|Bethel: site of Jacob's Vision
Do you know the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (new tab: audio)? It’s a famous Negro spiritual that understands Jacob’s ladder as a symbol of the believer’s spiritual ascent into heaven. The ascent is slow and agonizing, but the result is glory.
The most famous expression of this idea was the book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (new tab: pdf), written by John Climacus (7th cent. AD), a monk living at Mt. Sinai in Egypt. He wrote of thirty steps on the ladder of spiritual ascent to God that the believer must accomplish. Here again, the ladder is understood to be something that we travel on to reach God in heaven.
How does all of this match up with Jacob’s original vision of the ladder?
The journey that brought Jacob to Bethel where he had the vision started at Beersheba in Israel’s southern Negev Desert. This is where his father, Isaac, was living at the time, and where Jacob had convinced his brother, Esau, to trade his inheritance for a bowl of lentils (Gen. 25:29-34). Here, too, he had stolen his father’s blessing, pretending to be Esau complete with goat skin on his arms to fool the touch of his father (Gen. 27:16). This meant that now his brother was so angry with him, he threatened to kill him (Gen. 27:41-42). So Rebekah, his mother, thought it would be better for him to go away for a while. She sent Jacob back to the area where she herself had been brought up, to the city of Haran, which Abraham had left to come to Canaan so many years earlier (Gen. 12:4).
For Jacob to journey to Haran was quite an adventure. He was a country boy, a shepherd. But Haran was a big city, far to the north, where many more people were living. It lay near the huge Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flowed past the great centers of ancient civilization, including Babylon and Ur from which Abraham had started his journeys (Gen. 11:31). Though these cities were small by modern standards—only a few tens of thousands of people lived in them—they were the largest on earth at the time.
Each had its pagan temples and a huge ziggurat, a stepped pyramid, in the middle of the city, like that mentioned in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). This was a huge, artificial mountain with a large stairway up the front. It served, according to the belief of the people, as a “stairway to heaven” for the pagan gods. Bab-el, the Hebrew name of the city of Babylon, means the “gate of God.” They thought of their ziggurats as literally gateways to heaven.
Some of Abraham’s family left behind in Haran shared these beliefs, as it says in Jos. 24:2: “Since long ago, your fathers lived beyond the river [the Euphrates]—Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor—and they worshiped other gods.” Terah, in fact, is a name that comes from the word for “moon.” This may indicate that he was a worshipper of the moon god Sin (also known as Nannar), who was popular both in Ur and in Haran. Laban, the brother of Rebekah, was also a worshipper of idols. Later in Genesis, his daughter Rachel stole his household idols, and he chased Jacob hundreds of miles to try and get them back (Gen. 31:30,34).
Jacob was about to be plunged into this completely different and pagan world, a world filled with temptations for a young man. But God did not want him to be completely unprepared. So he arranged a meeting with Jacob while he was on his way to Haran.
To get to Bethel, Jacob had to leave Beersheba in the south and climb up into the hill country of Canaan. He would have had a lot on his mind (Gen. 28:10). He had never been an outdoors adventurer like his brother, Esau. Instead, he preferred to stay by the tents of his father Isaac. The Bible says he was a blameless or peaceful man (Gen. 25:27). But now, all alone, he was making the long and dangerous journey to a place he had never been before.
Back in those days, people were a bit stronger than we are today, and it would be quite normal for someone to walk 30 miles (48 km) a day when they were traveling. This would put Jacob in the area of Hebron after his first day of travel. The second day would take him past Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both small villages at the time. The end of the day would have brought him to Bethel, a little village known as Luz at the time.
Here he slept under the open sky, using one of the stones lying everywhere on the ground there for a pillow (Gen. 28:11). This may not have been as comfortable as being at home, but it was good enough. Israel is a dry country, so there is little chance of rain through most of the year and little grass on the ground. It can actually be very pleasant to sleep out in the fresh air after the heat of the day. There are also few insects.
But this was not just any place. In Hebrew it is called “the place” (ha-maqom), a word that sometimes has a religious connotation. It’s just possible that this was the very spot where Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had worshiped God, between Bethel and Ai, soon after he first arrived in the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:8). After all, these desert herdsmen had incredibly accurate memories of the lay of the land, and Jacob surely knew the story of his grandfather’s wanderings. But even if he wasn’t in the exact spot, it was nearby, and he would certainly have thought of his grandfather as he approached the place.
During the night, Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven: “And he dreamed and look, a ladder was set down toward the earth and its top was reaching toward the heavens. And look, messengers of Elohim [God] were ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). But that’s not all he saw. Standing on the ladder, together with the angels, was someone who called himself LORD (YHWH), and who identified himself as the God of his fathers: “And look, the LORD was standing on it and he said, ‘I am the LORD, Elohim of Abraham your father and Elohim of Isaac” (28:13a). This one called LORD then repeated to Jacob the same promise that had been given to his father and grandfather: the promise of the land of Israel. “The land that you are lying on, I give it to you and to your seed” (28:13b).
But who is this that he sees standing on the ladder? The Hebrew preposition “al” used here can be translated either “on” the ladder or “above” the ladder. But the point is that this one who identifies himself as the God of Abraham is “standing,” which implies he’s standing on legs. So who is this? The Bible teaches that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18, Ex. 33:20). Yet Jacob clearly saw someone that identified himself as God, and who spoke as God (“I give it to you...”). Who was this?
Later, in Haran, when this same being appears again to Jacob and reminds him of his previous appearance at Bethel, Jacob calls him “the messenger [or angel] of God” (Gen. 31:11,13). Who is this messenger who is also God? This is the one we know today as the Son or Word of God, and after his birth at Bethlehem, as Jesus.
Some dismiss this connection with Jesus by claiming that this and other appearances of the “angel of the Lord” are simply ordinary angels speaking for God. The later rabbis invented the angel Metatron, to whom they gave divine names, to explain passages like this one. But in recording Jacob’s visit to this same spot many years later, the Bible eliminates these other explanations with its carefully selected words (literally in Hebrew): “...and he called the place El-Bethel [God of Bethel], for there Elohim revealed themselves [niglu] to him when he was fleeing from the presence of his brother” (Gen. 35:6,7). What is the meaning of this strange expression, “Elohim [God] revealed themselves”?
Elohim is one of the most frequently used names of God in the Bible. Strangely, it is not a singular but a plural noun: the -im at the end is a plural ending. When speaking of the pagan gods, the same word (elohim) is translated “gods.” This plural name of God is one of the proofs that Christians have used through the years to show that God is a multi-personality—that he is a three-in-one, a Trinity.
Usually, when Elohim refers to the true God, it’s matched with a singular verb. This alerts us to the fact that God is the subject of the sentence, and not the gods. But in this particular verse (Gen. 35:7), not only is “God” in the plural, but so is the verb, “revealed themselves” (which is all one word in Hebrew, niglu [plural] instead of niglah [singular]). Here there is no question that the true God is being referred to, because of the context (El in El-Bethel, for example, is singular). But the writer was not satisfied with an ordinary singular. He wanted to emphasize that God had revealed himself to Jacob as a plurality. And so he chose a plural verb together with a plural name of God. In other words, he wanted to make it perfectly clear that the “angel of God” he had seen was not an ordinary angel, but was God, through whom the great God (that we would call God the Father) was revealing himself. As Jesus said in John 14:9: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Because of the clear implication of this remarkable choice of words, the early Jewish Christians used this verse as a proof that Jesus is God in debates with the rabbis (Sanh. 38b).
Jesus himself mentioned this event in John 1:51, when he met Nathanael for the first time. Jesus said to Nathanael and to the others standing there: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see heaven open and the messengers [angels] of God ascending and descending for the Son of Man” (John 1:51). What does this mean? Jesus is telling them, in effect, that they will also see what Jacob saw! They, too, will see heaven open, and the angels ascending and descending to do the will of the Son of Man. Here Jesus interprets Jacob’s vision for us, associating the divine angel of God on the ladder with the Son of Man, that is, with himself.
But what future event is Jesus connecting this with, when they would see this? Nothing like this is recorded in the lifetime of the apostles. So when will they see it? It must be talking about the coming of the Son of Man, his own second coming in power, of which Matthew says, “he will send out his messengers by means of a loud trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones...from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matt. 24:31). The angels of God will be ascending and descending to catch up the believers to Jesus in the clouds (see 1 Thess. 4:17). This explains how those who were listening to Jesus at that time will see the angels ascending and descending: because they'll be coming for us! That's when we, too, will ascend Jacob's ladder!
Is there any additional evidence to confirm this interpretation? Yes, the promise given to Jacob, the promise of the land of Israel. Did Jacob ever receive the land in his lifetime? No. He wandered the land as a stranger all his life. The only land that his family owned in Canaan was the small field and cave where Abraham and Sarah were buried near Hebron (Gen. 23; 25:9,10; 35:27-29; Gen. 50:13). There was also a small piece of land that Jacob bought near Shechem (Gen. 33:19). But this was far from owning the entire land!
So when will Jacob receive this promise of the land of Israel? In the resurrection! This was the teaching of the early Church: that the promises given to the patriarchs will be fulfilled in the earthly reign of Messiah, a reign that begins with the resurrection of the righteous. As the early church father Irenaus put it: “The predicted blessing (of Jacob), therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous will reign upon their rising from the dead,” Irenaus, 2nd cent. AD, Against Heresies 5.33.3; see Matt. 8:11, 22:32). Here again, we see that the promises to Jacob point to the resurrection and the coming of the Son of Man.
The future implications of Jacob’s dream are also confirmed in Gen. 28:14, where the one appearing on the ladder promised him, “...and all the families of the earth will be blessed by you and by your seed [singular].” This, too, is a repetition of the promises God gave to his father and grandfather. The singular “seed” by which all the families of the earth will be blessed refers prophetically to Jesus, the Messiah (Gal. 3:16)!
The very next verse reveals the immediate reason why Jacob was given this vision at this time: because he was going to a distant land which was not the Promised Land—and God wanted him back again! “And look, I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you” (Gen. 28:15). God wanted Jacob to know that even though he was leaving the Promised Land for a while, the God of the Promised Land would not abandon him, but would be with him wherever he went. But this, too, is a promise with incredible implications: because if God would not leave him until he fulfilled his promises, then God has not left Jacob from that day until today. Why not? Because the promises have not yet been completely fulfilled! This is the kind of verse that Jesus and the rabbis used to prove the resurrection. And it’s the same promise that we have as believers in Messiah Jesus: that he will never leave us or forsake us, not in this life or the next (Heb. 13:5).
What is Jacob’s reaction to these awesome events? He experiences the fear of God: “And Jacob awoke from his sleep and he said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I didn’t know it.’ And he was afraid and he said, ‘How fearful is this place! Is it not surely a house of Elohim, and this a gateway to the heavens?’” (Gen. 28:16,17). Jacob had understood exactly the point of God’s visitation: that the gate or door of heaven was right there where he was, and not in the ziggurats of Mesopotamia where he was going!
|Standing Stones in the Desert
The next morning, Jacob took the stone he had used as a pillow and stood it upright, pouring oil on its top (Gen. 28:18). This was the ancient desert custom of using standing stones (masseboth in Hebrew, sometimes translated “pillars”) for worship. These standing stones have been found at dozens of ancient open-air worship sites throughout the deserts of Israel and neighboring countries. Moses himself set up twelve masseboth at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:4; though later God forbid them to continue using standing stones, Lev. 26:1, Deut. 16:22). They were also used in cities for pagan worship, as at Gezer, Hazor, and Petra; and even at Israelite high places dedicated to YHWH, as at Arad in the time of the later kings of Judah.
So why is Jacob setting up a standing stone? His father and grandfather had never set up standing stones: this is the first time they're mentioned in the Bible. When Abraham and Isaac had an encounter with God, they set up instead an altar and worshiped him with whole burnt offerings. But it seems that Jacob was not yet ready for that.
Instead, he imitated the pagan religious customs of those living around him. He had had a remarkable religious experience, so, like them, he marked the place with a stone—with a memorial. But memorials are for things that are dead and gone, not for things that are alive (Matt. 23:29-31)! Jacob did not yet have a living relationship with God.
But he was willing to make a deal: “If Elohim will be with me and will protect me on this journey that I am taking, and he gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return to the house of my father in peace, then the LORD will be my Elohim. And this stone that I have set up as a standing stone will be a house of Elohim” (28:20-22). The stone will be God’s house? Jacob had had a genuine experience with God, but he still didn’t understand God very well. The whole earth is only God’s footstool (Isa. 66:1): how can a stone be his house? Jacob still had a paganistic understanding of God. He’s still making deals with him. Have you ever heard of someone doing that; or maybe done it yourself? If you do this for me, Lord, then I will follow you...
But over the years, God was faithful. He was with Jacob through all his adventures, and brought him back safely. So when Jacob returned to the Promised Land, he built an altar to God near Shechem, the same place where Abraham had first arrived in the Land (Gen. 33:20). But even though he did this act of worship, nothing happened. God didn’t show up. Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever prepared something spiritual for God, but heaven remained silent? And then Jacob had that terrible experience at Shechem where his daughter, Dinah, was raped, and his sons killed everyone in town to take vengeance. Things were not going the way Jacob had hoped!
But right then, at that low moment in his life, God appeared to him again: “Get up! Go up to Bethel and stay there, and make there an altar to God who appeared to you when you fled from the presence of Esau your brother” (35:1). God hadn’t forgotten him. Nor had he forgotten the promise that Jacob had made.
Gen. 35:2: “And Jacob said to his house and to all that were with him, 'Put aside the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.'” Now we see what the problem had been. Jacob had not yet made a clean break with the other gods. The true God is a jealous God. He doesn’t want to be one of our gods; he wants to be our only God. Jacob had not yet fully committed himself to the God of his fathers. But now he was finally willing to take that step.
Gen. 35:4: “And they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.” The earrings probably had a connection with the false gods, too, as they were often looked at as good luck charms, popular both with men and women. But now Jacob is making good on his promise, and cutting off these foreign gods. This spot, too, was connected with his family history. God had once appeared to Abraham at “the oak” near Shechem (Gen. 12:6).
So Jacob went to Bethel and built an altar (Gen. 35:7). And when he did, God appeared to him and repeated the same promises he had made to his grandfather Abraham: that he would be the father of nations, and would be given the land of Israel (35:9-12).
How did Jacob respond? He set up a standing stone again (35:14)! Jacob is now a believer. But he’s still trying to express his belief in pagan ways: he has not yet fully understood the ways of God.
Have you ever done anything like that? We all come to God with strange ideas in our minds; ideas that must be purified, refined, and tested to bring them in line with God’s word and his will. I still remember some of my strange early attempts to understand the word of God after I became a believer: I was trying to reconcile my previous worldview with what the Bible said, trying to compromise the two. It didn’t work, of course. But it took me a while to understand that.
Even today I still discover old holdovers from time to time that need to be cleaned out. This happens not only to individuals but to Christian societies as a whole. In Europe, many pagan ideas and practices remained among Christians for many years—some until today. It’s often easier for people to continue old traditions than to think about whether or not they are pleasing to God. The problem is that these things risk blocking out the true spiritual presence of God in our lives. Thank God he’s a merciful God. But maybe we should think more carefully about the things we do for God. Tradition is not always good. Why should we do things that God may not like—or even things that he has directly forbidden? Eating blood is a good example. Many Christians are convinced it’s just fine, even though the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, directly forbids it. And there are many other practices that either directly violate God's word, or are in a dangerous gray zone. We’ve talked before about misunderstandings in areas of doctrine like the resurrection and the Millennium, misunderstandings that were caused by pagan thinking sneaking into the Church. And there are many more.
The place where Jacob set up his stone, at Bethel, later became a center of idolatrous worship for Israel. Here they set up one of the golden calves in the time of Jeroboam that led many into sin (2 Kings 10:29). Why did they do this? They, like Jacob, were worshiping the right God, but doing it the wrong way. They were using pagan forms of worship that God had forbidden. This can be quite dangerous. In the northern kingdom of Israel, it eventually led to death and destruction, as did similar times of false belief and action among Christians in Europe. Many in the northern tribes of Israel permanently fell away, and were taken into exile where they became completely paganized, far removed from the worship of the one true God.
Fortunately, Jacob himself did finally get the point. In his old age, before going down to Egypt to be with his son Joseph, he stopped at Beersheba, the place where his whole adventure had begun. Here, he offered sacrifices in worship to the God of his father Isaac (Gen. 46:1). Again, God spoke to him. He told him not to be worried about going to Egypt, that God would be with them and bring them back (Gen. 46:2). But this time, Jacob didn’t set up a standing stone. There was no need to. Now he understood that God was with him every day and every hour. There was no need for a memorial: his relationship with God was alive.
What about you? Have you set up memorials in your life for past religious experiences? Or are you living in a relationship of worship with God every day? Are you relying on memories, or are you fanning the flames of worship on a daily basis? May God help us to have an informed understanding of his will, so we can remove the traces of paganism and every unclean thing out of our lives. But even more importantly, may he fill our hearts with the desire to worship him every day in Spirit and in truth.
(For more on this topic, see the index category Jacob.)
(For more on this topic, see the index category Jacob.)