Ladders and Stairs: A Bible Study Of Jacob’s Dream

Scripture Reading: Genesis 28:10-19a

Remember this story from my Bible study last week? Isaac, the son of Abraham, needed a wife. So a servant of Abraham had traveled back to their homeland to find a proper wife for Isaac. Next to a well, this servant had prayed that God would send him a girl who filled certain requirements, mostly showing kindness, and that he would know she was the right girl for Isaac. When Rebekah showed up at the well, she filled the bill, giving water to the servant, and then proceeding to water his camels…all ten of them.

This week we are a bit farther along in the story. Isaac and Rebekah have two sons, twin boys. Even though they are twins, this patriarchal society demands that one of them be the heir to their father’s lands and title. Therefore, Esau, the older because he was born first, has the birthright instead of his brother Jacob. But Jacob was a crafty fellow, and through a series of manipulative and deceitful events, he steals his brother’s birthright.

After Jacob conned his brother Esau out of his birthright and Esau found out, Esau declared that he would wait for their elderly father Isaac to die and then murder Jacob so that he could take back his birthright. When he heard this, Jacob fled the country in order to save his life. His plan was to take refuge with his mother’s kinfolk, who lived across the River Jordan to the northeast. The first day of his journey, Jacob headed due north, not crossing the river yet. When nightfall approached, he stopped on a ridge, made camp, and went to sleep, using a smooth stone as a pillow under his neck. That night he dreamed that there was a ladder between heaven and earth, and angels were climbing up and down that ladder. In his dream, God spoke to him and promised to be with him and his descendants. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”

Jacob was a man on the run. He was fleeing for his life! Can you imagine how afraid he was? He knew that he had cheated his brother and deserved to be punished. He also knew that Esau was big tough guy! Jacob was afraid, and he had been forced to deal with the reality, just as many of us have, that death can be much closer than we might think. Life is very fragile.

Can you imagine what he must have been thinking as he lay his tired head down on that stone pillow? He was weary from fast paced traveling. He had had all day as he walked to think about both what sins he had committed and how angry his brother must be. He had had time to consider all the ways Esau, who was a hunter, a man’s man if you will, might torture him and bring about his death. He was alone and scared. It is no wonder that he could not find peaceful rest. It is no wonder that he experienced fitful dreams.

As children, we are taught the story of Jacob’s dream. We are even taught games with ribbons and shown pictures depicting “Jacob’s ladder.” It is an image we can all identify with very easily. We all know what a ladder is. We can picture it in our minds now: a long, tall structure, with rungs on which we place our feet, one rung at a time, as we use it to climb higher. But that image is not correct. In Jacob’s world, he would not have pictured our concept of a ladder to reach such a high place as Heaven. In Jacob’s world, if you need to reach a very tall place, you built steps, steps…not a ladder.  Stairs…

It may seem strange to pick this one detail to focus on out of this story. But I am sure everyone reading this has climbed a ladder at some point in their lives. Think about that for just a moment because you see, the importance of this story is actually found in the difference between ladders and stairs.

You may not know this about me, but I am a bit of a klutz. I was never good at sports; I fall down a lot. It is certainly never good for me to climb to tall heights. And one thing I can tell you for sure is that it is way easier for me to climb up the ladder than it is for me to get back down. And really, isn’t that true for everyone? Ladders are really made for going up. You can shoot right up a ladder as you ascend, but once you are up there, it is always a bit awkward when it is time to come down. You have to maneuver a bit slower. You can’t see where you are going. It is on the way down that people miss a rung and fall. Ladders are really meant for climbing up.

Stairs on the other hand, like the ones in Jacob’s world, are installed in places where there will be much travel…often…by many people…going both ways…up and down. This is the most important detail in the story. “He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it.” Back and forth, up and down. It is one of the most important promises God has made to us.  Up and down.

You see, most of us realize that we have the gift of prayer. We can look up and call out to God at any moment. In fact, we are told to pray without ceasing. It is our constant ladder to communicate with our loving Father. But did you know that communicating with God is not meant to be a one way process? God also needs to speak to us. The problem is that we are often so caught up in our lives, our fears, our weariness, that we hurry off a quick prayer and then move on to complete the other tasks of our day.

That’s where the stairs come in. God often needs to slap us around and get our attention, sometimes to wake us up and straighten us out. I often hear the voice of God as the voice of my mother, exasperated because once again I have gone off track. I hear it very clearly, “Melanie Laureen, do NOT make me tell you this again!”

But sometimes, life has become so weary, in places where we are so scared, or tired, or confused that we are so caught up in the turmoil of what is going on, that we even forget to pray. It is in those times that God opens up that staircase to descend to us, to come to us where we think we are most alone, and remind us of his most important promise: “I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”

Most of us, I suspect, know what it is like to live life on the run. Some of us are running from our past, trying to escape guilt, regret, failures, disappointments. Some are trying to get away from the pain, losses, and brokenness of life. Sometimes, we just want to leave behind the parts of our lives or ourselves we dislike. Jacob was a man on the run, just as many of us are today.

That is why it is so important to know that Jacob didn’t dream of a ladder. His beautiful dream was of a staircase. A staircase that is open for us to ascend to speak to God whenever we like, in joy, in trial, in need, in thanks. But, because we are human, and weak, and often flawed in the choices we make in our own free will, sometimes we forget to take our good moments and especially our weak moments to God. We feel lost, alone, hurting, confused, and afraid. And it is in those moments that God will come down the staircase to speak to us in our despair and remind us that “The Lord is definitely in this place,” even when we forget to look for Him. Then, like Jacob, we see that this sacred place is beautiful and awesome  when we are looking up the staircase at God.

Genesis 28:10-19a Common English Bible 

“10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. 12 He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. 13 Suddenly the Lordwas standing on it[a] and saying, “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 become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. 15 I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. 17 He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. 18 After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He named that sacred place Bethel…”

Melanie Tubbs is a professor, pastor, mother, Mimi, and true Arkansas woman. She lives with nine cats and one dog on a quiet hill in a rural county where she pastors a church and teaches history at the local university. Her slightly addictive personality comes out in shameful Netflix binges and a massive collection of books. Vegetarian cooking, reading mountains of books for her seminary classes, and crocheting for the churches prayer shawl ministry take up most of her free time, and sharing the love of Christ forms the direction of her life. May the Peace of Christ be with You.