After receiving his father's blessing, Jacob sets out to his relatives in Haran (where he will fall in love and serve a master with uncertain wages). In Jacob's famous dream (his first encounter with God), God's master plan is revealed to him: A stairway/ladder is set on the ground, its top reached to the sky; angels of God are ascending and descending. And the Lord, standing beside him, says: "I am the Lord the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."[1] The interpretations are many, and we share here three.

Assorted Guides
One midrash proposes that the ascending and descending angels represent those that were leaving Jacob as he left the Land of Israel and those who would accompany him outside the Land.[2] Creating relevancy to realities of today, philosopher Mordechai Kaplan comments that Jews clearly have different concerns and priorities outside the Land of Israel than they when living inside it, and so need a different sort of protection, different types of "angels" to guide them.

Passing Kingdoms
According to another midrash, the angels represent the four kingdoms among whom the Jewish people were to be exiled; Jacob represents the people Israel, and his dream is a glimpse into its future. The Holy One shows Jacob the angelic princes of the four kingdoms — Babylonia, Media, Greece and Rome — to where the Jewish people were to be exiled, kingdoms that would rise in power but eventually fall. (The angel of Babylon mounts 70 rounds, the angel of Media 52 rounds, that of Greece 180, and that of Edom or Rome mounts highest of all "above the heights of the clouds.")

When God reveals his master plan after Jacob's vision of ascending and descending angels, suggests R. Simeon ben Lakish in the midrash, He has come to comfort the frightened Jacob: "Were it not expressly stated in Scripture, we would not dare suggest that when God [comes to protect Israel], he comes as close to them as a man fanning his son." R. Abbahu adds: "God's presence in that dream may be illustrated by the parable of an infant prince who was sleeping in his cradle when flies were settling upon him. The moment his wet nurse came by and bent over him, they fled. So, too, at first 'Behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12). but the moment the Holy One revealed Himself hovering over Jacob, they fled." Rephrasing this in contemporary language, we might say that God reassures Jacob that the scary monsters in his dream will eventually disappear.[3]

Complex Emotions
Poet/philosopher David Curzon shares another insight that helps us "climb above the mundane from time to time and bring back with us this angelic perspective when we descend again into our daily lives." The angels, he writes, represent our emotions "that in some cases raise us up toward our aspirations and in other cases drag us down in the other direction. The ladder is a projection of what is in the heart, and the angels are the feelings, the emotions, that are in the heart, Jacob's dream is a dream of the vicissitudes of the heart." The angels represent a spectrum of complex human emotion — success, love, enchantment, connection, sojourn, mercy, assent — in which one must struggle to obtain and maintain balance and equilibrium.[4]


[1] Genesis 28:10-15 [back]
[2] Genesis Rabbah 68:12 [back]
[3]Genesis Rabbah 68:6, 68:10-11; BT Hulin 91b [back]
[4] David Curzon, The View from Jacob's Ladder — One Hundred Midrashim (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966), pp. 44-52.

ANGELS Table of Contents



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