Jacob’s Ladder

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up
on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven:
and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

Gen. 28:12

In the Entered Apprentice Degree, the candidate sees and hears Freemasonry’s lesson symbolized by the star-decked heavens, or clouded canopy which covers the material earth. This symbolism is of such significance that many European and domestic lodges continue to reinforce its lessons by painting the ceilings with stars, planets and other heavenly luminaries. Concealed within that symbolism is the additional veil to certain wise and serious truths known as “Jacob’s Ladder.”
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We read in the book of Genesis that a man named Jacob fell asleep one night out in the open during his travels from Beersheba to the land of Haran. In his dreams he saw a great ladder with one end set on earth and the top reaching far into the heavens above. Jacob seemed to see the “angels of God” ascending and descending the ladder. As he looks higher up, he also seemed to see God Himself standing above it and heard Him promise that Jacob and his descendants would inherit the land where Jacob slept. Upon awakening, Jacob declared the ground sacred, arranged the stones he used for a pillow into a pillar and named the spot Bethel, which means house of God. (Genesis 28:10-19).

Like so many other stories in the Old Testament, for those who do not insist upon a literal interpretation, the legend of Jacob’s Ladder conveys a deep concern and belief that is actually centered in a very old culture. A careful reading of the book of Genesis reveals to the discerning eye that the entire book, when read as a whole, appears to be disjointed, difficult to read as one continuum and seemingly missing some very essential background information. Recent academic research has concluded a reason for this fact that tends to more fully explain why Egypt was so important to our Masonic ancestors.
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Jacob’s vision was but a fragment of a richer living tradition; an ancient teaching about the link between the earthly and divine worlds. This tradition is further emphasized in Masonic ritual by the explanation given concerning the pillars named Boaz and Jachin, discussed in an earlier chapter. In this tradition we are told that the link between the two worlds has been broken. Angels with flaming swords block the entrance to the Garden of Eden and, as we read further in the story about Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob is admonished against climbing that ladder to heaven. For many who read this story, it is a significant event in describing the Fall of man to sin and his need for divine redemption. Yet, the ancient tradition behind that story is much more enlightening.

The ancient Egyptians absorbed much of the earlier cultural and religious practices of Mesopotamia, from which the legends of Gilgamesh arose. Within that legend is a startling tale about men who walked the earth seemingly having come from nowhere known to mankind. They were on earth to learn what the earthly existence had to teach and once those lessons were learned, they left earth to travel to heaven to enrich that divine environment with earthly influences. (The book of Genesis actually contains a piece of this legend in the story about the “Watchers,” or “Giants.”) This legend later became a benchmark for Hermes Trismegestis whose philosophy known as Hermeticism emphasis the divine slogan “as it is above, so shall it be below.”

According to the ancient tradition, the story about Jacob’s Ladder is both instructional and insightful. Owing to the location of the sacred ground where Jacob slept, it is believed that it together with other similar sacred locations serve as the perfect conduits between the earthly and divine worlds. In other words, the ancients believed, as many believe today, that there are more sacred places to worship God than others. In part, this legend tends to shed more light on the earthly significance of Jerusalem to our Jewish brethren, as well as our Christian and Moslem brethren.
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For Masons there is yet another lesson to be learned from Jacob’s vision. While certain dogmas and doctrines assert the lone entitlement to bridging the gap between heaven and earth, God and man, those dogmas and doctrines are but paths one may select to complete our divine journey. There are other equally valid paths, which fact reminds us that embracing diversity is essential to establishing true freedom. More importantly, Masons are encouraged to think for themselves, pray to God on their own and develop a relationship with the Divine that is not wholly dependent about the intermediary of a specific dogma or doctrine. God created man in His image. He did not create dogma and doctrine in His image – those were created by man.

In that latter regard, the ancient writer Philo affirmed that the Therapeutae practiced what Freemasonry now preaches about the acquisition of divine knowledge. Stories from the Old Testament and elsewhere should be read for their symbolic messages, not for their literal recitation about factual history. The Therapeutae read the Holy Scriptures and sought wisdom from their ancestral philosophy by taking it as an allegory, since they also thought that the words of the text were symbols of something whose hidden nature is revealed by studying the underlying meaning.
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Freemasonry teaches by the use of symbols and in so doing encourages its members to understand that God’s most enduring lessons are yet to be recovered from the mists of the past. Prophets and seers have told us that mankind has merely scratched the surface of all that is to be learned. Where man once walked on foot to get from one place to the other, he may now fly. While ancient civilizations could not communicate one with another, today’s nations are in instant communication. Mankind is drawing ever closer together, hundreds of thousands of people are living in urban environments and men on one end of the globe are nourishing the needs of men at the other end. Man’s relationship with God, direct and unfettered by outside dogma or doctrine, is essential for men to absorb the concept of brotherly love – not as a mere concept, but as a way of life.

Such are some of the lessons learned from the Masonic symbolism of Jacob’s Ladder. Can you find others?