THE unfolding revelation of God may be traced onward, as it is continued in different parts and various forms to the descendants of Abraham. To the mother of Ishmael it is revealed twice over that her child by Abraham should be the father of a great and powerful nation (Gen. 16:11, 12; 21:17, 18). To the mother of Esau and Jacob, when “she went to inquire of Jehovah,” there came this oracle (Gen. 25:23):
The promise made to Abraham is twice repeated unto Isaac, first at Gerar (Gen. 26:2-5) and again at Beersheba (26:24). Under the spell of inspiration Isaac himself pronounced prophetic blessings upon Jacob and Esau (27:27-29 and 39-40). These blessings are essentially apocalyptic in character, and foreshadow the future of great peoples. They are to be interpreted as broad and general in their scope, not descriptive of particular events in history, but depicting metaphorically far-reaching purposes of divine Providence.
But more notable for our purpose than these fragmentary oracles are the prophetic dreams recorded in the Book of Genesis. The first in prophetic significance of all these is Jacob’s dream at Bethel. Having fled from the wrath of his brother Esau, he came to the spot where Abraham long before had viewed the land of promise northward and southward and eastward and westward (Gen. 13:14). He, too, looked abroad over the goodly landscape, and may be thought of as beholding the hills and clouds afar towering up like a sublime stairway into heaven as he “lay down in that place to sleep.” For in his dream that night he “saw a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” The vision seems to have been that of a gigantic stairway, composed of mountains and clouds piled one above another and stretching far aloft into the upper heavens. Far above stood the visional semblance of the person of Jehovah, who spoke and reiterated to Jacob the promise made before to Abraham (comp. Gen. 28:13-15, with 13:15-17). This apocalyptic dream embraces the ideals of a theophany and an angelophany, and in its complex symbolism is profoundly suggestive. Jacob and his seed were destined to be the chosen people through whom God was pleased to vouchsafe his highest revelations to mankind and bring the true salvation to the world (John 4:22). That salvation is ministered by innumerable hosts of angels (Heb. 1:14; 12:22). In the light of John 1:52; 14:4, 6; Heb. 9:8, we may see in the ladder a symbol of the mediation of the Son of man, in connection with whom the angels of God are continually ascending and descending to minister to such as shall be heirs of salvation. In that mystery of grace we may think of God as bending down from his heavenly throne, laying hold on the true seed of Abraham (Heb. 2:16), and lifting them up to the heavenly places.
In connection with this vision Jacob received the promise of Jehovah’s presence in all his journey and of a safe return to that land (Gen. 28:15); and the writer of Genesis is careful to note that “God appeared unto Jacob again when he came back from Paddan-aram, and blessed him,” and called his name Israel, and repeated the promise of Abraham (Gen. 35:9-13). So Jacob received a new name, as had Abram and Sarai in the former time. The divine oracle recorded in Gen. 35:10-12, is twofold, as seen by the twice-repeated “God said unto him.” The first is a repetition of the blessing received with his new name at Penuel (32:28); the second a repetition of the promise made so often before to Abraham and Isaac. The whole is presented as a visional apocalypse, for it is not only said that God “appeared” unto him, but also, after the revelation, he “went up from him in the place where he spake with him” (verse 13; comp. Gen. 17:92).
The dreams of Joseph, as recorded in Gen. 37:5-10, should be studied in connection with each other, and their points of likeness and unlikeness compared. Both are prophetic of a future relation between himself and his brethren, and the repetition under different symbols has doubtless the same import as that of the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream given in Gen. 41:32. The first dream is that of a scene on earth, and contemplates only Joseph and his brethren; the second scene is laid in heaven, and contemplates his father and mother as well as his brethren. Thus the repetitions of apocalyptic symbolism seek for variety of form where there is no material difference of signification.
The same observations apply to the dreams of the two officers of Pharaoh (Gen. 40:8-19), so far as the two dreams correspond in their formal elements. It was natural that the butler should dream of the vine with its buds, and blossoms, and clusters of grapes; and that the baker should dream of baskets of bread. The three days for fulfillment were alike in both. But for “each man according to the interpretation of his dream” there was impending a different destiny: the one was unto life, the other unto death. The two dreams of Pharaoh (Gen. 41:1-7) are more closely parallel than those of Joseph. The only noticeable difference is in the imagery of their symbolism: seven heifers or cows in the first, and seven ears of grain in the second. In the interpretation it is said that “the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (41:32). In this statement we have a most important principle of hermeneutics for understanding the formal repetition of apocalyptic scenes.