Friday, December 05, 2008

What's the deal with Jacob's ladder? Two takes.

Jacob's night vision on Mount Moriah is one of the bible's strangest stories. On the run from Esav, he stops to rest and dreams of a ladder stretching to the heavens with angles going up and down upon it. At the top is the Lord, who speaks: 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. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of [Mechon Mamre translation]

Points to ponder: Why a ladder, and why a dream? [Note: Alter translates it as ramp, noting that the language used here is similar to the language used to describe the migdal baval which was, likely, a ziggurat.] If the Lord wished to speak to Jacob and deliver to him the latest variation of His promise to Abraham's family, why complicate matters with the ladder vision?

There are, generally, two answers:

(1) The ladder was a message in its own right. What it means is any one's guess, and everyone from Philo to Leviticus Rabba to Samson Rephael Hirsch have attempted to interpret it. Some of these interpretations work together; others are mutually exclusive.

(2) The ladder was neither part of the dream nor part of the vision. This is the approach taken by Rashi, who says that angles are assigned specific territories, and that while Jacob slumbered and dreamt, those angles who had been escorting Jacob in Israel returned to heaven, while their replacements descended. A more precious idea, found in the Talmud (Chulin 91b) and also in the Targum Neofiti, is the angles wished to gaze upon Jacob.

Chulin says the angles came to see if the genuine Jacob as he actually lived on earth, could be compared with the reputation he enjoyed in heaven; Berashis Rabba develops the idea and says the angles were disappointed with what they found: "up above they saw his picture engraved as Israel glorifying God, they came down and found him fast asleep" and were so disturbed by the display of disrespect "they intended to endanger his life." Both Chulin and the Midrash read מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ not as "angels of God ascending and descending on IT, ie the ladder but on HIM, ie. Jacob.

Targum Neofiti has the same reading, but a more favorable take, saying that Jacob's celestial escort ascended the ladder to invite the other angles to "Come and see the righteous man whose likeness is set upon the divine throne."

Interestingly enough, the author of the gospel of John seems to have "learned like Chulin," assigning to Jesus the following words: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

As he interprets the story, the ladder was not a message or a vision but the actual merging of heaven and earth, as real angles came to catch a glimpse of Jacob.

Buy my book. (please)

No comments: