According to Genesis chapters 27 and 28, after the younger twin, Jacob, had purloined, with monumental chicanery, both the birthright and special blessing intended for his slightly older brother, Esau — and after growing up as the child specially favored by his mother Rebecca — Jacob had to flee the faith community headed by his aging father Isaac.
Moreover, intuiting a sense of Esau’s rage and threats, in a tribe known for mortal conflict and other manifestations of rivalry among siblings, Jacob in his flight was no doubt deeply troubled, even terrified — haunted by the prospect of being pursued and slain by the victimized Esau. No doubt, it was with an uncomfortable, “deeply-troubled spirit” that Jacob slept, with a stone as his pillow, in the deep dark of an ancient night in the wilderness, and had a poignant and rich vision that we sing about to this day. I speak of his vision of a ladder (or broad staircase, as many scholars concede). Here are some thoughts about “Jacob’s Ladder”:
Remember that this Mosaic lore was fine-tuned into written canon over generations. So it is not anachronistic to suggest that the vision of the ladder may have roots in the stair-step pyramids of Egypt, or in the holy ziggurats, especially of early Babylon (in particular, the very early Ziggurat of Ur) or in strands of Greek philosophy, in particular the common reference to the “Aristotelian hierarchy.”
Whatever the ladder or staircase may have been, its function calls to mind a connection between the bottom and the top, reminding us that we at the bottom and the Divine at the top are connected: we are of the same phylum, and accordingly, as God is sacred, so at least to some degree we also are sacred.
We are of the same phylum, which Genesis elsewhere describes as being in God’s “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27). Indeed, some have traced the classification of murder as a mortal sin precisely to the notion that to murder a human being is tantamount to an assault on the Divine, an attempt to slay God.
But wait: The most-sacred Divine is normally thought of as being at the top, or “there above it” (Genesis 28:13 in the NIV translation), associated with or even defining the ultimate good, while we mortals reside at the bottom, prone to evil (what we sometimes call “original sin”), in communication with the Divine only through the intermediation of God’s messengers (angels).
The carefully crafted text surprisingly might not necessarily be speaking of God as only being above (the ladder); rather the text (Genesis 28:13 in, for example, the NRSV translation) may be using language that could also be understood to mean “the LORD stood above it (the ladder)” and/or “the LORD stood beside him (Jacob).”
Perhaps the Hebrew text encompasses both English translations. We may have here early testimony to the essential nature of God as both transcendent and imminent.
When we sing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” we suggest that we on the lower rungs aspire to be, and do in fact become, more like God as we trust and obey and thereby ascend in a godly direction — but in our lifetimes never reaching the very top, as we are reminded by the events surrounding the Garden of Eden’s Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament when we consider ourselves and our best efforts and compare them with Jesus and the Cross of Calvary.
By its nature, the ladder or staircase entails continual movement — getting somewhere — an ascent to godliness. Yet Jacob describes it as a resting place or a dwelling place, a house (beit in Hebrew) for God (Elohim or El for short). Therefore “Beit-El,” or in English “Bethel” is the first place of worship, duly sanctified, the house of God, as described at Genesis 28:18.
And we know that the practice of several denominations is indeed to name their first church in any given locale “Bethel” or occasionally “Mother Bethel.”
It surely is no accident that this first place of worship, this first “house of God and gate of heaven” is erected by Jacob using as a sacred pillar the very stone that must have been a contributing source of his discomfort and dream-like vision and that correspondingly was a source of his need, insight, and understanding.
I would suggest that Church, by its very nature and true faith, are often the fruit of discomfort. As a pastor, in touch with his congregations, I know what particular pain, what particular brokenness and source thereof, motivate and bring to church, each member — none sinless (like Jacob) — to God’s house for healing.
As with Jacob, so with us all in our communities of faith. In words common to the Old and New Testaments, let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, do so. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Bishop’s Sub-Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and Vicar of Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.) and chairman of SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy