The term Jacob’s Ladder has been applied to several contexts, including film, literature, music, botany and even an electrical device; however, it is originally from the bible in the book of Genesis Chapter 28 verse 10-22, which is where Jacob is fleeing from his brother, Esau’s rage after having stolen his father’s blessing and birth-right. This is translated in the New International Version of the bible as follows:
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17 He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."
18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, [c] though the city used to be called Luz.
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD [d] will be my God 22 and [e] this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."
[a] Genesis 28:12 Or ladder
[b] Genesis 28:13 Or There beside him
[c] Genesis 28:19 Bethel means house of God.
[d] Genesis 28:21 Or Since God the father's house, the LORD
[e] Genesis 28:22 Or house, and the LORD will be my God, 22 then
In general terms, Jacob’s Ladder is a connection between Heaven and Earth; however, there have been a number of interpretations of the meaning of Jacob’s Ladder based on both the Christian and Jewish teachings. Some of the interpretations are as follows:
- The angels on the ladder were said to climb to certain rungs and fall down representing the exiles that the Jewish people would be subjected to before the coming of the Messiah.
- The angels on the ladder were Jacob’s constant companions, with the ascending angels being those who were assigned to the Holy Land and were returning to Heaven as Jacob had reached the border of Canaan, which was to later become Israel, and the descending angels being those who were assigned to other lands and were returning to earth to continue on with Jacob.
- The place where Jacob had been given the dream of the ladder (or stairway) was where the Temple in Jerusalem would later be built, which was seen as a connection to Heaven through the prayers and sacrifices that were offered there.
- The dream has also been interpreted as a reference to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, another connection between Heaven and earth. Jewish scholars note that the word ‘sulam’, which is the Hebrew word for ladder, and the word ‘Sinai’ have the same numerical letter value, known as gematria.
- Subscribers to the idea of reincarnation believe that the angels represent souls descending to bodies when the physical body is born unto the earth and ascending to Heaven when the person dies.
- The dream reflects the highs and lows of life with the angels descending to earth to help those in need in times of despair and suffering and pulling those souls upwards when needed.
- The stairway in Jacob’s dream refers to Jesus. This is further reinforced in John 1:51, which uses the same imagery of the angels but refers to Jesus, a descendant of Jacob, as the Son of Man in place of the ladder. This supports the bible’s message that through the sacrifice Jesus made at his crucifixion, his death opened the path to Heaven. This verse reads as follows:
- The stairway can also been seen as the church itself and was referred to in this way as early as the 2nd Century by Saint Irenaeus.
- The stairway is the path that the soul takes after death in order to get to Heaven.
- The rungs on the ladder represent virtues that a person should aspire to in order for their soul to be able to ascend into the Kingdom of Heaven when they die.
- The dream reinforces the idea that only God can provide the path to Heaven. This idea is often juxtaposed with the story in Genesis 11: 1-9 where the people of Babel attempted to build a tower to Heaven by their own means and not through a true connection with God. In this story, God punishes the people of Babel by confusing their language and scattering all over the earth.
- The angels were carrying messages and prayers to and from Heaven and the earth.