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Jacob, the Ladder, and the Master

Jacob, the Ladder, and the Master by FFOZ

How do angels ascend and descend upon the Son of Man?

Philip's initial skepticism about the Master gave way to an emphatic statement of belief: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God,” which is to say, “You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49). Yeshua affirmed Nathanael’s confession with a double “Amen” and then said, “I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51).

To see the “heavens opened” is to receive a prophetic, apocalyptic vision.1 Yeshua refers to Himself as the “Son of Man,” a title for Messiah derived from apocalyptic visions in the book of Daniel and the book of Enoch.2 The angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man alludes to Genesis 28:12, which describes Jacob’s dream of a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. A midrashic reading of that verse offers insight into the Master’s enigmatic words. In Hebrew, the pronoun “it” is identical to the pronoun for “him” (hu, הוא or as in this case bo, בו). Therefore, Genesis 28:12–13 could be read as follows: He 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 [him]. And behold, the LORD stood above [him]. (Genesis 28:12–13) In the Midrash Rabbah, the sages argue over the meaning of the verses. One rabbi takes it to mean that the angels ascended and descended upon the ladder and that God stood above the ladder; the other takes it to mean that the angels ascended and descended upon Jacob himself.3 Rabbi Chiyyah the Elder and Rabbi Yannai disagreed. One taught that [the Angels in Jacob’s vision] were “ascending and descending” on the ladder; the other taught: they were “ascending and descending” on Jacob. (Genesis Rabbah 68:14) Rabbi Chiyyah and Rabbi Yannai disagreed. One taught that “[the LORD stood] on it” means [God] stood at the top of the ladder while the other says that “on it” [should be read “on him” and] means that God stood above Jacob. (Genesis Rabbah 69:3)

Yeshua seems to have read the passage in the latter sense but applies the pronoun neither to the ladder nor to Jacob but to Himself.4 He tells Nathanael that he, like Jacob, will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Messiah. Perhaps this was the very Torah passage Nathanael had been contemplating whilst he sat beneath the fig tree.

Messiah is the true ladder between heaven and earth. He is extended to us from above, as He says, “For I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38). He is the way of ascent, as He says, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (John 20:17). He is a son of Jacob—an Israelite—and yet angels ascend and descend upon Him, and God is above Him:

But when He says, “All things are put in subjection [under Messiah],” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things [under] Him. When all things are [under] Him, then the Son Himself also will be [under] the One who [put] all things [under Messiah], so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:27−28) Endnotes

  1. Cf. Ezekiel 1:1; Matthew 3:16.

  2. The title “Son of Man” literally means “The Human Being.” It appears, outside the New Testament, as a title for the Messiah in Daniel 7:13; 1 Enoch 46, 48, 62, 63:11, 69:26–70:1, 71:14–17.

  3. George R. Beasley-Murray, John (2d ed.; vol. 36, of Word Biblical Commentary; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 28.

  4. Consider the following Chasidic parallel: The Maggid of Mezhirech stated, “[The tzaddik] is the ladder [in Jacob’s dream], of which it is said, ‘Ascended and descended bo (on it)’ (Genesis 28:12). For just as he is able to bring down the effluence and then extend it, so he is able to cause his whole generation to ascend” (Jacob Schochet, The Mystical Dimension Volume Three: Chassidic Dimensions [New York, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1995], 107).

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