Jacob’s Ladder and Beth-El (Gen. 28)

I admit have always been fascinated by Jacob’s Ladder. And by that I mean both the story as it appears in Gen. 28, and also the rockin’ Huey Lewis tune. I could write a 1000-word post on Huey Lewis, of course, but since this blog’s more about the Bible, I guess I will stick to that. (Still though, “The Power of Love” may come up when we get to the New Testament; Jesus did essentially tell his followers that they “didn’t need no credit card to ride this train.”)

The image of the ladder is a vivid one: Jacob dreams of “a ladder stuck in the earth, whose top reached to heaven, and the angels of God were going up and down on it” (Gen. 28:12). Besides the point that we now know Heaven is not in fact in the clouds but, if it exists, somewhere far beyond the physical world and/or our imagination — thus meaning practically no ladder could reach the Pearly Gates — what really is behind this idea of the ladder?

I hate to make it seem like my every post is just me throwing the word “etiological” around, but with the first few books of Genesis, viewing these stories in an etiological framework is the best way to make sense of some of their more bizarre details. Again, it’s clear to many modern scholars that the point of many of these tales was not to state something that historically happened, but to explain how the world got to be the way it was. Important in the whole Jacob’s Ladder story is that Jacob names the place where he saw the ladder “Bethel.” Beth-El was commonly thought to be Beth-Elohim, or Hebrew for House of God (the term for God in this case not being YHWH, but Elohim). In other words, the story was explaining how the town of Bethel got to be named that way. Bethel, archeological evidence and Biblical reference shows, was a holy city for the ancient Israelites. So this Jacob story essentially explains why it got to be named the way it was.

But there’s more.

Upon further study, and upon significant archeological findings in the late 1920s, it was discovered that many of the references to “El” in ancient Jewish and Ugarit literature were not in fact to YHWH/the Hebrew God, but to somebody else: “El.” Without going too far into who/what/where/when regarding the Canaanites, it’s important to see them as a competing religion/culture to the Israelites (as most people who’ve studied the Bible should know anyway) and that, more importantly, the head of their pantheon of God was named…drumroll…”El.” Thus Beth-El was actually “House of El.” Long before the Israelites made it a holy city, scholars postulated, the Canaanites did. The story of Jacob, then, was basically a textual way of reinterpreting the past (the very point of etiological narratives).

But hey, you might be saying, that seems like a pretty big logical jump to make to assert Bethel was actually a Canaanite holy city. You might also say, “I need more evidence!” Well, strangely enough, there’s some more significant evidence right in Gen. 28. At the end of the Jacob’s Ladder story, Jacob decides to build a pillar, so that it will become part of God’s temple (Gen. 28:20-22). Okay, this seems pretty reasonable: Jacob had a vision of God, and now he wants to dedicate a monument to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

Wrong. Strangely, both Leviticus (Lev. 26:1) and Deuteronomy (Deut. 16:21) actually prohibit building statues/pillars. So if the Israelites didn’t do it, or at least prohibited it, who did?

Yep, you guessed it: the Canaanites. Late, after the Exodus, the first thing the newly free Jews do is tear down the Canaanite’s pillars (Exod. 34:10-14)! But didn’t they know that Jacob was responsible for one of them?

Unless, of course, he actually wasn’t. It would seem that there’s another hole here.

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