by Dr. Charles Dorothy
Most of you have heard of Jacob’s Ladder. But how many know the text from which this misconception comes? We will look at Genesis 28:10-22, which is the passage of Jacob’s dream, ladder, stone, pillar, Bethel and a host of things we are not familiar with. But this exposition is about Jacob’s “Non-Ladder” as well as his “Non-Pillow.” This is because, he didn’t have a pillow, and he didn’t have a ladder.
Editor’s note: The following article is a transcript of an informal lecture Dr. Dorothy delivered at our ACD offices in 1994. I wish to thank Gary and Robbie Arvidson for their work in bringing his recorded presentation to print. Only a few minor edits were deemed necessary to aid the reader.
— Ken Westby
Are you a literary form critic? It might come as a surprise that most of you are able to determine and discern, or extrapolate, ferret out, or even expound dozens of literary forms in our modern society that are instantly recognizable to the average person. That claim may seem a little strange, but that is how we can talk about form criticism without turning anybody off. Form criticism is simply recognizing certain types of literature, and certain types of biblical writing. That is all it is.
Now if I read to you about a certain judge in the newspaper, and it tells name, age, county, and judgeship. That’s all. There is no verb. It doesn’t say what he is doing. It doesn’t say what he did. It doesn’t say where he has gone. It doesn’t say what he accomplished. It just gives his name and age and job. Do you know what section of the newspaper this came from? Sure you do. It came from the Obituary section. See, you can recognize it. You didn’t need the word obituary. It is partly because there is no verb in the main sentence. It is partly because of his age (86) and because his picture is there. Certainly if the last portion about remembrances were read to you then you would know for certain. Or if we read “survived by,” you would know instantly.
All right then, let me present something to you. Just read carefully, and see if you can identify what type of literature or what type of writing this is. If you can–fine. If you can’t–fine. If you can, you are actually doing “form criticism,” even if you are not doing it on the Bible–but on something else.
Grind two pounds of cheese thoroughly in a mortar. After grinding well, add one pound of winter wheat flour or for gourmet palates one-half pound of the finest wheat flour and stir it thoroughly with the cheese. Add one egg and stir well and shape a cake from the mixture and wrap it in leaves, bake it lightly in a warm stove under an earthenware dish.
Now what kind of writing is that? It is a recipe. The interesting and fun thing about it is that it comes from approximately 180-190 BC. This is before the New Testament was even thought of. It comes from Marcus Portius Cato and is recorded in his famous work on farming. So in this book on farming, he has a whole bunch of recipes. Now recipes really have not changed that much now have they?
The one verb I seem to be missing is “take,” like with today’s recipes “…take an egg…” etc. So here we have a recipe clearly recognizable from so long ago. They are recognized by the forms — even if we do not list all the clues. So dealing with food you notice it.
The next one is touching. I will quote from the book, The Bible: Now I Get It, by Gerhardt Lofink. It is a pity that Doubleday let it go out of print. It is an entertaining look at the Bible for people who think they know it already. The front picture is about a camel in front of an Arab with a needle. This indicates the text that talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle. So Gerhard Lofink got Bill Woodman of the New York Times to illustrate this. This is one that Lofink took off a church wall and it moved him so much so that it probably had something to do with writing the whole book. Here it is.
In the year 1651 on Sunday, April 27th, between midnight and one o’clock, the late virtuous Maria Bilguen of the white mill nave olfman fell asleep gently and happily in her redeemer Jesus Christ. She was 22 years and two months and two days old. God have mercy on her soul. Amen.
1651…on the wall of a church. Now, do we recognize what kind of writing that is? Is that a eulogy? No, it is not telling how great she was. It does not tell all the people she served in her life. It is merely a death notice. It is another form of obituary. But it is a very touching one about falling asleep in Jesus Christ. We call it an epitaph, but it is also under the category of a death notice.
Now we recognize these things instinctively because we have had training. But I don’t want you to think that because we recognize them that all forms are the same. No they are not. The recipe is very different from the death notice in 1651 on the wall of a church. They are very different. Yet somehow through training and experience, through living in this culture we have learned to identify these forms.
So now let us take a look at a Bible passage and see what forms if any that we find in there. There are some things for instance like a genealogy that is considered a form–it just goes on and on. It continues with “so and so begat such and such” and it just runs on. It is considered to be a specific form. It is a genealogical form of reporting births, age the time of the birth of the new son, and the death of the patriarch–and so on and so on.
You may remember that there are four questions that form criticism ask of a biblical passage. But there are also four goals that form criticism wishes to achieve by identifying literary units in the Bible. We will discuss these four structural questions and four goals shortly.
The Four Goals
The first goal is the structure of the passage. That is where the hardest work often comes in. You would be surprised what it is like to start writing down an outline. You think you got it, and then you look at that outline a day or two later and you see that “no I missed this.” It is very instructive.
The second thing is to cover the genre. This is the word used in the field which means the literary type. That is all we are talking about. What did I read from Marcius Porta Cato? The genre was a recipe. What did we read off the wall of the church in 1651? It was a death notice. That is the genre. Genre is a French term for a kind of literature.
The third thing we try to establish is what social institution would have produced this piece of literature? Would this have come from the Temple? Would this have come from the priests? Would this have come from the wise men, where maybe they had schools or groups of disciples around them? Would this come from the clan, passing on maxims of survival wisdom? Would this come from the artisans, or poets? In other words, what social institution would produce this?
And lastly, and probably the most important question (…what is that title again: The Bible: And Now I Get It): “What is the intent of this piece of literature?” If you’ve got a genre determined, then what is the intention? What was it trying to teach us? What was it attempting to tell us? Obviously Cato was trying to tell us how to make certain kinds of things with wheat flour.
Jacob in Genesis 28
Now we should proceed to Genesis 28 about Jacob’s “Non-Ladder,” and the “Non-Pillow” too. In vs.10 we see that Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. We have a category in form criticism for this right off the bat — and that is called an itinerary.
So here we have first of all an itinerary (28:10). It is just that one verse. If he leaves one place and goes to another place, that is an itinerary. If it doesn’t tell us where he leaves, and only tells us where he arrives, that is still probably an itinerary. We get some of these in the Bible. We also get some where it tells where the individual leaves — but does not tell us where he arrives. But still it is probably an itinerary. But this happens to be a complete one, although not complete for the whole Jacob saga.
We have a whole saga here in the book of Genesis, which is another form-critical term. This is where the birth is recounted, what kind of person he is, and all the trouble he goes through to get wives in another country. That whole story of Jacob until he returns safely, is a saga. But within the saga we have various literary forms. And this is a unified passage we are going to discuss.
The Four Questions
Now regarding the four questions. The first asked is “where does it start?” So we saw it started in v.10. The itinerary changes everything. Where does it start, and where does it end? All you have to do is to read past v.22, which is a chapter division. But as I tell my students, be very skeptical of chapter divisions. Some of them are really screwy–and chop up a known bit of biblical form into two pieces. Then we miss the message. And that is bad. A prime example is Genesis 1 & 2 which I’ve covered in seminary and elsewhere. Eyes just pop out of heads when students see the entire story and power of its message without the artificial break point put between day six and day seven. I don’t know how that mistaken placement of a chapter division found its way into modern Bibles. It is just terrible.
So the second question is “where does it end?” Then you must ask “how many parts does it have?” Then we will go down the line to find out how many parts. This takes a lot of work.
Finally, we ask how those parts interrelate? How do they go together? If you have this many parts, why did the author put these parts together? How do they connect? So those are the questions.
In short, this helps illustrate that in our daily lives we recognize dozens of different literary forms. We don’t tend to think of it that way, but we literally do. At the seminary I gave the example of the front page of the newspaper. What kind of articles do you expect on the front page? It is usually sensational material. This is something to grab the attention. You don’t get the comics (another literary genre) on the front page. You don’t get opinion and analysis on it. Journalists say they put just straightforward reporting on this page. It is basically the facts folks. But we recognize that.
Now we get back to Jacob’s journey. In v.11 it says that he came “upon a certain place and tarried there all night, because the sun was set….” We will call this background. Now there are reasons for that, but I will skip the details. I will ask you to tell me what he is actually doing. I am not noting what he is actually doing, but I am putting down a category—which is good structural work. We are looking for the structure, if not for the details inside the structure.
But what does he actually do here? In other words, what is another way of talking about this? Moving on with the rest of the verse we find that Jacob took of the stones of that place, and put it for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
So what is he doing in terms other than background? This is a background for the story, but what is he actually doing? He is preparing for sleep? Is he camping? Yes, it is an encampment. He finds this place, and decides that since the sun is down it is where he is going to stop. It is Jacob’s encampment. But that is content–it is not structure. That is a detail. He could do anything here. He could shout or he could sing. He could fight some giant. But what he is actually doing is encamping and getting ready for sleep, but we will call it by a general term because it does set the stage for something very important.
So Jacob had a what? He had a dream. A “ladder” was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky. Angels of God were going up and down on it. Wow! That is an exciting kind of thing. So he has a dream where content and categories do overlap. I can’t call it anything else than a dream because that is what it is. It is a dream report. A dream report is like other dreams we find in scripture having more than one element. This dream has one element that not all dreams have. So let us see if we can be more precise here.
He had a dream and a ladder or a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky with angels going up and down on it. Inside the dream, what is this? Is he talking here? Are these Jacob’s words? No, they are not. Somebody is reporting this to us. So this is not speech. Yes, he is dreaming, but this is something special. What is he doing inside the dream. What is happening? What is the content?
Now, we already have the structure. We already have the category — the typicality, the abstract, the name. We have the dream report in vv.12-17. But what is he doing here?
Inside the dream, Jacob has a vision. It doesn’t even say he sees it, but we are just told what it is. But it is obvious that he is having to see it. He had a dream and a stairway appears. I am going to suggest that there are three different sub-units of this dream report. We often find visions within dreams in the Old Testament–but not always. Sometimes the dream is just a dream.
All right, so he has a vision. If you want to subdivide this it would be v.12. And then v.13 is a different sub-category within the dream report. The Lord was standing beside him. In some translations it stood my hair on end when I read this. I had thought that it was Christ at the top of the ladder. That is how I had already read the passage. This is because translators and interpreters don’t want God on earth. They don’t want God too close to human beings (Isa 57 “he dwells in eternity”).
But the same Scripture (vs 15) also says he dwells with those who are contrite and lowly of spirit. Some commentators choke on this, so they go to some other passage in Isa where it says that he looks upon (Isa 66) those that are of contrite or lowly of spirit. So they keep God “up there.” Now I don’t have any problem with God’s exhaltedness. Lets accept that and keep God there where he belongs. He says in Isa 57:15 that “he dwells in eternity and with the contrite person and one that is lowly of spirit.” That is incredible!
The more I have read Hebrew, and the more I have looked at the commentaries, etc., the more I think that is accurate.
Another example is that when Abraham was with the three men (men from heaven including one called “the Lord”), was he craning his neck looking up into the sky? It doesn’t sound like it. So I think this is exciting. He is not at the top of the ladder. The living God is standing by Jacob. That is a frightening and an exciting kind of thing. So the Lord was standing beside him and he said:
I am the Lord the God of your fathers…the land upon which you are lying I will assign to your offspring (v.13).
Beyond The Vision
What we have here is that we have passed beyond the vision. The vision is already there and he is probably still in it, but this is an oracle. So the first sub-category is the vision, the second is the oracle. That is just a nice categorical term for God or an angel delivering a message to a person. That is all it is.
So how does an oracle speaking of the land being assigned work out? In other words, contentwise he is getting a chunk of land. That is clear. Categorywise, what is that? Has he got this chunk of land yet? No. So it is future. When someone tells you that, it is a promise. It is a promise of an inheritance. This is being very specific, I grant that. But the insights that come through it are very helpful.
In short Jacob gets a promise of land for his offspring. Well is Jacob married yet? No, but he is on his way to find a wife–so with offspring it becomes a double promise. In v.14 it says that his descendants shall be as the dust of the earth. They will spread out in four directions. Then all the families of the earth shall be blessed by him. This promise is for more than just land. It is more than posterity. This is more than lots of posterity. This is preeminence. This is prestige. He is going to be a “big thing.” And all the families of the earth are going to be blessed by him.
It is either that or they will bless themselves by him, which is a problem in the Hebrew that we won’t go into here. It is an ambiguity that exists in the Hebrew text. It cannot be resolved with scientific accuracy. It could mean that if the family of Jacob has preeminence and power, then you associate yourself with that family and you too get some of Jacob’s blessings.
Something Else Happens
Yet again something else happens. Then God says that “I am with you.” What did Jesus say at the end of the gospel of Matthew when he sent them out over the earth? He said “I am with you.” It sounds like the same God doesn’t it? This is heavy. How could you buy this? How could you make enough sacrifices at a certain sacred place to get this? Jacob stumbled on to something here. He didn’t know this was a sacred place. How could you buy or create this unique circumstance? You cannot. This is pure grace. If you claim legalism in the Old Testament–well, look at this passage.
“I will be with you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.” God has now announced a life-plan for Jacob. Or at least it is a part-life plan. Now God didn’t say what was going to happen. But we know later that Jacob gets married and has children and comes back. So he is going to come all the way back to this land. “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” It reminds me of the passage by Paul that “He which has begun a good thing in you will not quit until it is brought to fruition” (Phil 1:6). You get the idea. Bells just go off all over the place. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you. Is God good for his word? Yes he is.
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Wow, surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.” I certainly won’t apologize for getting too specific here because this is one of those difficult texts. I think you would need a professional to help you with this. The text is “surely the Lord is present in this place.” There is nothing special here except the specialty of touching God or being right next to God. But this phrase “and I did not know it.” I think that is very important.
In the ancient world, when you step inside a temple you don’t belong in, you walk up the stairs, you walk through the door–you try to get contact with the priests, priestess, Levite, or anybody who could provide you with the proper protocol. For without the proper sacrifices, and without the proper preparation, you will have violated the sacred. Do you know what happens to you in the ancient world when you violate the sacred? Boom! Do you know what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they offered “strange fire,” an illegal offering, unto the Lord. Pow! and they were gone. Cooked on the spot.
Now, what happens if you ignorantly and innocently step into a sacred place? You don’t mean to be guilty because you didn’t do this intentionally. What you do is to declare your innocence. This is a form-critical category again, and Job has a whole chapter on it. It is a long passage where he actually takes an oath and says in essence, “if I ever did this, then let God smite me.” It is an oath of clearanceif you actually make the oath. This here is not an oath, it is a declaration. Do you see why it is not an oath? Because he doesn’t say “Let God punish me if I ever did this.” Sometimes it is completely spelled out in scripture “If I ever stole from the widow let God do so to me and my family and more also.” Now you know that is a real oath. That is asking God to directly intervene and punish.
Sometimes we only get the first half of an oath. But we know the full example and what is taking place. The person is so confident of their innocence and righteousness that they are willing to call God as a witness. That is a frightening step. And we Christians need to be careful with that one.
I think this statement here is a declaration of innocence. God was in this place and I didn’t know it. Be merciful to me God, I didn’t know this. Does God know that Jacob didn’t know it? Yes he does. Does God punish him? No. But Jacob does clear himself with his declaration of innocence.
That is not a critical part of a dream report. It is not a normal part of a dream report. It has nothing to do with the vision, and nothing to do with the dream. But it is an additional element because it is not just a ladder or staircase, but it is God’s very presence that he has possibly violated.
So Jacob awakes from his sleep, declares himself innocent, and still shaken he says, “how awesome is this place!” Some scholars take this as the end of the dream report, but I do not, partly because of my studies in the book of Esther where is was essential to include Mordacai’s reaction to the dream report.
Continued Dream Report
Mordacai also has a dream and a vision, and we need to hear from scripture what the hero’s reaction is. Otherwise, if we don’t hear anything about the person’s reaction who has received this tremendous revelation, what do we lose?
Let’s say Jacob had a dream and God tells him he will get land and posterity and “I will be with you and I will bring you back”–period. And the next time we read about Jacob he is over in Haran 300 miles away talking to Rachel and Leah. We miss the critical validation of the value of the dream. We miss the reaction that is inside the person. We wouldn’t have a clue whether he got the message, or missed it. Also by the fact that he says how awesome the place is, we get the validation that “Yeah, this is not just any funny old dream–it was real. So we would miss a lot if we didn’t have it. So I contend that this is part and parcel with the dream report. This is something that needs to go with the dream report. How the person was affected, and then we get the validation of the whole thing.
Now “this is none other than the abode of God.” There is another name for God here and it is Elohim. Previously it was Yahweh–but here it is Elohim, which is the generic name for God in general. I don’t know that we can make too much out of that. But it is interesting to note. And “this is the gateway to heaven.” Wow! He is lying right in the abode of the Temple. He is right on the temple steps at the temple door. This is where God meets people. This is a giant revelation. He will never forget this experience.
So now let me stop here and go back and discuss what is this business about the “Non-Ladder.” Number one, there has been only one ladder in literature that I can find that has been discovered in the ancient world and it is on the wall of an Egyptian monument. It does go to heaven all right, or at least it leads up above human beings, but there are no angels going up and down on it, and there is no God standing at the top of it. Ladders were just not used that much in the ancient world. Besides, why should we go to one example in Egypt?
Well, Jacob is a little closer to Mesopotamia. There you get a ziggurat with big steps going up to the top of a temple. It is much more likely that he saw something of that nature than a ladder. It was more of a stairway. But the popular translation is the one we have been stuck with. It does not have to be a kind of ziggurat. It could just be a staircase leading up to something.
But the man who has done the most work on this, his name is probably pronounced “Wootman,” out of South Africa, thinks that it is none of the above–but more of a long winding sloping ramp that goes all the way around the ziggurat. The problem is that the Hebrew word and all the cognates, and all of the cognate languages, have too many possible meanings, and nothing specific enough for us to prove that it is or is not a ladder. The word means something that is built up. It is a word that is used for a highway or a road. So it is either a stairway, a staircase, a ziggurat type of stairs, or ramp, or maybe just a straight ramp. The Hebrew would allow any of those.
But this fellow who has studied it actually thinks it is the ground. He thinks it could be a hill. Bethel is on a hill. And he thinks it is the slope of the hill, and this exact spot is wherever Jacob lay down.
Pillow-Stone or Head-Board?
Furthermore, regardless of the stiff-necked Israelites, can you imagine someone putting their head on a stone for a pillow? The Hebrew does not say that he put the stone under his head. There is one verb for “heading.” He used this stone heading somehow. He did something with his head in relation to the stone.
Frequently in the Middle-East, we find people putting up a headstone under which you sleep. It protects you from stuff falling on you. It protects people from bashing you on the head directly, whereas they would have to lean over to get at you. It is just a kind of protection even from the wind or the dust. He probably just adjusted it and laid down underneath it. It was as a headboard. I don’t lie on my headboard, I lie underneath it.
So I think we are dealing with a “non-ladder” and a “non-pillow.” The Hebrew again will allow this. In short, Jacob did the following:
1. He stands up the stone (headboard)
2. He pours oil on the stone (which dedicates it)
3. He names the stone (Bethel, i.e. “house of God”)
This whole story tells us how this great and sacred sanctuary got started. When you explain the origin of a sacred place, you establish it (construction), you dedicate it, and you name it. By this you are giving the reader an explanation, or a reasonology. You are giving an explanation for the existence of this place. And we have a category for that. It is called an aeiteology. Which just means a reason for existence or the explanation of its origin. It is from the Greek and is a causology.
Microcosm of the Temple
What caused Bethel to be a holy place? And what caused this pillar to be standing up here? The answer is Genesis 28:10-22. This whole story tells us how this great and sacred sanctuary got started. Bethel is so great that later it has a temple in it even when there is a temple down in Jerusalem. Did you know that?
This first episode of this temple was so important that even though it was not Yahweh’s favorite (he was not happy with the nation of Northern Israel), it was to Bethel that God sends the prophet Amos. The whole book of Amos is about Bethel and Samaria — the whole Northern Kingdom. This is where God’s temple was and where Amos had the famous confrontation with the high priest. We should do a form-critical analysis on that some time.
Jacob woke up from his dream and realized he had been laying at the ascent in the doorway that lead all the way up to heaven. This is powerful temple symbology. This is the beginning of all temple symbology. So this is a causology or a reasonology or an aeitology.
Now I said I would not leave you orphaned without some personal application. Is God always at the top of the ladder? No. Sometimes, God is right alongside standing next to Jacob — which can mean he is next to us.
What about the land? In the New Testament the promise of land gets resignified. We are not to inherit the land just yet–but we do inherit the kingdom. This kingdom will finally be on earth. In short, we do get the land. Right now it is salvation–not the land. Still, we finally get the land.
What about posterity? Is there any application to us? The posterity was for Jacob, his family, and David’s line. But what is the great particular person that came out of that promise of posterity? Our Savior…Jesus Christ–the heir of David! It is promised right here in Genesis 28. That is not the only place it is promised–but it is right there. It is one of those cycles that we have seen in Abraham, then with Isaac, and with Jacob. Then it has to keep on going. So there is a definite particular importance to us from this promise of posterity.
Consider a personal application. What about having our own sacred space somewhere, somehow? If we don’t we are really missing out. Jacob wasn’t looking for an encounter with God. What is he doing in v.10? He is loafing along. He is having a trip–fleeing from his angry brother to save his life. He is a tricky guy who cheated his brother. He didn’t want a dream/vision. But once he had it, what did he do with it? Did he turn his back on it and let it go? Or did he sanctify it, dedicate it, and make it solid?
So, I recommend this to you: That you find–in prayer, or in church, or in Bible reading and mediation, or something–your sacred space where God can be right along side you. Beside you, not far away at the top of a stupid ladder(which I don’t think existed). He was not even at the top of a staircase. There is a difference between heaven and earth. You cannot blot out all difference. The Eternal inhabits eternity. You cannot blot out all distinction until we are ourselves inhabit part of eternity–wherever it starts for us.
Hang on to your sacred space. Don’t let anyone rob you of it. Meet your God there. Stand beside him, walk with him.
So finally what we have in Genesis 28:10-22 is actually two things. The most important thing is the dream report with all its elements. But it is also an aeiteology (reasonology or causology) for this sacred place which we have a term for. When you explain the origin of a temple, or a pillar or a sacred site it is a heiros (holy logos/word)–it is the reason for the existence of a sacred site.
Jacob woke up and said, “The Lord is Here! He is in this place…”