It is an interesting scene that can certainly be confusing. Angels walking up and down a staircase (Genesis 28:12). Why would they be doing this? Why is this revealed to Jacob? What does this mean for us? To understand these things we need to back up and consider what is happening in Jacob’s life.
Jacob Must Leave (28:1-9)
With the blessing given by Isaac, though he thought he was blessing Esau and not Jacob, Isaac confirms the blessing to Jacob and tells him to not marry a Canaanite woman. The promises given to Abraham are going to come through Jacob (28:3-4). With this, Jacob is sent away. Remember that the reason Jacob must leave is because Esau has openly declared that he is going to kill Jacob once Isaac passes away (27:43-44). Jacob is sent to Paddan-aram where he will be able to marry from his family and not from the Canaanites.
When Esau sees that Jacob is blessed by Isaac and is sent away to marry someone who is not a Canaanite woman. Esau finally figures out that marrying Canaanite women did not please Isaac (28:8). So Esau goes to Ishmael and takes a daughter from Ishmael besides the wives he already has. Esau is trying to gain favor from Isaac but this is not the way to do it. Marrying from the Ishmaelites was not the solution and Esau continues to fail to understand God’s plan and why not marrying outside of their family is important. This narrative continues to emphasize that Esau is rejected, though he tries by his own wisdom to make corrections. The blessing will come through Jacob and his descendants and not Esau and his descendants.
Jacob’s Dream (28:10-22)
Now Jacob has basically nothing, which is emphasized in verse 11. He is traveling alone, finds a place on the ground to sleep, and puts a rock under his head to use as a pillow. While he slept, Jacob has a dream. Remember that during the days of Genesis we see God speaking to people and delivering his will through dreams. This is not the case today, as we see in Hebrews 1:1-2. We now have the word of God that reveals to us everything about God. But at that time God spoke through dreams and visions. Jacob sees something rather amazing in this dream. He sees a staircase on earth that leads up to heaven. Not only this, but Jacob also sees angels ascending and descending this staircase and the Lord stood above it. Now this is an amazing scene but what does it all mean?
Notice in verses 13-15 that the Lord affirms the covenant blessings to Jacob. Though Jacob had stolen the blessing from Esau, God had predetermined that the older would serve the younger. In this dream the Lord is confirming the blessing given to Abraham now to Jacob. The land which he is laying on will be the land given to Jacob and his descendants. His offspring will be the like the dust of the earth, spread across the earth, and through them all the families of the earth will be blessed. Further, the Lord promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes and the Lord will bring him back to this land. God’s promises will be fulfilled through Jacob. But God could have just told Jacob all of this. Why does he see the angels going up and down the staircase and the Lord standing at the top?
Jacob has a sense of what this means. Notice his response in verses 16-17: Surely the Lord is in this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. Jacob sets up a pillar and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God” (28:18-19). This moment is the beginning of the transformation of Jacob, the cheat. When Jacob is giving out the blessing, he recalls this momentous occasion (Genesis 48:3). This is the gate of heaven! Jacob then moves on to worship, devotion, and commemoration. The Lord is in this place! This is why Jacob breaks out in praise in verse 17. This is the house of God! This is the place where heaven and earth touch. This is where there is access to God. This is why Jacob is moved with fear. This is an awesome place. This is the gate of heaven.
Thread In Scriptures
This promise to Jacob was not only to Jacob as an individual but was a promise given to his descendants. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land” (28:15). God used this concept when speaking to Israel about how he would restore them.
8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:8–10 ESV)
1 But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:1–2 ESV)
God is always declaring that he is with his people. This is the hope that comes from God’s declaration that he is with his people. Jacob is told this one time in this dream and it gives Jacob great hope and causes him to worship and commemorate the place. We are told this repeatedly in the scriptures. This is what God is saying to you when he says that God’s Spirit dwells with you (cf. Romans 8:9-16; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; Ephesians 1:13). God is with you! God is with you! God is with you! Don’t you know that you are sealed by God and he is with you! This is God’s persistent message to his people.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:2–3 ESV)
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39 ESV)
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5–6 ESV)
How many different ways can God gives us the same message that he gave to Jacob? I am with you. I am your helper. Nothing can separate us. Do not fear. I will never leave you. You are my people. God is with us.
New Testament Reference
How do we know that God is with us? This is what makes the arrival of Jesus so wonderful! When the announcement of the Christ is declared by the angel in Matthew 1:23, the angel says that the virgin will conceive and bear a son. They shall call his name “God is with us!” (Immanuel). But it is even more than this! During his earthly ministry Jesus references this scene that Jacob dreams.
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “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 1:47–51 ESV)
Jesus is the place where heaven and earth touch. Jesus is the house of God (Bethel). Jesus is the link between heaven and earth. Jesus is the temple of the living God. Jesus is where the promises of God are all fulfilled. The apostle Paul said that all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). This is why Jesus said that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6).
Jacob saw a dream in Bethel showing him that God was with him and he would receive God’s promised blessings. God showed in his dream that there was a place where heaven and earth connected together, and where God could be accessed. God revealed that Jacob had nothing to fear because God was with him and would keep him wherever he went. But that was not the final fulfillment.
Jesus comes and takes all of those messages and applies it to himself and those who come to him. Jesus is the place where heaven and earth connect together, and where God is accessed. Through Christ we have nothing to fear because God is with us and will keep us. In fact, Jesus was to be called “God is with us” to make the promise all the more sure. Jesus is the stairway to heaven for only through his sacrifice and his resurrection are we able to come to God and enjoy this blessed relationship. This is the relentless grace of God, who comes to us, and brings us to him through Jesus!