And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
Many of the “stories” written in the Old Testament are written in a way that a child can understand. People are quick to dismiss the story of creation because the Bible makes it sound like the whole world was created in seven literal days and science has proved otherwise. The creation story as written in Genesis is written so that a young child can understand it. However, our understanding of the Bible should not be limited to what we read and understood as children. A closer look at the Biblical account of creation reveals that the Holy Trinity was present before the Creation. The first thing created was light. Even in evolution, a “big bang” theory points at light being created. In evolutionary theory, fish came before land mammals. Where there is difference between creation and evolution is that God intentionally created species, and intentionally created human beings in His image and likeness. We are not evolved from animals. Even the fossil record doesn’t support this. Having studied the nuances of the Creation account in Genesis, I personally see a harmony between some things being the result of an evolutionary process and others being the intentional creation of God. The most important aspects of Creation are that God is the Creator and that creation is intentional, not accidental. And the other important aspect is that God intentionally created man and woman in His image and likeness, with a soul that comes from God and will one day return to God.
Another story in the Old Testament (and when we say story, this is a historical fact, not just a fable) is when Abraham was called upon by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham was obedient to the will of God and at the moment he was being bound and placed on the altar by his father, Isaac did not fight with his father, but submitted to his will. At the last moment, God told Abraham not to sacrifice his son and that another sacrifice would be provided.
Every one of the children of Israel would have known this story. They knew the story of a father sacrificing his son. This is important. Because when Jesus told how He was the Son of God, and that the Father was sacrificing His Son, people were already familiar with the concept. Imagine if the story of Abraham and Isaac did not happen, or was not known. The idea of a father sacrificing a son would seem unreal.
Which brings us to the story of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28. Before this time, no one had any concept of heaven as a place accessible to human beings. They probably did not have a concept of angels interacting with people either. In Genesis 28:10-22, we read the story of Jacob sleeping on the ground near Haran. And as he slept he had a dream and in the dream, he saw “a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12) At the top of the ladder, Jacob saw the Lord, who revealed Himself to Jacob as the God of Abraham and Issac, his grandfather and father. He renewed, or rather, restated His covenant with them to Jacob, about giving him the land and blessing his descendants. When Jacob awoke from the dream, he anointed the stone he had used as a pillow with oil, saying “this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and all that Thou givest me I will give the tenth to Thee.” (Genesis 28:22) This is one of many mentions in the Old Testament of the concept of the tithe, the giving of ten percent to the Lord, which is the standard which we are to give.
This story of Jacob’s dream, which would have been well known to the children of Israel, showed that there is a heaven, and that the angels are God’s messengers sent from heaven. Thus, when the story of the angels and the shepherds became known, it wouldn’t have been seen as impossible. The Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveals to us so many things about faith and life, heaven and angels, miracles and moral teachings. Most especially it reveals to us God’s plan for the salvation of the world, which began well before the Incarnation. Jacob’s dream with the angels was one step in that plan. The angels appearing to the shepherds over Bethlehem was part of the plan. Our hearing of this story again this year is also part of the plan, of God’s plan for salvation for each of us. That’s why it is important that we continue to reflect on God’s Word daily, and that we continue to focus on the figures of the Nativity icon—because in doing so, we become part of the story, we become part of the plan, and we take steps towards the destination, heaven.
For Christ draws near; prepare the way, Bethlehem! Now the dawn of salvation rises upon the nations! Prepare the manger; assemble the shepherds; Summon the Magi from Persia! Understand, host of heaven, and cry out: Christ the King of Israel, draws near! (Doxastikon from the Praises, Orthros, December 20, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: Have you ever had a dream about heaven?