Jacob's Ladder - early 1900's European Christian painting

Jacob’s parents knew that their son, Esau, sought to kill Jacob so they sent him away. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. Along the way, Jacob stopped for the night to sleep. He placed a stone under his head to use as a pillow.

While sleeping, Jacob dreamt of a stairway that reached from the ground to heaven. Along the stairway, angels of God were moving up and down. Above the stairway, Jacob saw God who told Jacob,

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread from the west to the east, from the north to the south. All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until my promise is fulfilled.”

When Jacob awoke, he thought, “God is here! How wonderful is this place! This is the house of God, the gateway to heaven.” When morning came, Jacob took the stone he had used as a pillow and set it up as a monument. He poured oil on top of the rock and named the place Bethel.

Jacob made a vow saying,

“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey so that I may one day return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and everything that you give me, I will give back one tenth.”

What the story means to us today

God never gives up on us

The Dream of Jacob painting by the school of Francesco Solimena 1835Jacob is a perfect example of how a fallible human being can be drawn nearer to God. Jacob’s dream was the closest experience Jacob had with God and unlike his parents, seeing God frightened him. The experience was powerful enough to nudge Jacob in the right direction. Although his actions in response to the dream do not represent true faith, it’s a step in the right direction.

Additional thoughts and considerations

God is with Jacob no matter what

This type of scenario plays out quite often in the Bible. Even though, up to this point, Jacob’s actions have been less than worthy of God’s grace, God still takes care of his children (unconditional love).

God reiterates his plan to Jacob

God reiterated to Jacob the covenant he made with Abraham and Isaac, promising him land and descendants. The path Jacob took to get here was full of deception but regardless, God’s plan for Abraham’s people will be fulfilled no matter what any man does to interfere or hinder the plan’s progress.

All people on Earth will be blessed through you

God’s statement that all people on earth will be blessed through Jacob’s offspring may seem puzzling to some. What could Jacob’s descendants produce that could be power enough to bless everyone on Earth? As we delve into the New Testament, the answer to this question becomes obvious. The great blessing bestowed on all people of earth is a man, a descendant of Jacob – Jesus.

Jacob’s promise to tithe

Several Jewish customs originated from Jacob’s encounter with God this day. Bethel became known as the place where God was “seen” and Jacob’s promise to tithe one-tenth of his belongs to God is a practice that continues to this day.

Why was Jacob’s promise conditional?

There have been various translations of this section but most agree that Jacob’s vow appears to be conditional. However, regardless of the translation, the emphasis does not necessarily have to be placed on the word “if”. Jacob could have meant something along the lines of “when I return home safe and alive, I will make him my God forever”.

Whether or not Jacob’s vow was conditional should also be taken in context with practices of the day. In Jacob’s day, vows were as serious, and binding, as a written contract today. Jacob’s affirmation to follow God was a well-thought-out promise that he certainly intended to keep.

The science and history behind the story

Bethel

Bethel in the Holy land photographed by Daniel B. Shepp. 1894The Bible tells us that although Jacob named the place “Bethel” (meaning “house of God”), it was known to others as Luz. Scholars today believe the site is Tell Beitin, located eleven miles north of Jerusalem, in the village of Beitin. The location lies at the intersection of the main north-south road which cuts through the hill country, and the main road from Jericho. Excavations at the site revealed a city that was destroyed around 1550 BC and rebuilt/destroyed several times since. An alternative location proposed by some scholars is the modern city of el-Birah.

Various times in the Bible, the place Jacob experienced his dream is referenced as Luz or Bethel prompting some to wonder if Luz remained the name of the city and Bethel the name for the specific location where Jacob experienced his dream.

Other historical sources, including Josephus and Ptolemy Soter, mention Beth-El in their works (in both instances, describing military actions that later took place there). That a location named “Bethel” existed, is without question.

Later in the Bible, we will see that Bethel marks the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Interestingly, during the period of the judges, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in Bethel.

Tithing

A “tithe” is one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization (or in some cases, a compulsory tax to a government). Genesis 14:18 tells us that after rescuing Lot, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything he obtained from the battle. However, Jacob’s promise to give God 1/10 of everything is the first mention of tithing to the Church. The act of tithing is mentioned in later chapters (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) too.

Christians frequently support their church and pastor with some sort of monetary compensation. Regardless of whether the amount represents a tenth percent of anything, it is typically called a tithe. Although there are a handful of references to tithing in the New Testament, there is no specific command to tithe. Instead, the New Testament emphasizes (as one of its major points) giving freely, as much as you can afford, and helping those in need.

A stone for a pillow

People in Jacob’s day did not have access to the creature comforts we do today.  However, when travelling, they did carry bedding and various items of clothing.  Thus, even though a stone for a pillow sounds impossibly uncomfortable, if padded with blankets, would become quite workable for a weary traveler.

Notes on Biblical translation

“If” God will be with me

Jacob’s vow to God appears to be conditional when he says “if God will be with me, then I will…” Some have translated the word “if” as “when” which would change the meaning entirely, making it more of an affirmation than a conditional vow.

Jacob’s “ladder”

Most modern-day translations describe the mechanism for angels ascending and descending as a “stairway”. In older versions of the Bible, particularly the popular King James Version (see KJV translation below), the word was translated as “ladder” providing the notable and well-recognized “Jacob’s ladder”.

Bible Text

Jacob's Ladder - Leeds Museums and GalleriesNIV

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. p 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, d though the city used to be called Luz.

20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

10–12 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

13–15 Then GOD was right before him, saying, “I am GOD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”

16–17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “GOD is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”

18–19 Jacob was up first thing in the morning. He took the stone he had used for his pillow and stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Bethel (God’s House). The name of the town had been Luz until then.

20–22 Jacob vowed a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this GOD will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives. And everything you give me, I’ll return a tenth to you.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

El sueño de Jacob, by José de Ribera, from PradoThe NET Bible

28:10 Meanwhile Jacob left Beer Sheba and set out for Haran. 28:11 He reached a certain place where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down. He took one of the stones and placed it near his head. Then he fell asleep in that place 28:12 and had a dream. He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. The angels of God were going up and coming down it 28:13 and the LORD stood at its top. He said, “I am the LORD, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. 28:14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. 28:15 I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!”

28:16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 28:17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!”

28:18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone he had placed near his head and set it up as a sacred stone. Then he poured oil on top of it. 28:19 He called that place Bethel, although the former name of the town was Luz. 28:20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God is with me and protects me on this journey I am taking and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, 28:21 and I return safely to my father’s home, then the LORD will become my God. 28:22 Then this stone that I have set up as a sacred stone will be the house of God, and I will surely give you back a tenth of everything you give me.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

10 And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD 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; 14 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. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. 17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. 18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. 20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, 21 So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: 22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database

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