There’s a cartoon that was circulating on the internet a while ago. It shows how the chain of generational trauma gets broken. There are five people in the cartoon, signifying five generations. The first person is shown spewing the harmful messages they learned from their family of origin, and passing them on to their child, who then in turn yells them, albeit with less force, at their child. This carries on until the fourth generation when the adult is shown kneeling on the ground in front of their child, and they’re holding up a shield behind them, and the shield is usually something that symbolizes the culture of the family of origin, like a gong, or a drum, or a taquyah, a Muslim skull cap. Finally, the chain of generational trauma is broken when the fourth generation says to the last: “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”
So many of the stories in the Bible are stories of generational trauma, people in God’s family doing their very best to break the unhealthy cycles passed down from one generation to another. I think of Jacob in our first reading from Genesis. Jacob has a super dysfunctional family history. He has his dad, Isaac, who carries with him the trauma from his father Abraham. Isaac, favours Jacob’s older brother, Esau, because Esau represents for Isaac the son he could never be. Isaac distances himself, he withholds his love from Jacob, the son who is maybe the most like looking in a mirror, the son who, when he sees Jacob’s gentleness, mild manner, and his slender build, can’t stand the thought of the family name continuing with the son who is the constant reminder of all of the ways that he failed to live up to his own father’s expectations.
Then we’ve got Jacob’s mom. Rebekah comes from a wealthy family. She’s generous, to be sure, but she also knows that a lot of problems in life can be solved, or, at the very least, covered up, with money. So, she teaches her son lessons to that effect. She shows Jacob how to disguise himself as his brother in order to trick his father into promising him the remainder of Esau’s inheritance. Jacob, who has learned to rely solely on the affection of his mother, does what she says, inheriting his mother’s patterns of behaviour, the beliefs about herself and the world that were internalized and passed on along the family line.
We meet Jacob in our reading this morning when he is on the run from all of this family dysfunction. He lays down for the night and has this incredible dream. He sees angels going up and down a ladder from earth into heaven and back again. God tells Jacob in this dream that just as these angels are going to and from heaven as these “divine errand runners”, so also will God send angels back and forth throughout all generations, getting the work and ultimate goodness of God accomplished in the world.
Jacob wakes up from this dream feeling pretty encouraged about his future and the future of his children and their children’s children. He takes the stone that he used as a pillow for the night and he pours holy oil all over it—-a symbol and reminder that those who follow after him will have at least a stone on which they can lay their heads.
Of course, it’s so much more than a stone that God has promised Jacob. God says to Jacob in his dream, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.” We’re used to thinking about that phrase “the dust of the earth” as sand, as in Jacob’s descendants will be as numerous as the sand in the sea and as prosperous as the stars in the sky. We’re so used to thinking about it that way because that’s the way it was taught to Isaac, Jacob’s father, and that’s the way it was taught to Abraham, Isaac’s father.
But, “the dust of the earth” in this story, in Jacob’s story, is less like sand or stars and more like the “topsoil of the earth”. As in, Jacob’s descendants will become like nutrient rich earth that is placed in a garden where there are plants that have been choked out by weeds or scorched by the sun and need some topsoil whose job it is to hold in water to nourish the plants. Yes, the weeds will continue to grow beside the good seed, but the topsoil’s job isn’t to give up and resign itself to the weeds just as it isn’t the topsoil’s job to pretend the weeds aren’t there, covering its eyes hoping that maybe if it can’t see the weeds those weeds can see it.
The topsoil’s job is to look the good seed and the weeds in the eye, and to place between them, that nutrient rich barrier, that organic material shield so that when the reapers come, so that when God sends angels, all of the harmful messages and the abusive patterns and the thinking you’ll only ever be as good as . . . so that all of that sin and activity of the evildoer can be collected up and burned—burned like incense or sweetgrass is burned when prayers for healing and restoration are offered.
What does all of this mean for us today in our context?
I wholeheartedly believe that God creates human beings good, and that all of the places where we sin and fall short of the glory of God are almost always related in some way to trauma, more often than not, generational trauma. God imagines you and me so much more capable than we think ourselves to be when it comes to shielding the trauma that we all inherit to some degree from our families of origin. It can be exhausting trying to be the good seed in the next iteration of your family tree while ignoring the weeds that just won’t go away. It can be just as exhausting doing the opposite, spending all of your time weeding, worrying about the bad stuff at the expense of the good stuff, hypervigilant, policing your life and the lives of those around you night and day.
Might I suggest this morning something that Jesus suggests to his followers in our gospel reading? When it comes to generational trauma, may we leave the weeding to the angels. May we be the topsoil that provides a nutrient rich environment, the topsoil that locks in and nurtures the good seed knowing full well that weeds will grow up around it, knowing full well that at the end of the day, in the fullness of God’s purposes for the world, it’s the weeds—the trauma—that God throws into the fire—not you, not our children, not the next generation, not even our forebears. Amen.
Dan Clendenin, "God's Redemption in our Family Histories" in Journey with Jesus (08 July 2023) accessed online on 23 July 2023 at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3595-god-s-redemption-in-our-family-histories
Esther M. Menn, “Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a” in Working Preacher (20 July 2008/20 July 2014), accessed online on 23 July 2023 at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16/commentary-on-genesis-2810-19a-3 and