Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob has very little direct contact with God. The first time he appears is when Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau, having stolen their father’s blessing. Esau has vowed to kill Jacob so their mother packs him off to the house of her brother Laban in Padan Aram. On his own for the first time in his life, rightly terrified of both his brother and the journey Jacob is also, according to a convincing analysis by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, penniless. Night falls, he lies down to sleep with nothing but a rock as a pillow and dreams his famous dream of the ladder ascending to heaven.
At the top of the ladder stands God, who promises his that he will be with Jacob in exile, protecting him and eventually returning him safely to his home. But this first revelation to Jacob takes place in a dream at the moment of the greatest crisis in his life. A far cry from Abraham’s first revelation, a commanding voice out of the blue, sending him away from his home and family into the unknown, to a place that he will not recognise till he gets there.
Jacob’s revelations, like those of his father Isaac come at moments of great personal crisis or doubt. His second contact with the Almighty comes when he realise he cannot stay in Laban’s household any longer. God encourages him to leave, but there is no revelation. God simply speaks to him, and when he tells his wives about the conversation he clarifies that it was an angel speaking to him in a dream. Indeed it is not until after his sons have slaughtered the inhabitants of Shechem and Jacob is fearful that the neighbouring tribes will attack and destroy him, that he receives his next full revelation.
Unlike Abraham and Moses, who each have a direct, two way relationship with God, initiating conversations, receiving commands and sometimes arguing back, Jacob’s connection with the Almighty is one way. He is guided and reassured, any commands he receives are only in the context of the journey he is on at the time.
This type of strategic revelation, as opposed to the collaborative dialogues that Abraham and Moses partake in, reaches its apotheosis with the classical prophets. Acting as God’s messengers, their revelations, though often described using more dramatic language than Jacob’s, are designed to achieve an outcome. They are nothing if not strategic.
We live in a world in which dramatic revelation is no longer present. If someone tells us the clouds opened, they saw a heavenly vision and heard God speaking to them, we don’t take them seriously. Of course we may experience personal revelations, perhaps believing we have received a divine message in a dream. Bu if we do we are likely to keep it to ourselves. We might wish for a dramatic, strategic revelation to direct our actions, to remind us that, like Jacob, what we do is part of the great divine plan. It’s worth remembering that even Jacob only had such five encounters in all 147 years of his life. Our task is to rely on our values and our rational minds. In a world reverting to fundamentalism and dog whistle ideology, they are the divine tools to guide us.