Skip to main content

Stairway to Heaven (with Apologies to Led Zeppelin)

When we last met our forefather Jacob he was busy stealing the first born birthright from his brother Esau. He conspires with his mother Rebekah to outwit his blind father, Isaac. Confused, or willfully blind and therefore party to the deception, Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob. Upon discovering this Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah shouts, “Run! Get out of here. Go to your uncle’s home.”

And this is where we pick up the story. Jacob is on the run. He is on his way to Haran (in modern day Iraq) from Beersheva. He is alone. He is afraid. He stops for the night and prays the evening prayers (according to the rabbis). Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He dreams of the Lord standing beside him. This offers Jacob reassurance.

God promises to protect him. God instructs him that his descendants will become as numerous as the dust of the earth and that the land on which he rests will become his people’s inheritance.

Jacob awakes from his dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28)

This story offers clues about how to access the divine. One seemingly small, but significant, piece of evidence can be found in the word “ladder”. In most translations sulam is rendered as ladder. Indeed in modern Hebrew this is the word used for ladder. In ancient Hebrew, however, sulam can also mean stairway.

There are significant differences between ladder and stairway.

Lots of people will not climb ladders and are even afraid of heights. In fact as I grow older I will no longer climb a ladder to clean the gutters. Now, I have to hire people to do this. Even though this was something I did with regularity, and even joy, when younger, I no longer feel confident climbing so high above the ground. A ladder is unsteady. It can be made of aluminum (or I assume, wood in ancient times) or even rope. Ladders require confidence (or perhaps youthful over-confidence) to climb. They demand a measure of courage.

Stairs by contrast are inviting. Everyone climbs stairs. You can run up them or take them slowly. You can even stop and take a rest on a step. If need be, you can take a step down before climbing back up. According to biblical scholars sulam can also be translated as ramp.

This seems a far better analogy for how we can touch God and approach the divine. This is more helpful for how we might bring holiness into our lives. It is not about courage. It is not about confidence. It is much more like the ordinary task of walking up and down steps.

You most certainly have to climb. You have to reach. You cannot sit still. You can stay in the same place. But everyone can do it.

One step at a time. Up and down. Sometimes, back down and then up again.

Stairs are within everyone’s reach. God is within everyone’s grasp.

“Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.”