After Jacob tricks Esau by obtaining the birth-right from their father Isaac, he has to flee for his life. Jacob's behaviour had been encouraged by their mother, Rebecca, who (in tandem with all the Genesis matriarchs) is regarded as being far wiser than her husband in reading accurately the character of her offspring.
Rebecca predicts the future of the Jewish people. This will not be through addiction to violence (epitomised by Esau himself) but through 'the book', sometimes having to utilize the 'sword', but only as a last resort when all else has failed.
So Jacob leaves the Negev desert city of Beersheva and journeys towards Charan where he 'encounters the place' (Genesis 28:11). This does not necessarily mean Charan itself. 'Place' in Hebrew is also a euphemism for the word 'G-d'. G-d is regarded as 'the Place of the world, but the world is not His place.' So this was the sacred spot where Jacob rests for the night.
The 'place' is also the site of Mount Moriah, where Jacob's father, Isaac, was taken by Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, to be sacrificed.
As well as being of immediate physical significance, therefore, the site where Jacob will have his famous ladder dream is replete with psychological and spiritual significance. Jacob will father the twelve tribes, as depicted in the twelve stones, which the midrash tells us he arranged around his head. And the midrash also reports that, like children everywhere, the stones quarrelled among themselves and vied for position – somehow knowing that this ladder dream would be one of the most fateful and significant in human history.
And he dreamt and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward. And behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28: 12).
Rabbinic commentators state that this ladder had been specially 'set' there by G-d as a means of communication between humanity and G-d. For this isn't only about Jacob himself, but Jacob as representative of 'everyman'.
The story of Jacob's ladder is relevant to us today. The context is important. The man Jacob dreamed about in the conflict is himself. If you are basically a person who prefers study, meditation and quiet (Jacob) to greed, fighting and power (Esau), once you are faced with those tendencies you actually abhor, what do you do?
Do you run away (as in further Bible stories about Jonah, for instance), do you hold your ground and maybe face certain death, do you retreat into your own psyche, or do you take stock and act?
The word for ladder, sulam, has the same numerical value in Hebrew as Sinai. How Jacob interprets his dream is therefore of paramount importance for the future of the Jewish people who, according to Jewish tradition, will eventually end up as teachers of mankind. For the giving of the Torah represents, like the ladder itself, a bridge between heaven and earth.
According to midrash, the angels represent the guardians of the four powers who will try to destroy Jacob throughout the ages. These are
1. Babylon - destruction of the 1st Temple and forced exile of the Jewish people to foreign parts;
2. Persia - the first attempted genocide of the Jewish people - depicted in the book of Esther, read at Purim in early spring;
3. Greece - attempt to wipe out the Jewish religion of Judaism through adoration of beauty, prevention of male circumcision, downplaying of the family, all depicted in the Chanuka story of defilement of the Temple, which is with us shortly;
4. and the present 2000-year era of Roman rule, morphing into what we know of as 'Western civilisation', which also learned from Babylon, Persia and Greece and, in addition, contributed its own type of brutality.
So this ladder dream is helpful to Jacob in preparing him for the time when he is given the additional name of 'Israel'. But the dream with its 'angels' also provides an insight into the future history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people and their fate are inextricably bound up with the history of the world. And the endurance needed to survive and to go on with G-d's mission to the world is illustrated by the interpretations of the meaning of the dream of the ladder.
Because in the world as we know it, the Jew as 'Jacob' has had to use guile, subterfuge and trickery. But very soon in the story, other characteristics will unfold, and that is why the text continues by stating that 'Behold, the Lord was standing over him' – to protect him. The same divine presence which had protected Abraham and Isaac, will also look after Jacob and his twelve children as they travel and develop on the path to peoplehood and the furtherance of G-d's mission in His world.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She lives in Greater Manchester and is chair of the Broughton Park Dialogue Group which just celebrated its ninth anniversary.