Bible“>Jacob’s ladder is one of the most intriguing symbols in the Bible. It appears in Genesis 28, when Jacob flees from his brother Esau and stops for the night in a place he names Bethel. As Jacob sleeps, he dreams of a ladder extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. When Jacob awakes, he declares “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17 KJV).
But how many steps were on this ladder stretching between heaven and earth? The Bible does not specify an exact number. However, by examining the significance of Jacob’s ladder and its context in Scripture, we can make some inferences about how many steps there may have been.
- The Bible does not explicitly state how many steps were on Jacob’s ladder.
- Given the biblical significance of numbers like 7, 10, and 12, these may be likely candidates.
- Jewish tradition suggests the number of steps was equivalent to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
- Some interpreters associate the ladder with the 7 days of creation and thus speculate 7 or 14 steps.
- The indefinite nature of the number of steps may signify the unfathomable distance between heaven and earth that only Christ could bridge.
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The Significance of Jacob’s Ladder
Jacob’s ladder carried profound meaning for the patriarch Jacob. This dream encounter established Jacob’s covenant with God, similar to Abraham and Isaac’s covenant experiences (Genesis 15, 26). God renewed the same promises of land, descendants, blessing and divine presence that he had previously made (Genesis 28:13-15).
Upon awakening, Jacob exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). He consecrated the site with an altar and a pillar, naming it Bethel or “house of God” (Genesis 28:18-19). Jacob vowed that if God protected and prospered him, the Lord would be his God and he would give God a tenth (Genesis 28:20-22).
Clearly, Jacob regarded this ladder as his sacred encounter with the Almighty. The ladder connected heaven to earth, representing access to the very presence of God. As Jesus later declared, “hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Christ embodied the ladder linking God and man in his incarnation.
Clues from Biblical Numerology
While Scripture does not disclose how many rungs Jacob’s ladder contained, key numbers in the Bible may provide clues. Certain numbers like 7, 10, and 12 carried symbolic significance, often relating to concepts like completion or divine order.
Seven features prominently across Scripture as the number of spiritual perfection. God created the heavens and earth in seven days (Genesis 1). Revelation depicts seven churches, spirits, seals and more. Seven steps would align with the ladder’s creative function in establishing God’s kingdom on earth.
Ten signifies completeness or wholeness, tracing back to the Ten Commandments. Jacob himself laid out ten stipulations in his vow to God at Bethel (Genesis 28:20-22). Ten steps could correspond to the ladder’s role in facilitating a complete covenant relationship between God and man.
Twelve represents God’s divine government, seen in the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles chosen by Jesus. As a number of God’s authority and rule, 12 steps would fit with the ladder’s identity as the “gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). The ladder mediated between God’s realm and ours.
Of course, these are speculative rather than definitive. The Bible does not prescribe exactly how many rungs Jacob’s ladder contained. But given the special significance of numbers like 7, 10 and 12, it is reasonable to propose these as likely options.
Insights from Jewish Tradition
Beyond Scripture, ancient Jewish tradition also pondered the number of Jacob’s ladder. The second-century BC Jewish pseudepigraphical Book of Jubilees contains one provocative clue:
“And on the third day he rose up in the morning […] and went up to Bethel. And Jacob took the stone that he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel […] and the Lord appeared to him and said to him: ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And he called his name Israel again. And God said to him again: ‘I am the Lord who created the heaven and the earth […] and I will give it to you and your descendants after you.’ And Jacob went from Bethel, and his sons walked with him to come to Isaac […] the number of the days during which he walked, until he came to his father Isaac in Hebron, was forty days. And Isaac fell on the neck of Jacob his son and wept upon his neck.” (Jubilees 27:15-24)
This passage describes Jacob’s encounter with God and renaming as Israel during his journey from Bethel to Hebron. Remarkably, it specifies that Jacob traveled for 40 days en route to his father Isaac. Why 40 days?
Ancient Jewish sages linked this detail to Jacob’s ladder. They asserted the ladder had 22 steps, equivalent to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Jacob recited the alphabet as he climbed each successive step on his ascent to heaven. Going up 22 steps and coming back down 22 steps totals 44 steps. At 40 days’ travel from Bethel to Hebron, subtracting the Sabbath days, Jacob took 44 steps.
This tradition regarding 22 steps and 44 steps creatively connects Jacob’s ladder to the Hebrew language and alphabet. It also grants more specificity than Scripture itself provides about the ladder’s potential size and scale.
Seven or Fourteen Steps?
Other interpreters have associated Jacob’s ladder with the creation account in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, so Jacob’s ladder bridges between heaven and earth with seven steps. Each step could represent one day of creation.
A variation on this theme proposes fourteen steps. During creation, there are seven days of forming paired with seven days of filling (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Jacob ascended via the seven forming steps and descended via the seven filling steps for a total of fourteen. Seven for the ascent and seven for the descent echoes the pattern of angels going up and down the ladder.
While the Bible does not make this connection explicit, it remains a reasonable inference given Genesis 1’s prominence as a creation narrative. As we cannot know definitively, the seven days of creation provide an interpretive lens to potentially view Jacob’s ladder.
The Unfathomable Span Between Heaven and Earth
Perhaps the most important lesson from the unspecified number of ladder steps is that the distance between heaven and earth is ultimately unfathomable. No human structure could build a stairway to heaven. The finite cannot reach the infinite. As God told Moses from the burning bush, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Only Christ could bridge the divide through his incarnation and atoning sacrifice. Jesus told Nathanael, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Christ embodied the ladder linking heaven and earth, affirming “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Jacob’s ladder signifies the immense separation between the realm of God and the realm of man that no human effort could transcend. The infinite God condescended in covenant relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the ladder’s unspecified steps remind us that fully crossing from heaven to earth required Jesus Christ. The precise number is ultimately unknowable and irrelevant compared to Christ’s incarnation.
How many steps were on Jacob’s ladder that he witnessed in his dream at Bethel? The Bible simply does not say. But based on key biblical numbers, patterns, and theology, we can speculate possibilities like 7, 10, 12, 22 or more. At day’s end, the exact number matters less than what the ladder represents: God’s revelation, Jacob’s covenant, and access to God’s presence through Christ. The ladder powerfully prefigures Jesus as the bridge between heaven and earth. By focusing on Christ, we can ascend into the heavenly places with Him.