A Ladder to the Stars
Who knew that “Jack and the Beanstalk” was a parable about finding treasure in heaven? After all, Jack was a bit of a rascal and none too bright, trading the family cow for purported magic beans. It turns out the beans were as advertised, sprouting a beanstalk that reached to the heavens. There was indeed treasure to be found, but it was guarded by a man-eating giant with acute olfactory powers. “Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!” the giant thundered, stealing a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear.* (My kids used to squeal with terror and delight when I came to this part of the story, as I played the role of the giant, growling fiercely and gnashing my teeth.) Jack, of course, made off with the giant’s swag in three successive forays to the giant’s castle, collecting a bag of gold coins, a goose that lay golden eggs and a harp that played itself. He then finished off the giant by chopping down the beanstalk while the ogre was climbing down after him.
As folk tales go, this one is of relatively recent vintage, dating only from the early 19th century, but it has elements in common with stories that are much older. The beanstalk is what folklorists call an axis mundi (“center of the world”), which links heaven and earth. An example found in many stories is the so-called world tree, with its roots in the underworld and its branches reaching up to the sky. Heaven was generally regarded as close to earth, so gods and men were able to travel freely between the two by means of some natural or man-made conveyance. In the Tower of Babel story, found in the Book of Genesis, an attempt by a primordial people to build a tower to heaven is thwarted by a God who objects to their overreaching. In another biblical narrative, the patriarch Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder, one of numerous such stories from every part of the world involving a ladder to heaven. Jacob awakens from his dream but treats it as real. "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it," he cries. He renames the place Bethel (“House of God”), which for a time becomes the center of the world for ancient Israelites.
Most of these stories are old; many of them refer to lost epochs when heaven was within reach and men still mingled with gods. Mortals who penetrated celestial realms came back with treasure, knowledge or power. The broad geographical reach of tales with similar themes suggests they are archetypal, meaning that they are imprinted deep within the human psyche. They contain spiritual elements that can’t really be expressed any other way than by placing them in another world, up in the clouds. How do you connect to this higher realm? By climbing a tree, a ladder, a tower, even a beanstalk.
But why are such stories told and retold by diverse cultures all over the world? Clearly they address a deep-seated need to find this higher connection, even if it is now considered out of reach. The alignment of heaven and earth through the coming of God’s kingdom is a powerful theme in both Judaism and Christianity. An itinerant preacher emerged from the wilderness of Palestine in the first century CE to proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” His followers expected him to restore Israel’s former greatness under King David or to end history altogether. But this latter-day Joshua, whom we know by his Greek name of Jesus, had an altogether different mission in mind. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and raised people from the dead, then asked his disciples to do the same. “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do,” Jesus told them. When they fell short, he chided them, “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."
We live in an age when stories of miracles carry no more weight than “Jack and the Beanstalk” – or worse, they occupy the rarified realm of pious truths that have nothing to do with real life. And yet these stories persist, which suggests either that humanity is infinitely gullible or that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of truth. What does it mean to be made in God’s image and to have dominion over creation, as our founding myths tell us? Perhaps this is what Jesus was trying to show us when he insisted that his disciples do what he did. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven," he said to his disciple Peter. What an extraordinary thing to say! It’s not just that we have the power by faith to move mountains but heaven as well.
*In Act III, Scene 4 of King Lear, Edgar says, “Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man.”