Jacob sets out from Beersheva towards Charan. He encounters a place, and sleeps there, because the sun has set. He takes from the stones of the place, puts it by his head, lies down in the place and dreams (Gen 28:10-12).
He wakes and says, “Wow! God is in this place and I, I did not know! How awesome is this place! This is the house of God! This is the gateway to heaven!” In the morning, he gets up early, takes the stone he put by his head, sets it as a pillar, and pours oil on its top (Gen 28:16-18).
What kind of stone is this? Is it simply a stone Jacob found at ha-makom, the place? Or is it a stone from HaMakom, the Omnipresent God? Could it be a stone Jacob brought with him, perhaps a family keepsake, a gift from his father? Could this be implied in the Hebrew word for stone, aven, a combination of the words av, father, and ben, son?
What does Jacob do with this stone? Place it under his head as pillow? Or by his forehead as an anti-homesickness keepsake? As a dream-stimulating energy source?
What shape is this stone? A pebble, a round rock, or a tall, narrow standing stone? Has Jacob come upon an ancient sacred circle of stones – a makom dedicated to HaMakom? Does Jacob lay a standing stone flat for sleep, and tip it back up for a monument? Does he anoint it with oil stored at the sacred site, enacting a customary pilgrim’s ritual of gratitude?
Today, I am wearing my medieval Jewish commentator hat. In a way, we’ve inspired modern historical Biblical criticism – and in a way we haven’t. We don’t doubt accounts of miracles. We just want to know exactly how they happened!
Image: Callanish, Scotland. Insights: Thanks to students Stacy Grove, Alan Levin, and Kirstin Autio.
For more reflections on Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3), click here.