Jacob’s dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder is one of the most enigmatic images in the entire Bible, and Jewish commentators have proposed many interpretations to make sense of its meaning and its function in the narrative.
Some well-known explanations connect it to fundamental Jewish concepts, such as exile from the homeland or the rise and fall of mighty empires. The strangeness of the image inspired some commentators to project their own personal values and interests onto the vision of the ladder. Arguably, many of these exegetical comments reveal more about the commentators than about the original meaning of the biblical text that they were trying to expound.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher par excellence, believed that the quest for a true metaphysical understanding of God is the ultimate goal in the Torah’s ideal of religious life. In keeping with this outlook, he understood that Jacob’s ladder “standing soundly on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven” was intended to be an apt symbolic portrayal of this intellectual trajectory. Thus, the image teaches that a well-grounded understanding of God is the most stable form of knowledge, with respect to both its eternal validity and the coherent scientific premises upon which it is founded. Therefore, when a person has devoted his life to scientific and theological study, and climbed the figurative rungs as far as the heavens, there is no danger of the ladder’s ever toppling.
The rabbis of the Midrash were initially puzzled by the illogical sequence of the Torah narrative when it spoke of the angels “ascending and descending” on the ladder. If the abode of angels is in the heavens, shouldn’t they have to descend from there before they can ascend? Various explanations were proposed to account for this anomaly.
Maimonides’ solution was based on his own rationalistic understanding of the phenomenon of biblical angels. It was obvious to him that angels are not human-like figures who flutter about on wings, strum harps and savour cream cheese. In some cases, he acknowledged that Scripture used the term to designate disembodied metaphysical entities composed of pure intellect; but for the most part, scriptural references to angels should be explained away as imaginary beings that exist only in prophetic visions, or as poetic metaphors.
Maimonides claimed that the angels who were climbing Jacob’s ladder represented the prophets. This was consistent with his own doctrine that the attainment of prophecy requires a person to first master an extensive curriculum of science, mathematics and metaphysics. The select few who make it through this arduous program of study—provided that they are also endowed with a powerful imaginative faculty—become qualified to be chosen as prophets, a calling that will then require them to come back down to mundane human society in order to deliver a divine message or instruct humanity in the eternal verities of monotheism. According to Maimonides, this was the spiritual ideal that was conveyed to Jacob in his nocturnal vision of angels climbing up and down a ladder.
There were other Jewish scholars who followed Maimonides’ precedent by injecting symbolic meanings into the story of Jacob’s dream. For example, Rabbi Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles noted the discrepancy between the verse that speaks of Jacob taking “of the stones of the place” to place under his head while he slept, as distinct from the later verse that refers only to a single “stone.” The well-known midrash cited by Rashi explained that the stones had all quarreled for the privilege of serving as a pillow for our righteous forefather until God merged them into a single rock. Rationalist commentators were not usually sympathetic to such cartoon-like tales about bickering minerals, but in this instance Rabbi Nissim was willing to regard it with some seriousness insofar as the episode did not claim to possess any reality outside of Jacob’s dream. The story must be conveying a profound message.
According to Rabbi Nissim, the rock placed under Jacob’s head symbolized the study of natural science. Mastery of the sciences was thereby shown to be a necessary prerequisite to the more advanced disciplines of theology and metaphysics. The individual stones stand for the diverse materials that constitute the physical world. As long as the aspiring philosopher limits himself to describing the details without integrating them into a comprehensive theory of the genesis of the universe, this will only lead to fruitless disputes and confusion. However, by further delving into the ultimate origin of matter (that is, by combining the proverbial stones into a single rock), one will eventually arrive at the proof for the existence of the eternal Creator who brought the physical universe into existence.
In a similar spirit, the Spanish expositor Rabbi Isaac Arama interpreted the ladder dream as a divine message to Jacob informing him that, in spite of his impressive spiritual stature, he had not yet completed his course of theological and prophetic studies: the individual “stones” supporting his head had not yet coalesced into a unified metaphysical theory of creation. Such a grand world-view is only as valid as the scientific premises from which it is composed, so that a flaw at any stage of the investigation would cause the whole intellectual structure to topple.
Rabbi Nissim found an allusion to this idea in the rise and fall of the “angels”: the ladder symbolizes the process of scientific investigation, and the angels of God represent our thoughts. The empirical data is the first to be grasped by the mind, but it represents a secondary stage in the sequence of creation; this kind of knowledge is designated as “ascending.” On the other hand, the more advanced stage of discovery comes when the scientist proposes theoretical models to account for the facts. Though this more sophisticated phase of the inquiry occurs later in the process of cognition, it will lead to inferences about the primordial beginnings of the universe, and is therefore depicted in Jacob’s dream as angels “descending” from the cause to the effects.
In another passage in his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides cited approvingly some midrashic speculations about the exact numbers of angels and ladder-rungs in Jacob’s vision, noting that such passages were particularly appropriate for allegorical expositions. Rabbi Nissim suggested that these texts could be understood as symbolic allusions to the hierarchical structure of the world. Thus, a textual tradition that enumerated four steps on the ladder could refer to a scale consisting of: inanimate beings, vegetation, animals, and homo sapiens. A variant tradition that counted seven rungs would allow for a more elaborate classification that also distinguished between fish, fowl and reptiles. The minerals and vegetative beings sit at the bottom of the scale ready to ascend, while the animal and rational species are at the top looking downward. It is only in the human species that all four qualities coalesce.
In Rabbi Arama’s dramatic summation of the passage, when Jacob finally awakened from his remarkable dream he realized that he had been granted a comprehensive glimpse of the entire divine “ladder.” He now understood the Great Chain of Being and the mystery of its unfolding in the universe. He had thereby gained an appreciation of how the mathematical, scientific and metaphysical dimensions of reality are intricately woven into a sublime unity.
From my own perspective as an educator, I cannot but be impressed that this accelerated curriculum in theoretical physics could be completed while Jacob remained asleep.
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