“Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (OSB)
The Promise to Abraham has been made; it has been fulfilled—according to the flesh—in the birth of Isaac; it has been “endangered”; and yet it continues. God’s Word will not be thwarted. However, for the reader of Scripture, the “dramatic tension” in the Scriptural narrative continues to revolve around the question: Who will be the heir of the promise? First, we learn it is Isaac, not Ishmael; next it will be Jacob, not Esau; then it will be Judah, not the other 11 sons of Jacob. Later, it will be David, and not the other 7 sons of Jesse. Then it will be Solomon alone among David’s sons. Where will the Chosen Line “end” such that all the nations will be blessed in Abraham’s seed?
In the story of Genesis, the Patriarch Isaac’s story is brief, almost an interlude between Abraham and Jacob. When we meet Jacob, we discover that, from birth, this child was born for conflict, struggle, and subterfuge. The name “Jacob” means “one who grasps at the heel” or “one who supplants”—for while being born, just seconds behind his twin Esau, he comes out grasping Esau’s heel. This is emblematic of Jacob’s character and relationships—his swindling of Isaac’s blessing away from Esau, his deceit towards his father-in-law Laban. His tenacity will even lead him to wrestle with God—and shockingly win (Gen 32:22-32; Hos 12:3-6)! In a wonderful series of puns, Jacob “wrestles” (Heb. ’abaq) with God at Jabbok and his thigh is “dislocated” (Heb. yaqa‘). God then changes Jacob’s name to “Israel,” that is, “man who strives with God.” Unfortunately, Jacob’s character flaws will pass on to his sons, and will lead to the near disintegration of his family.
In Genesis 28, in his search for a wife, Jacob must retrace his grandfather Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia. On his way into “exile,” leaving Canaan for Haran (cf. Gen 12:4), Jacob has a dream in which God confirms Jacob as the recipient of the Abrahamic covenant, blessing, and promise—of descendants, land, and divine presence/relationship. This message is accompanied by a vision of a Ladder to Heaven with angels descending and ascending on it. Jacob names the place of this dream-vision “Bethel” or “House of God,” the location that will come to mark the southern border of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the divided kingdom after Solomon’s reign. King Jeroboam will desecrate this sacred site by setting up a “golden calf” statue in ironic imitation of Israel’s rebellion at Mt. Sinai (1 Kgs 12:25-33; Exod 32-34).
The Ladder has become a fruitful symbol in the life of the Church. Christ identifies Himself as the Ladder and as the Gate (Jn 1:51; 10:7)—in His descent, and in His Cross (on which He “leans,” Gen 28:13) and Resurrection, He is the Way of re-ascent, the ladder of Virtue we must climb to the Father, with the rungs of the Ladder the virtues supported by the two posts of the Old & New Testaments (St. Chromatius). But so is His Mother, the Theotokos, who is the “Ladder” and “Gate of Heaven” as she unites heaven and earth through the Incarnation (St. Fulgentius of Ruspe; St. John of Damascus), and so is the Church of which She is a Figure (Venerable Bede). The angel “descends” at the Annunciation to Mary of Her Child-bearing, and the angels who are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14) continue their descent and ascent in the life of the Church, guarding and protecting us in our temporary exile from and return to the heavenly Promised Land (St. Cyril of Alexandria).
~ By Reader Justin Gohl