5 Things We've Missed About Jacob's Ladder

The tragic culture of slavery spawned the age-old spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder. We don’t know much about its origin except that slaves nearly two centuries ago—in the 1820s—sang it, no doubt soulfully. The spiritual is extremely repetitive, giving steadiness, reliability, and rhythm to an unpredictable and arduous existence.

The simple stanzas go like this:

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

The next verse sings, “Every rung goes higher, higher.” The third stanza asks: "Sinner, do you love my Jesus?" The last stanza pleads, “If you love him, why not serve him?” Serve him. A word that may not mean so much to many of us, but a word that rang with ardor in America’s slave society.

Unfortunately, for many of us, all we know about Jacob's ladder is this spiritual. But lying beneath it is Genesis 28:10-19, the lectionary text for this week. The story of Jacob’s ladder is so much bigger than the spiritual. It’s another stunner in a long line of stunners in the book of Genesis.

With his head on a pillow-stone, Jacob has a dream in which God reiterates a promise first made to Abraham and Sarah, then to Isaac and Rebekah, and now, finally, to Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob.

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

This promise, in one form or another, pops up at various places in the book of Genesis, just in case we thought that God, who is otherwise pretty invisible—there are very few thunderbolts thrown—had backed out of the human drama. (Who could blame God for that?!) It’s like the Cascade Mountains after a takeoff from Seattle; peeking through the clouds, you see Mount Baker, Mount Rainer, Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Adams. They pop through the clouds, a line of them, the way these promises punctuate the human drama in Genesis.

In this story, the cushion for the promise is a dream: a ladder between earth and heaven. What’s so important about this dream? At least five things, I think.

  1. A sad son. What precedes this dream is about Esau—and it’s really pathetic. Esau saw that his father “Isaac had blessed Jacob” and sent him to find a wife not from the Canaanites (the inhabitants of the land). So what did Esau do? He imitated Isaac by taking a(nother) wife, Mahalath, Abraham’s granddaughter. We talked last week about sibling rivalry. It’s pathetic. Esau wants Isaac’s approval, so, like Jacob, he too marries a woman not from the Canaanites.
  2. A brother blowing it. Esau doesn’t pick a granddaughter through the line of Isaac, however, but through Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham and Hagar. If he did it on purpose, he was a screwup, a rebel. If he did it without realizing it, he was a loser. Either way, Jacob is still the pretty boy.
  3. An earthshaking nightmare. When he awoke, Jacob “was frightened.” He then said, “This place is frightening!” (Both words share the same Hebrew root.) This wasn’t a comforting dream; it was a nightmare. Glimpsing heaven doesn’t lend a touch of joy to Jacob’s mundane life. It scares him half to death. Don’t be tricked by a translation like “This place is awesome.” This place—heaven’s gate—should scare us half to death.
  4. An uncommon adventure. Notice the care Jacob takes afterward. He builds a pillar from the stone and pours oil on it. Then he renames the place Beth-El, or House of God. He knows that something special has happened. We sometimes think people in Bible-times had lots of visions, boatloads (like Noah) of God-encounters. They didn’t. Nope. This was a big-time exception—and Jacob knew it.
  5. A useless oath. Still, Jacob didn’t let the promise sink in. He had a vision, a very active one, by the way, of angels going up and down, but the main point, that God would be with him, just didn’t sink in. So afterwards, he made a vow: if God would be with him and take him home, he’d make the stone pillow a shrine and call it God’s House and, more important, give a tenth of his stuff to God. You see? Jacob didn’t get it at all. He bargained for what he already had, what God had already said. There’s a lesson for us there about God, for sure.

The spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder, doesn’t have much content to it. Its power lies elsewhere, in its steady, reliable repetition and the rich tones it evokes. For all its slow rhythm and somber resonance, the spiritual doesn’t tell us much about the story. Even this week’s lectionary, Genesis 28:10-19, doesn’t tell the whole story. The whole of Genesis 28 does. We’ve only scratched the surface here. The story is richer and more resonant even than the spiritual; for more insight, listen in on this discussion and discover some other things you may have missed in this profound story of how you can meet God.

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Photo: Jacob’s Ladder (woodcut from Luther Bibles of 1534 and 1545)

Biblical quotation from the New Revised Standard Version.

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