Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the "Jacob's ladder" passage, some translations say that "the Lord stood above [the stairway]" (ESV, NASB, ISV, others - this seems to be the more common translation), while others say "stood beside [Jacob]" (HCSB, NRSV, JPS, NJPS).

The commentaries I have checked say nothing about the multiple translations - they tend to focus on the angels ascending and descending. All I have found is this sermon by John Ritenbaugh:

Seeing the ladder in a dream stretching into heaven, with angels ascending and descending, not men, angels. Verse 13 is very important: "And Behold the Eternal stood above it and said..." That is as far as I need to go.

"The Eternal stood above it." I believe that is mistranslated. The Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, and the New International Version all translate that God was standing beside him. In other words, He was at the foot of the ladder not above it. He was at the foot of the ladder standing beside him. Not only do those Bibles translate it that way or have a marginal reference translating it that way, or referring to it in that way, other Bibles do as well. Standing beside him...

Note that modern NIV translates it "above". This is really just an assertion; Ritenbaugh does not explain why he believes it's a translation error. It appears he just picked the translation that best suits his intended teaching.

I assume we have conflicting translation sources - what would be the best translation?

share|improve this question

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

OP asks:

I assume we have conflicting translation sources - what would be the best translation?

Not exactly "conflicting translation sources": all the modern versions are working with the same sources, but drawing different conclusions about how that source text is best rendered. As ever, we need to set out those texts first of all, i.e. the first clause of Gen 28:13, omitting for the moment a translation of the key phrase:

[Masoretic Text] ... וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו
wᵉhinnēh YHWH niṣṣāb ʿālā(y)w ...
and behold YHWH stood [preposition ʿal] + [pronoun 3rd person, masculine, singular: it? him?] ...

[Septuagint] ὁ δὲ κύριος ἐπεστήρικτο ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς ...
ho de kurios epestērikto ep’ autēs ...
and the Lord stood (leaned?) upon it...

There are two related questions about the text bearing on the question of its translation:

  1. What is the antecedent for the pronoun: "him", that is Jacob? or "it", that is the "stairway"?1
  2. What is the semantic value of the preposition ʿal: beside Jacob? or upon (or "over") the stairs?

Some observations:

  • The Septuagint is unambiguous in its understanding of the Hebrew: the Greek translator takes it that the Lord is standing (? the choice of verb here is a bit interesting in itself -- but not our problem) upon the κλῖμαξ (klimax), or "scaling ladder". The pronoun autēs is feminine, and so is klimax. No ambiguity here.
  • The Hebrew is ambiguous, however. The preposition ʿal has a wide range of meaning, and either sense is perfectly admissible here; the "stairway" (סֻלָּם sullām from 28:12) is masculine ... and so is Jacob, so the pronoun's antecedent could be either.
  • We could look at all the uses of this verb (nṣb) + preposition ʿal,2 but that turns out not to be vastly illuminating, since meaning varies according to context. There isn't a consistent pattern that would settle the argument for Gen 28:13.
  • Gordon Wenham has some valuable comments on this problem.3 I won't go into the issue of putative sources that bears on this question for some commentators (who see a seam in the sources at just this point). But he makes the telling observation that in 28:12, there is a pair of 3rd person, masculine singular pronouns both referring to the sullām ("stairway"), not to Jacob.4 It would be very odd for the narrator to carry on into our v. 13 maintaining the same pronoun, but tacitly switching the antecedent to Jacob. Admittedly, that's not impossible -- but if the narrator wanted hearers/readers to see the Lord standing beside Jacob (rather than on the stairway), one thinks that this would have been made explicit.

So, in conclusion, context inclines me towards agreeing with Wenham, and those translations which have "upon it" (or, less likely to my mind, "over it", which again could have been disambiguated), i.e. positioned on the stairs, and not standing "beside him" (i.e., with Jacob).

P.s. Ritenbaugh was certainly mistaken in claiming there was a "translation error" (although that's OP's language, the quotation is a tad more circumspect with "believe that is mistranslated") - both translations adequately represent the Hebrew. As it happens, Rashi adopts the interpretation I reject!


Notes

  1. How to translate סֻלָּם sullām (28:12) is not our problem -- but it is more likely a stepped ramp (or "stairway") than a "ladder".
  2. Gen. 18:2; 24:13, 43; 28:13; 45:1; Exod. 17:9; 18:14; 33:21; Num. 23:6, 17; Ruth 2:5, 6; 1 Sam. 4:20; 19:20; 22:6, 7, 9, 17; 2 Sam. 18:17; 1 Ki. 4:7; Amos 7:7; 9:1.
  3. G. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Word, 1994), p. 222.
  4. Genesis 28:12 [NASB]: He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top [וְרֹאשׁוֹ] reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it [בּוֹ].
share|improve this answer
    
David : 1.) - You mention that the Septuagint uses a very interesting verb choice of word for "Stand," but don't elaborate. 2.) - The LXX's use of "ἐπεστήρικτο" is materially relevant in how this verse can be interpreted. 3.) - Because of this, I added another answer, and I would love your feedback! –  e.s. kohen Nov 26 at 19:29

It is doubtfully a question of translation sources as the Masoretic Text (commonly abbreviated MT) supplies the base of almost all English translations from Hebrew. Other translations and versions will be examined, especially ancient ones, but translators going from Hebrew start with the MT. (Obviously a translation of the Septuagint into English will use the Septuagint as the base.) The MT contains עָלָיו-"upon it" for:

28:13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, "I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on." [NET Bible]

The same preposition (עָלֶיהָ) is used later in the verse for "ground you are lying upon."

The spelling difference in the two is that the first ends with the suffix for third masculine plural ("him/it") while the second ends with the suffix for third feminine plural ("her/it").

What I can look at right now does not show if there is a marked textual variant on this verse.

Hebrew has no neutral gender. The same suffix would be used for either "over him [Jacob]" or "over it [the stairway]." And the NET dictionary notes that in a minority of cases עָל can be used for "next" or "against." Gesenius' Lexicon (skip over the Strong's at the top and go straight for the Lexicon) notes that it is a frequent preposition with a wide variety of meaning. These meanings fall within 4 classes.

  1. Upon in the physical sense (the most common)
  2. Being high over without touching
  3. The sense of neighborhood and contiguity.
  4. A sense of motion such as "He stretched his hand towards the waters."

It is the third sense that comes into play here. Gesenius notes that even this sense springs from and can be reduced to the sense of being over. It is used in Genesis 16:7 when Hagar is near a spring of water in the desert. Genesis 24:30 contains a double example of this sense:

Genesis 24:30 "And, look, he stood over the camels over the spring." [my translation]

We should imagine the scene as the servant is standing next to the camels which are lying down next to a spring of water. As the water is at ground level, anything on the ground would be over it. And for the servant to be over the camels (as the preposition primarily requires), they would have to be lying down. His head would be above theirs even though their feet are at the same level. This would also be the case with Genesis 28:13. Jacob is lying down and the Lord stands over him if the preposition is used that way. A case could be made for this as Jacob is lying down and Gesenius notes that this sense is most common with the receiver being at rest.

It's not a difference in source. It's a difference in how they understand the preposition 'al being used here.

To answer which is best, I would go with "over it [the stairway]" since the preposition is most commonly used for "over." I would also have a translation note like:

The Hebrew pronoun could refer to either Jacob or the stairway. Some translations render it such and take the preposition to mean that the Lord is standing next to but towering over Jacob.

share|improve this answer
    
Have you mis-read the Gesenius entry, Frank? The first "class" is "upon", not "above, over", and the fourth better glossed with "unto, against" (in Gesenius's handling). See also (or in preference?) Driver's extensive entry in BDB. –  Davïd Jul 22 at 21:33
    
@Davïd, thank you. That clears some things up in my mind (why the first and second were different). I plan on checking BDB. –  Frank Luke Jul 22 at 21:46

I am not as skilled as others here, but there is one thing that makes me lean towards the "beside him" translation. The angels are said to be ascending first, then descending. Now, if the LORD is at the top of the stairway, i.e. in the heavens, wouldn't you expect the angels to descend first then ascend?

I think the original Hebrew passage might hide an ambivalent meaning there: the Lord is both above the stairway, i.e. in heaven and beside Jacob, i.e. on earth. With Jesus Christ being the fulfilment of the stairway, that picture is entirely possible. And would explain the 'ascending first then descending' of the angels.

share|improve this answer

Thank you so much for this question. I had no idea where the research would take me, but wow.

Answer: The Lord was no more "above Jacob, or "standing upon a Ladder" any more than Saul was over and standing on his spear, when he was killed, (in 2 Sam 1:6).

These same passages use the same word, mistranslated as "stand/lean"

There are two false premises that have to be addressed first:

  1. Ladder is not a proper translation.
  2. Stand is not a proper translation.

BDB Reference to נצב, a well-known lexicon/dictionary, and also recognizes the alternate connotation of נצב, to mean "well-settled, firmly against/upon / stationed," in lieu of the the "regular meaning of stand."

Revising and Improving these translations lead to a very different understanding of this passage.

  • Specifically, in classical translation, the reader is left with the sense that "God is High and lifted up OVER this "Ladder."

However, with the revised translations of these two words, the reader is left with the sense of a personal encounter with God, similar to that of Moses speaking with God face to face, or Abraham at Mamre :

  • The image that these words actually imply is that "God/Lord/etc" is upon, or reclining against, or settled upon, a "ramp", (certainly not a ladder as we know it), that was "ascended" to reach heaven, like ascending a mountain.

The Linguistic Basis for this Interpretation: ...


A Ramp, or Enbankment -- not a "Ladder"

In Hebrew Scripture, "סלם / Ladder" only occurs once, requiring analysis from the Septuagint, secular usages of this word, and Aramaic translations:

Gen. 28:12, NASB - He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Gen. 28:12, WLC - ויחלם והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאכי אלהים עלים וירדים בו׃

Gen. 28:12, LXX - καὶ ἐνυπνιάσθη καὶ ἰδοὺ κλίμαξ ἐστηριγμένη ἐν τῇ γῇ ἧς ἡ κεφαλὴ ἀφικνεῖτο εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ θεοῦ ἀνέβαινον καὶ κατέβαινον ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς

Histories, Plb. 1.22 - περιετίθετο δ᾽ αὐτῷ κλῖμαξ ἐπικαρσίαις σανίσι καθηλωμένη, πλάτος μὲν ποδῶν τεττάρων, τὸ δὲ μῆκος ἓξ ὀργυιῶν. [6] τὸ δὲ τρῆμα τοῦ σανιδώματος ἦν παράμηκες καὶ περιέβαινε περὶ τὸν στῦλον μετὰ τὰς πρώτας εὐθέως τῆς κλίμακος δύ᾽ ὀργυιάς.

Histories, Plb 1.22 - and a gangway made with cross planks nailed together, four feet wide and thirty-six feet long, was made to swing round it. Now the hole in the gangway was oval shaped, and went round the pole twelve feet from one end of the gangway, which had also a wooden railing running down

In Josephus, "κλίμακας" can connote a literal ladder, but it is most certainly used, as in the above references, to indicate a very massive geological "Ramp," (http://classic.net.bible.org/dictionary.php?word=Ladder%20Of%20Tyre).

Josephus, J. AJ 12.8.3 - And Judas came upon the city in the morning; and when he found that the enemy were making an assault upon the walls, and that some of them brought ladders

J. AJ 12.338 - ἤδη τοῖς τείχεσι προσβεβληκότας τοὺς πολεμίους καὶ τοὺς μὲν κλίμακας, ὥστε ἀναβαίνειν ἐπ᾽ αὐτά, τοὺς δὲ μηχανήματα προσφέροντας, κελεύσας

Josephus, J. AJ 13.5.4 - and appointed his brother Simon to be the general over the forces, from the Ladder of Tyre unto Egypt.

J. AJ 12.338 - τὸν ἀδελφὸν δ᾽ αὐτοῦ Σίμωνα στρατηγὸν τῆς στρατιᾶς ἀπὸ κλίμακος τῆς Τυρίων ἕως Αἰγύπτου καθίστησιν.


The "Regular" connotation of "Stand," does not apply--at all

Note: The sense of "Stand" within the meaning of "it was a standing pool of water," is appropriate--but certainly not as in: "a man standing".

In Hebrew, there is a specific word to imply "a man standing", (עמד)--but this word is not used in this context of Joseph's Dream.

Instead, a completely different verb choice is used--נצב:

First, this construction in Genesis is very similar to the one in Amos, and again the Septuagint/LXX chooses the same Greek word in Translation, (which does not mean "Stand"):

Amos 9:1, NASB - I saw the Lord standing beside the altar, and He said,

Amos 9:1, WLC - ראיתי את־אדני נצב על־המזבח ויאמר הך הכפתור

Amos 9:1, LXX - εἶδον τὸν κύριον ἐφεστῶτα ἐπὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου

Lamentations using "נצב" to indicate, "Firmly Placed," (which is unfortunate, in this context).

Lam. 2:4, NASB - He has bent His bow like an enemy; He has set His right hand like an adversary ... Lam. 2:4, WLC -דרך קשתו כאויב נצב ימינו כצר ויהרג כל מחמדי־עין באהל בת־ציון שפך כאש חמתו Lam. 2:4, LXX - ἐνέτεινεν τόξον αὐτοῦ ὡς ἐχθρός ἐστερέωσεν δεξιὰν αὐτοῦ ὡς ὑπεναντίος

Genesis also uses נצב to indicate "Well-Settled, Heaped, Firmly Ground":

Gen. 33:20, NASB - Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

Gen. 33:20, WLC - ויצב־שם מזבח ויקרא־לו אל אלהי ישראל׃

Gen. 33:20 - καὶ ἔστησεν ἐκεῖ θυσιαστήριον καὶ ἐπεκαλέσατο τὸν θεὸν Ισραηλ

When Genesis wants to convey, "Stand," in the regular meaning, it does--unambiguously:

Gen. 24:31, NASB - And he said, “Come in, blessed of the Lord! Why do you stand outside since I have prepared the house, and a place for the camels?”

Gen. 24:31, WLC - ויאמר בוא ברוך יהוה למה תעמד בחוץ ואנכי פניתי הבית ומקום לגמלים׃

In Juxtaposition, Genesis intentionally uses "נצב" to imply something else:

Gen 28:13, NASB - And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.

Gen 28:13, WLC - והנה יהוה נצב עליו ויאמר אני יהוה אלהי אברהם אביך ואלהי יצחק הארץ אשר אתה שכב עליה לך אתננה ולזרעך׃

Important to note is the Greek verb doesn't come close to the regular understanding of "Stand."

Gen 28:13, LXX - ὁ δὲ κύριος ἐπεστήρικτο ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς καὶ εἶπεν ἐγὼ κύριος ὁ θεὸς Αβρααμ τοῦ πατρός σου καὶ ὁ θεὸς Ισαακ μὴ φοβοῦ ἡ γῆ ἐφ᾽ ? ἧς σὺ καθεύδεις ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς σοὶ δώσω αὐτὴν καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου

And again:

Gen. 24:43, NASB - behold, I am standing by the spring, and may it be that the maiden who comes out to draw, and to whom I say, “Please let me drink a little water from your jar”;

Gen. 24:43, WLC - הנה אנכי נצב על־עין המים והיה העלמה היצאת לשאב ואמרתי אליה השקיני־נא מעט־מים מכדך׃

Gen. 24:43, LXX - ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐφέστηκα ἐπὶ τῆς πηγῆς τοῦ ὕδατος καὶ αἱ θυγατέρες τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῆς πόλεως ἐξελεύσονται ὑδρεύσασθαι ὕδωρ καὶ ἔσται ἡ παρθένος ᾗ ἂν ἐγὼ εἴπω πότισόν με μικρὸν ὕδωρ ἐκ τῆς ὑδρίας σου

Saul was not "Standing," but rather "Collapsed, firmly against, or Supported Upon":

2 Sam 1:6, NASB - The young man who told him said, “By chance I happened to be on Mount Gilboa, and behold, Saul was leaning on his spear. And behold, the chariots and the horsemen pursued him closely.

2 Sam 1:6, LXX - καὶ εἶπεν τὸ παιδάριον τὸ ἀπαγγέλλον αὐτῷ περιπτώματι περιέπεσον ἐν τῷ ὄρει τῷ Γελβουε καὶ ἰδοὺ Σαουλ ἐπεστήρικτο ἐπὶ τὸ δόρυ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἰδοὺ τὰ ἅρματα καὶ οἱ ἱππάρχαι συνῆψαν αὐτῷ

2 Sam 1:6, WLC - ויאמר הנער ׀ המגיד לו נקרא נקריתי בהר הגלבע והנה שאול נשען על־חניתו והנה הרכב ובעלי הפרשים הדבקהו׃

Comparative Literature affirms that the Greek word, "ἐπε στήρικτο" used instead of "נצב" certainly does not mean "stand" in the regular sense of the word:

These uses indicate confirm the sense of a very "Well-Settled" position, not moving, firm, (just as Saul was against his spear).

Hom. Il. 16.111 - but every way evil was heaped upon evil. πάντῃ δὲ κακὸν κακῷ ἐστήρικτο.

Histories, Plb 1.26 - the apex of which was open, the base compact and strong;

τὸ δὲ πρὸς τῇ βάσει στερεόν, τὸ δὲ σύμπαν ἐνεργὸν καὶ πρακτικόν, ἅμα δὲ καὶ δυσδιάλυτον.

Histories, Plb 3.79 - But after a careful inquiry as to what part of the road was firm or boggy

Ἀννίβας δ᾽ ἐπιμελῶς ἐξητακὼς τεναγώδεις καὶ στερεοὺς ὑπάρχοντας

Histories, Plb. 6.23 - Some of the pila are thick, some fine. Of the thicker, some are round with the diameter of a palm's length, others are a palm square.

εἰσιν οἱ μὲν παχεῖς, οἱ δὲ λεπτοί. τῶν δὲ στερεωτέρων οἱ μὲν στρογγύλοι παλαιστιαίαν ἔχουσι τὴν διάμετρον, οἱ δὲ

share|improve this answer
2  
Much industry, but (I'm afraid) not much illumination for the Question as posed (there is illumination of other kinds!) -- IMO, of course. (1) I share your sense about "ladder"; I make brief comment on this in my footnote 1. But sullām is a hapax, as you note, and piling up references for κλῖμαξ does not take us very far: we only find out more about κλῖμαξ, not about sullām. We need other kinds of evidence to get a sharper picture of sullām. / ... cont'd –  Davïd Nov 26 at 20:47
    
(2) Your argument about "standing" is fatally flawed. The idiom to attend to is נִצָּב עַל, and in spite of your noting the correct verb, you then pick up the (odd) LXX handling, find that Greek verb in a different [LXX] text (2 Sam 1:6), then explain the Gen 28:13 meaning on the basis of a completely different and unrelated Hebrew verb (not n-ṣ-b + prep. ʿal, but š-ʿ-n). That simply doesn't work! / Glad you enjoyed the research, but it doesn't really bear on the question about divine location in Gen 28:13. –  Davïd Nov 26 at 20:49
    
@David - 1.) - I agree with the problem concerning סלם/Sulam. I am currently working on an Aramaic Lexicon / Interlinear with Onkelos and Yonesos, and withheld that analysis here; - 2.) - However, all that being said, the Septuagint's interpretation of the Hebrew סלם as κλῖμαξ is reasonable evidence by itself. - 3.) - I do think the most meaningful analysis of this would be an Affirmation, or Disproof from the Aramaic. –  e.s. kohen Nov 26 at 20:51
    
@David: Regarding "Stand," - 1.) - נִצָּב, ἐπεστήρικτο, and נשען, all arguably connote the same thing, (well-settled, in a heap, collapsed against, resting upon, etc); 2.) - I can cite more parallel's between the three, -- but, 4.) - I think I have adequately made the case that the "regular" meaning of "Stand," does not--at all--apply in this context--making further examinations moot ... 5.) - No matter how you spin those three words, none connote a "man standing." 6.) - Perhaps you could start another question, and we can explore that more? I am not sure it is necessary here. –  e.s. kohen Nov 26 at 21:04
1  
At the risk of fuelling this beyond what is warranted, your ##1 and 5 are simply wrong, implying #4 also off the mark, and #2 moot (!). Please see BDB on נִצָּב; cf. HALOT, which gives "1. place oneself... 2. be positioned, stand...". | Septuagint's interpretation of the Hebrew סלם as κλῖμαξ is reasonable evidence by itself : of course it is, but once noted, piling up Greek references gets you no further. | HTH. –  Davïd Nov 27 at 8:34

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.