Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 28, Jacob leaves home and makes his way to Haran. The patriarch
rests along the road. A prescient encounter with God will change his life forever. Abravanel deciphers
the prophecy – Jacob’s ladder.
“And Jacob went out from Beer-Sheba, and went toward Haran. And he
lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night…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.”
For elegance and mystique, few Biblical passages surpass the sublime story of Jacob’s ladder. A towering
ladder, a vision that depicted angels in upward and downward movement. Abravanel asks a core
question: What it’s all about? Is God tutoring Jacob in the realm of heaven’s inner workings or
mechanics, as other Bible commentators conclude? If so, why didn’t the Creator reveal the heady stuff
to Abraham and Isaac when He communicated with them?
Continuing, Abravanel wonders about the timing of the dream. Why did the Almighty convey esoterica
to Jacob now, when he was spent and road weary, en route to distant Haran? Far better, Abravanel
proposes, had God apprised Jacob of these intricate laws of the universe while he learned with his
father Isaac, or in the ancient study halls of Shem and Eber. Jacob in either of those academic settings
felt calm, and had the right frame of mind to receive Heaven’s tutorial. Lastly, Abravanel asks about
context. How is the vision connected to the overall narrative, given the backdrop of the circumstances
that prompted the patriarch’s exit from Beer-Sheba?
Abravanel lists his predecessors’ approaches, and there are many. Here we only zero in on his. See
Abravanel’s World for the full discussion. By way of preface, Abravanel challenges Bible students to
evaluate all the approaches, including his own, to determine for themselves which one rates as the most
logical and reasonable.
Indeed, context matters. For that reason, Abravanel says, God appeared now to Jacob and not at other
earlier junctures in the patriarch’s lifetime. Further, the vision of the ladder came to Jacob and not
Abraham or Isaac, in a communiqué tailor-made for him.
In a word, God sought to comfort Jacob’s brooding mood, patch his wounded soul. Jacob had just duped
his blind father. Further, Jacob infuriated Esau, to the point where the patriarch feared for his life at his
brother’s hand. Penniless, a destitute and lonely Jacob fled.
Nagging doubts gave Jacob no respite. Regret consumed him. Had God disapproved? Had the Maker
resolved to soundly punish him for unconscionable conduct toward Esau? Was stealing the blessing
worth the risk of death? Was exile from the Holy Land the Creator’s punishment to a crestfallen
patriarch, the first of endless wanderings?
Indeed, self-doubt haunted Jacob. Still, that night he slept, “and he dreamed, and behold a ladder…”
Abravanel illustrates how God’s uplifting dream reassured Jacob; he need not worry. He informed Jacob
that his father’s blessings reached the right son. “And behold God stood beside him and said, I am
God…The land whereupon you lie, to you I will give it, and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the
dust of the earth.” Jacob heard that Heaven approved of his actions. “And behold I am with you.” As for
Esau’s intent to kill Jacob, his evil plan will be thwarted, “and will keep you wherever you go…”
In short, Jacob’s vision apprised him of beautiful blessings in store, including heavenly protection via