This text is generally recognized as one of the "pillars" in the Jacob story. It depicts Jacob on a journey back to the "home country" to escape Esau's wrath. Staying the night in the open country, he has a remarkable dream in which he sees a stairway or ramp (not a ladder!) that extends from earth to heaven. This scene may be compared to the stairways attached to temple towers in the ancient Near East; they were considered microcosms of the world, with the top of the tower representing heaven, the dwelling place of the gods. Priests traversed the stairway providing communication between heaven and earth. This story is a polemic against such an understanding. In the dream God speaks God's own word, indeed a string of personal and communal promises, and is personally present with Jacob.
Dreams are an important vehicle of divine revelation in several Genesis texts (see 20; 28:10-22; 31:1-3; 37; 40-41). Unlike in our post-Freudian understandings, dreams were not thought to be a witness to a dreamer's psychological state, working out stress, anxiety, or subconscious fears. Dreams were believed to be a means in and through which actual divine encounters took place. When Jacob refers to this event, he speaks of God's presence "in this place" and not in a dream; elsewhere too he speaks of divine appearance and never of dreams (35:1-9; 48:3)
The text demonstrates that God's transcendence is not compromised by closeness; God indeed comes near to Jacob and speaks a long list of promises to him.
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder* set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him* and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed* in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. 16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, Surely the Lord is in this placeand I did not know it! 17And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel;* but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20Then Jacob made a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21so that I come again to my fathers house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be Gods house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org