Under Figs and Upon the Ladders: John 1:50-51

The first chapter of the Gospel of John closes with Nathanael’s proclamation of Jesus’ identity: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49).

Yet, Jesus’ response is rather odd, juxtaposing Jesus’ vision of Nathanael under the fig tree with a strange allusion to Jacob’s vision at Bethel:

And Jesus answered him, because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:50-51)

However, when this passage is read in light of rabbinic midrash, Jesus’ comment is both startling and enlightening. According to the rabbis, the story of Jacob’s vision of the ladder is strange. In Genesis 28:12-16, Jacob “…dreamed that there was a ladder set up on earth, and its top reached to heaven and behold, the angles of God were ascending and descending on it.” The rabbis offer an explanation for this strange ascending and descending. Literally in Hebrew, the angels are ascending and descending “on it.” The word bo can also be translated “on him” or “because of him” [i.e. the angels are going up and down the ladder because of Jacob].

R. Hiyya the Great and R. Yannai [disagreed]: one said they went up and down [bo] on the ladder; the other said they went up and down [bo] for Jacob…as it is said, “Israel, by you am I made glorious” (Isa. 49:3)—you are the one whose portrait is carved on high. They went up to see his portrait, then down to see him sleeping. (Genesis Rabba 68:12).

Thus, the angels are making this strange, repetitive journey to compare Jacob’s human face with the divine portrait of him, which according to Isaiah makes glorious [ i.e. beautifies or decorates] the heavens. The idea of Jacob having a heavenly portrait is widely attributed in rabbinic texts. For example, it shows up in Numbers Rabba (Bemidbar, 4:1), where God tells Jacob that he is so precious to him that Jacob’s portrait (‘iqonin) has fixed on the heavenly throne (See also Genesis Rabba 78:3). This angelic marveling of Jacob’s face also shows up in both Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and in a brief psuedepigraphon called “The Ladder.”Blake_jacobsladder

It is this midrashic tradition of a heavenly portrait that Jesus alludes to in the Gospel of John. John specifies that the angels are “ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” This is clearly a exegetical move in line with the midrashic tradition of reading bo not as “on the ladder” but as “because of Jacob.”[1]

Thus, Jesus is affirming Nathaniel’s assertion that he is “the son of God, the King of Israel, but he is also pealing back the heavens so to speak. Nathanael was astonished that Jesus “saw him under the fig tree” and because of Jesus’ mysterious ability to see through time and space. Jesus’ ability to see Nathanael inspires his belief in Jesus’ messianic identity. However, Jesus assures Nathanael that he will see “greater things than these.” For Jesus is not merely the long-awaited human, Davidic-messiah (i.e the “son of God”). He is something more. Like Jacob, Jesus has two faces- human and divine. If the angels journeyed up and down the ladder to marvel at the earthly face of Jacob and compare it to his heavenly image (‘iqonin). How much more will the angels marvel over the opposite: the heavenly face of Jesus carved into the face of man?

Great things indeed.


[1] For the full analysis of these texts and the idea of Jacob’s heavenly image see James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, (HarperCollinsPublishers: New York, 1990), 113-115.



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