Jacob’s ladder (in Hebrew סולם יעקב “sulam Yaakov”) is a ladder that leads to heaven described in a dream that the biblical Patriarch Jacob had during his escape from his brother Esau:
He arrived at the place and lodged there, because the sun had set . . . and he lay down in that place. He dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground, whose top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of GOD were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, the LORD was standing over him, and He said, “I am the LORD, the GOD of Abraham your father, and the GOD of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your descendants. . . . Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth, and through your offspring.
(Genesis 28, 11-14)
Jacob facing one of the toughest trials of his life
The ladder, and the “ascent-descent” of the Angels on it, has always been a subject of study for theologians, finding a clear symbolism: the propensity to ascend of the believer. Although Jacob was facing one of the toughest trials of his life, he knew that no matter how hard and tiring it might be to climb that “ladder”, it would allow him to achieve an earthly improvement. As a matter of fact, thanks to a deep understanding of the Divine, and only through an ascent is it possible to gain a different perspective of things for a better view than those below. But the ladder is also a clear message of connection between Heaven and Earth, between GOD and mankind, a metaphor for the believer’s life that represents both the ups and downs in life and between virtue against sin. A continuous will to “rise” spiritually through knowledge, and physically through work. While Jacob’s body lay on the ground, his face was facing heaven, thus reflecting the way humanity was created, in the image of GOD and blessed by the gift of imagination (adameh “to imagine”) and the capacity of prophetic vision. Upon awakening Jacob will call that place “Bethel” (literally, “House of GOD”) because on that day and in that place, and because of that dream his life will change forever.
Jesus also referred to the same scale by saying:
Verily, verily I say unto you: in the future you will see the heaven open, and the Angels of GOD ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
(John 1, 51)
And so the topic of the ladder to heaven has been addressed by many Fathers of the Church, interpreted in different ways, but always as analogy of the elevation of human condition which, thanks to the role of Christ, is able to overcome the gap between heaven and earth. In the 4th century A.D. Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of Jacob’s Stairs as steps towards excellence, as in an ascetic journey of phases, and also John Chrysostom seems to understand the metaphor this way:
And so, mounting so to speak on the steps, we reach the sky with Jacob’s ladder. The ladder, in fact, I believe that in the vision that symbolizes the progressive ascent by virtue, with which it is possible for us to climb from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improving and correcting our manners.
In the Islamic tradition we are given very similar interpretative hints, drawing a parallel between Jacob’s vision (in Arabic: يَعْقُوب, Romanized: Yaʿqūb, considered prophet and patriarch) of the scale and the events occurred in Mohammed in the Mi’raj. Jacob’s ladder has been interpreted by Muslims as a message of GOD for men to indicate the path to follow for the believer: the “straight path”. The 20th century scholar Martin Lings described the meaning of the ladder in the Islamic mystical perspective:
The ladder of the Universe created [by GOD] is the ladder that appeared in a dream to Jacob, who saw it extending from Heaven to Earth, with the Angels ascending and descending on it; and it is also the “right path”, because in fact the path of religion is none other than the path of creation itself, traversed from its end to its Beginning.
(Lings, Martin. The Book of Certainty. p. 51.)
Through this vision, even today we understand how much Heaven and Earth are connected and how much our work can permit us to ascend or descend the “ladder of life” to the highest places where GOD dwells, thus becoming aware not only of our own purpose on earth, but also of the purpose of all Creation: to always improve ourselves.
- Origen, Homily n. 27 on Numbers, about Nm 33:1–2
- Gregory of Nazianzus, Homily n. 43 (Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil), 71
- Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, pp. 224–227
- Chrysostom, John. “n. 83,5”. The Homilies on the Gospel of St. John – via CCEL.org.
- Kathir, Ibn. “Story of Ya’qub (Jacob)”. SunnahOnline.com. Retrieved 2017-09-07.
- Murata, Sachiko; Chittick, William C. (1994). The Vision of Islam (PDF). p. 85.