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Home > Secteur-English > General > Parshat Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3)

Parshat Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3)

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"Jacobs Ladder : Beth-El, Not Bab-El"
Dr. Tzvi Shimon*

Jacob’s dream, with its stairway reaching the heavens and angels ascending and descending it, is undoubtedly one of the more unusual and well-known visions recounted in Scripture. Its uniqueness led to its being viewed as a story that stands apart, until scholars noted the analogy between it and an earlier narrative in Genesis—that of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Before this analogy was made, a connection was noted between the stairway in Joseph’s dream and the ziggurats in Mesopotamia, with stairs that led to their upper reaches.[1] Even though the Tower of Babel was generally identified with such ziggurats, a connection between the two stories had not previously been made. A close literary connection between the two was proposed by Bible scholars who showed linguistic and substantive connection between the narratives.[2] The most striking parallel between the narratives is the similar expressions used to describe the tower and the stairway. The tower had "its top in the sky" (Gen. 11:4), and the stairway’s "top reached the sky" (Gen. 28:12). These are the only two biblical stories that use the metaphor of reaching the sky as a way of describing something very high, thus inviting comparison between the two. Indeed, a closer look at the narratives reveals several other parallels : The introduction to both narratives uses the word "there" with reference to coming to a halt at a certain place : The tower of Babel : "And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there" (Gen. 11:2). Jacob’s stairway : "Jacob left Beer Sheva, and set out for Haran. He came to a certain place and stopped there for the night" (Gen. 28:10-11). After describing these journeys, both narratives proceed to describe the main events of the plot. In the story of Babel, making brick precedes building the tower ; in the story of Jacob’s dream, Jacob takes of the stones at hand and then has his dream of the stairway. The stone that Jacob takes does not serve to make the stairway but is used to erect a cultic pillar after Jacob rises early the next morning : "Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it" (Gen. 28:18). This stone is also mentioned at the end of the story, in connection with the vow Jacob made : "And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be G-d’s abode" (Gen. 28:22). Both stories mention the construction material used and the process of building. In both there is a powerful desire to remain connected with a specific place and a fear of leaving it. The people who built the tower tried to prevent being dispersed over the face of the earth and aspired to remain united, dwelling in the valley they came upon in the land of Shinar. Jacob also had misgivings about departing from the land of Canaan, as we learn from the vow he makes at the end of the story. In both stories the bond with the place is related to building a structure. The generation of the tower of Babel built a city and tower out of fear that they "be scattered all over the world" (Gen. 11:4), and the tower was supposed to serve as a unifying focal point around which they would all dwell. Jacob, about to leave his land, vowed that if he returns safe and sound he would build a house to the Lord at the place where he erected the pillar ; thus the pillar is connected with Jacob returning to his land. Just as the people who built the tower viewed their structure as a center of attraction, so too Jacob set up a pillar to mark the place to which he would return. Aside from these structures, both stories also mention the city in which the structure was situated. Building the tower was part of a broader plan of city construction. Indeed, the end of the story mentions the name of the city and the origin of that name : "That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded [Heb. balal] the speech of the whole earth ; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:9). Likewise, the story of Jacob’s dream concerns not only the stairway and the pillar, but also the name of the city where he received his revelation and the origin of that name : "He named that site Beth-El [= house of G-d], but previously the name of the city had been Luz" (Gen. 28:19). The story of the tower provides an interpretation of the etymology of the name Babel, and the story of Jacob’s dream explains the origin of the name Beth-El. The numerous parallels between the stories, both in language and content, strengthen the argument for a literary connection between the two.[3] These parallels provide fertile ground for a comprehensive comparison of the stories, which shows an inverse analogy between them. The initial situation in both stories is diametrically opposed. Exposition of the tower narrative begins in a setting of unity, with repeated use of the word "one," thus emphasizing that the whole earth was united, uniform. The setting of Jacob’s dream is quite the opposite : a deep rift between brothers so bad that one must flee, and a fear that Esau might murder his brother Jacob. Jacob’s voice is distinguished from Esau’s and the characters of the two are diametrically opposed. Another difference, stemming from the contrasting setting of the two stories, is that the tower narrative deals with the masses - with all humanity - whereas the dream narrative deals with a single figure, Jacob. We are made to feel his isolation more keenly by the picture of him lying on the ground under the canopy of the heavens, resting his head on a rock. The people of the tower of Babel, in contrast, were united in their aspiration to build a huge tower and metropolis. As we pointed out, both narratives begin with journeying that pauses at a certain spot. Despite the similarity, the way in which they pause differs. The tower builders stopped of their own initiative because they found a suitable valley in which to settle, whereas Jacob stopped because he had no other option, "for the sun had set" (Gen. 28:11). Scripture emphasizes that Jacob had been unaware of the importance of the place at which he set down to rest : "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it !" (Gen. 28:16). Sanctification of place in the narrative of Jacob’s stairway was not dependent on a human being. The Lord revealed the nature of the place to Jacob by means of the stairway vision, and Jacob was surprised by the revelation. In contrast, the place where the tower would be built was chosen by human beings. The opposing direction of these two narratives is also evident from their conclusions. The plan to build a tower and prevent mankind from being dispersed is foiled. The absurdity of the idea is expressed by the Lord’s reaction to the initiative : "The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built" (Gen. 11:5). The Lord had to come down, as it were, to see the tower that was supposed to reach heaven. Confounding human language put an end to construction of the tower and led to the builders becoming dispersed over the entire earth. In Jacob’s stairway dream, in contrast, the stairway is set on the ground and indeed reaches the heavens. G-d does not come down to him, rather "stands beside him" (Gen. 28:13). At the end of the story, when Jacob returns to the land of Canaan, he fulfills his vow and builds an altar at Beth-El (Gen. 35:7). The inverse analogy between the story of the tower and the story of the stairway is the key to understanding the intention of each, which in my opinion is one and the same. A contrast is drawn between two places representing two different world outlooks and cultures. These narratives embody a complex polemic over the questions of where the gate of heaven is and what is the center of the world. This polemic rejects Babel’s claim to the crown, on one hand, and provides an alternative answer, on the other. Another component in the polemical bias of the narratives relates to the place names Babel and Beth-El. A Mesopotamian folk etymology explains the name of their city as being composed of the words bab (= gate) and ilia (= of the gods). The central shrine of Babel, which towered above all else, was called Esagila, meaning "house that raises its head." According to their faith, this shrine was built by the gods and served as their abode and a place that connected heaven and earth. The story of the tower of Babel replaces this etymology of the name Babel with another explanation that makes fun of their claims : Babel is not derived from Bab-el, but from b-l-l, meaning "confound." The great shrines in Mesopotamia were not built by the gods, rather they were unsuccessful towers foolishly built by human beings in an enterprise that was curtailed by the Lord. The story of Jacob’s stairway, by contrast, does not give a new interpretation to a name, rather a new name to a place. The name Beth-El replaces the former name, Luz, and bears witness to the significance of the site as the House of G-d. Beth-El is the place that wins the title, Gate of Heaven : what reaches heaven is not the top of the tower of Babel, rather the top of Jacob’s stairway. Babel is not where the gods are, rather Beth-el is the gate to heaven, as we learn from Jacob’s words : "This [zeh] is none other than the abode of G-d, and that [zeh] is the gateway to heaven" (Gen. 28:17). The emphasis put on this/that by its twofold repetition serves to remove any such title from Babel. The message is that center of the world is determined, not by the height of a city’s towers nor by the size of its population, but on the contrary, by a small pillar erected by a lone individual in the wake of G-d being revealed to him, a pillar set up to mark the place of the gateway to heaven. Both narratives—the tower of Babel and Jacob’s stairway—are polemical responses to the Mesopotamian perception of the world and the claim that Babel is the center of the world. The portrayal of "everyone on earth" as having "the same language and the same words," with which the tower narrative begins, symbolizes the spread of Mesopotamian culture throughout the entire world. In the eyes of the Bible, Mesopotamia was the cradle of human civilization, and indeed Abraham came from there. The tower and ladder stories, together with the command to Abraham to leave the East, are all part of a combined effort to reject the culture of Mesopotamia, severing oneself from it in the aspiration of creating a new and different culture.

It is understandable that the polemic should focus around Babel, in view of Mesopotamia’s standing as a great power and as the center of ancient civilization. But why does the response to the story of Babel appear, of all places, in the narrative of Jacob’s stairway, in the middle of Genesis ? In my view the answer lies in the context of the narrative of Jacob’s stairway. Jacob had his dream when he was leaving the Promised Land, heading eastward. He was the first of the patriarchs, and the only one of them, who returned to the great cradle of civilization in the east. The message of the dream is aimed both at Jacob and at those who read and listen to this narrative in future generations. The revelation establishes, prior to Jacob’s leaving the land, that this place, the Promised Land, is the true center of the world.

* Dr. Tzvi Shimon is lecturer in the Department of Bible and in the Center for Basic Jewish Studies.

[1] A ziggurat is a terraced tower of vast dimensions, broad at the base and gradually narrowing towards the top. Ziggurats were built in Mesopotamia as part of temple complexes. To this day, remains of 32 ziggurats have been discovered, most of them in the area of Iraq and Iran.

[2] Yehuda Elitzur, "Halom Ya`akov u-Fitrono le-fi Peshuto," in Segulah le-Ariella : Maasaf Divrei Mehkar ve-Sifrut le-Zikhrah shel Ariella דים-Goldberg, Jerusalem 1990, pp. 85-88 ; Yair Zakovitch, Mikraot be-Eretz ha-Mar’ot, Tel Aviv 1995, pp. 60-62.


[3] To save space, I have presented only some of the parallels between the stories. Another parallel which according to most commentators can be deduced from the text, although not explicit, is the location of the angels. Angels are mentioned explicitly in Jacob’s dream—"and angels of G-d were going up and down on it" (Gen. 28:12)—although only G-d speaks with Jacob and the angels do not play a substantive role in the vision. According to most views, angels were also involved in the story of the tower of Babel. The Lord’s response to building the tower—"Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there" (Gen. 11:7)—intimates that G-d was talking with His angels that surrounded Him. As in the stairway narrative, G-d is the only one in the story who takes action : "The Lord came down" (Gen. 11:5) ; "Thus the Lord scattered them" (Gen. 11:8) ; nevertheless, Scripture takes the trouble to hint at the existence of angels surrounding the Lord. Cf. Rashi (Gen. 11:7) ; Ibn Ezra (ibid.) ; Radak (ibid. and 11:6,7), and most modern commentators. Also cf. Cassuto (Mi-Noah `ad Avraham, Jerusalem 1965, p. 167 and the references there) and Kil (Da`at Mikra, Genesis, p. 287).

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