When Jacob lay his head down on a stone under the starry heavens and drifted off to sleep, he thought he was quite alone in the world. He was a fugitive on his way to a distant land. But that night he dreamed of a ladder spanning heaven and earth upon which the angels of God ascended and descended. When Jacob awoke from this dream, he exclaimed,
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:17, 17 ESV)
Jacob awoke with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. His statement implies that the LORD had been with Jacob before he lay his head down to sleep that night but he ‘didn’t know it’. None of Jacob’s physical circumstances had changed but only how he perceived them. “How awesome is this place!” Jacob exclaimed. Jacob called the place Bethel, which means, “the House of God”. It was the exact same title that would later be used of the tabernacle and its more permanent replacement, the temple. The central meaning of the temple is that ‘God is with us in this place’. But it is clear from Jacob’s dream that God’s presence was in no way conceived of being confined to a place on earth. Interestingly enough, Jacob equates the house of God with the gate of heaven – as though an invisible ladder linked heaven and earth. The Psalms likewise consistently link the hope for life after death with the temple.
This is one of those passages that can be shown, with all probability, to date to a time before the divided kingdom. The holy place is not identified with Jerusalem but with Bethel – a high place that was later condemned by the prophets. That means that this text must have been considered ‘canonical’ sometime before Jeroboam erected a golden calf at the site. It is interesting that already, in this early period, this text must have been considered sacred. Otherwise, the name Bethel would certainly have been changed to Jerusalem, or expunged altogether, to make it fit with the centralizing reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah.
This passage is also of interest for archaeology in as much as Jacob commemorates his dream by erecting a stone (matzeva) and anoints it with oil. It illustrates how little an artifact tells us about the beliefs of the people who made it. Herman Melville, in his epic story, Moby Dick, tells a story about a whale that washed up on shore leaving behind an intact skeleton. Scientists took detailed measurements of the skeleton hoping that by it they could comprehend something of the whale. But Melville notes that the skeleton of a whale gives only the barest understanding of the creature. Only those who have felt the sting of the salt spray, looked the beast in the eye, and hurled their harpoon… only they can tell us about the whale! I have read a number of studies of the temple and the tabernacle that are very detailed and scientific but treat it as nothing more than an artifact – like the bones of a whale washed up on shore. But to understand the tabernacle is to be able to say with Jacob, “How awesome is this place!”