People of the altar in a ladder world

The art and iconography around the dream is remarkable and captivating. In case you are not up to date on all things in the book of Genesis, Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down on a ladder that connects the heavens and earth. This scene, sometimes discussed as “Jacob’s ladder” is one of those stories where we one detail catches our eye and we focus in on it. For instance, there is the question that if angels were climbing this ladder, then why wouldn’t they just use their wings and fly?

There is a Midrash story that uses the ladder to talk about what it means to be a “good Jew”. A student asks a teacher what it takes to be a good Jew and the teacher says to look at Jacob’s ladder. The teacher says the ladder has 613 rungs, one rung for each of the commandments in the Torah. Some would say that a good Jew is the one who is standing on rung #613 and a bad Jew is standing on rung #1. This is incorrect, says the teacher. It is not the location but the direction one is climbing that indicates if you are a good Jew or not.

Perhaps we are fascinated with the ladder because we live in a ladder world. We are focused on succeeding and climbing the ladder of success that we spend our time figuring out how to not get stepped on while we climb.

Notice, however, that in the dream once Jacob sees God, there is no longer any attention given to the ladder. In fact, while Jacob is looking at the ladder, God is standing right next to him. While Jacob is trying to unlock the secrets of the ladder, God is standing right next to him! Let those with ears hear…

When Jacob wakes up, notice what he does – he builds and altar and pours oil on it. The altar is the symbol that calls attention to the reality that God is here all along and we had not known. In this moment, Jacob gave up on the ladder and became an altar person.

When we are in ministry with the world, we might be wise to take stock in ways that we are ladder people: constantly moving, trying to save everyone we can, and figuring out how to move up or down the ladder. Rather than the ministry of the ladder, we might be called to be of the ministry of the altar: pointing out where God is, giving witness to what God is already doing and get in on what God is doing.