What’s A Jacob’s Ladder?

What’s A Jacob’s Ladder?

22nd January 2014

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and most of us probably have some vague idea of it being a Biblical story that we heard during childhood – probably as far back as in Junior School.  A description of Jacob’s Ladder appears in Genesis 28:10-19.  Jacob was one of the Biblical patriarchs.  The Patriarchs of the Bible are Abraham, his son Isaac and Isaac’s son, Jacob who lived in what’s commonly known as the Patriarchal age.  These three men play significant roles in Hebrew scripture both during and after their lifetimes and are used as a significant marker by God in revelations and promises (‘He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.’). 

In the Hebrew Bible, Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the younger twin brother of Esau and was born holding Esau’s heel (the Hebrew name Yaacov actually means ‘heel-holder’).  Esau became a hunter and is frequently depicted throughout Genesis as being supplanted by Jacob.  Jacob had twelve sons and at least one daughter, all borne by his two wives Leah and Rachel and by their handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah.  This sounds like Jacob was a bit of a boy, enjoying relations with a collection of women in a way that just would not be deemed acceptable today.

At one point when Esau had threatened to kill Jacob (for stealing Esau’s birthright), Jacob had a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth.  Jacob saw God standing at the top of the ladder and God told Jacob that he would have many offspring, blessing all the families on the earth.

Jacob’s Ladder is also the name of a traditional child’s toy made from blocks of wood held together by strings or ribbons.  When the ladder is held at one end the blocks seem to cascade down the strings – this is a visual illusion resulting from the blocks flipping over.  This toy dates back to Pilgrim times in America – because the name of the toy contains a Biblical reference, Puritan kids were allowed to play with it on Sundays.

Gardeners may be familiar with the plant called Jacob’s Ladder (or Greek Valerian) – it’s a flowering hardy perennial that bears lavender or white cup shaped blooms.  It’s native to temperate regions of Europe – favouring damp grasslands, rocky areas, meadows and woodlands.  The Ancient Greeks used Jacob’s Ladder as a medicinal herb – the root was used to treat dysentery, toothaches and animal bites.  These days, the plant is more commonly used in potpourri or boiled in olive oil to make black dyes and hair dressings. 

For those who are looking for a more alternative meaning of Jacob’s Ladder, it’s also the name of a type of piercing – a frenum piercing consisting of a series of piercings that form a ladder arrangement.