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Did Jacob Dream of a Ladder?

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Most of us do not see dreams as having any great significance in our physical lives and those that do often connect them with some sort of mysticism. However, the Scriptures contain many accounts of dreams and visions indicating that this was an important way by which God communicates with His people.

In this episode of Caleb’s Journal we would like to explore one of these dreams – the dream that Jacob had in which he saw a ladder ascending from earth to heaven, with the LORD standing at its top, and angels who were walking up and down it, as if on a journey. 

We are going to examine what God was communicating to Jacob in this dream, and how this is relevant to us today. 

The location of the dream

Jacob had his dream in Luz. He had stopped there to rest whilst he was en route from Beersheba to Haran – to the home of his uncle Laban. 

To our ears Jacob’s dream sounds a bit odd, but it had such a profound effect on him that upon awakening he did two things:

  • Firstly, he changed the name of the place from Luz to Bethel, and 
  • Secondly he made a vow to God stating that if God would provide for and guard him on the journey revealed to him in the dream, then the LORD would be his God.

A change of name

In changing the name of the town from Luz to Bethel, Jacob indicates that he has had a revelation, a shift in thinking as a result of the dream.

The name Luz in Hebrew means ‘to turn aside’ or ‘twisted’. In the Bible this word is mostly used with a negative connotation, either as a turning away from wisdom, or being a twisted person. As such Luz may very well have been named after a ‘crooked and perverse generation’ that lived in the town at the time.

We can relate to Jacob being asleep in Luz, because as fallen man we too have turned away from the Wisdom of God, and in that sense it could be said that we are sleeping. 

It was here that God gave Jacob a revelation which caused an awakening, which led Jacob to change the name of the town from Luz to Bethel, or the “House of El”. 

This awakening revealed two things to Jacob:

  • Firstly, his own fallen state, and 
  • Secondly how God was going to restore him, by bringing him back to His House

How did Jacob’s dream show him the path to restoration? How is this a blueprint for us as we make our own journey back to the House of God? Is there any message in the dream that can assist us along the way?

A ladder or a highway?

In Genesis 28:12 we are told that Jacob dreamt of a ladder.

The word ‘ladder’ is the Hebrew סֻלָּם (sullām) which comes from the root סָלַל (sālal), meaning to cast up, lift up or exalt. 

This word appears to be related to the Akkadian word for ‘highway’ and specifically the construction of a highway. 

So instead of describing what Jacob saw in his dream as a ladder we may be better off thinking of it as a highway upon which angels were travelling.

In scripture a highway represents the way of God, it is constructed by Wisdom and it is by travelling on the highway that we will find our way back to the house of God.

The alternative to travelling on the highway of God, is to travel along the byways of man. We do this when we turn aside from the wisdom of God. Throughout the ages, the children of Israel have often left the highway of God and this has led to all sorts of trouble and detours.

This highway concept is illustrated in the book of Jeremiah where the LORD laments that His people have left His highway and are now blundering about on byways of idols.

“But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway.”

Jeremiah 18:15

It was the highway that Jacob saw in his dream, the way of God, built by the Wisdom of God. And it was a road that  Jacob desired to travel on.

Was the highway Jacob saw the Milky Way?

We know that the heavens declare the Glory of God, His Wisdom. So one wonders if the highway that Jacob saw in his dream could be found illustrated in the heavens?

An interesting proposition would be the Milky Way.

The name itself, the Milky or White Way, already seems to describe a highway built by Wisdom. 

Additionally, when you look at the Milky Way on a dark night you will see that it does indeed connect heaven and earth just as Jacob saw the highway doing in his dream. It is for this reason that the early Christians associated the Milky Way with Jacobs Ladder. 

This concept is also found in other cultures, such as the North American Indians and Greenlanders, who also see the Milky Way as being a path that needs to be traversed in order to reach the otherworld.  

These are all very interesting propositions, but is there any Scriptural evidence indicating that the highway Jacob saw could indeed have been the Milky Way?

The LORD stood above it

In the description of Jacobs dream we read that the LORD stood above the highway. 

“And behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac…”

Genesis 28:13

Many constellations straddle the Milky Way, and at its Northernmost point is the constellation known as Cepheus. He is pictured as a glorious King, crowned, and enthroned in the highest heaven, with a sceptre in his hand, and his foot planted on the very Polar Star itself. Cepheus represents the glorious King of Israel, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

So we see that what Jacob saw in his dream, the LORD standing above the Highway, does exactly mirror what can be seen in the Milky Way, namely Cepheus who is enthroned at its northernmost point. 

How does the Milky Way depict a journey?

The Milky Way is a celestial arch of glimmering light encircling the heavens. At its Northernmost point is the enthroned Cepheus, the glorious King, whilst opposite to this, at its southernmost point, furthest away from the heavenly throne, is the Southern Cross.

From a northern hemisphere perspective, one looks up towards the north, towards the throne of God. The Southern Cross is not visible, as it is positioned down, beneath the earth.

Just as the King and the Cross take centre stage in Scripture, we see this same pattern in the heavens.

There are many different layers to this narrative. Woven throughout is not only the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, but also the birth and destiny of the nation of Israel as well as our own journey as Christians. 

The narrative of Jesus as our risen King is depicted along this celestial highway. As we descend the Milky Way from  Cepheus, in the north, towards the south we pass constellations which illustrate the nature of “going down to death”. Such as:

  • Aquila – who is the falling eagle.
  • Scorpio – who has death in its poisonous sting.
  • Lupus – the victim slain. 

Finally we reach the Southern Cross, symbolising the crucifixion – the death and resurrection.

From this deepest depth, the celestial highway re-ascends to the Glorious King Cepheus. The constellations we pass along the way illustrate the nature of life, and  the resurrection power, including:

  • Argo – the ship bringing one safely home.
  • Orion – one coming forth as light.
  • Perseus – the breaker of bonds.
  • Cassiopeia – the enthroned woman.

This journey that Jesus has taken is a blueprint for our own journey as Christians, because Jesus said in Luke 9:23;

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”

Luke 9:23

The most well-lit part of the highway

Travelling along a highway at night can often be treacherous. The darkness of the night often makes it difficult to see any threats to a safe journey. It is for this reason that threatening sections of the highway receive extra attention with the provision of street lighting – everything is done to ensure a safe journey home.

It is most interesting to see that the brightest part of the Milky Way is in the South where the cross is found, furthest away from the Celestial Throne. This shows us that, whilst travelling on the highway of God will not always be easy, we can be assured that during our darkest moments, our deepest trials, times when we feel so far away from the presence of God, the path at our feet will be the brightest to show us the way. It is during our deepest distress that God leads us to experience Him at a deeper and more intimate level. He reveals Himself through His wisdom and His Word by which He shows us His highway – the way of truth, the path that will lead us home and into His glorious presence.

May we vow, as Jacob did so many years ago;

“if God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go… so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God.”

Genesis 28:20-21