“Bethel I’ll raise”

When people are up to their necks, they usually clutch at straws. But in the case of Jacob, one of the three patriarchs of ancient Judaism, it was not merely a bit of straw, but a full-fledged ladder reaching into heaven. Here are some thoughts about images that can speak volumes.

People are often able to understand complicated subject matter more easily if it is explained with the aid of images. Our children learn that way when they acquire language, and this often continues well into adulthood. Big people call these metaphors, in other words, visualisations of language constructs. Some examples include being “up to one’s neck” or “clutching at straws”. Behind these idiomatic expressions there are often lengthy stories of personal defeat, sadness, or existential concern. It is indeed painful when someone beats us over the head with a painful truth, but sometimes that is exactly what is needed in order to make the truth dawn on us.

But now let’s get back to our ladder into heaven. It is also known as Jacob’s ladder because it gave new courage, strength, and hope to Jacob in a very difficult phase of his life. Its story is rather sad, but there is a happy ending to it. Two brothers become deadly enemies. One of them, whose name is Jacob, flees, gets into trouble, and ultimately comes to realise the emptiness of his existence. He lies down on the ground, shuts down, and falls asleep. Suddenly he sees a ladder—often this is also translated as a set of steps, a stairway, or a ramp—that reaches from the earth into heaven. God Himself stands at its top, and angels ascend and descend upon it. Anyone can understand the meaning of this image: when heaven connects with the earth, it can only mean good things. Angels working as messengers of God bring good news. And their message to Jacob is: “Get up! You have a place in My plan. You have not been forgotten. I still have great things in mind with you!”

This gives Jacob new energy, and he is able to breathe freely again. Life goes on. So much for the narrative. But what is so interesting about this ladder to heaven?

A Jesus-ladder

In the gospel of John, Jacob’s ladder is equated with Jesus Christ: “And He said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” Here Christ Himself becomes the stairway of salvation, climbing one step after the other, all the way to the cross—and it is only by ascending these steps that the believing Christian finds a way of escape into heaven. He, Jesus Christ, is the connection between the world and its Creator.

Right at the beginning of the gospel of Mark we read: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight’” (quotation from Isaiah 40: 3). This means nothing less than: “Make a direct connection straight into heaven.” Even the familiar Christian hymn “Nearer, my God, to Thee” makes reference to Jacob’s dream and the new energy that resulted from it.

The motif of Jacob’s ladder is often found in Christian literature—and rightly so. It is an image that provides encouragement and gives hope, a vision that speaks of a way out. And that is exactly what the Christian message is, namely that despite all the hardships, access to the kingdom of heaven is open. God helps those who call upon His name. So all the ingredients are in place: a person suffers, sees no real place in life for himself, and urgently needs help. With his strength at an end, he dreams of a way out and gains new strength. Translated into Christian terms, the recipe is as follows: God is interested in the person, sends him an angel, and through the angel tells him what He is planning to do with him, thereby giving him clear direction in life.

At the time, Jacob called this place in the wilderness Bethel, which means “house of God”. This reminds us of the words we sing: “Then, with my waking thoughts, bright with Thy praise, out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise; so by my woes to be, nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!”

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Peter Johanning