Jacob's Ladder Bible Story Study Guide

Jacob's Dream Painting by Luther Terry
Painting (by Luther Terry) taken from Genesis 28:11-12, which describes Jacob's journey from Beersheba towards Haran, 1852.

The New York Historical Society / Getty Images

Although it runs only a dozen verses, Jacob’s Ladder Bible story affirms Jacob’s legitimacy as an heir to God’s promises to Abraham and also supplies a critical piece of Bible prophecy about the Messiah. The true meaning of the dream of Jacob’s Ladder would be hard to understand, without a statement by Jesus Christ that he, in fact, is that ladder.

Question for Reflection

Scholars sometimes contrast Jacob's ladder, God's outreach from heaven to earth, with the Tower of Babel, man's grasping from earth toward heaven. The apostle Paul makes it clear we are made righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ alone and not through any of our own strivings. Are you trying to climb to heaven on a "ladder" of your own good works and behavior, or are you taking the "ladder" of God's plan of salvation, his Son Jesus Christ?

Story Summary

In Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, was fleeing from his twin brother Esau, who had vowed to kill him. Esau was furious with Jacob because Jacob had stolen Esau's birthright, the Jewish claim to inheritance and blessing.

On his way to his relative's house at Haran, Jacob lay down for the night near Luz. As he was dreaming, he had a vision of a ladder, or stairway, between heaven and earth. God's angels were on it, ascending and descending.

Jacob saw God standing above the ladder. God repeated the promise of support he had made to Abraham and Isaac. He told Jacob his offspring would be many, blessing all the families of the earth. God then said,

"Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15, ESV)

When Jacob awoke, he believed that God was present in that place. He took the stone he had been using to rest his head, poured oil on it and consecrated it to God. Then Jacob made a vow, saying,

"If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you." (Genesis 28:20-22, ESV)

Jacob called the place Bethel, meaning "house of God."

Jacob pouring oil on the stone
Jacob pouring oil on the stone (Genesis 28, 18). Wood engraving, published in 1886. ZU_09 / Getty Images

Major Characters

Jacob: Jacob was a member of the special family God had singled out to produce his chosen people. He lived from approximately BC 2006 to 1859. His faith in the Lord was still immature at the time of this episode, evidenced by his character as a schemer, liar, and manipulator.

Jacob repeatedly trusted in his own devices rather than in God. He cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew, then later deceived their father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, through an elaborate ruse.

Even after this prophetic dream and God’s personal promise of protection, Jacob’s resulting vow was still conditional: “If God will be with me...then the Lord shall be my God...” (Genesis 28:21-22). Years later, after Jacob physically wrestled with the Lord all night, he finally understood God could be trusted and put his full faith in him.

God the Father: The Creator, God of the universe, put his intricate plan of salvation in place starting with Abraham. One of Jacob’s sons, Judah, would lead the tribe from which the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come. So great is his power that God manipulated individuals, kingdoms, and empires to make this plan come about.

Through the centuries, God revealed himself to key people in this plan, such as Jacob. He guided and protected them, and in the case of Jacob, used them in spite of their personal flaws. God’s motivation for saving humanity was his boundless love, expressed through the sacrifice of his only Son.

Angels: Angelic beings appeared on the ladder in Jacob’s dream, ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Divine creatures created by God, angels serve as messengers and agents of God’s will. Their activity symbolized getting their orders from God in heaven, going to earth to carry them out, then returning to heaven to report and receive further orders. They do not act on their own.

Throughout the Bible, angels transmit instructions to humans and help them carry out their missions. Even Jesus was ministered to by angels, following his temptation in the wilderness and his agony at Gethsemane. Jacob’s dream was a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the invisible world and a promise of God’s support.

Themes and Life Lessons

Dreams were a way God communicated with Bible characters to reveal information and give direction. Today God speaks primarily through his written word, the Bible.

Rather than trying to interpret circumstances, we can act on the clear principles in Scripture to help us make decisions. Obedience to God should be our priority.

One of the less admirable characters in Scripture, Jacob withheld full trust in the Lord until after a wrestling match with God himself. Like Jacob, we are all stained by sin, yet the Bible is a record of God using imperfect people to accomplish his perfect plans. None of us may claim our faults to disqualify ourselves from God’s service.

The more fully we trust God, the sooner his blessings will become manifest in our lives. Even during hard times, our faith assures us God is always with us for comfort and strength.

Historical Context

One key concept in Genesis was the act of blessing. A blessing was always bestowed from the greater to the lesser. God blessed Adam and Eve, Noah and his sons, Abraham, and Isaac. Abraham, in turn, blessed Isaac.

But Jacob knew he and his mother Rebekah had deceived the half-blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of his older brother Esau. In his guilt, Jacob must have wondered whether God considered this stolen blessing valid. Jacob’s dream was confirmation that Jacob was approved by God and would receive his help for the rest of his life.

Points of Interest

  • Most scholars interpret Jacob's ladder as a connection between heaven and earth, with God taking the initiative to reach out to humans. The perfect "ladder" is Jesus Christ, who was God come to earth to save humanity. Jesus refers to himself as this ladder in John 1:51: "And he (Jesus) 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.'" (ESV)
  • In the NIV translation of the Bible, the term "stairway" is used instead of ladder. Bible scholars note that some hills in that region have a series of stone shelves that resemble stair steps.
  • Jacob vowed to give one-tenth of his income to God's work. This observance, called tithing, is still practiced today by many Christian denominations.
  • "Jacob's Ladder" is the title of a 1990 movie starring Tim Robbins, dozens of books, and a 1987 number-one hit song written by Bruce Hornsby and performed by Huey Lewis and the News.


  • Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers, Charles Ellicott
  • Benson Commentary, Rev. Joseph Benson
  • New Bible Commentary, G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, editors
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "Jacob's Ladder Bible Story Study Guide." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/jacobs-ladder-bible-story-summary-700200. Zavada, Jack. (2021, February 8). Jacob's Ladder Bible Story Study Guide. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/jacobs-ladder-bible-story-summary-700200 Zavada, Jack. "Jacob's Ladder Bible Story Study Guide." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/jacobs-ladder-bible-story-summary-700200 (accessed June 5, 2023).