Notes on Genesis (xiv)

‘Then he dreamed, and behold a latter was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.’ (Gen 28:12)

Just as Isaac married Rebekah, a woman from Mesopotamia, so now Jacob is sent by his father to find a wife among his mother’s family; unions with local women are avoided. While travelling, Jacob sees a ladder in a dream. The ladder has been commented upon widely, and understood in different ways. ‘[T]he ladder that Jacob saw is a symbol of our Saviour, in that by means of him the just ascend from the lower to the upper realm. The ladder is also a symbol of our Saviour’s cross, which was raised up like a ladder, with the Lord standing above it.’ (Aphrahat)   ‘The ladder fixed to the ground and reaching heaven is the cross of Christ, through which the access to heaven is granted to us.’ (Chromatius) Other interpretations along these lines are gathered in the second volume on Genesis in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

The monastic tradition takes another approach. Benedict understands the ladder as being our life in the world, and the upwards and downwards movement of angels on it in terms of the contrary movements of exaltation and humility. St John Climakos takes the ladder as the starting point for his teaching on thirty steps, or rungs on a ladder, that will bring one to Christ; a well known icon depicts the teaching in visual form.

The liturgical tradition of the Church points in a third direction, prescribing that the passage of Genesis describing Jacob’s ladder be read at feasts of the Theotokos.

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