Cover image: Illustration of Jacob and Esau embracing, by Robert T. Barrett.
When Isaac blessed his son Jacob, he became the “birthright son,” an important honor . . . and responsibility. To be the birthright son was to represent the Savior to his people; in other words, he was to give his life to building up the kingdom of God and his eternal family.
As birthright son, Jacob would inherit a “double portion” of his parents’ estate (Deut. 21:17). With the extra portion, he would support family members who could not support themselves—the disabled, unmarried sisters, widows, and orphans, for example. He was responsible for the temporal salvation of his parents, brothers, and sisters. In this respect, he stood in the place of the Savior to his family.
He was also responsible for the spiritual salvation of his family. “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel” (Exod. 13:2). Considered holy to the Lord, the birthright son represented Jesus Christ, “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), so he blessed, taught, and led the family in spiritual things. He was to “preside” over the family in the spirit of Christ—“by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).
The birthright was the blessing Jacob bought from his brother Esau, the actual firstborn son. A worldly man, Esau had no appreciation for spiritual things and “despised his birthright,” possibly because it meant extra responsibility (Gen. 25:33). But it also meant a double portion of property, which Esau apparently realized too late. Venal and covetous, Esau swore he would kill Jacob for “cheating” him of the extra portion.
In the face of this threat, Jacob fled into the desert. Humble and devoted to the Lord, “he is represented as ‘a plain man dwelling in tents,’ that is to say, pursuing the life of a shepherd” (“Jacob,” Jewish Encyclopedia). Young, alone, and no doubt afraid for his life as night fell, he went to sleep on pillows of stone (Gen. 28:10-11).
“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it” (Gen. 28:12-13).
What did Jacob really see in his dream?
The word translated as “ladder” (sullām in Hebrew, klimax in Greek) appears only once in the Bible and can mean staircase as well as ladder.
Some scholars think that the stone of verse 11 in Jacob’s dream grows into a temple that connects earth to heaven, with the sullām as a staircase winding about the tower of the temple. They relate the sullām to the stairs used by priests and worshipers to ascend ziggurats, the pyramid-like temples of Mesopotamia. What he may have seen was “the entrance of the heavenly palace, with a huge staircase in front of it . . . enabling the angels to reach the palace gate” (Cees Houtman, “What Did Jacob See in His Dream at Bethel? Some Remarks on Genesis 28:10-22,” Vetus Testamentum 7, no. 3 (1977), 338).
There is evidence that Jacob’s ladder was actually steps leading up to the heavenly temple where the Lord made covenants with him.
A first-century apocryphal work called “The Ladder of Jacob” preserves an ancient tradition that the veil was opened to Jacob and he saw the whole plan of God that night. “The text appears to be an apocalyptic vision of the future,” says the translator. The descendants of Jacob will suffer desolation and exile “in a strange land” to be freed eventually by God. Finally, “at the end of time Jacob’s descendants will inherit the land promised to him and become as many as the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea.” Editors of “The Ladder of Jacob” say that Jacob did not see a “ladder”: “Surely this is rather a solid staircase, lined with statues, as on a ziggurat” (“The Ladder of Jacob” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth, ed., New York: Doubleday, 1985,2:406, 407 [hereafter OTP]).
At the top of the stairs Jacob sees the Lord sitting “on the fiery throne of glory,” and to reach the Lord, he must ascend these steps. In the temple of Jerusalem, there were four succeeding stairways into courts representing increasing degrees of holiness. The last one led into the Holy of Holies, where the throne was located. “To enter the Holy of Holies one must cross four thresholds or make four ‘ascents,’ while in leaving it would be four ‘descents’” (OTP 2:407, note d).
In “The Ladder,” he pleads with the Lord to “tell me the interpretation of my dream” (OTP 2: 408). A beautiful angel named Sariel comes to guide him (according to the book of Enoch, Sariel—or Saraq’el, “God’s nobleman”—is one of the seven archangels [OTP 1:24]). Sariel asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob responds, and then Sariel gives him a new name: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but your name shall be Israel” (OTP 2:408-409). (In Gen. 32:27-28, Jacob receives the name Israel from the heavenly being he wrestles with.)
Scholars argue about the meaning of the name “Israel,” generally agreeing that it means something like “God rules” or “God prevails.” President Russell M. Nelson gives an inspired interpretation of the name: “One of the Hebraic meanings of the word Israel is ‘let God prevail.’ Thus the very name of Israel refers to a person who is willing to let God prevail in his or her life. That concept stirs my soul!” (Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference, October 2020).
When the Lord enters into a covenant with someone, he always gives a token, or reminder, of the promises made. Jacob’s new name, Israel, is a token of the covenant the Lord now makes with him:
“The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:13-14).
The covenant of Abraham and Isaac now becomes the covenant of Jacob as well. Far more than just a land contract, it is the promise of eternal life—of the way “that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives” (D&C 132:22).
The Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith the true scope of this covenant: “Abraham received promises concerning his seed . . . that both in the world and out of the world they should continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them. The promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham” (D&C 132:30-31).
President Nelson has said, “In the holy temple, we may become joint heirs to the blessings of an eternal family, as once promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their posterity. Thus, celestial marriage is the covenant of exaltation” (“Covenants,” Ensign, November 2011, 88).
According to scholars, there is much more to Jacob’s vision than is reported in Genesis. His son Levi had a similar vision of which we have a much more detailed account called “The Testament of Levi.” Tradition says that “the dream of Levi is an extension of Jacob’s dream. . . . It is a celestial interpretation of Jacob’s vision” (Jaesoon Kim, John 1:51 and the Motif of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28:12, PhD Thesis, University of Pretoria, 2015, i).
In his vision, Levi was invited to heaven by an angel to receive the priesthood. There he saw “men in white clothing, who were saying unto me: Arise, put on the vestments of the priesthood . . . the robe of truth, the breastplate of faith, the miter for the head, and the apron for prophetic power.” He was “anointed with holy oil” and received the crown of king and priest directly from the angel (“Testament of Levi,” OTP1:789, 791).
Fully endowed with priesthood power, Jacob as birthright son now represented the Savior to his people. His blessing consisted not only of personal exaltation but also of atonement for all the children of God, for through his lineage the Savior would come. In “The Ladder of Jacob,” the angel promises him:
“Through your seed all the earth and those living on it in the last times of the years of completion shall be blessed…
“In the last years there will be a man from the Most High, and he will desire to join the upper (things) with the lower. And before his coming your sons and daughters will tell about him and your young men will have visions about him. …
“Then the expected one will come, whose path will not be noticed by anyone. Then the earth will be glorified . . . and from your seed will bloom a root of kings; it will emerge and overthrow the power of evil. And he himself will be the Savior for every land. . . .
“He will be wounded in the midst of his beloved house. When he is wounded, then salvation will be ready, and the end to all perdition. And all creation will bow to him who was wounded, and many will trust in him. . . . His dominion and years will be unending forever” (OTP 2:407, 410).
Israel accepted this covenant: “Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go . . . then shall the Lord be my God.” When he woke from his dream, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place. . . . This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So he took his stone pillow “and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el” (Gen. 28:16-20), which means “house of God.” “This stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” Accurately understood, tithing is a token of the Abrahamic covenant.
Of course, there was no house at Bethel at the time, so Jacob must be referring to the heavenly temple he had visited in vision. Jacob and the other patriarchs designated certain places “as impermanent, miniature forms of sanctuaries that symbolically represented the notion that their progeny were to spread out to subdue the earth from a divine sanctuary in fulfillment of the commission in Genesis 1:26-28 [to “multiply and replenish the earth”]. . . . These patriarchal spaces can be considered sanctuaries along the lines comparable to the first non-architectural sanctuary: the Garden of Eden . . . . these informal sanctuaries in Genesis pointed then to Israel’s later Tabernacle and Temple” (Gregory Beale, “The Final Vision of the Apocalypse and Its Implications for a Biblical Theology of the Temple,” in Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology, Paternoster, 2004, 203).
Bethel was such a place. Lacking a temple, Jacob anointed the pillar with consecrated oil to sanctify as the “gate of heaven.”
Presumably with a new understanding of celestial marriage, the covenant of exaltation, Jacob turned to the business of finding a wife. The tender story of Leah and Rachel follows, and the founding of the twelve tribes of Israel—a covenant people that would grow to encompass all the children of our Heavenly Father who are willing to enter that covenant. For those of us who try to be faithful to the terms of the covenant, the Lord promises “Behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest . . . for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Gen. 28:13-15).
Ultimately, Jacob would see the fulfillment of the blessing of his father Isaac: “May God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee” (Gen. 28:3-4). This blessing is still being fulfilled, as the latter-day work of gathering Israel accelerates. “When we realize that we are children of the covenant,” says President Nelson, “we know who we are and what God expects of us. His law is written in our hearts. He is our God and we are His people. Committed children of the covenant remain steadfast, even in the midst of adversity. When that doctrine is deeply implanted in our hearts, even the sting of death is soothed and our spiritual stamina is strengthened” (“Covenants,” Ensign, Nov. 2011, 88).