Poor Jacob! You have to feel sorry for him even though he’s a most disagreeable character! A “self-willed mother’s boy,” with opportunistic instincts that enabled him to outsmart friends and foes alike in a ruthless bid at getting his own way, Jacob emerges in Genesis as the less likeable of Isaac’s twin boys. And yet, he is the one God chooses to bless!
Jacob has fled for his life because his twin brother Esau is as mad as a hornet with him for his duplicity in stealing Esau’s birthright through trickery. Esau has vowed, once their father is dead, to kill his brother. Since their father, Isaac, is at death’s door, Jacob decides to flee to his uncle Laban (as wily a character as Jacob, if truth be told). On his way from Beersheba to his uncle’s sheep farm in Haran, he stops for the night in the Judean hills to sleep, using a stone to prop up his head.
And there it happened — the dream!
Jacob wasn’t seeking for God at all; he was running away for his life, but God appeared to him in a vision. He saw heaven opened, and a stairway linking heaven with earth. What happened was not the product of someone searching for God. Popular as that notion is in the modern church, it is a failure to come to terms with Romans 3:11: “no one seeks for God.”
Jacob’s will needed to be broken. His self-reliance needed to be shattered. It will not be a sudden process, but a gradual one whereby God, with perfect and patient wisdom, leads him through a series of experiences designed to show him that only as he casts himself completely on God’s mercy will he ever find peace and assurance.
The title of this article is a little misleading. “Snakes and Ladders” is meant to bring to mind a board game (the U.S. version is called “Chutes and Ladders”), one which I played a lot in my youth, where the throw of dice would result in going up “ladders” and down “snakes.” To the extent that Jacob’s life was full of “ups” and “downs,” it is accurate enough. But, what Jacob saw was not really a ladder but (as the word in Genesis 28:12 suggests), a ziggurat — a massive stone structure with a winding staircase not dissimilar, so archeologists have argued, to the Tower of Babel. Nor was it a structure enabling Jacob to climb upwards (as a ladder might suggest). Rather, it was to allow God to come down!
God came and stood by Jacob and reassured him of his presence and of his covenantal faithfulness to him and his family. He came to “bless” wily Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15). Can you imagine more comforting words than these to a man who is fleeing for his life and isn’t sure if he’ll ever be safe again?
When Jacob awoke, he confessed that God had been with him: “‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16–17). He called the place where he had seen God “beth-el,” meaning “the house of God.” Babel had been man’s attempt to reach God and make himself equal with God. It had been a symbol of man’s idolatry and self-justification. Bethel, by contrast, was God’s initiative to fellowship with man — a sinful man! It spoke of justification by faith in the promise made by God apart from human initiative. It spoke of grace.
There is gospel-logic here at Bethel, logic that was revealed by Jesus to the disciple Nathanael. When Jesus called him, he cited this story of Jacob and Bethel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). The One whom Jacob had seen was a pre-incarnate revelation of Jesus. Nathanael is being given a glimpse of the second coming. Just as the Lord came down to Jacob, so, too, at the end of the age, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7).
At Bethel, Jacob was being given a glimpse of the scope of redemptive history: God takes initiative to rescue sinners by coming down and eventually taking them to be with Himself. Angels came down at the time of Jesus birth to announce that God had come down. The baby in Mary’s arms was the God of Bethel.
No wonder Jacob saw bethel as “the gate of heaven.” God had come down to make His presence known among His people. The curse of Babel will be lifted — in a way that Jacob could not have realized. The very One who descends will descend even further — “into hell” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, meaning that he will experience all that the sin deserves — the abandonment of God in the darkness that descends at Calvary. And He is made “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). For us. In our place. As our substitute. Bethel stands as a signpost to Bethlehem, and Calvary, and Pentecost, and heaven.