Jacob of Sarug on Jacob at Bethel

Jacob of Sarug wrote a verse homily on Jacob the Patriarch’s Revelation at Bethel (trans. Dana Miller, Gorgias Press, 2020). This is based on Genesis 28:10-22:

Now Jacob … came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. … and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, 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 spoken to you.”

Then Jacob awoke 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!” Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel … Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.

The opening of the homily is significant: instruction is better and more valued when one learns with love (Ha.bee.bo.eet), for love will carefully and unwearyingly attend (1-4). It is especially good to listen with love to the stories of the righteous, for they approached God with love. (5-6). This is a critical point: only one who has had some experience of an emotion, or at least of something similar to it, can appreciate it in another. Hence, if we have experienced the love of God, we can read that love in the narratives of the Patriarchs. But if we do not possess that, then we see only legends.

Jacob then says that wherever the Patriarchs were wandering, they were seeking God: He is every land. And as they journeyed, they were living according to the mysteries and symbols of Christ. Even if they did not know this, yet they were acting in accordance with Christ, and so when we read about Jacob and the Patriarchs, we can read about Christ (7-14). The path Jacob takes into the wilderness is consistently called “the Path” of Jesus. When Jacob falls asleep this is seen by Jacob of Sarug as a “mystery” (rō.zō) of the death of Christ, and the Patriarch is said to fear suffering, because this path cannot be completed without suffering: the word used is Ha.šō, the word used for Our Lord’s passion. The stone he placed beneath his head was seen as a type (Toof.sō) of the Church, for Jacob could not proceed on this path without the types (25-32).

Jacob’s dream is described as being filled with teh.rō, translated as “wonder,” but Sr Hansbury (RIP) notes that in Syriac “wonder” is not just surprise, but a way of seeing and feeling divine realities. I would say that it is a state of being in which this happens. What Jacob sees in his dream are the types (Toof.se), because these are the divine patterns of earthly reality (66). Jacob states:

Not a single one save Jacob had seen this new spectacle / this stupefying vision so replete with veracious types. / Who has seen a ladder like this one, from the ages, / which was placed on earth and reached unto Heaven, who save Jacob? (65-68)

Then Jacob of Sarug comes to the centre: the ladder on which angels descend from heaven to earth and reascend to heaven is the Cross of Christ. It raises us up so that we may enter heaven: it reconciles the enmity which had existed between heaven and earth. The Cross is now the Path of Christ – so broad that nothing can hinder us from following it (106). The lines on Jacob’s sleep are particularly beautiful:

In the quiet of the night he rested from the turbulence of the world and he beheld / the Lord of the ages teaching him concerning hidden things. / He entered into sleep and reached the realm of things mystical and secret, and there he learned hidden mysteries and their interpretation. (123-126)

The stone on which Jacob slept, and the stone pillar he set up, are types of the Church. After all, St Ephrem had used this image for the rock over the tomb of Our Lord, and for Simon Peter, whose name Kefa meant “rock.” Because, then, of Matthew 16:18, the typology of Church and rock is quite biblical (199-203, with Sr Hansbury’s footote).

Further, in Jacob’s dream he sees the type of the Son (227), because, as is stated, the Son is to be wed to the Church, and they are therefore one. “Engrave for me the types” Jesus says to Jacob, and then go on your way (232). When the template is laid out, when the principles are secure, we can descend into the details of our life, because they are based on the divine pattern.

Having seen this vision, Jacob “began the work of truth in the world like an industrious man” (272). And us?


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