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Jacob's ladder and ours
by Rev. Howard Ray Carey

''We are climbing Jacob's ladder... Soldiers of the cross.'' This American folk hymn was sung with gusto in the early days of my ministry by the youth of the church. Later it became so popular that it has been included in the current issue of the large Methodist Hymnal, for the use of both youth and adults. But some of those who love its rhythm and are intrigued by its deep symbolic meaning are not aware of the biblical origin of this symbolism of Jacob's ladder.

In the 28th chapter of Genesis we find the patriarch Jacob, as a young man, fleeing across the desert to escape the wrath of his angry brother Esau. This sibling anger had been provoked by Jacob's clever and deceitful behavior. On an occasion when Esau had come in from the hunt famished with hunger, Jacob had talked him into trading his birthright as the first-born for a 'mess of pottage', which was really a bowl of hot lentil soup. Esau's wild imagination conjured up the prospect of dying of hunger and induced him to make this illogical and one-sided bargain.

Later, with the connivance of his scheming mother Rebekah, Jacob had disguised himself as Esau to his poor blind old father, Isaac, and had falsely claimed to be Esau in order to receive Isaac's special blessing which had been reserved for his oldest and favorite son, Esau. The belief at that time was that such a blessing, once uttered, could not be retracted nor transferred, and that its generous promises would really be fulfilled.

As a result of all this, Esau was so angry that he planned to kill his scheming brother (illustrating all too well that family quarrels, violence, and even murder are nothing new). It was in this dangerous setting that Jacob's parents sent him off to seek a wife at his mother's distant ancestral home. When night fell Jacob lay down on the desert floor with a stone for a pillow.

That night he had this classic dream: there was a ladder extending from Jacob's sleeping body up to heaven; the Lord was at the top and angels were ascending and descending the ladder. What more appropriate symbols of the many levels of our consciousness could anyone ask, with physical or material consciousness at the bottom of our ladder, God at the top, and with angels ascending and descending in two-way communication between body and Monad (God within)? No wonder that upon awakening Jacob built an altar to God on the spot, and right then and there dedicated himself to God, sealing the dedication with a promise to give a tenth of his income to God.

Small wonder that the story of this dream has endured and has inspired the hymn which shows that, ''Every round goes higher, higher... Soldiers of the cross.'' But of course the experience of the dream, and Jacob's subsequent dedication of himself to God, important as these events were, did not lift Jacob to the top of life's ladder. Many trials and vicissitudes awaited him as he traveled on, worked for 14 years as payment for his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and as he bargained back and forth with Laban, his father-in-law and kinsman.

After many years we find him crossing back across the desert toward home with his two wives, two slave girls, 11 children, and his possessions. On the way he received an 'intelligence report' that his brother Esau was marching toward him with 400 armed Bedouins. What a prospect! That night Jacob chose a desert spot where he could be alone and 'wrestled all night' with a being variously described as a man, an angel, and a being with the face of God.

This contest lasted until the break of day, just as our battle between our lower or human nature and our higher or divine nature lasts until the great dawn breaks for us. This higher being with whom Jacob struggled finally blessed him and changed his name from Jacob to Israel the Prince. As a result of the night-long struggle Jacob emerged with a dislocated hip and a limp in his walk; he is perhaps not the only one who has been left with some physical difficulty as the result of such a struggle. But Jacob was able to go on and meet his brother, not only with gifts but also with goodwill, with love. Violence was avoided and a real reconciliation took place.

What a lesson for us and for humanity as we are in the process of emerging from our long night's struggle between what has been called the Dweller on the Threshold and the Angel of the Presence. Let us realize that the real deliverer in our day for humanity is the Christ, as He pours out light and love on us all, and as He prepares for the day, coming soon, when He will present himself and His Plan of love and sharing for all humanity. The climaxing stanza of the hymn asks pointedly: ''If you love him, why not serve him... Soldiers of the cross?'' Why not indeed? For He looks to each one of us aspirants and disciples to serve as His instruments in the healing of the deep wounds of the world, and in the uniting of all God's children on planet earth in the enduring brotherhood of sharing, justice and love.

This article is a chapter from The Joy of Christ's Coming This book by the late Rev. Howard Ray Carey was published by Share International Foundation in 1988. It is not currently available in hard copy form. Copyright © Share International Foundation.  Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard version unless otherwise indicated. 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005