The story of Jacob’s Ladder: a passage to Paradise

Jacob's Ladder

A well-known interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder is that it is said to be a representation of human history.

According to the book of Genesis, it is said that Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau in exchange for a meal.
Esau was furious with Jacob and yearned to kill him.

Jacob was warned of his brother’s intention by their mother, Rebecca.
He was then told to flee and go to his uncle’s house, Laban, in Harran, until Esau’s fury had subsided.
Jacob obeyed his mother and left Beersheba for his uncle’s house in Harran.
When Jacob arrived at a “certain place”, since the sun had already set, he decided to stay there for the night.

According to a source, this place was the site of the “future Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was also the place of his father’s binding, Isaac”.
Jacob then took a stone from the place to use it as a pillow and fell asleep.
It was while he was asleep that Jacob had his dream on the ladder that connected heaven to earth.

Jacob’s dream

Jacob’s dream has been described as such:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder lifted up upon the earth, and its top reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending upon it.

God, who was standing at the top of the ladder, then spoke to Jacob:

I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: to thee and to thy seed shall I give the land wherein thou lie;
And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt extend unto the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
And, behold, I am with thee, and I will protect thee in all the places where thou goest, and I will bring thee back to this land; for I will not leave thee until I have done what I have spoken unto thee of.

When Jacob woke up in the morning, he took the rock he had used as a pillow and placed it like a stele.
He poured oil on it and called the place Betel, which means “House of God“, even though it is said that it was originally known as Luz.

Then Jacob took a vow and resumed the journey.

Jacob's ladder

What is the meaning of Jacob’s ladder?

Jacob’s ladder has been interpreted in many ways.

It is evident that Jacob perceived that the stone had contributed to his vision and that it contained some magical and sacred quality.

In the description it is pointed out that angels went up and down the ladder to symbolically demonstrate the dynamic relationship between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity and that divine qualities flow continuously between the two worlds.

Some believe that this connection is symbolic and represented by Jacob’s family and the divine connection of the patriarch with God’s graces.
This idea of Jacob’s recognition of his destiny is perhaps seen in his vow which follows his vision: “If God will be with me and keep me in this way that I go and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear so that I return in peace to my father’s house, the Lord will be my God“.

However, in this tradition, the link between the two worlds is depicted as something now lost: angelic beings with flaming swords block access to the Garden of Eden.
Jacob is not encouraged to climb up the ladder to heaven.

Another well-known interpretation of Jacob’s ladder is that it is said to be a representation of human history.
According to this interpretation, the steps of Jacob’s ladder symbolise the succession of kingdoms that rule the world and the ups and downs of humanity.

Finally, there is also a more mystical interpretation of Jacob’s ladder, which proposes that the ladder can be read as a means to achieve spiritual elevation or ascension.
In this case, angels have been interpreted in various ways as representations of reincarnation (ascent and descent of bodies/souls) or human souls rising in virtue or falling into sin.
With this interpretation, performing virtuous acts could be seen as a way to “ascend Jacob’s ladder“.

Meanings for other religions

For Judaism it also has other meanings:
The ladder symbolizes the different exiles that the people of Israel will suffer.
The Jews believed that the temple of Jerusalem was in the place where Jacob had the dream of the ladder.
Sacrifices and prayers were made in the temple to strengthen the steps of the ladder which was the bridge or covenant that united the Jewish people with God.

For some theologians, the steps are the next steps that people must follow in order to achieve excellence and arrive before the divine presence.

Other cultures and religions:
Many scholars have considered the stairway as a metaphor.
For example, in Persia, the religion of Mithras spoke of the seven steps of a ladder that had to be climbed to reach perfection.

In Eastern religions, they speak of the chakras through which life energy ascends.

Also in Scandinavian myths they speak of a tree on which the initiates must climb.

Exceptionally, for some it represents a true ladder that remains hidden and through which aliens visit us; it could also be the ladder from which angels descend in search of human souls.

Some groups believe that because of the helical shape that can sometimes have a ladder, Jacob’s ladder represents human DNA as union with the divine.

With so many possibilities, Jacob’s ladder can be seen as a tool for teaching various moral lessons, but the real meaning could be something far beyond current human understanding.