Article -

Sleeper, awake!

Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman

Sleeper, awake!

And Jacob went out…

Jacob has taken the big step of leaving home, ostensibly to find a wife from among his relatives in Haran, but actually to escape his brother`s vengeance. The mother`s boy is exhausted. Night settles early and Jacob “happens on a place (maqom)”. Bedding down, he places a stone or stones from the place (maqom) beside/under his head and dreams of a סלם fixed on the ground and reaching toward the heavens. Pay attention to these two items, the ladder and the stones, for their symbolic development.

In the dream God renews his covenant with Abraham and Isaac, promising to give the land of Canaan to Jacob and his descendents and to bring Jacob back to the land from his sojourn abroad.

Jacob is jolted awake, realizing that this maqom is “the house of God and the gate of heaven”—and on rising early the next morning he sets up a memorial pillar with the stone(s) and (typical of his adolescent wheeling and dealing) vows 10% to God conditional upon his safe return home.

Jacob`s response to this revelation: “Indeed, God is in this place and I did not know,” tells us how unaware he has been, and how the sleeper needs to awaken.

How do artists portray the sleeper in stages toward wakefulness?

Jacob asleep

Jacob`s Dream, Jose de Ribera, (Spain, 1639)

Jacob`s Dream, Jose de Ribera, (Spain, 1639)

Jacob`s Dream, Rembrandt (Holland, ca. 1644)

Jacob`s Dream, Rembrandt (Holland, ca. 1644)


On the left, a man is dead asleep at the roots of a tree; a diagonal column of light floods his face. Seemingly only the title identifies the painting as Jacob`s dream. On further inspection we notice that Jacob`s body connects the tree with the shaft of light, creating a V-shaped link between earth and heaven in place of the conventional ladder of angels. Trees, like stairs, symbolize the axis mundi, the vertical connection between the material and the spiritual. Ribera`s choice to suggest rather than illustrate whets the viewer`s own appetite to visualize. Meanwhile this Jacob remains unaware that he is the link.


Rembrandt (on the right), a contemporary, moves beyond Ribera`s understatement, but there is still no ladder. Curious angels (not those in the dream), the sleeper and his wanderer`s staff, again create a V composition, immediately identifying our scene. In both works, the base of the V marks the maqom. Here, the staff leaning against the tree is the only rigid line, pointing like an arrow to the vertical connection of the axis mundi. Note that in both of these pictures, Jacob`s head is positioned upward, perhaps expressing the ambiguity of the phrase “and its/his head reached toward the heavens” – usually understood to refer to the sulam, but possibly meaning Jacob.

Reality and the Dream

In both of the preceding cases, the artists present Jacob`s experience as the viewer would actually see it. Ribera`s hints are in the shaft of light and the tree; Rembrandt adds the staff and angels, emblematic of this numinous maqom and outside Jacob`s dream. But both differ from many artists, who portray both the dreamer and his dream. For example, Doré differentiates between our view of the sleeper and Jacob`s view of his dream, including God enthroned on high. By drawing the dream with softer lines and ethereal light, Doré reveals the vision, but deprives the viewer of freedom to imagine it.


Jacob`s Dream, Gustave Doré, 1855

Jacob`s Dream, Gustave Doré, 1855


Doré`s dreamy bichrome bursts into Technicolor a century later with Marc Chagall and Shalom of Safed.



Jacob`s Dream, March Chagall, 1939/56

Jacob`s Dream, Shalom of Safed, 1967

Jacob`s Dream, Shalom of Safed, 1967


Doré`s treatment is peshat, the plain meaning of the biblical narrative. Chagall and Shalom of Safed, coming out of the traditional Jewish schoolhouse, the heder, add vivid midrashic details to their paintings:


And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and its head reached toward heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood עליו ….


With hutzpah, these two well-known Jewish artists of the 20th century play with the strange phrase: “God is standing on it/him”. It is surprising enough that an anthropomorphic God is standing there to begin with, earthbound. But the word עליו is ambiguous. Is God standing on Jacob or on the ladder? For Chagall, God is doing a handstand on Jacob. For Shalom, a bizarre red-scaled God is standing by Jacob. Both artists seem to be influenced by a daring Midrash in Genesis Rabba 69: 3, which declares that God enters history by means of people.


This Midrash wrestles with the multiple meanings of both components of נצב עליו:


נצב can mean standing or enduring
עליוin this context can mean on, near or by means of/through


Accordingly, God is standing by Jacob = God is supported by Jacob = God is realized through Jacob (as initially through Abraham), hence the phrase “God endures by virtue of the righteous”. Ironically, Jacob is still asleep.


Despite the well-known prohibition of images, neither of these Jewish artists avoids painting God, since in this way they show that through Jacob, God`s presence is affirmed.

The Sulam in the Ancient Near East

Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu

Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu


Since the rediscovery of the cultures of the ancient Near East at the end of the 18th century (with Napoleon`s Egyptian expedition), western scholarship has come to see the Bible as reflecting the dual influences of Egypt and Mesopotamia. For example, the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 recalls the main temple in the city of Babylon, a stepped tower or ziggurat, “whose head is in the heavens.” Babel itself is literally “the gate of the gods,” (bab el, in Akkadian), a term analogous to Jacob`s exclamation at Bethel (bet el, the house of God) “this is the gate of heaven.”


Sulam, otherwise unattested in the Bible, is generally understood to mean ladder. But many modern scholars takeסלם to mean “stairway” or “ramp,” from the Akkadian word simmiltu. Jacob sees angels ascending and descending the ramp/ladder/stairs, while in a famous Assyrian tale minor gods ascend and descend the similtu as messengers (מלאכים=angels) between the gods of heaven and the underworld.[1]
The other side of the Fertile Crescent provides an additional perspective on the ladder. Climbing to heaven is an important motif in Egyptian religious literature, centering on the god of the afterlife, Osiris, who is frequently called “the god at the top of the staircase or ladder.” In many cases, Osiris is the ladder, as represented in the djed pillar, symbol of transcendence. “His ascension and resurrection reflect a psychic transformation, which is mythologically projected as the union of the lower (earthly) Osiris with the higher spiritual soul.”[2]


Papyrus of Ani, ca, 1250

Papyrus of Ani, ca, 1250


Learning of the djed and its associations reminds us of the puzzling dual appearance of Jacob in an early Midrash, asleep at the foot of the ladder and radiant at its head. Angels are laughing at Jacob (see Rembrandt below), because of the contrast between the clueless sleeper and an image of the idealized Jacob set into the divine throne (see the Golden Hagaddah, below). It appears that the ambiguous phrase “and his/its head reached toward the heavens” produced this Midrash. Jacob below and above in the Midrash is similar to the earthly and the spiritual Osiris as the djed pillar. This does not necessarily mean that the Jacob story is derived from Egyptian mythology, but rather that there are parallels, based on universal aspects of the human psyche.


Jacob`s Dream, Rembrandt, ca. 1655

Jacob`s Dream, Rembrandt, ca. 1655

The Golden Haggadah - Jacob`s Dream, ca. 1320

The Golden Haggadah – Jacob`s Dream, ca. 1320


However, our Jacob is no divinity, but a human (all too human), who will struggle to transcend himself. This will be seen in his return trip to the land of promise.


[1]See H. Cohen, Genesis : World of the Bible Encyclopedia, Ramat Gan: Revivim, 1989, 172.
[2] E.Neumann Origins and History of Consciousness New York : Harper, 1962, 232 ff.

Jacob`s Pillow?

But we have left a stone unturned, the stone(s) of Jacob`s pillow.


David Sharir, Jacob`s Dream

David Sharir, Jacob`s Dream

Aelfric Paraphrase, Jacob`s Dream


In an 11th century Anglo-Saxon illustrated manuscript of the Aelfric Paraphrase (on the right), Jacob`s cushy pillow consists of four marshmallows. In a contemporary Israeli miniature of David Sharir, Jacob lies on one pillow, surrounded symmetrically by the other three.


Why four? The Bible mentions both “stone” (verse 18) and “stones” (verse 11) evoking midrashic playfulness: two, three, four and twelve stones!


In this midrashic numbers game, the stones are the generations of the patriarchs (two and three), the tribes of Israel (twelve), the cardinal directions of the land of Israel (four) – thus they concretize the two aspects of the divine promise: land and people. Finally, the many stones roll into one when Jacob sets up a memorial.


Similarly, pilgrims to Osiris` main shrine at Abydos would set up stone monuments at the base of the mythical ladder.


In the biblical vision, God asserts that Jacob will burst out in four directions. Sharir marks the cardinal directions with Jacob at the center and the ladder directly above him. Both he and the ladder are emerging from the “earth`s navel” (tabur ha`aretz). The many stones have become the one “foundation stone“—the sacred center—where the sanctuary will rise in Jerusalem. But isn`t Jacob at Bethel (see v. 19)? Thus the sacred center, the axis mundi, is at one and the same time in Bethel, Jerusalem, Sinai, wherever there is a conscious connection with God.

Article Sources:

Targum Yonatan Genesis 28:10
And he left - 5 miracles occurred as Jacob was leaving Beer Sheba: The first: the sun set before its time, because the Word wished to speak with him. The second: the four stones that he placed by his head were found to be one in the morning….
Rashi on Genesis 28:11
And he arrived at the place - Scripture does not mention which place, but [it means] the place mentioned elsewhere, which is Mount Moriah, concerning which it is said (Gen. 22:4): And he saw the place from afar...
because the sun had set - Heb. כי בא השמש. [Scripture] should have written [in reverse order]: And the sun set and he stayed there overnight.  [The expression] כי בא השמש implies that the sun set suddenly for him, not at its usual time, so that he would have to stay there overnight.
and placed [them] at his head - He arranged them in the form of a drainpipe around his head because he feared the wild beasts. They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, “Let the righteous man lay his head on me,” and another one said, “Let him lay [his head] on me.” Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, made them into one stone. This is why it is stated (verse 18):“and he took the stone [in the singular] that he had placed at his head.”
and he lay down in that place [The word ההוא] is a restrictive expression, meaning that [only] in that place did he lie down,
 but during the fourteen years that he served in the house of Eber, he did not lie down at night, because he was engaged in Torah study.

Genesis Rabba 68, 11f.
Targum Yonatan Genesis 28:12
He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was fixed in the earth with its top reaching
the exit of the heavens and the two angels who had gone to Sodom (who had been banished from their positions because they revealed Divine secrets) and had been wandering around until the day  Jacob left his father`s house, graciously accompanied him to Bethel. On that day, they (i.e., the angels) ascended to the heavens
on high, and said, ‘Come and see Jacob the pious, whose image is fixed on the Throne
of Glory’
Targum Yerushalmi Genesis 28:12
And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was fixed on the earth and its head reached to the height of the heavens; and behold, the angels that had accompanied him from the house of his father ascended to bear good tidings to the angels on high, saying, Come and see the pious man whose image is engraved in the throne of Glory, whom you desired to see. And behold, the angels from before the Lord ascended and descended and observed him.

Genesis Rabba 68:12
And Jacob dreamt: Behold a sulam
R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Jannai disagreed. One maintained: They were ascending and descending the ladder; while the other said: they were ascending and descending on Jacob.
The explanation that they were ascending and descending the ladder presents no difficulty. 
But concerning the explanation that they were ascending and descending on Jacob, it must mean that some were exalting him and others degrading him, dancing, leaping and maligning him. Thus it says, Israel in whom I will be glorified (Isa 49:3).
Is it you [said the angels] whose features are engraved on high; they ascended on high and saw his features and they descended below and found him sleeping.
Another explanation of ascending and descending on him/it - ascending: those that accompanied him within Land of Israel; descending: those who accompanied him abroad.
Genesis Rabba 68:14
Another explanation: 
And behold a sulam - This is Nebuchadnezzar`s dream (Daniel 2): There appeared a great statue…;
standing on the earth: and its brightness surpassing, stood before you;
and its head reached the heavens: this statue that was huge;
and behold angels of God were ascending— two—and descending—two: these are the spirits of the four kingdoms with whose rule it ends;
ascending and descending - it is not written descending and ascending but ascending and descending: ascending and ascent there will indeed be, but each will be lower than its predecessor…
and behold the Lord stood on it: and in the days of these kings, the God of heaven will establish a king who will reign forever….
Genesis Rabba 69:3
And behold the Lord stood on it/him
R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Jannai disagreed. One maintained it means "on the ladder"; while the other said it means "on Jacob".  The explanation that it means "on the ladder" presents no difficulty. But concerning the explanation that it means "on Jacob," who could support (lit., stand for) Him? R. Yochanan said: The wicked are supported by their  gods, as it is said (Genesis 41) And Pharaoh dreamt and behold he was standing on the Nile, but the God of the righteous is supported by them, as it  is said And behold the Lord was standing on him and He said I am the Lord, the God of Abraham.
Genesis Rabba 69:7
Jacob awoke from his sleep - R. Yochana said, From his learning.
He said, The Lord is indeed in this place - Indeed the Shekinah is present in this place and I was not aware.
He was in awe and said, How awesome a place this is - R. Eliezer in the name of R.  Yossi b. Zimra said, This sulam reached from Beer Sheva to the Temple. How do we know this? And Jacob left from Beer Sheva - And he dreamed     and behold a sulam - And he was awed and said, How awesome a place  this is.
R. Judah b. Simeon said, This sulam reached from the Temple to Bethel. How do we know this? And he was awed and said, How awesome a place this is - And he called the place Bethel.
This is none other than the House of God and this is the Gate of Heaven - R. Aha said, This gate is destined to open to many righteous of your descendants.
R. Simeon b. Yochai said, The celestial Temple is only 18 miles above the earthly Temple. How do we know this? And this (וזה) is the Gate of Heaven - the numerical value of וזה is 18.
Another explanation - the Holy One showed Jacob the Temple—built, destroyed and  built: And he was awed and said, How awesome a place this is, viz. built, as is written (Ps 68) You are awesome, O God, in your holy places; this is no  other - viz., destroyed, as is written (Lam 5) Over this our heart is sick, over these our eyes are dim; than the House of God, viz., built and restored in the future, as is written (Ps 147) For he has strengthened the bars of your gates
Hekhalot Rabbati 11:2
Testify to them what you have seen Me do to the image of the face of Jacob our Father which I have engraved upon the throne of my glory. At that time when you declare before me "Holy…" I bow down upon it, press close, embrace and kiss it, My hands upon his arms, three times."
Babylonian Talmud Hullin 91b
A Tanna taught: They ascended to look at the image (דיוקנא) above andדיוקנא) descended to look at the image ) below. They wished to hurt him(לסכוניה בעו) , when Behold, the Lord stood beside him (Gen 28:13).
R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Were it not expressly stated in the Scripture, we would not dare to say it. [God is made to appear] like a man who is fanning his son (כאדם שמניף על בנו) .