Interpreting the Angels


Jacob left Beer-sheba bound for Haran. Stopping for the night at a certain place, he fell asleep and had a strange dream. “And behold, a ladder was set in the ground, and its top reached to the heavens, and the angels of God were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12)


Interpreters wondered why Jacob had this dream at all. If it contained a message, why didn’t God deliver it directly, instead of leaving Jacob (and us) to interpret the ladder’s apparently symbolic meaning? More pointedly, commentators worried about what might seem a minor detail: why were the angels on the ladder said to be going up and down? Since angels are generally conceived to reside in heaven, shouldn’t they first have been going down the ladder, and only after that, up again?


Various answers were proposed. One held that the angels mentioned in the dream had actually been accompanying Jacob from the time he first started on his journey in Beer-Sheba until the moment he lay down to sleep. For one reason or other, however, those angels could only accompany Jacob for the first leg of his journey, Beer-Sheba to Bethel. (The midrash suggests that these first angels were authorized to operate only within the land of Israel; since Jacob’s ultimate destination lay outside of Israel, in Haran, a second group of angels was needed to accompany him the rest of the way.) If so, then this must be why the text says that the angels were going up and down; after having accompanied Jacob to Bethel, the first group of angels went back up to heaven and a second group went down to complete the journey. (This midrash is the source for Rashi’s explanation in his Torah commentary.)


Another midrashic answer held that the angels had been earthbound because they were being punished. These were the angels God had sent to evacuate Lot and his family before the destruction of Sodom. They had carried out their mission, but in the process they had made a grave error. They told Lot to get his whole family out of the house, “since we are about to destroy this place” (Gen 19:13). But surely, the midrashists reasoned, they were just messengers: it was God who was going to destroy the city. Taking credit for God’s deeds was a serious infraction, and the angels were condemned to walk the earth for a certain amount of time.


The day on which their sentence was up turned out to be the very day that Jacob arrived from Beer-sheba and reached the place of his dream. Climbing up the ladder, the angels called out to their colleagues in heaven: “Come down and see this righteous fellow Jacob! He’s sleeping at the foot of this ladder.” So while the formerly exiled angels went up, other angels went down to catch a glimpse of Jacob in person—hence the Torah’s description of the angels “going up and down.”


Note that neither of these explanations explicitly connects the ladder to Jacob’s dream. After all, how can real angels climb up to heaven on a ladder in someone’s dream? No, it would seem that according to both versions, we are never told what Jacob dreamed. “He had a dream,” period. But then, “behold, a ladder was set in the ground, and its top reached to the heavens…” The dream was quite separate from the ladder: it was a real ladder on which real angels ascended into heaven.


Not so the third explanation, attributed to Rabbi Samuel b. Naḥman. According to his interpretation, Jacob indeed had a dream in which angels—four angels, to be precise—followed one another in climbing up an immense ladder. What sort of angels were they? The Torah says, “angels of God,” and this might make you think they were those highest angels who serve before the heavenly throne. However, it was a well known fact that every nation in the world has its own guardian angel and—said Rabbi Samuel b. Naḥman —it was four of these national angels that Jacob saw in his dream.


The first to climb up the ladder was the national angel of Babylon; it climbed up seventy rungs of the ladder and then went down again. Jacob understood at once what this meant: his descendants would be exiled and ruled by Babylon for seventy years. “Certainly not a happy prediction,” he must have thought, “but survivable.”


The next angel to ascend was that of Persia and Media (who were traditionally joined). This angel climbed up fifty-two rungs and went down again—an additional fifty-two years of foreign domination of Jacob’s descendants. Then more bad news: Greece’s angel went up and kept going for one hundred and eighty rungs!


But the worst was the last angel, that of Rome; it went up, and up, and up, until Jacob cried out in despair: “O Lord, do You mean that this one will never come back down?” (Samuel b. Naḥman lived during the late third and early fourth century CE; by his time the Romans had been dominating Palestine for more than four hundred years.)


God reassured Jacob with a verse from the prophet Obadiah: “Though you soar aloft like an eagle, and though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord” (Obad 1:4). This verse was spoken by Obadiah about the Edomites, Israel’s neighbor to the southeast. But by Samuel b.Naḥman’s day, everyone knew that “Edom” was often another name for Rome. The sense of God’s words was thus clear: “Even if you see him [Rome’s angel] reach to the very heavens, I will still cause him to go down.” Jacob was reassured, although he knew that his descendants were still in for some tough times.


Shabbat shalom!

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