Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham 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.” When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28.10-17.
Jacob is on the run from Esau, his brother, whom he has robbed of his birthright. In this first day of his flight, he has covered 55 miles but now, as darkness falls, he must rest. He is however in the inhospitable, central hill country of Palestine, devoid of trees and vegetation. Around him there is nothing but scree and above him the rocky terraces go up into the darkness like giant steps to the stars. Cold, lonely, afraid, and a long way from home, he finds a boulder that will do as a pillow and falls into an exhausted sleep.
But in his sleep he has a dream; and in the dream those rocky terraces do indeed become a stairway to heaven. A sullam is not really a “ladder” as we understand it — ie, two long poles crossed by parallel rungs — which is what the old translations called it; it is just something raised up to provide a means of ascent and descent. And the stairway that Jacob sees is indeed being used for ascent and descent. There are angelic beings coming and going between earth and heaven! To outward appearances, the place is what we might call “God-forsaken”. It has nothing to interest man or beast. But the reality is different. Far from being forsaken by God it is a place of heavenly interest, concern, and ongoing activity. I am reminded of the later story of Elisha’s servant, panicking at the site of the enemy armies surrounding them as they reside in Dothan and of Elisha asking God to open the servant’s eyes to the reality of the situation — “So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6.17).
But, for Jacob, there is someone other than angel who comes to speak with him. The Lord himself is above the staircase, or indeed beside it for the preposition al can mean either. And his words to the swindling, cheating, cowardly creature looking up at him are, amazingly, not the words of rebuke we might expect but words of promise and comfort and reassurance. “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” I note that the Lord does not say, “I am with you and will keep you if you manage to hear me properly and obey me and go where I want you to be.” No … it is “wherever you go“.
When Jacob awakes and looks around him, nothing has changed. Same rocks, same scree, same emptiness. Yet everything has changed. The Lord was here all the time … is here still … though I didn’t know it before and though I cannot see him now. “This is none other than the house of God.” House is beth and God is el. House of God … Bethel. And the root meaning of beth is “within”. Jacob has learned that, wherever he is, he is within God’s love and purposes and promises. He may be a long way from his father’s house but he has now discovered that he is always in the house of God. His home is in Him.
How is that possible without Jesus? It isn’t. But Jesus is there with Jacob. He is his stairway to heaven just as he is mine. The stairway that Jacob sees is a foreshadowing, a type, of Jesus himself and of the cross. Jesus himself told Nathanael: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1.51). That, at the very start of Jesus’ ministry, was a reference to the cross. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man,” he says later, “then you will know that I am he” (John 8.28). Jesus is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13.8) and he on the cross is the stairway between earth and heaven. Someone once said that all man’s ladders to heaven not only lack rungs but they are never high enough. Very true. Only God’s ladder will do … and I thankfully avail myself of it again this day. This morning, as every morning, Jesus is to me “the gate of heaven”.