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Jacob’s ladder

09 October 23

We first hear of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28:10-22. During his arduous journey from Beersheba to Haran, Jacob stopped to rest in a desolate place.

In a dream, he saw a ladder; its base rested on the earth and its top reached to heaven. The ladder, on which angels of God were ascending and descending, represents the connec­tion between the human and the divine. The ladder is an allegory of the divine action that should precede all human activity. It is in contrast to the Tower of Babel, built by men, who in their pride, wanted to reach heaven to become gods.


In Masonry, the Entered Apprentice (EA) is first introduced to the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder in the First Degree. Remember that the EA is not expected to ascend the ladder at his initiation; it is depicted on the Tracing Board and the means of ascent are partially explained to him. The symbolism of Jacob’s Ladder portrays a spiritual advance, through the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, to the summit of Masonry.

The ladder represents the progressive ascent of intellectual communication between earth and heaven. A newly initiated candidate stands on the floor of the lodge, depicting the temporal world, and begins his ascent of the ladder of life from ‘earth’ to ‘heaven’, from ‘life’ to ‘death’, from the ‘mortal’ to the ‘immortal’. Step by step he pro­gresses until he reaches the top of the ladder. Masonry is, indeed, a progressive science.


In ancient Egypt, tradition relates that Ra’s ladder linked heaven and earth. The Egyptian Book of the Dead referred to a ladder which allowed one to behold the gods. In works of Egyptian art, we find the souls of the dead climb­ing a stairway of seven or nine treads to reach the throne of Osiris and undergo the weighing of their hearts.


The first of the three principal rounds in the masonic ladder is faith. This grace is explained in the scriptures. It is the cheer of the sorrowing, and the life of the just. It is the credit we give to the declarations of God or the evidence of the facts or propositions presented to us in the Bible. True faith involves the forsaking of all known sin and cheerful and constant obedience to God’s commands.


The Entered Apprentice has heard the NE Charge before he hears the beau­tiful words of the sectional lecture that describe the three principal rounds of Jacob’s ladder: ‘Charity, lovely in itself, is the brightest ornament that can adorn our masonic profession; it is the best test and surest proof of the sincerity of our religion; benevolence attended by heaven-born Charity is an honour to the nation from whence it springs and by which it is nourished and cherished.’ But the EA may reflect that masonic giving to the needy is not confined to alms. ‘Charity comprehends the whole’ is a way of saying that we must have a natural affection for all men, to think well of them, and to support them.


In the Islamic tradition, Jacob’s Ladder is seen as a symbol of ascension, representing the ascent of Muhammed to heaven from the top of Mount Moriah.


Amongst our operative brethren, the ladder is, of course, a familiar imple­ment. It was in constant use by our ancient brethren. In a system where working tools were used to symbolize moral properties the ladder would be made to typify the power or means by which man is lifted to a higher state of existence. It was always employed with the same meaning in the Ancient Mysteries and was a familiar symbol of salvation long before Jacob saw it extending from earth to heaven. We, as did the ancients, ascribe to it seven rungs, symbolising the four cardinal and the three theological virtues by which it was supposed a man was prepared for and elevated to the higher state.

In the Christian tradition, Saint John Chrysostom urged us to reach heaven, by ascending Jacob’s ladder. To him, Jacob’s ladder was an illustration of the ascent through virtue, step by step, by which it is possible to rise from earth to heaven, not by steps apparent to the senses, but by the amending and cor­recting of one’s habits.


In the Platonic tradition, this symbol­ism describes the ascent of the soul from one world to the other. In the Mithraic mysteries each rung of a ladder was guarded by an angel and the adept had to progressively disrobe to attain the resurrection of the body. The Mithraic initiation used the ladder as a symbol of mystical initiation, ascending through the seven metals and planetary spheres.

The mystical ladder which Jacob saw extending from earth to heaven, was a common symbol in the Ancient Mysteries and was always composed of seven steps or rounds. The ladder symbolized the progress of man from his present to higher conditions with each round repre­senting one of the seven stages of his evolutionary progress. In the mysteries of Persia and India, this mystic ladder was an important symbol, especially in Persia, where a ladder of seven rounds was erected in each of the temples.


The seven steps also correspond to the seven gates through which the can­didate was passed successively in his symbolic journeyings through the seven caverns of Initiation and symbolized the seven conditions or sub-planes of Hades. The seven steps, seven gates, seven halls, seven worlds, seven planes, etc., are all symbols of the various stages of the soul’s progress.


The ancient mystics held that the evolution of the human soul took place through a series of seven globes situated on the three lower planes of the uni­verse. The life wave passes seven times around this world-chain, and through seven stages on each globe. The pro­gress involves a downward and an upward arc – a descent of spirit into matter and a re-ascent of spirit to God. This is symbolized in Jacob’s vision by the angels ascending and descending.


In masonic tracing board illustrations, the ladder extends no further, because God himself cannot be comprehended. To arrive in heaven itself, we must pass through ‘that awful moment when the soul shall take wing to that boundless and unexplored expanse above, where the divisions of time shall cease, and the glories of an endless eternity burst upon the view.’


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Stein, R. B. (2003). Searching for Jacob’s Ladder. Colby Quarterly, 39(1), 5

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As appeared in the September 2020 Freemason Magazine - By W Bro Steve Lourey

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