Friday, April 24, 2009

An Exegesis of Genesis 28:12

 Illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733)

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. 
Genesis 28:12 KJV

Here is the other essay I have been working on.

Jacob’s vision is the first dream narrative within the Old Testament. It is a passage that is conducive to mystical notions, and has been a constant source for mystical doctrines, both Jewish and Christian.  The subject matter and elusive language appeals to the mystic mind as much by reflecting personal experience as by inducing a particular state of mind. [1]


The vision is essentially a single image.[2] The two main features of the vision are the ladder and the ascending and descending angels. What the ladder, the angels, and their action, represent is vital to an understanding of the dream.


Genesis 28:12 is the only place where ladder (sullam) occurs within Old Testament.[3] The Hebrew word sullam  is often traditionally translated as ladder, but it may be better translated as a  ramp or staircase, generally made from stone.[4] It has also been described as being in the shape of a temple tower, or being like a Babylonian ziggurat,[5] which represent the Gateway to Heaven in Babalonian texts.[6] The stairway reflects an ancient belief in a cosmic bond between heaven and earth.[7] The “Stairway to Heaven” is still a potent image for late twentieth century culture, due mainly to the outrageously important song of the same name by Led Zeppelin.[8]


The Midrash has very little about the ladder itself, but a interesting concept is introduced in the apocryphal Ladder of Jacob. The vision is expanded, and we are given a description of the ladder, including the number of steps, something not mentioned in the original text.


It had twelve steps to the top of the ladder,

and on each step,

up to the top,

were two human forms,

one on the right and one on the left:

there were twenty four forms on the ladder,

visible as far as their breasts.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 1 (Rum. 453)[9]

 The ladder is then described to Jacob, and the meaning of the steps and figures explained:


the ladder is this age,

and the twelve steps are the times of this age;

but the twenty–four forms are the kings of the

heathen tribes of this age.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 4 (Rum. 453)[10]


The ladder itself is given a political interpretation; it has meaning for Jacob immediately. While no one would doubt that having a vision is a celestial experience the actual message is terrestrial. This is congruous with the overall vision, but seems somewhat limiting. to be interpreted as foretelling earthly events, prophecy.


For Philo the ladder in the dream seems to have been intended to communicate the ups and downs that lay in store for Jacob, which characterise human affairs in general[11]


Iranaeus explains the ladder as belonging to the “uniform teaching of the Church, which remains so always, and is consistent with itself”. This “correct doctrine” is:


…the [means of] communion with Christ 

has been distributed throughout it,

that is, the Holy Spirit,

the earnest of incorruption,

the means of confirming our faith,

Irenaeus  Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 24:,[12]


For John Chrysostom, the ladder was a symbol of a virtuous life, that by living in such a way, it would be possible to ascend to heaven:


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. [13]


While Jewish speculation regarded the ladder as way of describing history, or prophesying future earthly events, the Christian view of the  ladder is as a connection between heaven and earth. There are, however, different ways of approaching or climbing it. If this is the case, the ascending and descending angels must have a further, greater significance.


The term “ascending and descending” implies that the angels were already on earth. While “up and down” is the normal order in English and Hebrew and gravity, when angels are the subject, it becomes the wrong way round. Angels exist in heaven, which is usually associated with “up”, so “descend and ascend” would be the “correct” order of events. However, it is the obverse. This leads to the speculation that the angels were already on earth before the ladder appeared.[14]


The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go

outside of the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to Heaven.

Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him[15].


According to this interpretation, it is a simple changing of the guard.[16]

In the aforementioned apocryphal Ladder of Jacob, the angels are interpreted in a similar way to that of the figures on the steps.


Of the angels we understand: Those who were ascending are a figure of this…. the heathen who were baptised, and they ascended into heaven; but those who were descending-they are the disobedient, perverse ones.…In this then we see the heathen ascending and the Jews descending.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 1(Rum. 453)[17]


Here we see that baptism is a way to ascend the ladder to heaven. This is certainly a Christian interpolation, and does to a certain extent contradict the earlier opinion of the heathen kings.


There is another interpretation that involves an image of Jacob in heaven. The angels from earth ascend to tell the others that they have found the man who is engraved on the throne: 


the angels that had accompanied him from the house of his father ascended to bear good tidings to the angels on high, saying: Come and see the pious man whose image is engraved in the throne of Glory, whom you desired to see. And behold, the angels from before the Lord ascended and descended and observed him.[18]


This introduces the concept of man being heaven and on earth simultaneously. The angels are comparing the celestial appearance with his earthly one. The ascending and descending angels  symbolise connection between the two.[19]


Philo’s interpretation of the ladder is in agreement with this idea:


The ladder therefore in the world which is here spoken of in this symbolical manner, was something of this sort.

But if we carefully investigate the soul which exists in men,

the foundation of which is something corporeal, and as it were earth-like, we shall find that the foundation to be the outward sense; and the head to be something heavenly, as it were the most pure mind. [20]


Philo understands the symbolic nature of the ladder in terms of man’s soul. From the material to the pure, as man is on the earth, his soul is capable of reaching heaven.


The ladder is the concept of there actually being a connection between heaven and earth. The angels show us that this is an actuality that we can experience. It will be this point that Jesus will express Nathanael in John 1:51. Instead of mentioning the ladder, he will use the term “ascending and descending” (the only two times these words are used together in this order). Jesus will place Himself in the role of the ladder.


This is made clear in another interpolation within Jacob’s Vision of a Ladder


And as you saw angels ascending on the ladder-

That is in the last years there shall be a man from the Most High,

and he will join the higher things with the lower. [21]


Nowhere in Genesis 28:12 is it implied that Jacob is the ladder, instead the Jewish concept as shown in the Midrash, Talmud and Rabbinical literature is concerned with the holiness of the place more so than with Jacob. This is in keeping with the following verses of the pericope:


And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

Genesis 28:17-18


A Christian view of the text with the knowledge of John 1:51 is going to be somewhat different. Jesus implies  he is the ladder, that angels will ascend and descend on the son of man, ie; himself. Souls will be able to ascend to heaven through Him. Where Jacob saw the idea of eternal communication between the terrestrial and celestial realms in a vision, Jesus is the ladder itself. He is to be the way of this eternal communication. The permanent religious significance of Genesis 28:12 is expressed with profound insight and truth in John 1:51.[22]


Houtman, C; “What did Jacob see in his dream at Bethel?” in Vestus Testamentum, Vol. XXVII, Fasc 3 pp. 337-351.

Kugel, James L.; The Ladder of Jacob (2006) Princeton University Press: New Jersey

Odeberg, Hugo; The Fourth Gospel (1968) Argonaut: New York

Plaut, W. G.; The Torah (1974) Union of Hebrew Congregations: New York.

Skinner, J.; Genesis (1969) T&T Clark: Edinburgh.

Sparks, H.F.D. (ed); The Apocryphal Old Testament (1984) Clarendon Press: Oxford

Westermann, Claus; Genesis 12-36 (1974) Augsburg Publish House: Minneapolis


Ancient Jewish Writings

Philo: De somniis (1.146)


Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis


Ancient Christian Writings


Iranaeus Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 4

Chrysostom,  John; The Homilies on the Gospel of St. John 

Irenaeus Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 4



orczy said...


Gregory said...

Informative article. I enjoyed it.

I think it is significant that what Jacob experienced was in a dream that awoke him with a sense of divine presence.

Likewise, I think that the promise to Nathaniel, and those like him (the "you will see" is a plural you), is a promise of an altered state of consciousness involving a sense of the presence of God.

Although "ascending and descending" appear in that order only once. In John, the pattern of ascend and descent of the son of man runs through the whole narrative.

It adds to a sense of the otherworldliness of Jesus, who refers to himself in third person as "son of man." I think it is interesting that likewise, when Paul talks about an ascent to "third heaven" he speaks in the third person.

That is significant. It is an effort to show the listener that the person that they are looking at in the flesh is not to be confused with the person who ascends. There is a physical body and a spiritual body, as Paul says. Or as Jesus says in John, "that born of flesh is flesh, and of spirit is spirit."

Perhaps I ramble.

Warm Regards,


Anonymous said...

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