Stairway to Heaven: The Story of Jacob's Ladder
Jacob’s ladder is the name given to the stairway that appears in the dream of the Biblical Patriarch Jacob. But the ladder has also come to symbolize a connection between Earth and Heaven (or the cosmos), as well as the history of mankind, in which the steps of the ladder represent the succession of kingdoms that have ruled the world.
Jacob’s Dream in the Bible
Jacob’s dream occurred during his flight from his twin brother, Esau, who intended to kill him. In this dream, Jacob saw a ladder (or in some translations, a stairway) that connected heaven to earth. Additionally, Jacob is said to have seen God at the top of the ladder, and also angels, who were ascending and descending this structure. The story of Jacob’s Ladder is in the Book of Genesis.
According to the Book of Genesis, Jacob is said to have stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, which was his claim to inheritance and his father’s blessing. As a result of this, Esau was furious with Jacob, and sought to kill him. Jacob was warned of his brother’s intention by Rebekah, their mother. He was also told to flee, and to go to the house of his uncle, Laban, in Haran, until Esau’s fury subsided. Jacob obeyed his mother, and set off for his uncle’s house.
Esau Selling His Birthright (painting circa 1627 by Hendrick ter Brugghen) ( Public Domain )
Jacob arrived at a ‘certain place’, and as the sun had already set, decided to stay there for the night. According to one source, this place was the site of the “future Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was also the site of the binding of his father, Isaac.” Jacob then took a rock from the place to use as pillow, and fell asleep. It was while he was sleeping that Jacob had his dream about the ladder that connected heaven to earth. Jacob’s dream has been described as such:
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
God, who was standing at the top of the ladder, then spoke to Jacob:
I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
When Jacob woke up in the morning, he took the rock that he had used as a pillow, and set it up as a pillar. He poured oil on it , and named the place Bethel, meaning ‘House of God’, though it is said that it was originally known as Luz. After making a vow, Jacob continued his journey.
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What Does Jacob’s Ladder Mean?
Jacob’s ladder has been interpreted in a variety of ways. One of the most common interpretations is that the ladder represented the connection between heaven and earth. Some believe that this connection is symbolic and represented by Jacob’s family and the patriarch’s divine connection with God’s graces. This idea of Jacob’s recognition of his destiny is perhaps seen in his vow following his vision: "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father's house in peace, the Lord shall be my God."
Another well-known interpretation of Jacob’s ladder is that it is said to be a representation of the history of mankind. According to this interpretation, the steps of Jacob’s ladder symbolize the succession of kingdoms that rule the world and the ups and downs of humanity.
Jacob's Dream by William Blake (c. 1805, British Museum, London) ( Public Domain )
Yet another interpretation is that Jacob’s ladder stood on the boundary of the Land of Israel and the rest of the world. The angels who had accompanied Jacob during his journey in Israel are said to return to heaven by ascending the ladder. For his travels outside Israel, the angels whose domains are outside Israel descend the ladder to accompany Jacob.
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Picture of the Jacob's Ladder in the original Luther Bibles (of 1534 and also 1545) ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Finally, there is also a more mystical interpretation of Jacob’s ladder, which proposes that the ladder may be read as a means to achieve spiritual elevation or ascension. In this case, the angels have been interpreted variously as representations of reincarnation (ascending and descending of bodies/souls) or human souls rising in virtue or falling in sin. With this interpretation, could performing virtuous acts be seen as a way to “ascend Jacob’s ladder”?
With so many possibilities, Jacob’s ladder can be seen as a tool to teach various moral lessons , but the true meaning may be something far beyond current human understanding.
Fresco of Jacob's Ladder. ( oleg_ru Adobe Stock)
Top Image: Jacob’s ladder is a stairway angels use to pass between heaven and earth. Source: Jürgen Fälchle /Adobe Stock
The Bible : Standard King James Version , 2014. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/
Charlap, J., 1997. The Meaning of Jacob's Dream. [Online]
Available at: http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vayetze/harlap.html
Dubov, N. D., 2016. The Ladder. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/361883/jewish/The-Ladder.htm
McDowell, C., 2016. Jacob’s Ladder: Bible Story Summary and Lessons. [Online]
Available at: http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/jacobs-ladder-bible-story-summary-and-lessons/
Zavada, J., 2016. Jacob's Ladder - Story Summary. [Online]
Available at: http://christianity.about.com/od/biblestorysummaries/a/Jacobs-Ladder.htm