen. 14:20). Melchizedek was the divine representative, and Jacob was following the example of his grandfather when he made the promise of a tenth to God. Although Christians might do better than Jacob, they could do worse than follow his example. The same spirit which motivated Jacob is contained in the closing stanza of the popular paraphrase,
“Such blessings from Thy gracious hands
Our willing hearts implore,
And thou shalt be our chosen God
And portion evermore.”
Two stories might illustrate the experience Jacob had at Bethel when he made the discovery that God, is not confined to any chosen locality.
When Sir Ernest Shakleston was on one of his Antarctic expeditions, with two companions he had to make a hazardous voyage across boisterous seas to reach the Island of S. Georgia where he expected to find help. The three men had to battle across the tempest-riven terrain, and as they were in sight of safety the explorer turned to his companions and said something like this, “I don’t know how you have felt, but it has seemed to me that there was a fourth Person accompanying us.”
A famous mountaineer had been on a solitary expedition and was descending when he sat down on a ledge to rest. He took from his pack a piece of chocolate. Almost unconscious of what he was doing, he broke the chocolate in two, and turned to share it with a Companion who really was not there. So keenly had he sensed the presence of Another.
Any of us may have experiences similar to these.