Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “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.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
We as human beings are obsessed with place. Religious Theorist J.Z. Smith believed that location, rather than ritual or belief structures, determined the nature of our religious devotion. To quote Smith directly, “Sacrality is, above all, a category of emplacement.” To modify an example that Smith uses, there is a great deal of difference between skipping through a park and skipping in a graveyard. The location in which an action takes place can be just as important in determining the nature of an action as the action in itself. Hymns sung in church sound a little different in our ears than hymns sung in a field or even sitting in our living room.
The importance of place is why we build sanctuaries and graveyards in the first place, or why we consecrate the ground where we plan to hold religious services. We build things in spots that are significant to us, and if the location is not significant than the construction in some way transfers the importance of one existing location to another new one. Every church therefore is built after the first churches, every tent of meeting is built after the first tabernacle, and so on and so on.
In the ancient world, place had an even greater sense of importance. Religious centers were not built simply in a place where they could afford land or where enough space existed for a meeting house to be erected, but where a concrete encounter with Divinity was said to have occurred. Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Mexica, was built where an eagle stood on a cactus, representing to them a message of significance from the Gods. Olympus was a holy place to the Greeks because they believed people had encountered the Gods on it. Shechem was holy to the Israelites because it was there God parted the Jordan and let them cross into the Levant.
The locations that we highlight as significant can be communal ones like this, but they can also be deeply personal. Many of us have our own sacred location where something important happened. The location of our first date with our spouse, the place where we survived an accident that we should not have been able to walk away from, the place we saw something so beautiful in nature it just took our breath away. Place is incredibly important, we create for ourselves a thousand little axes that our world can turn around, and each one has its own importance to us.
Place is not permanent. Places can quickly disappear because of a thousand different factors. Old restaurants will close and be torn down, natural disasters will wipe landmarks off the face of the Earth, even sanctuaries can burn down or find themselves closed off to the public – no location is free from the effects of time, and no structure from the effects of erosion or rot. The wheel of time keeps spinning and it does not discriminate in what becomes crushed under its wheels.
Place, it seems, is not the eternal point of reference we would like it to be. Rivers written of in Genesis and other ancient texts simply ceased to exist at some point, in the middle of our state entire mountains have been torn down to retrieve the coal within, and cliff faces across the world have been blown to bits to create monuments of one kind or another. Whether because of human action or natural causes, we are left derelict at times as our points of orientation are disrupted. The place we loved, the place where we were loved, the place where we discovered something new about God or our fellow human beings, washed away in the ocean of time.
What can we do when we no longer have the axis on which our world turned? Where can we go when the place where God always was, now has ceased to be, and seemingly, God is now cut off from us? What do we stand on when our memories were so easily bulldozed into sand?
Our scripture today catches Jacob walking, unknowingly, in the rubble of a place where God had once been known to the world. Abraham, having traveled through the region, had built an altar in the area that Jacob now found himself. Two generations had passed, the altar had seemingly fallen out of memory, maybe even crumbled into the rocks that Jacob now used as a pillow. Whether Jacob was in the exact spot God has appeared to Abraham or not we do not know, but we know that Jacob had stumbled upon the site of a historic event like no other, and the sacredness of the place was unknown to him.
Yet in his sleep he saw a vision like no other. A great entranceway into God’s city, with angelic beings moving up and down the path from the city to the Earth. The angels, busy with their work throughout the world, were not the focus of the vision, but God was. God who was standing on the path from Heaven to Earth, God who was not sitting on God’s throne, but had left the city to come and meet Jacob. Jacob is blessed with an expanded version of the blessing that was given to Abraham at the same spot, and Jacob was moved instantly, building an altar to God like his grandfather had before him.
The text leaves us with some questions hanging over us. Is this place, now named Bethel, truly the home of God in the sense that, to meet God you must go to Bethel? Would anyone who found themselves here have an encounter with God? What about the angels? Is this the one place they enter into the world from? What do we make of this entrance to God’s city, to this encounter between God and servant in the wilderness of the Levant?
If Bethel, and indeed all places like it, are uniquely Holy so that God can only be found in them then we should all begin to mourn. We, far removed from the Levant, cannot take regular trips to Bethel or Jerusalem or any other Holy Site and hope to see God. Even if we extend to ourselves the hope that there are such places here in the United States, we cannot make daily pilgrimage to meet God, and honestly to do so even yearly to seek out sacred spaces would be difficult.
No, God cannot be limited in this way to single locations. Something more must going on than this. We cannot deny that places like Bethel, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, even places as humble as our own churches, have something sacred to them. They have seen the prayers of the faithful lifted to Heaven and the wonders of God enacted across decades, centuries, and even millennia – they are consecrated and set apart uniquely from mere constructions of wood and stone. Yet, they are not Holy in themselves, God is not constrained to appear in our churches, or in Jerusalem, or in any one place, God is necessarily free of such limitations.
This does not diminish the importance of any of these spaces, they still hold something incredibly powerful in our hearts and when we enter them we feel a change in ourselves. However, when we exist as we do right now, people who are meeting through alternate means. When we are people sitting outside of sanctuaries and behind screens. When the structures that gave us a sense of comfort still feel somehow foreign, what are we to do?
The answer is that we look to Jacob in the wilderness. Traveling as we have been, moving as we continue to through the new landscape of a pandemic era existence, we find ourselves resting in a space that is both familiar and unrecognizable. We look around and recognize what we used to know, but acknowledge that something is different. The altar of our devotion seemingly in rubble around us. The place is right, the God is the same, but have we changed? Can we see God even with the world so profoundly different, even though we do not recognize Bethel as we rest there?
Yes! The answer is overwhelmingly yes! Because while the landscape has changed, and our altars are not where they once were, or the accoutrement of our worship has taken a new form. However, the lesson that Jacob saw at Bethel was not simply that, “God is in this place,” But that God was working in all places. The structure Jacob saw reaching up into Heaven, something we typically call a “ladder,” was nothing like a ladder. Neither was it like the steps of a Ziggurat which reached up into the Heavens. No, that would suggest that something was built to reach Heaven, something put up for people to climb. It is better understood that what Jacob saw was a roadway, an incline that stretched from the city of God to the Earth The road into a city is built, not by those hoping to enter the city, but by those within, an invitation to come in, but also a way for those within the city to travel outward.
God is seen not on the throne within the city but on the roadway ready to meet Jacob. God is stepping out and coming toward Jacob. Why can we not imagine God doing the same for us? In part I think because we are expecting to find the same sacred space we knew before, or to see God like we did before. However, even when we are in the same spot, time has passed and our sacred spaces have changed. So, I think, have all of us. We are not who we were a few months ago, that is the nature of growth and of our lives. Yet, God is still on the roadway, God is still walking down to meet us. Sometimes that means we will see God in a place we saw God previously, sometimes in a place we have never known God before, but wherever we see God, we see God walking toward us. We see a blessing offered us that was greater than the one we had before.
We gather together today, in a variety of different ways and with a great deal that has changed since the last time we did so. Yet, I tell you God is in this place. Whether that place is outside of the church, in a car or a camp chair. Whether that place is sat in front of a laptop or tablet. God is with us. God is here. God is offering us a new blessing. Let us give thanks to our God who is walking down to meet us, let us give thanks that God can meet us wherever we are, let us see Bethel not in one place but in all places, wherever God’s name is called upon and God’s people gather. God is in this place! Let us rejoice to know it! – Amen
 Jonathan Z. Smith. “To Take Place” in To Take Place. (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. 1987) 104
 C. Houtman. “What did Jacob see in his dream at Bethel?” in Vestus Testamentum. 27 (1977) 337-351
 Ellen Van Wolde. “A Stairway in Heaven?” in Vestus Testamenum. 69 (2019) 722-735