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Jacob's ladder, a stairway to heaven

Stairway to Heaven: The Story of Jacob's Ladder

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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)

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.

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)

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.

Picture of the Jacob's Ladder in the original Luther Bibles (of 1534 and also 1545)

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

By Ḏḥwty

References

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

Comments

This is clearly stated as a dream. All kinds of interpretations can be made of it, but the most likely are those relating to his life up to then. Remembering that Jacob and Esau were twins with Esau being born first, he would have the head of the household and tribe so could decide what would be done. Jacob is a farmer and cultivates food including the lentils in the mess of pottage bubbling away when Esau comes in hungry after hunting. Jacob is a calm planner and needs to be able to map out land to be cultivated, but Esau is a red haired man with a temper, who wants what he wants when he wants it. Cultivating crops is a labour intensive activity, so Jacob wouldn't be too pleased if Esau pulls his men off from sowing or harvesting to go and hunt wild animals that are passing through. So after a major quarrel that Jacob wins by fooling their father into blessing his younger twin son rather than the elder, Jacob goes off to meet his uncle and is planning how to make the best of the experience. As he sleeps the possibilities enter his dreams and the stories and traditions eventually come to include them over time. The route from his home to his uncle's home is difficult and dangerous, so the various stops are marked, and this one is marked by a particular rock showing a place where there is water and maybe a cave mouth for a safer camp. Maybe the rock is flat, so he puts his spare robe on it as a pillow.

The books of the Bible were not really written down until there was a meeting of wise men, in about 500 years BC when the legends and stories were written down. It's entirely possible that this story is actually about two different people, but could indicate the conflicts between travelling around as hunter-gatherers and becoming settled and growing and defending crops from other tribes, encapsulated in the oral tradition. The question of living on what you can find or as populations increase, having to grow more food. Also it isn't stated how many children Esau had, but Jacob had 12 from 4 wives. He needed a lot of children to help him farm his land and look after the sheep he bred from spotted and ringstraked individuals. Perhaps his breeding experiments using a particular version of the sheep he saw around, resulted in a breeding true of the characteristics he most wanted, which were recognisable by their markings. So he made sure that most of the sheep he looked after had spots and ringstrakes according to Laban's promise 28 years earlier. So he needed a lot of children as free labour. He had to work 7 years for each of his wives, so by the time he got Rachel she was probably 40, so only managed 2 children before she was too old. He had enough to found the dynasty he had dreamed of though.

Gordon Board's picture

Jacob may have witnessed  Spacemen decending from their space craft!! The Nephilim were on Earth in those days (Genesis).  See Ancient Origins 19/05/2019 The Epic of Gilgamesh Unveiled.   Gordon Board (Author Jesus the Last Nephilim)

 

The author of this article left out 4 very important lines about Jacob and what he said when Jacob awoke from his sleep/dream. This lines were this.....” WHEN JACOB AWOKE FROM HIS SLEEP, HE EXCLAIMED, ‘TRULY, THIS IS IN THIS SPOT, ALTHOUGH, I DID MOT KNOW IT!’ “. IN SOLEMN WONDER HE CRIED OUT: “HOW AWESOME IS THIS SHRINE! THIS IS NOTHING ELSE BUT AN ABODE OF GOD, AND THAT IS THE GATEWAY TO HEAVEN!”

Here is a riddle to solve - Gen. 28 has an explanation in John 1:54. It is the connection that enabled Christ Jesus to be both the Son of God and the son of man, it is the reason that God so carefully tested and handpicked men & women of faith to be in the genealogy of Jesus, and even the reason Gen.6 says that Noah was "perfect in all his generations". I'll give you a hint to lookup if you haven't figured out what Jacob saw in his dream and what we've seen hundreds of times since 1953: look up Watson & Crick. It should give you joy to have even more confirmation of God's plan for mankind "before the foundation of the world."

jacob, and his journeys, have always been quite fascinating to me. i find it odd that the author has interpreted jacob as having laid his head upon a 'rock'. i do not believe any of his cited references describe such a detail. possibly the author's archaeology background has given him this image or information, and maybe it would be helpful if a citation or explantion could be given to clarify the purpose or reason for his terminology choice.

while the article may be focused on the 'stairway', i do not believe that one can have clear insight to the dream/vision without having a proper picture of the physical elements of the real world in which jacob was in at the time of recieving the vision.

we are told the 'place' was known as luz. while it may have been wilderness, was luz uninhabited?

the title of the article refers to a 'stairway', and the author quickly informs us that 'jacob's ladder' is the name of the 'stairway', but then uses the term 'ladder' throughout the article to descibe it. i would think this very confusing for many readers, and it also leaves me wondering what the author is visualizing himself as to what jacob saw and described. the graphic references provided are across the spectrum, one being somewhat vague in detail, the stella work in the header, and the luther bible depiction being clearly of a ladder, at the end. the central art though, by blake, this is the one i find very intriguing, and would be quite a stunning image for jacob in his time if indeed that is similar to what he saw.

circular stone staircases were not just of dreams in jacob's time, there are archaelogical examples of them dating to the period and prior if i am not mistaken, but as well i believe all of those examples lead downward instead of the ascending case to which jacob was revealed.

a little more than 3600 years after jacob, nicholas stone would be perhaps the first to build such a staircase of permanence from stone. it stands in queen's house in greenwich, uk, and was built for anne of denmark, the wife of james the first of england, or maybe more apropriately james the sixth of scotland. he was the fellow that commissioned the bible that the author of the article references.

there are a number of people that claim to possess or know of the 'rock' that jacob used as a 'pillow', but i believe none publicy acknowledged to be correct. if one could know the true nature of the 'rock', then i think it possible one could also gleen the true nature of the 'ladder' as well. i think the clues that i given may help those that would seek the 'truth'. :)

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