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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

When I was studying the story Jacob fleeing from his brother in Genesis 28, I wondered if the idiom, “caught between a rock and a hard place,” came from this account of Jacob sleeping on the hard ground, curled up with a rock as his pillow? I’m a curious person, so I turned to trusty Google to see if it came from this Bible story. Although there appears to be no conclusive origins of this expression, interestingly some believe this phrase goes all the way back to Greek mythology documented by Homer. Syclla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters who were supposedly opposing one another on opposite sides of the Strait of Messian. Syclla was a rock cliff on one side while Charybdis was a treacherous whirlpool on the other. Both hazards were equally threatening to maritime travelers. It was believed to be impossible to pass outside of the range of danger of one of the threats without becoming endangered by the other peril. In America, this phrase is often used to indicate the option of two choices which are both difficult.

From a spiritual standpoint, we often see ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place and respond with despair. We think God could not possibly be at work; that perhaps he had abandoned us when a situation seems beyond His ability to work for good. We may even jump to the conclusion that because we are facing a challenge that God is not active - maybe He is asleep? In Jacob’s situation in Genesis 28, he was traveling and was caught in a desolate location. He was fleeing from his brother, Esau, whom had just been tricked to giving his inheritance rights to Jacob. Jacob is alone but also lonely as he contemplates starting over in a foreign land without any family. He stops for the night, finds no one to help him and without a comfortable place to rest, so he cuddles up with a rock for his pillow. In this place of desolation and loneliness, God comes to Jacob through a dream in which he sees a vision of heaven, often referred to Jacob’s ladder, and is spoken to by God. During this miraculous encounter with God, he receives a promise to become the great nation of Israel and be the father of God’s very own people. God also promises to be with Jacob, to watch over him, and to never leave him. It would be an understatement to say this was a pretty spectacular experience with God. Upon waking, Jacob exclaims praise to God and calls the place where he slept, “Bethel,” which means “house of God” because Jacob personally encountered God in that location.

If you look back over the history of Jacob and the nation of Israel, this was Jacob’s most intimate and awe inspiring encounter with God. He experienced a vivid vision that he knew was a personal encounter with the Lord. I would even conclude this may be the most intense dream to any the Patriarchal figures from the first five books of the Bible. The only encounter with God that may be more astonishing is Isaiah’s vision when he was commissioned in Isaiah 6. In this scene Isaiah sees the Lord, seated on His throne, high and exalted. When Jacob saw this vision, he was laying with his head right on top of a hard stone.

In my life, when I look back over the most challenging and rigid situations, I see the same truth. At first, I see opposition and think it must be a mistake. Surely, God cannot be working through the tragedy or difficult circumstance? But, He can. He does. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Hindsight always helps me to see the fingerprint of God more clearly. I can look behind me and see how the tragedy or hardship was God working through my situation and drawing me close to Him. And, it is during these challenging times that God has consistently granted the greatest glimpse of His goodness, His holiness, and His intimate friendship. Just like when Jacob had to experience distress to open his eyes to God, I too often have to face suffering to cause me to look aside, to look for Him, and to take my eyes off what is right in front of me to gaze into His eyes. It is during these times of hardship that I have personally encountered God in the most intimate way and grown the most in my faith. I wish I could remember to gaze intently in His eyes on the easy days, but sadly, my flesh is stubborn. I’m thankful that He sometimes gives me stones and hard places to graciously draw me back to Him and remind me of my great need for Him. Just like the Ancient Jews needed to make bread daily in order to survive, I need the Word of God each day to thrive in this world too! I need the transforming power of the Word of God to remind me of the truth of Who God is and who I am not. God has taught me that a daily diet of time in the Word is what nourishes me - Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Our nation is situated in a very hard place right now - death and disease, economic crisis, injustice, racism, riots, unrest, and division characterize each day. I pray that those believers in the great USA will gaze into His eyes and see what He might want to teach us during this time and then get straight to obeying what He says to do. Only God can rescue us right now and change us in the way we need to change, individually, and as a nation. When you find yourself in-between a rock and a hard place, look for God - He will wow you!

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