FIRST UP, THEN DOWN
In our last Torah Portion, Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan-aram, to take a wife from there. We all know that it happened after the story of the “stolen blessing” – the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac while pretending to be Esau – and that Jacob was actually fleeing from his brother. Homeless, scared and exhausted, on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran Jacob stopped at a certain place to rest for the night. “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” “Jacob’s Ladder” is one of the most famous human encounters with God in the Bible, and there have certainly been many interpretations of this dream – I am sure you know some of them – but have you ever wondered why the angels, the denizens of heaven, first ascend and only then descend?
I would like to share here some Jewish commentaries that you may not know. In Midrash Tanhuma, for instance, the ladder is taken to imply the ladder of history. The ascent of one nation on it implies the descent of its predecessor. The ladder is not an endless one, but the Lord stands at its top, as the Master of history, assuring us that pride and despotism will be brought low, until His sovereignty alone is recognized.
Famous Jewish medieval commentator Rashi has another approach to this text. He sticks to its plain sense. Rashi’s interpretation is based on the two groups of angels, first ascending and then descending the ladder: Olim VeYordim. Rashi explains: The angels that accompanied Jacob in the Holy Land do not go outside the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to Heaven; then another group of angels descended to accompany him outside the Holy Land. When Jacob was outside of the Land, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace. It’s interesting that when Jacob comes back to the Land, we hear once again that two groups of angels met him (see the article “Mahanayim” here).
There are also interesting interpretations based on Gematria—a Jewish interpretive method that calculates the numerical value of a word and then matches it with another word with the same value. The numerical value of the word sulam (ladder in Hebrew) is 130: סֻלָּם: (samekh-lamed-mem=60+30+40). Amazingly, 130 is also the value of the word Sinai, another crucial moment in Jewish history when Heaven and Earth met:סיני (samech-yod-nun-yod = 60-10-50-10). Thus, in Gematria, Jacob’s ladder represents the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
AGE IS NOT AN OBSTACLE FOR LOVE
The story of the love of Jacob and Rachel is one of the most beautiful romantic stories in the Bible. While reading a very graphic description of their first meeting at the well, a Christian reader usually imagines a young man who is so excited to see this beautiful girl that he alone rolled the stone that several men were supposed to roll together. However, in Jewish tradition we find a very different picture. How old was Jacob when he fell for Rachel?
Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt. How old was Joseph then? Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh”. There were 5 years of famine left when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt, which means that Joseph was 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130. Accordingly, Jacob was 91 years old when he fathered Joseph (indeed, “a son of his old age.” )
In Padan Aram, after Joseph was born, Jacob asked Laban to let him go. He didn’t leave at that time though, and we know that he spent a total of 20 years with Laban: 14 years for his wives and 6 for his sheep and cattle. This means that after Joseph was born, Jacob stayed for another 6 years. This would imply that Jacob came to Padan Aram and saw Rachel for the first time, when he was 91-14 = 77 years old.
The Biblical concept of age differed significantly from our modern understanding, and the story of 77-year old Jacob falling in love with Rachel (and rolling the stone alone) goes to prove this. In Hebrew, a person’s age is expressed in a very interesting way: to say that Joseph was 30 years old, the Scripture literally says that “Joseph was son of thirty”. Jacob was “son of 77” when he met Rachel!
WHAT DID JACOB STEAL?
In Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return to his land. He takes his family and possessions and – off he goes. For some reason, his wife Rachel steals (ותגנב רחל) her father’s idols (Gen. 31:18). The word תגנב here is not to be taken lightly: it’s the same word we have in the Ten Commandments. When Laban overtakes him and accuses him of stealing his idols, Jacob is insulted by such suspicion. He is convinced that there couldn’t be any stolen goods in his camp. Jacob knows that stealing is a grave sin, and even the thought that he might somehow be mixed up in theft is unbearable to him. Indignant at the accusation and not knowing of his wife’s theft, he invites Laban to search the whole camp.
However, he is not aware that he has also committed theft. To our great surprise, in the very next verse after Rachel’s theft, the same word refers to Jacob: ויגנב יעקב. Thus, we discover that Jacob also stole – he “stole the heart of Laban” because he did not inform him that he was leaving with all his wives and children, i.e. Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. His whole departure, or flight rather, was so unseemly and ungodly that Scripture, with the same very word, accuses him of this sin also: ויגנב יעקב את-לב לבן (Gen. 31:19).
Jacob didn’t sense that to “steal a heart”, or to deceive, was a sin. When you read your Bible, there is nothing about Jacob’s stealing in this story. However, in Hebrew the word ganav (גנב) is repeated twice – and it accuses both Rachel and Jacob of the sin of theft. The message of scripture is clear: to steal a heart is also a grave sin in God’s eyes!
So Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
In Genesis 32, we find a brief report about Jacob’s meeting with the Angels. Jacob is on his way to the Land after 20 years of exile, and something remarkable happens to him: “the angels of God met him”. This account is very short – especially if we compare it with Jacob’s first encounter with angels in his famous dream in chapter 28. However, when read in Hebrew, it reveals an amazing and very intriguing detail that one can see only in Hebrew.
“When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is God’s camp,’ so he named that place Mahanayim.” However, Mahanayim is a dual construction of the word “mahane” (camp), so Jacob, in fact, called this place “Two camps”! Why? According to Rashi, Jacob indeed saw two teams of angels exactly like in his dream—two separate camps: one of the angels outside the Land, who came with him up to here, and one of the angels of Israel, who came to greet him. “Mahanayim” means “two camps”—not one—and whether we accept Rashi’s approach or not, the Hebrew text makes it clear that Jacob saw two camps of angels!
Many of the things that you’ve read here, we tell our students during DHB (Discovering Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) . Also, If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
 Gen 45:6,11
 Gen 31:41
 Gen. 32:1