Torah Portion Vayetse
Genesis 28:10 - 32:2
Hosea 11:7 - 14:9
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Vayetse, we will investigate how Jacob's "ladder" is actually to be understood in terms of the cosmic mountain.
Shalom! This is the seventh portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing Hoshea's prophecies against the actions of Ephraim (the northern kingdom) and extolls them to return to Elohim.
In Vayetse, we will see how Jacob's "ladder" at Bethel is actually in reference to the Temple. How does this episode inform us of why the early believers in Yeshua considered him to be the greater Temple? Join us as we search this out!
In the Bible, God sometimes uses dreams to reveal truths to His people and in this Torah Portion, YHWH reveals Himself to Jacob as well asserting that the promise to Abraham and Isaac will be continued through Jacob through a dream. This promise is easy for us to understand but the imagery used in the dream may not be so easy for those who are not aware of ancient Near Eastern culture. Most of our English translations speak of either a ladder or stairway which is set upon the earth and reaches all the way to heaven. Modern art has also followed this misunderstanding by portraying a mysterious ladder or stairway that goes into the clouds without any supporting structure. Jacob, however, would have been very familiar with the image from his dream because the text is actually describing a structure which was quite common in cities in certain areas of the ancient world. Rather than some mysterious ladder, what Jacob saw called a ziggurat. Ziggurats were enormous structures comparable in size to the pyramids in Egypt, yet their function was vastly different from the pyramids in which Pharaoh's were entombed. It is only by understanding the function of these ziggurats that we can truly grasp the true strength of the message YHWH gave to Jacob!
The ziggurat was an enormous structure with its exterior walls made from mud bricks mixed with bitumen (asphalt) then baked in an oven to make the bricks as strong as stone. The inside of the structure did not contain any passages or chambers; it was simply filled with dirt. The ziggurats were built with three to seven tiers, the seven tier ones reaching as tall as 100 feet in the sky. Along one side, a stairway would be built to reach from the ground to the very top tier of the ziggurat where a house was built. Essentially, the ziggurat was an artificial mountain created in order to support a stairway going from the ground all the way up to the house on the top. These structures have been found mainly in Mesopotamia, though similar structures are found all around the world. The reason why such structures were built in Mesopotamia but not in Israel is because, unlike Israel, Mesopotamia is a very flat land. The bricks had to be made rather than gathering rocks because unlike Israel, Mesopotamia has very few large rocks. Anyone who has ever been to Israel will know that Jacob didn't have to search long for a stone for a pillow or stones to build an altar, the ground is covered in them! Those who have been to Beit El (Bethel) also know that it is located at the top of a mountain from which you can see miles and miles in every direction. There is no need for artificial mountains (ziggurats) in Israel!
So why did the Mesopotamians want to build these ziggurats? Our first clue comes from the meaning of the Akkadian word ziqqurratu (from which we get the term ‘ziggurat’) which means “temple-tower”. The ziggurat was a tower/mountain built in order to place a temple at the top of a mountain; a very important point which we will return to later. We can further gain insight into their function from the names of some of the ziggurats: “Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth” (Babylon), “Temple of the Wielder of the 7 Decrees of Heaven and Earth” (Borsippa), “Temple of the Admirable Throne” (Dumuzi), “Temple of the Exalted Dwelling Place” (Kish), “Temple of the Exalted Mountain” (Ehursagkalamma), “Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth” (Dilbat), “Temple which Links Heaven and Earth” (Larsa), and “Temple of the Stairway to Pure Heaven” (Sippar). Much like Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, and the Temple in the Bible, these ziggurats were man-made cosmic mountains intended to be a connection point between heaven and earth and were considered by the ancients to be the center of the cosmos. The top level was holy ground and was strictly off-limits to all except for the priests who were tasked with serving the god. The priests would transverse the stairway in order to bring food to the house of the god at the top of the structure as well as providing other services to accommodate the deity. This stairway was also believed to exist so that the deity would be able to walk down from his/her heavenly abode and meet with the people. The common people were never allowed to ascend the ladder to worship, but instead would go to the temple built at the base of the ziggurat. Interestingly, many of these temples would be built upon springs and the water would flow out from the temple in four streams to water an adjacent garden where food could be grown to feed the god of the ziggurat.
The similarities and differences between ziggurats and certain parts of Scripture is quite striking. Not only is this structure alluded to here in this Torah Portion, but it is also quite clear that the Tower of Babel was also a ziggurat. Likewise, the concept of the cosmic mountain which the ziggurat was created to represent is clearly seen in Mount Sinai where the entire mountain is off limits to the common Israelite and only Moses is allowed to ascend to the top in order to commune from God. God’s presence also remains on the mountain top during Israel’s stay rather than coming down to the altar set up at the base. The most significant connection however is the connection to the Garden in Eden, which I would propose is the common source of all culture’s concept of a sacred mountain. Many archaeologists claim that Israel simply borrowed concepts from its surrounding cultures and adapted them to fit monotheism because they assume an evolutionary type of development in religious thought of the ancient Near East. However, the reality is that if our Biblical narrative is true (and I believe it is), then we should expect similar stories with all the surrounding nations. If you had a group of people and you took one person aside and told them a story, then asked them to tell one other person that same story and continue passing the story along person to person, by the time the story reached the last person in the group, that story would most likely be quite different from the original story. Each transmitter of a story will remember only certain parts of the story and will fill in their gaps in memory with how they think the story should go. When Adam and Chavah were removed from the Garden the story of creation would have been passed down and corrupted. After the Flood, Shem, Ham and Japheth would have passed down the Creation story and the Flood story to their offspring and so the story would have changed, especially with those lineages who rejected YHWH. However certain elements would have remained in common between them and I would propose that the concept of a cosmic mountain upon which the ziggurat was formed originated in the Garden in Eden.
In Ezekiel 28:13-14 we read, “you were in Eden, the Garden of God…you were on the set-apart mountain of God.” The Garden here is equated to the holy mountain of God, implying that the Garden in Eden was set upon a mountain top. In fact, there are some who believe that the Garden in Eden was actually in the very location as Jerusalem, in the mountains! If this evidence is being understood correctly and the Garden was on a mountain top, when Adam and Chavah were cast out of the Garden, they would have been sent eastward downhill. It would stand to reason that when they wanted to worship God, they would have come as close to the place of His presence as possible which would have been the bottom of the mountain leading up to the Garden where the Cheruvim stood guard. Likely they would have built a temple there and we also know from the description in Genesis 2:10 that a river flowed out of Eden to water the Garden and there divided into four river heads, just like how the temples at the bases of ziggurats were used to worship the inaccessible deity and contained a river which was split into four streams to water a garden! It would appear then that the ziggurat was in fact a corrupted interpretation of the inaccessible Garden in Eden after the fall of mankind!
Why then is this information significant to our Torah Portion? The clue comes in Genesis 28:16-17 when Jacob proclaims, “certainly YHWH is in this place…this is nothing less than the house of God and is certainly the gate of heaven.” Jacob is about to leave the land of Canaan, the land which was promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and again here to Jacob himself. The fact that this dream occurs at Beit El (Bethel) informs us that Jacob is spending the night on the top of a mountain and by appearing in this location and giving the dream imagery of a ziggurat, God is using the ancient culture as a means of informing Jacob that it is in fact the land which will one day belong to Israel that is the center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth will meet and God will come down to meet with the people, not Mesopotamia where Jacob is traveling to. It is a reminder that Jacob and his descendants must return to the land of promise for it is the location where God will dwell among His people. If we are in Messiah Yeshua, we are descendants of Abraham and thus descendants of Jacob as well so this is a message which continues on to us to this very day. Our home is in the land of the Great King, YHWH of Hosts!
 John H. Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995): 155-175.
 John H Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 61–62.
 John H Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Baker Academics, 2006), 122-123
Ziggurat image from: Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, pg 413, ART.04
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