The story of Jacob's ladder is a well-known biblical narrative found in Genesis 28. It tells the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, as he has a powerful dream while on a journey.
Here is a summary of the Bible story:
Bible Story of Jacob's Ladder
Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau's anger after deceiving their father to obtain the blessing meant for Esau, sets out on a journey to his uncle Laban's house. As night falls, he stops at a place and takes a stone to use as a pillow. While he is sleeping, Jacob has a remarkable dream.
In this dream, he envisions a ladder, or stairway, that reaches from Earth to Heaven. Angels are seen ascending and descending on the ladder. At the top of the ladder stands the Lord, who reiterates the promise made to Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac. God promises to bless Jacob, give him many descendants, and provide him with the land on which he rests. The Lord assures Jacob that He will be with him and protect him on his journey.
When Jacob awakens, he is filled with awe and reverence, recognizing that he has had a divine encounter. He takes the stone he used as a pillow and sets it up as a pillar, anointing it with oil and renaming the place "Bethel," which means "House of God." Jacob also vows to serve God and give a tenth of everything he receives.
The story of Jacob's ladder is often interpreted as a message of divine guidance, promise, and protection. It signifies God's covenant with Jacob and his descendants, who would go on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. It is also considered a significant moment in the life of Jacob, setting the stage for his transformation and spiritual growth.
Read the full Bible passage of Jacob's Ladder in the scripture excerpt below:
Jacob's Dream of a Divine Ladder
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring 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."
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you." (Genesis 28:10-22)
Now, let's dive into the background of Gen. 28 and the importance of this story for Christians today:
The Context of Genesis 28
Before 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).
In Genesis 27, Jacob again upped his game by pretending to be Esau 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 the son of Abraham, with whom God had previously established a personal covenant. As part of God’s promise, Abraham’s descendants would not only inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1; 15:7), but 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 his father's blessing, 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).
The Meaning of the Ladder in Jacob's Dream
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 Tower of Babel story, in which man tried to build a tower to connect with the divine (Genesis 11:1-9), 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, whom 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.
From this lineage, the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, would be born, and out of the line of Jacob would come the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, God’s own son (Matthew 1:1-17).
What was Jacob’s Response?
Having received this vision and promise from God, Jacob immediately recognized 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 his father's God his God and the God of his descendants forever!
How Is Jesus Christ our 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, 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, as the new ladder and mediator, would initiate a new spiritual covenant made available to everyone. He would exchange our sins 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: Getty/RomoloTavani
Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.