Whose Ladder? Jacob’s or God’s

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This morning’s reading from the Old Testament contains the reference to what is commonly referred to as Jacob’s Ladder.

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. [Gen 28:12]

Through the centuries there have been many references in literature, art and music to this ladder. In art William Blake’s watercolour, Jacob’s Dream showing a spiral staircase comes to mind, or the many icons which have been prayerfully crafted over more than a millennium. Notable amongst such icons is that called The Ladder of the Divine Ascent which overlaid the Genesis story with the famous work of the same name by St John Climachus, the fifth century abbot of St Catherine’s monastery on Mt Sinai; in this icon there was an image not of angels occupying the ladder but monks ascending amidst attempts by demons to pull them from their spiritual climbing.

In music there has been the African-American spiritual from the early nineteenth century, We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder amongst others. In literature, the references have been less rooted in Biblical accuracy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name alluded to a ladder which led the protagonist, Jacob, precisely nowhere. More apt was Denise Levertov’s 1961 poem of the same name; the last verse of which echoed many interpretations about the Ladder, namely that it is a hard climb:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

The motif of a ladder climbed even shows up in architecture, such as the ladder, complete with angels ascending but not descending, sculpted into the side of Bath Abbey in the UK.

There has even been a movie of the name, first made in 1990 and remade in 2019; however this horror film has little relevance to the Biblical narrative, dealing as it does with the traumatic torments of a Vietnam vet by the name of Jacob.

Coming back to sacred writings, our reading this morning comes from what we call the Old Testament but is also known as the Hebrew Bible. In rabbinical commentary about Genesis 28:12, there is this commentary from the Ramban, also known as Maimonides [1138-1204]: [1]

The angels, which are God’s agents in carrying out God’s guidance of earthly affairs, constantly go up to heaven, to receive His commands and then come back to earth to carry them out.

While, in another commentary in the Jewish Midrash, the ladder is referred to as ‘the bridge from heaven to earth.’ [2]

While Jacob and the Ladder don’t appear directly in the Quran, it has appeared in Islamic commentaries which Martin Lings has said describe: [3]

The ladder of the created Universe (as) the ladder which appeared in a dream to Jacob … 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.

There is even an Apocryphal book entitled The Ladder of Jacob, which appears to have originated in pre-Christian times, though the only extant version, written in Slavonic, dates from after the time of Christ. In this book those on the ladder were not angels; verse 6 of that book describes those going in each direction: [4]

… as the ladder was fixed in Jacob’s sight, and the Lord received the heathen who were baptised, and they ascended into heaven; but those who were descending – they are the disobedient, perverse ones.

It should not surprise us that Jacob’s dream should have stirred so many reflections over a great period of time and right across the Abrahamic religions. St John Climachus, to whom I referred earlier, wrote in the last step of his Ladder of the Divine Ascent of his own eagerness to understand that dream: [5]

I long to know how Jacob saw you fixed above the ladder. That climb, how was it? Tell me, for I long to know. What is the mode, what is the law joining together those steps that the lover has set as an ascent in his heart? I thirst to know the number of those steps, and the time required to climb them. He who discovered Your struggle and Your vision has spoken to us of the guides. But he would not – perhaps he could not – tell us any more.

Dreams invariably invite interpretation and, just from the few examples I have cited, we can see how Jacob’s dream has been interpreted in so many different ways. How do you interpret the ladder of Jacob’s dream? I asked my mother, Jean, how she interpreted it; her answer was that it reflects each of our lived experiences – sometimes we may be ascending the ladder closer to God while at other times we may be going in the opposite direction; and that the challenge for each of us would be to seek to know in which direction we are travelling in any one instance. All such reflections will have validity to varying degrees, but was there a key message that was being given to Jacob that night at Bethel?

It turns out that we have an answer to that question, and it is provided by none other than Jesus himself. Hear these words from John’s Gospel, where Jesus spoke to Nathaniel when inviting him to become an apostle:

Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man. [John 1:51]

In these words of Jesus, both the angelic super(natural) highway and the personal ladder challenge interpretations of Jacob’s dream are pushed aside by his own claim that the Ladder was a divine joining of God to humanity through Christ; a union that came about by Christ descending the ladder towards us, not by us climbing towards him.

Jesus’ explanation of the meaning of Jacob’s dream recall a beautiful story in the C9 collection of rabbinic homilies known as the Pesikta Rabbati (184–85) which recounted: [6]

A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent word, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” 

Last week in her sermon, Canon Jenny provided this insight about which I have reflected a great deal since:

And one thing Jesus does to help them know is give them insight into themselves. When we get stuck trying to work out which sort of soil we are, Jesus helps us see that we are stuck because we are all these soils. And it is out of his great love that he would have us know this – and have us know that he knows this about us. He sees what we are like. And still loves, and still heals, and still goes out in boats to teach where the sound travels best. The sower just keeps sowing.

If only those who choose to climb the ladder of unity between Heaven and Earth were of concern to Jesus, he would have remained at the top to await the select. But he didn’t, he descended that ladder between eternity and our ever troubled present to seek us out. Weeds or wheat, he sought us all.

Jacob became a patriarch of our faith, but he certainly was not that at the time he fell asleep at Bethel. Up to that point of his life, the most notable features of his character had been his conning his brother Esau into selling his birthright and then deceiving his own father into giving him a blessing. He then fled an angry brother and distraught father leaving us to think that pangs of conscience must surely beset him and that any dreams he might have had would be troubled and accusatory – but, as our reading tells us, such was not the case. Instead of a nightmare of angst – though that would come later with Jacob’s night-time wrestling at Peniel [Gen 32:22-32] – instead, in his dream, God spoke:

Know that I am with you. [v15]

With the coming of God’s son amongst us, the power of those words leapt from the solace they meant for one troubled soul to become a promise for all of us. The wonderful thing about all this is that, like Jacob, it is not that God is blind to us, for as our Psalm said this morning:

O Lord, you have searched me out and known me:
You know when I sit or when I stand,
You comprehend my thoughts long before
You discern my path and the places where I rest:
You are acquainted with all my ways.

But despite knowing everything about us, as we heard in our reading from Romans, through Christ:

(we have received) a spirit of adoption … We ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved. [Rom 8: 15, 23-4]

This hope might be unseen, but its teller was not. Jesus determined that it should not remain hidden from us. In our gospel, Jesus said

I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. [Matt 13:35]

The groaning creation in which we ever find ourselves may seem like a nightmare – indeed for many there can scarcely be any other word to describe it. Jesus descended the ladder to meet us in that nightmare because he knows that our fears may limit our faith. Dr David Jeremiah, in his recent book Shelter in God: Your refuge in times of trouble, has written: [7]

Everyone has a point somewhere in the geography of their souls marking the limits of their faith. It is the point at which faith begins to unravel … you reach that personal point, somewhere in the scheme of your suffering, when you begin to give up on God. What you believe is that He has given up on you. You may even be feeling that way right now. If so, please allow me to remind you that what you’re contemplating is a simple impossibility. God never gives up on you.

In his dream, Jacob had heard God say ‘Know that I am with you’; words echoed by what Jesus has said to all of us:

I am with you always, to the very end of the age. [Matt 28:20]

[1]  Ramban quoted in Chumash: The Torah, Haftaros & five Megillos p145

[2] Op.cit

[3] Lings, Martin, The Book of Certainty, p51

[4] Sparks H E D (ed), The Apocryphal Old Testament, Clarendon, Oxford, 1987, p456

[5] Climachus J, The Ladder of the Divine Ascent, Paulist Press, NY, 1982, p 289

[6] Pesikta Rabbati, 184b-85a, quoted in Kaufman, Harriet, Judaism and Social Justice, p29

[7] Jeremiah, David, Shelter in God: Your Refuge in Times of Trouble, W Publishing, Nashville, TN, 2020, pp61-2