Jacob’s Temple Encounter

Jacob was driven out of the land of promise out of fear of his brother Esau, and flees Haran out of fear of his uncle Laban back to the land where, he thought, his brother waited for him with ill intent. At these most vulnerable moments, it is no coincidence that Jacob had an encounter with God at Bethel when he began his journey out of the land of promise (Gen. 28:10-22), and again when he re-entered at the Brook of Jabbok (32:22-32). We are stunned with how God guided, protected, and cared for Jacob as he was thrashing around in his troubled life, in troubles of his own making. This provides for us a profound meditation on grace, sheer grace. In this post we will focus on Jacob’s “ladder dream.”

Jacob’s “ladder” dream at Bethel is nothing less than cosmic in scope. It demands a comparison with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9. See “Babel, The Culmination of the Fall” in Nov. 18, 2013). Obviously, what the Patriarch saw in his dream was beyond our crude conception of a stick ladder with wooden rungs leaning up against a cloud. Most probably it was a ramp-like structure with its base set on the earth with its top touching the “heavens” (So Westermann). “Heavens,” of course, should not be understood as a location somewhere “out there” in outer space. Rather, it is a symbol for the spiritual realm where God “dwells.” The ancient Babylonians attempted to storm the heavens, or spirit realm, by their own power with their own ramp and occult tower. By contrast, God extends His “temple ramp” to Jacob by grace when he was least looking for it, and certainly when he least deserved it. This divine act offers hope for all helpless and yearning souls. Babel’s ramp is about human ability and approaching God on our own terms. Jacob’s ladder is about grace, the supernatural activity of God’s Holy Spirit working in our lives, and the divine invitation to aspire to God. In a nutshell, the Babylonians were attempting to regain Eden with a tower made with “hands,” while Jacob gains access to Eden, the Cosmic Temple of God made without hands, by grace (See “Faustian Patterns” in Nov. 25, 2013). Notice Jacob’s terror and awe in this numinous place (28:17).

From this moment on, the analogy of the ladder became one of the great symbols for all those hopeful for a glimpse of God in His holy Temple. Jesus Himself directly employed this imagery when He presented the perceptive Nathaniel with those wonderful words, “very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). The Church was not slow to pick up on this. The twelve steps of humility in the great rule of St. Benedict were inspired by the imagery of Jacob’s ladder. Following this lead, St. Bernard of Clairvaux saw twelve steps of humility ascending to God, and twelve steps of pride descending away from God. Dante ascended the Celestial ladder which took him from the seventh level of paradise to the eighth. St. John of the Cross speaks of a “secret ladder” of faith and love. Milton, when describing the end of Satan’s cosmic journey from Hell’s gates to Eden’s garden, portrays this desperate spirit pausing before a ladder which connected heaven with paradise, filled with angelic activity. When he finished his dark deed, this ladder appeared no longer. Rather, a bridge of “asphaltic slime” built by his consort Sin and their son Death linked earth with the open gates of hell. Since then, easy is the descent to Hell, and difficult is the ascent to God. The great question in life now is, “Who shall ascend the Mountain of God, and who shall stand in His Temple” (Ps. 24:3). Thus we are left with a paradox; this ladder is extended to us out of pure grace, but ascending costs us everything we have.

But let us get back to Jacob. He knows that to leave the Promised Land jeopardizes his claim to creation blessing and firstborn rights that link him to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and in effect, the Temple of God. So after the dream he makes a vow that if God brings him back, YHWH would be His God, and building upon his “pillow” stone, he would erect a temple. His vow to tithe is directly linked to worship and Temple. We do not know how these vows took form once he re-entered the land, but we do know from this formative encounter that land as mountain/temple was central to Jacob’s cosmology and spirituality. His ladder dream links the Promised Land to Heaven.

2 Responses to “Jacob’s Temple Encounter”

  1. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Fr. JOHN

    Created to Become Sacred Space. Born to Be a Temple.

  2. Jacqui, it is taking me decades of thought and reflection, but I think I am just beginning to grasp what you are saying! Thanks for the B-day greeting!

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