But what happened leading up to this story and what is the significance of Jacob’s life-changing encounter with God in this passage?
The Context of Genesis 28
Prior to Jacob’s dream, the man who would become the father of the nation of Israel was on the run from his twin brother, Esau.
In Genesis 25, we read that Jacob had manipulated his brother Esau into giving up his birthright as the eldest son of their father, Isaac. As it turns out, all it took was an offer of soup for a famished Esau to forfeit his inheritance to his little brother (Genesis 25:27-34).
And in Genesis 27, Jacob again upped his game by pretending to be Esau in order to trick his elderly and nearly blind father into giving him his blessing.
Combined, these deceptions transferred to Jacob both the physical and spiritual blessings of the family lineage.
It’s important to remember that Isaac was himself the son of Abraham, who God had previously established a personal covenant with. As part of God’s promise, Abraham’s descendants would not only inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1; 15:7), they would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:4-6; 17:6-8) and eventually become a mighty nation (Genesis 12:2) and blessing to all the world (Genesis 12:3).
As you might expect, Jacob stealing this blessing and birthright from Esau caused a bit of tension between Jacob and his older brother.
Because of this, the Bible says, “Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, “the days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27:41).
And Esau meant it. Knowing this, Jacob and Esau’s mother, Rebekah sent Jacob away to seek refuge with her brother Laban. There, with the blessing of his father, Jacob would hopefully find a wife and be able to start a new life, safe from his brother’s rage.
“Then Isaac sent Jacob away, and he went to Paddan Aram to Laban, son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau” (Genesis 28:5).
What Happened in Jacob’s Dream and What Does it Mean?
Alone and on the run, Jacob decided to camp out under the stars, with nothing but a rock for a pillow (Genesis 28:11). Talk about a bad night’s sleep, but then the story takes a momentous turn.
Scripture says, “he (Jacob) had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
This is the visual Jacob sees in the dream. But what does it mean?
The ladder represents the connection between God and man. It demonstrates that the God who created the universe desires an intimate relationship with his creation, especially mankind, and most importantly, that he is the one who initiates that connection, conversation, and relationship.
Unlike the story of the Tower of Babel, in which man tried to build a tower to connect with the divine (Genesis 11:1-9), here God proves that this connection can only be made by his power and grace. Any connection to God must begin with him.
God then speaks to Jacob in the dream saying,
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).
Here, God reaffirms the covenant of Abraham with Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, promising that the same blessings and promises he gave to Abraham would be fulfilled and carried on through Jacob, who God would later rename “Israel” (Genesis 32:28). Jacob, later renamed Israel, would go on to marry and father 12 sons who would become the 12 tribes of Israel.
What Is Jacob’s Response?
Having received this vision and promise from God, Jacob immediately recognizes the power and providence of God, who had made himself known once again.
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” Jacob says (Genesis 28:16). “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17).
Jacob goes on to build an altar, using the stone he had used for a pillar to dedicate that place to the Lord. He then responds,
“if God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).
As is often the case in Scripture, God’s providence and revelation are followed by a human response. Here Jacob commits to make the God of his father’s, his God, and the God of his descendants forever!
How Is Jesus Christ our ‘Jacob’s Ladder’?
While this story clearly signifies the covenant made between God and Israel, many biblical scholars point to the deeper foreshadowing of the new covenant that would be forged in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Jacob’s Ladder represented the connection between God and men, so Jesus Christ would become the spiritual connection, mediator, and ladder to bridge the gap between God and men created by sin.
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:15).
The symbolism of Jacob’s Ladder may have represented the earthly, physical covenant between God and the children of Israel. Jesus Christ, however, as the new ladder and mediator, would initiate a new, spiritual covenant made available to everyone. He would exchange our sin for his righteousness so that we could know God and experience the intimate relationship he intended from the beginning (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Дмитрий Ларичев
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.