What did Jacob see in his vision at Beth El?

What did Jacob actually see when he had his mystical vision? Was it a ladder? Or was it a ziggurat? It all depends on how one wishes to translate the noun סֻלָּם (sulam).

Classical translations think it is a heavenly ladder, but more modern translations prefer ziggurat. For example, the NJPS translation renders it “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground”[1] The ladder imagery may reflect a Babylonian and Egyptian influence. The word סֻלָּם (sulam = stairway) may be a cognate to the Akkadian simmiltu, which in Mesopotamian mythology provides the “long stairway to heaven” enabling travelers to pass from realm of existence to another.

This belief is similarly reflected in Babylonian architecture, as is witnessed in the ziggurats. Egyptian mythology also depicts the journey of the soul as ascending a sacred stairway, which  rejuvenated the soul into a higher form of life.[2]

As an archetypal symbol, the ladder or stairway in  Jacob’s dream served as the axis mundi — an ontological reality where the sacred and the profane  realms intersect. In mythical terms, the axis mundi was considered to be the highest point of the universe and perhaps identified with the center of the world and the place where creation first began. As the center and locus where the spiritual and cosmic regions of the universe converge, intersect and join with the physical realm of reality. The axis mundi marks the place where God’s Being and Presence is most fully manifest.

[1].In addition to the possibility that this story reflects a  Babylonian or Egyptian influence, some modern scholars find it difficult to imagine or conceive how angels can move two and fro along a ladder without it getting highly congested (perhaps these scholars think Jacob’s dream resembled a rush-hour New York traffic jam). However, it seems to me that such a literal approach fails to take into consideration the cryptic nature of dreams, which frequently contain paradoxical elements, e.g., an dream about elephant passing through the eye of a needle. As a dream, its surreal images must be understood parabolically or symbolically–but never literally!

[2].In the Coffin Texts T 76 the dead king, though repeatedly saying he is “in chaos, in the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom,” repeatedly asks for a ladder so that he can get up to the sky.

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