Jacob’s Dream: Why Do God’s Angels Ascend and Descend?
After stealing Esau’s blessing, Jacob leaves Canaan to go to Haran (Gen 28:10) and find a wife among the daughters of his uncle Laban. He stays for twenty years, returning (Gen 32) with four wives and eleven sons. On his way out, Jacob goes to sleep and has a vision:
בראשית כח:יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ... בראשית כח:יב וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ.
Gen 28:11 He encountered a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set… 28:12 And he dreamed, and behold, a sullam set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
The word סֻלָּם (sullam), which is a hapax legomenon (a word that appears only once in the Bible), has two possible meanings: If the root is ס.ל.מ, then by rearranging (transposition of) the letters, the word is a cognate of the Akkadian simmiltu, meaning “ladder,” or, “staircase,” as seen in the structure of the Babylonian Ziggurat in the form of a temple-tower, which is built like a stepped pyramid.
Alternately, the root could also ס.ל.ל, with the final mem as paragogic and not part of the root. The meaning would then be “a ramp, road, or path.” This understanding allows for the suggestion that the road (mesillah) or way is to and from the promised land. We will return to this symbolic idea later on.
The Angels of God
Upon the sullam, Jacob sees מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים (malʾakhei ʾelohim), angels/messengers of God. The expression malʾakhei ʾelohim appears in only one other place in the Torah: the story of Jacob encountering angels in Mahanaim upon his return home from this same trip:
בראשית לב:ב וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. לב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם.
Gen 32:2 Jacob went on his way, and messengers of God encountered him. 32:3 When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.
Martin Buber (1878–1965) calls מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, “messengers of God,” a rare guiding word/expression,” which directs the reader’s interest toward a connection between the two stories (Gen 28:12 and Gen 32:2), and Yair Zakovitch of Hebrew University refers to the Mahanaim story as “a mirror image” of the Jacob’s Dream story at Bethel. For our purposes, leaving the land is the mirror image of the return, the opposite geographical directions reflecting opposite values.
The use of the verb פ.ג.ע, “encounter,” to describe how Jacob came upon these holy places. In both, Jacob names the place in reaction to the divine encounter, and each encounter serves as a bookend for his leaving and then returning to the land.
O ne of the differences between the Bethel and Mahanaim stories reveal them as mirror images of each other is that the first (28:11) takes place at night, after he lies down to sleep, the second in the morning (32:1), after spending the night wrestling with God or one of God’s messengers.
Both visions are joined together by an odd feature: the angels do not communicate with Jacob; he merely sees them in action. This is highly unusual. As Alexander Rofé has noted, in the Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature more broadly, divine angels generally have a task; they are emissaries with a message, but these angels lack a clear task. He further notes: “In the Jacob's Dream story the angels impose no mission on him”.
Since the angels do not communicate, Ruth Fidler has argued that the ladder and the angels of God function merely as decoration. I would like to offer that their mission is revealed by their movement: ascending and descending.
Going Up and Down
Generations of readers have puzzled as to why these angels of God are first ascending into heaven and then descending to earth: if the angels of God dwell on high, they would be expected to descend the sullam and only afterwards ascend it.
Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–ca. 1105) suggests that Jacob was witnessing angels changing shifts:
רש"י בראשית כח:יב עולים תחילה ואחר כך יורדים – מלאכים שליווהו בארץ אין יוצאין בחוצה לארץ ועלו לרקיע, וירדו מלאכי חוצה לארץ ללותו. 
Rashi Gen 28:12 Ascending first and afterwards descending—Angels accompanying him (Jacob) in the Land do not leave to go outside the land, so ascended to heaven, and angels of outside the Land descended to accompany him.
Rashi showed admirable sensitivity in linking the dream interpretation to entering and leaving the land. (We will return later to this symbolism.)
Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1085–1158) suggests that ascending and descending is a standard idiom that does not indicate the order of the action:
רשב"ם בראשית כח:יב עולים ויורדים – לפי הפשט אין לדקדק במה שהקדים עולים ליורדים, שכן דרך ארץ להזכיר עלייה קודם ירידה.
Rashbam Gen 28:12 “Ascending and descending”— According to the plain meaning of Scripture, the fact that “ascending” is written before “descending” requires no explanation, because people usually mention ascending before descending.
His student, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor solves the problem by claiming that Jacob only saw the ladder and did not actually see angels:
ר' יוסף בכור שור בראשית כח:יב והנה מלאכי אלהים עולים ויורדים בו – לפי דעתי אני אומר: שלא ראה מלאכים ממש עולים ויורדים, אלא כך נראה לו בחלומו שהסולם עשוי ועומד להיות מלאכים עולים ויורדים דרך שם בשעת הצורך.
R. Joseph Bekhor Shor Gen 28:12 “and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it”—According to my opinion, he did not see actual angels going up and down, but it appeared to him thus in his dream because the ladder was made so that angels could go up and down it there, as needed.
ולקח העליה תחילה, לפי שדרך בני אדם לעלות תחילה בסולם ואחר כך לירד, היה נראה לו שהיה עומד לעלות כדרכו וכדרך שאר בני אדם. אבל אם היה רואה מעשה המלאכים ממש, היו יורדים ואחר כך עולים שדירתם למעלה.
And [the text] noted the ascension first, since it is the way of humans to ascend a ladder first and then afterwards descend; it appeared to him that it was standing there to be climbed in the usual way, the way people do. But had he seen the actions of actual angels, they would have been going down and then afterwards going up, since they dwell above.
From a literary perspective, I would argue that the reversed order of the angels’ actions is a case of “defamiliarization” (הזרה hazara, literally “strangeness”) as a literary device. It is meant to call the reader’s attention to the problem and encourages us to seek a symbolic meaning. A hint to what this could be appears in the next part of the scene.
YHWH’s Message About Leaving the Land
After seeing the (sullam) ladder/ramp, YHWH speaks directly to Jacob (vv 13–15). YHWH introduces himself as the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather, and tells him that the land upon which he sleeps will be for his descendants, who will be numerous, spreading in all directions, and who will be a blessing to all other peoples. The message (in v. 15) is about leaving the land and returning:
בראשית כח:טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ.
Gen 28:15 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.
The parallel between the two pairs of verbs offers a significant interpretive clue. In the visual revelation, we see movement along the vertical axis, while in YHWH’s verbal revelation, it is horizontal:
Verbal Revelation (28:15)
Visual Revelation (28:12)
Read together, the vision may be understood as an allegory, touching on Jacob’s journey in and out of Canaan. The visual revelation (28:12) and the verbal revelation (28:15) thus interpret each other.
The Sages in the midrash, in contrast, interpret the movement of the angels allegorically, representing four great historical empires:
מדרש תנחומה ויצא ב אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן, אֵלּוּ שָׂרֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, דְּאָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהֶרְאָה לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְאָבִינוּ יַעֲקֹב שָׂרָהּ שֶׁל בָּבֶל עוֹלֶה שִׁבְעִין עוּקִים וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל מָדַי חֲמִשִּׁים וּשְׁנַיִם וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל יָוָן מֵאָה וְיוֹרֵד, וְשֶׁל אֱדוֹם עָלָה וְלֹא יָדַע כַּמָּה.
Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze 2 Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: “These are the ministering angels of the nations.” For Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: “This teaches that the Blessed Holy One showed our father Jacob the ministering angel of Babylon going up seventy rungs and then going down, that of the Medeans fifty-two and then going down, that of the Greeks one hundred then going down, and that of Edom (=Rome) going up and he didn’t know when he would stop.
While an allegorical interpretation is likely correct, the specific idea that the angels are later empires that will rise and fall has little to do with the Torah’s concerns and worldview.
Jacob’s Vision as Mise en Abyme
Jacob’s vision functions as a mise en abyme of patriarchal journeys. Mise en abyme, literally “placed in abyss,” is a French term from art and literary theory, which goes back to the work of the Nobel-Prize-winning French author, André Gide (1869–1951). It denotes a work that doubles itself within itself, for example, a painting in a painting, a book within a book, or a play within a play, like we find in Hamlet or A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Biblical scholar Edward Greenstein defines it thus:
A “mise en abyme” is a figure, trope, or structure that somehow reflects in compact form, in miniature, the larger structure in which it appears (a story within a story).
In this case, the angels of God ascend and descend in a symbolic, compact representation of the patriarchs entering and leaving the promised land. Jacob’s dream is a miniature reflection (שיקוף מזערי) of all the stories, in which protagonists enter and depart from the land.
The Angels Represent the Patriarchs
Abraham first goes up to Canaan at YHWH’s behest (Gen 12:1–3), and soon after, goes down to Egypt to escape a famine (Gen 12:10), then returns (Gen 13:1). While YHWH specifically stops Isaac from leaving the land (Gen 26:1–6), in Genesis 28, Jacob is about to leave the land, and YHWH promises that he will eventually return.
Later, Jacob and his sons will leave the land to go to Egypt. As reported in the Covenant between the Parts (Gen 15:13–14), YHWH already foresaw that their descendants will return to it. The movement of the angels up and down the ladder thus depicts the flow of movement of the patriarchs in Genesis into the land, then out, that back in.
Aliyah and Yeridah
In Hebrew, the verb ʿalah [going up] signifies immigration to the Land of Israel, עלייה (ʿaliyah), while the verb yarad [going down] denotes emigration from the Land ירידה (yeridah). Thus, when Caleb tells the people that they are strong enough to conquer Canaan he uses the term “going up”:
במדבר יג:ל וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ.
Num 13:30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”
In contrast, God tells Isaac not to leave Canaan and “go down” to Egypt:
בראשית כו:ב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תֵּרֵד מִצְרָיְמָה שְׁכֹן בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
Gen 26:2 YHWH had appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you.”
The Talmud actually goes so far as to claim (b. Zevachim 54b) ארץ ישראל גבוהה מכל ארצות “the land of Israel is higher than all other lands.”
Metaphor for Positive and Negative Movement
Besides their technical-topographic designation, the terms ascend and descend carry a metaphoric meaning in many cultures, expressing positive and negative valence respectively. A subtle example is in the opening scene in the book of Jonah, when the prophet refuses to accept YHWH’s commission and tries to escape by sea:
יונה א:ג וַיָּקָם יוֹנָה לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַיֵּרֶד יָפוֹ...
Jonah 1:3 Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from YHWH’s service. He went down to Jappa…
Jappa is indeed lower than the hill country of Israel and Judah, and Jonah is leaving the land, but he is also doing something bad, trying to escape from God. In the Jacob story, we can see something similar, since Jacob is leaving the promised land, YHWH’s land, though he will eventually return.
The vision highlights how this movement is just part of a continuous pattern of movement beginning with Abraham and continuing into the generations after Jacob. The vision thus functions as a mise en abyme, a miniature tale embedded in the patriarchal narratives according to the literary model of “a tale within a tale.”
Israel’s Back and Forth
The vision of the angels ascending and descending the sullam (28:12) works together with YHWH’s verbal revelation (28:15), symbolizing the way or path taken by the patriarchs to and from the promised land. Just as YHWH comforts Jacob with the knowledge that YHWH will bring him home safely, so too, the vision shows Jacob that his leaving and returning to the land is simply one small part of a larger movement of his family out of, and then back into the land.
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Prof. Yitzhak (Itzik) Peleg is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible Studies at the Gordon Academic College, Haifa, Israel. He was the Chair of the Department of Bible and Jewish Culture at Beit Berl Academic College and the editor of MOED, Annual for Jewish Studies. Peleg holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, and is the author of לך לך: מסעי האבות בסיפורי המקרא [‘Go Forth’: The Forefathers’ Journeys in Bible Stories] (Resling, 2013); Going Up and Going Down: A Key to Interpreting Jacob’s Dream (Bloomsbury, 2015); "And You Shall Tell Your Son" – Identity and Belonging as Shaping by the Jewish Holidays (Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2022).
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