Late in 1971, the band Led Zeppelin released one of the most successful rock songs of all time: Stairway to Heaven. Written by Robert Plant, many have contended that the song had some nefarious, sinister implications. A more sober and circumspect analysis concluded that the song is really an allegory critiquing greed and materialism and scolding a society that is rooted in the notion that a path to heaven can be acquired by money alone. Twenty years after its release, Stairway to Heaven had played on American radio stations just under three million times. If all those times played were put back-to-back, it would amount to some forty-four years of continuous playing. In 1991, KLSK, an Albuquerque, New Mexico radio station actually aired Stairway to Heaven for 24 hours non-stop.
Of course, the origin of the stairway to heaven is Jacob’s dream. But the popularity of the song and of the idea behind it is the human yearning for the transcendental: what lies in the vast and eternal realm of the divine. Human beings long to bridge the gap between the earth below and heaven above. But what Jacob learns through his dream is that the ladder or stairway is neither of his own construction nor for his use. He is the beneficiary of the ladder (it is a highway for his protecting angels) but not its engineer. Jacob cannot ascend the ladder, nor should he need to. He can commune with God while still on earth.
Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it this way. “Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enable us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine” (Who Is Man? pp. 88-9). Human beings need not ascend to God in order to be with God. The sensitive soul can feel the intimations of God on earth. All human beings need do is be open to seeing the residue of the divine in all things. Indeed, Jacob awakes to this very realization. He exclaims (Genesis 28:17): “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven!” Heaven is a fine destination, but God resides here on earth.