Jacob's Ladder

A Meditation upon Jacob's Ladder

   

A staggered leaf arrangement gives Polemonium caeruleum its common name, Jacob's Ladder, for which we have growing in our garden the cultivar 'Snow & Sapphires.' Even though no actual myths of Jacob's Ladder are specifically attached to its naming, nevertheless when I observe this plant, I am moved to meditations on the legends to which the common name refers.

In Torah, we are told the splendid tale of Jacob who layed his head upon a stone to rest, & dreamed of a stairway connecting Earth & Heaven, at a location where G-d's first temple was built.

The Bethel Temple was centuries later abandoned because it had always remained simultaneously sacred to the Goddess Anath (whose shrine archeologists have shown was indeed within Yahweh's temple compound), & the type of rigid yahwists who later rose to power condemned Bethel for "harlotries" meaning Goddess worship, so that Bethel was abandoned as Yahweh's most sacred city.

There are mysteries in the manner by which Bethel was the most sacred place in the ancient world of the Jews, yet condemned by prophets as a place of pollution offensive to later notions of monotheism. The Jews of Elephantine in Egypt came from Bethel, & at Elephantine the Bethel cult outlasted the Jerusalem Temple by a few centuries. At Elephantine there was practiced an unusual degree of egaletarianism between the sexes, & Yahweh had a bride, whose name was Anathyahweh, or Anathbethel.

The Bethel cult as practiced at Elephantine was certainly far closer to the original nature of Judaism. Many would be surprised how much of it survives to this day in Hassidism & in Kabbalah & in a few reform synogogues inspired by Hassidism but more liberal, dominated by concepts of the Divine Shekhinah, or female presence of God, as ruler of this world & of our souls. According to the Book of Jubilees, Jacob was assisted by Rebekah & her nurse Deborah in establishing the original shrine at Bethel [Jub 31:30], & feminine associations with the Bethel cult are exceedingly numerous.

In kabbalah, Jacob's Ladder is another name of the sephiroth tree with its divine emanations of God, or sephiroths, who come dangerously close to being a pantheon. Lowermost of these emanations was Malkhuth the Lower Shekhinah. Her name, Malkhuth, means "Kingdom," but by a close pun also means "Queen" or "Great Lady." In her averse or polluted form she was the demoness Lilith.

Malkhuth was the final emanation because that which comes last rules all that comes before. Upon Her the Tree is sustained, & the primary reason for the Tree's existence is to reveal the Presence that is the Divine Shekhinah. It was this very Shekhinah, by the Greek name Sophia, who rescued Jacob from Esau, revealed to Jacob the sephirotic ladder of angels, & increased the fruits of Jacob's toil [Wisdom of Solomon 10:9-12].

In her polluted as Lilith, she remained nevertheless a light-bringer capable of leading the seeker toward the path to the divine realm. She was simultaneously the source of salvation, & a temptress who put the soul at risk, for her house is on the halfway point along the road to Sheol [Pr 5:5; 7:27]. A poorly enlightened soul will not know one road from the other. Her "ways" or "paths" are commonly plural [Pr 3:17; 4:11; 7:25; Wis Sol 9:18] because the road to Sheol is winding & twisting so that at every turn a fool can be tested. The fool is provided options, & might at any step along the way select salvation, & discover in that moment the Harlot was all along the Kingdom. Even in the orgiastic High Place groves She has sent beautiful maidens [Pr 9:2] so that even in the midst of error it remained possible to transform an ignorant physical bliss into a perfect mystical union.

This is why Lilith is said to be the first rung of Jacob's Ladder. A soul can approach Lilith with a pure & incorruptible spirit & find through her the first steps to enlightenment, even though she will pose riddles & offer temptations that could just as easily destroy. Even a soul that has already doomed itself by ignorance can achieve a sudden enlightenment, for through Malkhuth it is never too late to discover perfection.

This is not just a medieval to modern mystical interpretation of the demonic realm as an extension of God's absoluteness. It is a very ancient idea. One of the Babylonian titles of Ishtar was kilili-mushirtu, "she that leans out of the window," which is to say "she who beckons from the house of harlots," for Ishtar would bring hope of salvation even to such sinners who can be encouraged to attend to the care of their own souls by no other call.

Even more apropos is the nature of Hecate who is light-bringer often depicted holding a torch, & according to Hesiod was the All-Mother whom even Zeus cannot command. In her maidenly aspect, Persephone, the Queen of Hell is loving & beautiful & concerned with the wellbeing of her subjects. This, rather than a merely corrupting power, is the true nature of Lilith, for God in being Absolute is also Lilith, & even that of God's creation which appears corrupt cannot really be so, since it is eternally a part of God, whose most accessible component is the motherly, encouraging, protective Divine Shekhinah.

This feminine duality of temptress & enlightener is firmly rooted in Torah, & is reflected in the nature of the sister-matriarchs who married Jacob, i.e., the spiritually perfect Leah, & the trickster Rachel who worshipped teraphim & practiced the magical arts of the mandrake. Leah was the celestial purity of Binah the Upper Shekhinah, while Rachel was the earthier Malkhuth the Lower Shekhinah [Zohar I:153b; II:126b]. According to zoharic teaching, the reason Rachel died young was because, upon the birth of the twelfth tribe, the Shekhinah took Rachel's place in the world Rachel had completed [I:158b].

Jacob initially sought earthly Rachel to be his wife, rather than supernal Leah, because earthly things are what every seeker first notices. He bought Rachel with seven years of his labor [Gn 29:18; Hos 12:12], a year for each of the seven lower sephiroth among whom Rachel is Queen. Each year brought Jacob closer & closer to the supernal Leah who he had at first failed to notice because she dwelt in the upper realm. In the seventh year, on the wedding night, heavenly Leah descended to him in the darkness of the inner chamber of the tent [Gn 29:23].

There is a myth of Rachel assending to God's throne specifically to speak in behalf of humanity, against whom God had grown wrathful. Essentially the same myth is elsewhere told of Malkhuth the Lower Shekhinah, who assends to the level of Tiphereth on each Sabbath for connubial relations & to bring God (Tiphereth) news of the world. God has no direct news of the Earth for the very reason that he fretted what he might do against sinful humanity in a moment of wrath, & might break his own covenant never again to destroy the world. Hence in the Holy Zohar, the Shekhinah receives all God's legions of angels, all his weapons, power, & authority, & none may come to Him without first coming to Her. The Lower Shekhinah being motherly was capable of loving even those of us who are complete stinkpots, & even if we are so awful we pollute her into the form of Lilith, she would never destroy us utterly as God might.

Rachel, or Malkhuth, ascends & descends by Jacob's Ladder; while Leah descends & ascends. The Holy Zohar of Saphed would thus make Leah the spiritual realm, & Rachel the sensual realm [Zoh I:153b; II:126b]. In the day of Philo of Alexandria, it was expressed similarly in that Leah, "the woman endowed with all virtue" [Philo: De Migratione Abrahami 18] was the rational soul whereas Rachel was the animal soul; the former educates us by her example, the latter avoids hindrance by instinct [Philo: Preliminary Studies 6]. So too the semitic goddess Asherah was a Great Mother & lover of humanity, but Anath was a Huntress & slayer in addition to being the source of all eroticism & fruitfulness of humanity & nature.

It is no concidence that Leah's name can be interpretted to mean "a wild cow" & that Asherah had the form of a wild cow, shaking her horned head to protect her offspring. Nor is it coincidence that her name can also be read li'at or "Mistress," the same as the semitic All-mother Elath or Allatu (in Greece, Leto, mother of sunlight & moonlight). When Leah said, "Women will call me Ishruni (Happy)" [Gn 30:13], she in essence reveals that she is Asherah [Zohar I:49a]. Further evidence of this can be found when scripture tells us Jacob had seventy children [Ex 1:5], comparable to an Ugartic text which says Asherah & El bore seventy children, the major divinities.

Both Leah & Rachel were equally essential for redemption, for without them there would be no route open to paradise. When we are taught that Rachel & Leah were "two beams running from end to end of the world" [Genesis Rabbah 70:15] there is no question but that they are the substance of Jacob's Ladder. They are the two beams which sustained the rungs, representing upward flowing energy & downward flowing energy, the exchange between Earth & Heaven that sustains both.

As a gardener I am given to such ponderings as I stroll amidst the flowers, whether or not they are named for sacred things. When in particular observing the beauty of Jacob's Ladder growing in the garden, it is very easy to suspect there really are divine agents abroad, that paradise is real, for we can capture glimpses of a greater perfection by observing Nature, which like the matriarch Rachel is an accessible & beautiful & loving reflection of the imperceivable Spirit.

   



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