The Lad­der of Jacob: Ancient Inter­pre­ta­tions of the Bib­li­cal Sto­ry of Jacob and His Children

James L. Kugel
  • Review
By – June 15, 2012

The text of the Bible may have been can­on­ized thou­sands of years ago, but that has not stopped the process of edit­ing. In fact, final­iz­ing the text may have only begun the process. This is the fas­ci­nat­ing world of ancient inter­pre­ta­tion to which James Kugel trav­els in The Lad­der of Jacob. Kugel has spent a life­time delv­ing into the mean­ing of midrash, the ear­ly inter­pre­ta­tion of the text by the rab­bis, and with this effort, he throws an extra­or­di­nary light upon the method. 

The sim­ple sto­ry of Jacob’s dream in the desert is exam­ined, and with­in a few pages, it becomes obvi­ous that there is much going on here that needs expla­na­tion. With Kugel as the guide, we are shown how ear­ly rab­bini­cal exegetes were also trou­bled by seem­ing tex­tu­al con­tra­dic­tions or ambi­gu­i­ties and used midrash to cor­rect these. Fur­ther, they didn’t usu­al­ly return to the orig­i­nal text alone, but incor­po­rat­ed pre­vi­ous inter­pre­ta­tions. Lay­er upon lay­er, stone upon stone, they built a wall around the Torah, to per­fect and pro­tect it. 

Most fas­ci­nat­ing­ly, Kugel applies his method to a Dead Sea Scrolls text, known as the Prayer of Enosh, which is usu­al­ly inter­pret­ed as being an ear­ly prayer fore­telling a mes­sian­ic Son of God. By using his care­ful ana­lyt­ic tech­nique, he is able to show con­vinc­ing­ly that this text is actu­al­ly a midrashic prayer by the patri­arch Jacob to thank God for his gifts to Israel. 

The edit­ing of the bib­li­cal text con­tin­ues, and it is help­ful to have an expert point out the nota­tion­al marks. 


Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

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