Scaling Jacob's ladder


“There are at least seven problems and ambiguities in the first paragraph alone,” pointed out James Robinson, assistant professor of the history of Judaism in the Divinity School, at last night’s quarterly Conversations in Divinity series. Fortunately for Robinson’s audience of 40, these comments described not a half-baked term paper but the biblical text of the Jacob’s ladder story. Tucked away on the fifth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, the crowd of faculty members, graduate students, and other curious attendees listened attentively as Robinson explained how medieval philosophers used the ambiguities of the ladder motif to investigate and expound their own worldviews. Take, for example, Jacob’s vision of the “angels of God ascending and descending” [Genesis 28:12] the ladder. Between 1191 and 1492, the Jewish Middle Ages, Robinson said, this passage raised intense debate about why divine beings would return to earth after ascending to heaven. Some scholars interpreted the angels’ descent as a political lesson in social responsibility—having known God, one should return to earth to impart a newfound wisdom. Others said the angels were symbols of the human mind returning from heaven to introduce God’s grace to the world.

Unlike many contemporary English translations that aim to eliminate such discrepancies, medieval philosophers, noted Robinson, “considered textual ambiguities an opportunity, not a problem.” By grounding themselves in a single biblical text, he explained, they could “create a common language” to frame their arguments. Particularly influential in the debate was philosopher Moses Maimonides, whose Guide of the Perplexed gave a detailed exegesis of the story, and, as Robinson explained, helped set up the ladder motif as a “strategic research site” for scholars to explore new ideas.

One of the most interesting aspects of these interpretations, he noted, is that each philosopher tended to read the motif in accordance with his known ideological background. Such an approach, Robinson emphasized, differs greatly from modern biblical studies, where scientifically minded thinkers aim to eliminate any trace of personal bias from their interpretations. Do they really accomplish this, he asked, or do scholars inadvertently read their own contemporary viewpoints into the text? A historian at heart, he declined to give a definitive answer. After all, Robinson concluded, “we won’t be able to answer this question for a good two or three hundred years.”


Photo: James Robinson.

September 16, 2005