“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno (paraphrase, Dan Melligan)
When life says you are in exile, God says you’re on pilgrimage. The stories of the Bible are filled with characters, and I mean real characters, who barely qualify as citizens of any society. So it’s no surprise when real world forces drive them into a strange, alien place.
But as Erich Auerbach insists, there are three things that make these stories of biblical exile more interesting than other classical literature examples. It is the stuff of promise, of hope and of individuality. The heroes of other cultures and stories have very little in common with us, the readers. They are privileged, wealthy and noble. The best we can hope for from their stories is to escape for a while from the reality of our own worlds.
But because of the Bible’s unique doctrine, the stories of outlaws, ne’re-do-wells, and just plain frail humans are filled with redemption. A calling back, a calling up to a higher station. Some say even adoption into God’s chosen family.
The story of Jacob’s Ladder is just one example. As Jacob flees the wrath of his brother, Esau, he settles down for the night for rest. Left only with a stone on which to lay his head, he dreams. And oh, what a dream! That dream sets the stage for a sudden turn in the history of civilization.
But in order to understand its import it is essential to understand those three things that Auerbach points out:
1) The Bible insists that these stories are true. The promise of God visiting humankind and blessing the whole thru the life and work of persons is essential for the “democratization” of faith. Jacob’s unseemly resume is just one pointed example of such. Not worthy and yet chosen by God. To do his work and to bless the world. That’s a unique storyline.
2) There’s a drama when the life of the individual and the calling of the Lord come together. There are two dramatic uses that are introduced into literature by way of the Christian influence. One is, “and then….”(et ecce) introduced by Dante in the fourteenth century, and its predecessor, “and when.” This is found in the earliest citations of the Elohist who wrote the works of Genesis and specifically the passage we know of Jacob in chapter 28 verse 17.
Lightning in a bottle, dreams turning to reality, water to wine, turn-of-the-page-kind-of- stuff. That place where the kingdom of heaven and the citizens of earth meet. Nothing will be the same again. As the character, Camel, says to the young pilgrim, Jacob in “Water for Elephants,” ‘get ready for the ride of your life!’
3) Because the Bible demands a reality that promises His selection of humankind and frail, failed ones to boot, the story becomes a literal profane sacrament. This is Julia Holloway’s term for the comic and laughable idea that God uses us with our personalities and the impious plan He puts into play. A rescue operation led by dunces, divorcees and dunderheads.
It’s not only great story, it’s great gospel.