Jacob's dreams and ours

July 11, 2011

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which
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Century.

The dream of a ladder linking earth to heaven is surely
among the most familiar images of biblical literature. From "We are Climbing
Jacob's Ladder" to "Stairway to Heaven," the idea has been deeply embedded in
our collective consciousness.

Scholars have long recognized that dream theophanies are a
characteristic of the Elohistic (or "E") source of the Pentateuch. Vivid
descriptions of visions are scattered throughout the prophetic books as well.
In antiquity, dreams and visions were considered to have revelatory
significance--they were a means by which gods communicated with humans.
Sometimes straightforward and imperative, often full of symbols and portents,
dreams provided encrypted information, gave warning, determined fates, revealed
God's will.

In our modern sophistication we are sanguine about the
interpretation of dreams. Whatever images we see and voices we hear in our
heads, those of us deemed to be of sound mind tend not to equate nocturnal
visions with divine revelation. But the visionary capacities of the mind
continue to fascinate us--from the spontaneous, vivid, symbol-laden
picture-stories of our dream life to the wildly disturbing and putatively
revelatory hallucinations of drug-induced trances. Many of us continue to believe
that dreams reveal aspects of our own subconscious not otherwise available to
us.

And finally, we do acknowledge the revelatory potential of
the imagination, that deeply human capacity to access realities beyond our
immediate perception and to synthesize disparate and complex bits of data into
meaningful patterns. Perhaps this is the best parallel in our experience to the
hypnomantic beliefs and practices of antiquity. With each instance of insight
or inspiration that seems to come from beyond ourselves, we are "climbing
Jacob's ladder."