Vayetze: Jacob’s Ladder
One of the most famous events in the life of Jacob is his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven. Yeshua alludes to it in a discussion with Nathanael. We want to take a close look at each of these passages to see what they mean together.
We pick up the story of Jacob as he leaves his father’s house to go find a wife. As the day draws to a close, he decides to make camp for the night: “He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place,” (Genesis 28:11). What happens next would astound any one of us: “He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants,'” (Genesis 28:12-13).
Of particular interest is the phrase “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” In the Hebrew, the pronoun used can mean either “it” or “him.” While the translators chose “it,” meaning the ladder, some rabbis entertained the thought of the angels ascending and descending on “him,” meaning Jacob. Angels are understood to be messengers of God who do His will on earth and in heaven. Therefore the angels ascending and descending on Jacob symbolizes the fact that God’s attention was fixed on Jacob and that He had sent angels to protect and take care of him. The fact that this is true is reiterated in Genesis 32:1 when Jacob heads out to return home: “Now as Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him.”
In the next verse, the same pronoun is used. Again most translations interpret it to mean the ladder, but the JPS Tanakh does it differently: “And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed,'” (Genesis 28:13).
Yeshua knew the intended meaning behind this dream, and He makes reference to it in a conversation recorded in the gospel of John. After meeting Yeshua, Philip goes and tells Nathanael that he has found the Messiah. Nathanael is skeptical, but comes to see Him to find out whether He is the Messiah or not. “Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!'” (John 1:47). This is another reference to Jacob, whose name means “he grasps the heel,” which is another way to say “he decieves.” Nathanael believes Yeshua and declares that He is the Son of God. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.'”
There are multiple ways to understand this saying. First, it can be understood in the context of the ladder in Jacob’s dream. Yeshua is comparing Himself to a ladder between heaven and earth, as established earlier in John 1, which explains the deity of Yeshua. He descended to earth to be born as a man, and after His resurrection, He ascended back into heaven. He is the ladder we ascend upon to access the Father in heaven, and we await the day when He will descend once more.
Another way of interpreting this is that Nathanel will see the work of God done through Yeshua. It is not recorded whether or not Nathanael actually saw a vision of angels ascending and descending on Yeshua, but for certain he witnessed the mighty acts of power done through Him. The picture of angels around Yeshua is evident in passages like Matthew 4:11 and 26:53. We can also think of the angels mentioned in Yeshua’s words in John 1:51 as being symbolic of the power of heaven which the disciples saw in every miraculous act Yeshua carried out.
Jacob had a vision of the Messiah, but only from a distance. Not until that ladder had been revealed to all mankind was the full meaning of his dream made available. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me,'” (John 14:6). We do not only look upon that ladder as if in a dream, but we ourselves can ascend upon our Messiah to meet with our Father, who stands above with open arms, waiting only for us to come.