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Religious Experience

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

When people talk about religious experience, they use a wide array of vocabulary that has developed as part of our cultural heritage. However, people of ancient cultures did not have these forms of expression available to them and instead tended to use narrative to try to describe their religious experiences to those around them. This religious experience narrative was more easily understood within the cultural context it was written (or spoken). However, in the modern world we are no longer used to this kind of mythologizing* where people use narrative to express complex religious and philosophical ideas.


*Myth is this context does not mean untrue

By Andrei Rublev. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54421


We can see examples of this in the Pentateuch. One of the characters who has such religious experiences is Jacob. When Jacob returns from his exile, he knows that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and he is very afraid of what Esau will do (Genesis 32:1-6). Being unsure of what to do, Jacob withdraws and prays fervently to God for deliverance. In the night, God appears to Jacob in the form of a man and they wrestle with Jacob prevailing, saying “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). Similar to Jacob’s prayer, begging for God’s blessing and protection, Jacob struggles against God trying to win the blessing he needs.


Later on, Jacob is asked to “make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your bother Esau” (Genesis 35:1). Jacob and those with him travel to Bethel as instructed where God blesses him and renews in Jacob the promises of Abraham, giving him a new name and promising nations and kings shall be his descendants. They make Bethel a sacred place where Jacob sets a pillar and makes an offering to God. The narrative provides a reason for the sacred place and the fittingness of making an offering to God who has kept his promise and given many blessings to Jacob.


Previously in the Pentateuch, Abraham and Sarah also had a religious experience by the oaks of Mamre. The Lord “appeared to Abraham... as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heart of the day” (Genesis 18:1). The Lord appeared as three men and when Abraham saw them, he immediately he got up and went to Sarah to offer succor to those who had appeared. The Lord tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. Sarah, well past her child bearing years, is so incredulous that she laughs when she hears this news. In the story, the Lord does not back down from his promise. He remains faithful, even in the face of doubt. This experience shows the value of having faith even when the promise seems impossible.


Through these three different experiences we can glimpse some of the ways that the writers of these stories saw God. He offers blessings to those who persevere in prayer. We should offer sacrifice for those blessings and the promises He keeps. Finally, God is faithful and we must maintain faith in Him even when our situation seems difficult or even impossible. These stories help make abstract ideas about God more concrete.

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