Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
Genesis 28: 10-17
10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
This is a very famous passage of scripture. We’ll dive right in with The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 10:
And Jacob went out from Beersheba,—in obedience to his father’s commandment to seek a wife (Genesis 28:2), but also in compliance with his mother’s counsel to evade the wrath of Esau (Genesis 27:43; cf. Hosea 12:12. On Beersheba vide Genesis 21:31; Genesis 26:33—and went towards Haran—probably along the route traversed by Abraham’s servant (cf. Genesis 14:10).
Then the story begins to take on some of its mystery. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary at verse 11:
(11) He lighted upon a certain place.—Heb., he lighted upon the place. The article probably signifies that it was the place appointed for the revelation, though lighted upon by Jacob by chance. As it lay twelve miles north of Jerusalem, in the mountains of Ephraim, Jacob had already been at least four days on the route (see Note on Genesis 22:4); and though we are not to suppose that Isaac would send away the son who was heir of the blessing without a few trusty servants (nor does the expression in Genesis 32:10 require it), yet Jacob would none the less feel the solemnity of the journey, and the difficulties which surrounded him. Well may he have asked whether El Shaddai would confirm him in the possession of that which he had defiled by fraud and cunning. And thus, meditating much and praying much, he had in those four days drawn near to God, and is at last accepted. The interest in Jacob’s life lies in the gradual improvement and progress of his character. Religion was always a reality with him; but at first it was of a low type, and marred by duplicity and earthly scheming. His schemes succeed, but bring with them sorrow and trial; and trial purifies him, and gradually he advances into a region of unselfish and holy piety. Though to the last he was a man sagacious, and full of expedients, yet the nobler part of his character finally had the supremacy.
He took of the stones. . . . —Heb., he took one of the stones of the place, and put it as his bolster. Jewish commentators identify the place with Mount Moriah, and say that the stone which Jacob placed under his head was one of those which had formed the altar upon which Isaac had been bound for sacrifice. The name Beth-el signified, they add, the temple, and as makôm—place—is thrice used in this verse, it mysteriously foreshadowed the three temples—Solomon’s, Ze-rubbabel’s, and Herod’s—which successively occupied the site. More probably Beth-el was really the town of that name, and these explanations are allegorical rather than expository.
a certain place = מָקוֹם mâqôwm, maw-kome’; or מָקֹם mâqôm; also (feminine) מְקוֹמָה mᵉqôwmâh; or מְקֹמָה mᵉqômâh; from H6965; properly, a standing, i.e. a spot; but used widely of a locality (general or specific); also (figuratively) of a condition (of body or mind):—country, × home, × open, place, room, space, × whither(-soever).
stones = אֶבֶן ʼeben, eh’-ben; from the root of H1129 through the meaning to build; a stone:— carbuncle, mason, plummet, (chalk-, hail-, head-, sling-) stone(-ny), (divers) weight(-s).
From the Pulpit Commentaries:
And he dreamed. This dream, which has been pronounced “beautifully ingenious,” “clever” and “philosophical,” the work of a later Hebrew poet and not of Jacob (De Wette), was not wonderful considering the state of mind and body in which he must have been—fatigued by travel, saddened by thoughts of home, doubtless meditating on his mother, and more than likely pondering the great benediction of his aged and, to all appearance, dying father. Yet while these circumstances may account for the mental framework of the dream, the dream itself was Divinely sent. And behold a ladder—the rough stones of the mountain appearing to form themselves into vast staircase (Stanley, Bush)—set up an the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven:—symbolically intimating the fact of a real, uninterrupted, and close communication between heaven and earth, and in particular between God in his glory and man in his solitude and sin—and behold the angels of God—literally, the messengers of Elohim, i.e. the angels (Psalms 103:20, Psalms 103:21; Psalms 104:4; Hebrews 1:14)—ascending and descending on it—vide John 1:51, which shows that Christ regarded either the ladder in Jacob’s vision as an emblem of himself, the one Mediator between God and man (Calvin, Luther, Ainsworth, ‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ Murphy), or, what is more probable, Jacob himself as type of him, the Son of man, in whom the living intercourse between earth and heaven depicted in the vision of the angel-trodden staircase was completely fulfilled (Hengstenberg, Baumgsrten, Lange, Bush).
And, behold,—”the dream-vision is so glorious that the narrator represents it by a threefold הִגֵּה (Lange)—the Lord stood above it,—the change in the Divine name is not to be explained by assigning Genesis 28:13-16 to the Jehovistic editor (Tuch, Bleek) or to a subsequent redactor (Davidson), since without it the Elohistic document would be abrupt, if not incomplete (Kalisch), but by recalling the fact that it is not the general providence of the Deity over his creature man, but the special superintendence of the God of Abraham and of Isaac over his chosen people, that the symbolic ladder was intended to depict (Hengstenberg)—and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac:—thus not simply proclaiming his personal name Jehovah, but announcing himself as the Elohim who had solemnly entered into covenant with his ancestors, and who had now come, in virtue of that covenant, to renew to him the promises he had previously given them—the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed—given to Abraham, Genesis 13:15; to Isaac, Genesis 26:3.
And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth,—promised to Abraham, Genesis 13:16; to Isaac, under a different emblem, Genesis 26:4—and thou shalt spread abroad (literally, break forth) to the west, and to the east, to the north, and to the south:—(cf. Genesis 13:14; Deuteronomy 12:20). In its ultimate significance this points to the world-wide universality of the kingdom of Christ (Murphy)—and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed (vide Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18 (Abraham); Genesis 26:4 (Isaac).
And, behold, I am with thee,—spoken to Isaac (cf. Genesis 26:24); again to Jacob (Genesis 31:3); afterwards to Christ’s disciples (Matthew 28:20)—and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest,—literally, in all thou goest—in all thy goings (cf. Genesis 48:16; Psalms 121:5, Psalms 121:7, Psalms 121:8)—and will bring thee again into this land;—equivalent to an intimation that his present journey to Padan-aram was not without the Divine sanction, though apparently it had been against the will of God that Isaac should leave the promised land (vide Genesis 14:6, Genesis 14:8)—for I will not leave thee,—a promise afterwards repeated to Israel (Deuteronomy 31:6, Deuteronomy 31:8), to Joshua (Genesis 1:5), to Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:20), to the poor and needy (Isaiah 41:17), to Christians (Hebrews 13:7)—until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of—cf. Balaam’s testimony to the Divine faithfulness (Numbers 23:19), and Joshua’s (Gen 21:1-34 :45), and Solomon’s (1 Kings 8:56). It is impossible, in connection with this sublime theophany granted to Jacob at Bethel, not to recall the similar Divine manifestation vouchsafed to Abraham beneath the starry firmament at Hebron (vide Genesis 15:1).
And then also from Ellicott:
(12) Behold a ladder. . . . —Isaac had confirmed Jacob in the possession of the blessing before he started on his long journey, but it was necessary that he should also have the Divine ratification of his appointment; for the chief privilege was the covenant with God previously confirmed to Isaac, his father (Genesis 17:19-21). Day after day, then, he travels forward, anxious and oppressed, feeling as he went farther from his home the responsibilities attendant upon that birthright which he had coveted so eagerly. His lot was now a repetition of that of Abraham; but he had travelled from Haran with a noble following, and by express command. Jacob had at most but a few attendants, and no voice from God had ever as yet reached him. But faith in Him was growing strong, and the Divine ratification to him of the Abrahamic covenant was at length vouchsafed. In his sleep he sees a ladder, or staircase, rising from the ground at his side, and reaching up to heaven. It tells him that heaven and earth are united, and that there is a way from one to the other. Upon these stairs “messengers of Elohim are ascending and descending,” carrying up to God men’s prayers, and the tale of their wants and sorrows, of their faith and hope and trust; and bringing down to them help and comfort and blessing. At the head of the ladder Jehovah himself stands. The word is that used in Genesis 24:13, and signifies that the Deity was not there accidentally, but that He holds there His permanent station. Finally, Jehovah from His heavenly post confirms to Jacob all the promises made from the time when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, and assures him of His constant presence and protection.
It has been pointed out that each of the three stages in the dream has emphasis given to it by the word behold, and that this rises to a climax at the third repetition, when the covenant God is seen stationed at the head of this pathway between earth and heaven. But besides this, the value of Jacob in Jehovah’s sight arises now from his being the appointed ancestor of the Mesciah, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed (Genesis 28:14). Christ, too, is the Way symbolised by this ladder (John 14:6), and the bridge of union between the material and the spiritual world (1 Timothy 2:5). Our Lord, accordingly, Himself claims that “the angels of God ascend and descend upon Him” (John 1:51),
dreamed = חָלַם châlam, khaw-lam’; a primitive root; properly, to bind firmly, i.e. (by implication) to be (causatively to make) plump; also (through the figurative sense of dumbness) to dream:—(cause to) dream(-er), be in good liking, recover.
ladder = סֻלָּם çullâm, sool-lawm’; from H5549; a stair-case:—ladder.
As the notes point out, the dream has multiple stages, each preceded in English by the world “behold.”
- Behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven
- And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
- And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
- Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
We see Jacob’s reaction to this vision in verses 16 and 17. From Ellicott:
(16) Surely the Lord (Jehovah) is in this place.—Jacob was not unaware of the omnipresence of the Deity: what astonished him was that Jehovah should thus reveal Himself far away from the shrines where He was worshipped. Rebekah had gone to one of these to inquire of Jehovah (Genesis 25:22), and probably to a shrine in the very neighbourhood of the place where Jacob was sleeping (Genesis 12:8). But first Abraham, and then Isaac, had for so long made Beer-sheba their home, that Jacob probably knew little about the sanctity of the spot, and felt himself far away from all the religious associations of his youth, and from that “presence of Jehovah” which in antediluvian times had also been supposed to be confined to certain localities (Genesis 4:16). But one great object of the dream was to show that Jehovah watches over the whole earth, and that messengers to and fro come from Him and return unto Him.
(17) How dreadful.—The manifestation of God must always inspire awe and dread, but not fear: for where He reveals Himself, there is “the gate of heaven”—the appointed entrance for prayer now, and for admission to the glorified life hereafter.
We see here in the note that Jacob is surprised to learn that God is not limited by geography. The notion of cosmic geography was common in the world at the time. Jewish and Christian scholars relate a notion of “cosmic geography” in the Old Testament to the Tower of Babel event.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
The idea then is that God disinherits The Nations at the Babel event to the “sons of God” and that the sons of God thus ruled cosmically over a earthly territory.
Deuteronomy 32:8 is itself a somewhat controversial verse inasmuch as verse 8 has competing translations. The Masoretic Texts translate verse 8 as “sons of Israel.” However, the prevailing scholarship today – thanks in part to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – provides the translation as “ben Elohim” (i.e. “the sons of God.”) There is a ton of scholarship on this topic so I will not belabor the point too much here. But to give one more example of what I am talking about from the Old Testament:
2 Kings 5:17 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let there be given to your servant two mule loads of earth, for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord.
Naman linked God’s presence to God’s dirt. He seems to think that he needs to take God’s dirt with him so that he can worship Yahweh when he gets home.
(That’s a long aside to explain why Jacob may have been surprised to encounter Yahweh in the verses above. But it is also worth keeping in mind that Jacob likely knew that God appeared to Abraham far from the territory where he grew up.)
From an article, “Jacob’s Ladder” by Menachem Feldman:
There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the ladder. Some say the ladder represents prayer. Jacob slept on the Temple Mount, the place where all Jewish prayers ascend to G‑d, and G‑d was showing Jacob the awesome power of prayer: its ability to connect heaven and earth.
Others explain that the ladder is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, the mountain on which the Torah was given, and the message to Jacob was that the Torah, the Divine will and wisdom, is the ladder that connects the person to heaven.
But why did Jacob need to see the image of the ladder specifically at this point in his life, on his way out of Israel, while fleeing to the morally debased Charan?
Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen, a 17th century kabbalist of Safed, Israel, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself.
Jacob was leaving the comfort and holiness of the land of Israel and was heading to a land that was spiritually foreign to his way of life. On Jacob’s way, G‑d showed him the vision of a ladder in order to impart to him that he himself had the ability to connect the lowest parts of the earth to heaven. While his grandfather Abraham was commanded to leave Charan and migrate to Israel, Jacob would make the opposite journey. Jacob’s life’s mission was not to flee the negativity but rather to face it and challenge it head on.
Jacob, like all his descendants, is compared to a ladder. No matter where he might be, no matter how foreign the environment might seem, he was capable of erecting a ladder that would connect heaven and earth, he was able to build a bridge that would allow the epitome of holiness to affect even the most distant of places.
There is another dimension to the comparison of Jacob and the ladder.
The Kabbalah explains that each of the three patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotions: Abraham represented the attribute of love; Isaac the attribute of awe and reverence; and Jacob the attribute of compassion.
The attribute of compassion, even more than love, is the ultimate bridge-builder. Love is a very powerful emotion, yet its reach is limited to a specific audience. A person loves that which is attractive to him or her. A person does not love everybody and everything; love is selective, it is awakened and attracted to specific people or objects that, for whatever reason, touch the heart in a specific way.
Compassion, on the other hand, can reach anybody. It may be a person whom you never met, whose language you don’t understand, yet the moment you sense that the person is suffering, something in your heart will connect to the person with empathy and compassion.
In fact, compassion has the power to unleash love. You may have known someone for many years and felt no connection to him or her. Yet as soon as tragedy strikes and you feel compassion for the person, suddenly, you begin to see how wonderful the person is. You begin to feel a feeling of closeness and love toward the person. How does that happen? The love flows over the bridge created by compassion.
We each have a Jacob within ourselves, a Jacob that allows us to empathize with people who may seem very different from ourselves. The Jacob within us recognizes and connects to the soul within others, connecting heaven and earth.
The events from this section are important in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. From Wiki:
In Islam, Jacob (Arabic: يَعْقُوب, romanized: Yaʿqūb) is revered as a prophet and patriarch. Muslim scholars drew a parallel between Jacob’s vision of the ladder and Muhammad‘s event of the Mi’raj. The ladder of Jacob was interpreted to be one of the many symbols of God, and many see Jacob’s Ladder as representing in its form the essence of Islam, which emphasizes following the “straight path”. The twentieth-century scholar Martin Lings described the significance of the ladder in the Islamic mystic perspective:
The ladder of the created Universe is the ladder which appeared in a dream to Jacob, who saw it stretching from Heaven to earth, with Angels going up and down upon it; and it is also the “straight path”, for indeed the way of religion is none other than the way of creation itself retraced from its end back to its Beginning
Jesus said in John 1:51 “And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” This statement has been interpreted as associating or implicating Jesus with the mythical ladder, in that Christ bridges the gap between Heaven and Earth. Jesus presents himself as the reality to which the ladder points; as Jacob saw in a dream the reunion of Heaven and Earth, Jesus brought this reunion, metaphorically the ladder, into reality. Adam Clarke, an early 19th-century Methodist theologian and Bible scholar, elaborates:
That by the angels of God ascending and descending, is to be understood, that a perpetual intercourse should now be opened between heaven and earth, through the medium of Christ, who was God manifested in the flesh. Our blessed Lord is represented in his mediatorial capacity as the ambassador of God to men; and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, is a metaphor taken from the custom of dispatching couriers or messengers from the prince to his ambassador in a foreign court, and from the ambassador back to the prince.
In the third century, Origen explains that there are two ladders in the life of a Christian, the ascetic ladder that the soul climbs on the earth, by way of—and resulting in—an increase in virtue, and the soul’s travel after death, climbing up the heavens towards the light of God.
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of ascending Jacob’s Ladder by successive steps towards excellence, interpreting the ladder as an ascetic path, while Saint Gregory of Nyssa narrates that Moses climbed on Jacob’s Ladder to reach the heavens where he entered the tabernacle not made with hands, thus giving the Ladder a clear mystical meaning. The ascetic interpretation is found also in Saint John Chrysostom, who writes:
And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by a Jacob’s ladder. For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners.
Jacob’s Ladder as an analogy for the spiritual ascetic of life enjoyed wide influence thanks to the classical work The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus.The angels climb Jacob’s Ladder on the west front of Bath Abbey.
Jacob’s Ladder is depicted on the facade of Bath Abbey in England, with angels climbing up and down ladders on either side of the main window on the west front.
Additionally, there is pseudepigraphic literature on this topic. From Wiki:
The Ladder of Jacob (Hebrew: Sulam Yaakov סולם יעקב) is a pseudepigraphic writing of the Old Testament. It is usually considered to be part of the apocalyptic literature. The text has been preserved only in Slavonic, and it is clearly a translation from a now lost Greek version. It is not regarded as scripture by Jews or any Christian group.
The text of the Ladder of Jacob has been preserved only in Old Church Slavonic; it is found in the Tolkovaja Paleja, a compendium of various Old Testament texts and comments which also preserved the Apocalypse of Abraham. The Tolkovaja Paleja is a compilation of texts assembled in the 8th or 9th century in Greek and later translated into Slavonic; it is the only translation that has survived. Some plays on words in the Ladder of Jacob suggest an original Hebrew text, or a Greek text intended for readers with at least some knowledge of Hebrew.
Two recensions of the Ladder of Jacob have been identified: a longer one, usually denoted A, which survives in three manuscripts, and a shorter one, usually called B, which is represented by the majority of the manuscript tradition. The chief difference between these is that the shorter recension reduces drastically the prayer of Jacob and omits the name of the angel Sariel (2:2-5:1).
Date and origin
The date and origin of the Ladder of Jacob are uncertain. It is possible to infer at least three stages: an original work written in a Jewish context after the Destruction of the Temple, the use in early Byzantine world and the final translation in Slavonic around the ninth century. In the Christian stages the text was interpolated to form an anti-Jewish polemic, by adding some comments here and there, omitting some sentences and adding a Christian conclusion: Chapter Seven has Christian origin. The expectation of a delayed warrior Messiah and the similarities with 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham and other apocalyptic literature suggest the original text may have been written in the first half of the second century CE.
- Chapter 1 is an expansion of the narrative of Genesis. Jacob falls asleep and sees a ladder set up on the Earth; the top of it reaches to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. Many details are added to the Genesis narrative: the ladder is made of twelve steps, and on each step there are two human forms, one on each side of the step, visible as far as their breasts. On the top of the ladder there was a “face”, “as of a man”, carved in the fire and much more terrifying than the twenty-four other busts. The Lord is over this central “face”.
- Chapter 2 includes a prayer by Jacob, surely abbreviated by the Slavonic copyist, asking the Lord the meaning of the vision. The prayer describes God sitting on a fire throne, surrounded by Cherubim and Seraphim, a vision that is a classic example of Merkabah.
- In Chapter 3 the angel Sariel is sent by the Lord to Jacob to explain the vision, and the text says Jacob was not terrified by the vision of the angel.
- In Chapter 4 Sariel changes the name of Jacob to Israel in order to have it “to be similar to his own name”.
- Chapter 5 includes the explanation of the ladder given by Sariel: the ladder is the Age, and the twelve steps are the periods into which the Age is divided (the same division we find in 2 Baruch). The twenty-four human busts are the kings of the world who oppose Israel, some more, some less. The fourth step may be the author’s picture of his own time; in the last times the Lord will raise a descendant of Esau (probably the Roman Empire) who initially will protect Israel, and later will serve the idols and use violence. The people of Jacob will be exiled, made slaves and wounded.
- Chapter 6 is about the coming of the Messiah, described as a king who fights against the enemies of Israel and wins; the enemies then repent and the Lord accepts their plea. In the following events the Lord acts directly: there will be earthquakes and destructions followed by the final victory against the Leviathan and the Falkon. The sons of Jacob will walk in the Lord’s justice, and the kingdoms of Edom and Moab will be destroyed.
- Chapter 7 is surely a Christian addition; it predicts the Incarnation of the Savior.
The Ladder of Jacob, as well as the Apocalypse of Abraham, interpret the experience of Patriarchs in the context of merkabah mysticism. The Ladder of Jacob takes a stand on the main issues debated in apocalyptic literature: the role of the Messiah is limited to that of a warrior, the final victory against the evil and the last judgment are carried out directly by God himself, and it is possible to repent on the last day.
This story is a long-standing fixture within pop culture. You may remember the 1990 movie “Jacob’s Ladder” starring Tim Robbins. South Park featured Jacob’s Ladder in an episode. “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was featured in Ken Burns’ documentary about the American Civil War. Probably the most well known addition to popular culture (at least well known to anyone living currently) is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (If no were paying attention above, the word translated ladder can also be translated stairway.)
Finally, there are also some who draw a connection between Jacob’s Ladder and the double helix of human DNA. This connection is something you might read from modern gnostic writing. You’ll also find a similar link drawn between Jacob’s ladder, the caduceus symbol, and human DNA.
There is a surprisingly voluminous amount of theorizing in these latter areas, and they are not consistent with each other, so I will only mention that these connections are held by some. If you are interested, an internet search here is a deep rabbit hole down which you can jump.