Read Genesis 35
The sordid story of Genesis 34 reveals several things. The depravity of human nature is put on display, even coming to expression in the lives of God’s covenant people. There is also the constant lure of temptation that comes to God’s people to blend into the surrounding culture and thus lose their distinctive nature and calling as those who are identified as salt and light. But the chapter also shows us how God could be at work for the good of His people: the shocking massacre of the men of Shechem now puts a fear into Jacob that causes him to want to move on and move away from his settlement by Shechem.
Time to move (35:1)
It is God who calls Jacob back to Bethel. Jacob may want to move on, but it is God who puts the matter clearly before him. God sends Jacob back to a very significant spot: Bethel, where God had appeared to him. Covenant history occurred there, and Jacob must remember that, now with his whole family.
In this chapter we come full circle. God commands Jacob to return to Bethel with his family, and in this way, God moves His covenant family away from the area that had become dangerous due to the events of Genesis 34. At Bethel God had appeared to Jacob in a dream when he was fleeing from his brother in Genesis 28. He will appear to him again (verses 9–13).
Jacob prepares his household (35:2–5)
Jacob must first prepare his family to meet with God. If Jacob appeared somewhat passive in Genesis 34, here he takes the leadership with his household. This includes the removal of all the “foreign gods” from their midst. Earlier we had read of Rachel taking her father’s teraphim and then hiding them in her saddlebag (Gen. 31:19). But apparently she was not alone in having superstitious beliefs and pagan charms with her: other family members and household servants have them as well! Jacob calls them “foreign” gods. What does this mean? These are not the gods that have revealed anything to their forefathers. False gods have nothing to say. It is the living God who called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees, and it is the living God who reaffirmed His covenant promises again and again to Jacob’s grandfather and father. All other gods are “foreign,” that is, they come from somewhere else. They are, in fact, no gods at all!
Jacob requires his household to change the clothing they were wearing and to surrender even their earrings. These get buried under a particular oak tree. Read Deuteronomy 7:5 and 7:25. Idols of foreign gods were to be smashed and, if possible, burned in fire. Physical remains must be removed lest our hearts—which can be “factories” that manufacture idols—be led astray.
We will see a similar kind of preparation when Israel comes to meet the LORD at Mt. Sinai (cf. Exodus 19:10,14). They must purify themselves and bathe to be ceremonial clean, for God is holy, a consuming fire, and He cannot even look upon sin. This is still true today. Thus we absolutely need a pure and spotless Mediator to present us before this holy God. We need the sinless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
The terror of God subdues the surrounding people as Jacob’s family makes its way to Bethel. This is an important point: it is not the case that the Canaanites are afraid, first of all, of Jacob’s fierce sons. The fear in their hearts comes from the Lord God. Later on, God will do a similar thing with Israel’s enemies as they go to the Promised Land (cf. Exodus 23:27). Rahab will tell the two spies that fear had fallen upon the people of Jericho: their hearts “melted” (Joshua 2:9,11,24).
Jacob builds an altar at Bethel (35:6-7)
Genesis records several times and places where altars were built (see Gen. 12:7; 13:4,18). God’s people recognized that they needed to come before the living and holy God to worship Him. Likely they would come with an appropriate gift, bringing a sacrifice in the form of a perfect animal as their substitute, one that would die in their place. This would all become formalized in the Mosaic covenant.
Yet the realities of the gospel work of Jesus Christ and His message for sinners were already in place in the Old Testament period, even if these truths were not yet worked out as they would be in the more sophisticated practices described in the Mosaic covenant (e.g., Leviticus 1- 7). Bethel is “God’s house,” since the true God had made Himself known at this place. Jacob’s altar is a physical signpost of the presence of God in His people and in His world.
God repeats redemptive promises – again! (35:9–13)
Truly we have come full circle! God appears, i.e., some kind of visible presence occurs that Jacob could see. He had seen God in a dream, and at Peniel he had wrestled with God. Furthermore, God’s words here recall His covenantal promises made in Genesis 17, 22, and 28:13ff. He pronounces a blessing with the focus upon children and land. These have been a major thread that has run through the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob. Children (seed) and land have been the two “pillar promises” of the covenant of grace in the narratives of the patriarchs. Those children today include God’s people in the whole world, and that land of Canaan was only an anticipation for all the earth that God now claims for His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Children and land, as well as blessing and protection, are the key promises that God not only makes, but He also fulfills through Jesus Christ and by the work of Jesus Christ.
God also confirms the name change that He made when Jacob had wrestled with the mysterious, divine Stranger at Peniel. Jacob has become Israel (meaning “God struggles,” or, “he struggles with God”). Over all these years, God has built up the man Jacob and His covenant people. God shows Himself to be gracious and incredibly patient with a man whose life has been somewhat spotty and unattractive to any observer. God has wrestled with this man (even physically!), and He is not finished with Jacob or with his family. He is longsuffering with the people of His church because we, God’s children, so often fall so far short of God’s glory. This is going to be a history-long wrestling match. Yet by grace, God’s people will win since Jesus Christ has already won the victory for them on Calvary’s Cross and on Easter morning.
Jacob responds to God’s words (35:14–15)
Jacob, in turn, answers God’s appearance here in much the same manner as he had responded in Genesis 28, over 20 years earlier. He sets up a stone pillar and anoints it with a drink offering and oil. This consecration is one way to mark out a kind of “signpost” for God’s Kingdom in this world. Canaan does not belong to the wicked Canaanites, though they live there for the moment; it really belongs to God and the people that He allows to live with Him. It is, after all, the Promised Land, territory that God owns and He graciously chooses to give to His people.
The same is true today: this world is turned against the true God, even though He remains in sovereign control. In fact, Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth, according to Matthew 28:18ff. Christians also set up signposts that point the way to a new reality! Therefore, Christians want schools to be genuinely Christian and businesses to operate according to Biblical principles. We work for genuine justice in public affairs, and we seek peace and reconciliation in our society. The world must see the “signposts” of the coming Kingdom of God.
In the end at least two names are locked in place: Jacob is “Israel,” the father of the people with that name. Plus, Luz has been re-identified as Bethel, “the house of God,” one of many places where the living God came to His people to repeat the promise of the holy gospel for people who needed to hear it again.
Genesis 35 records some further travels of this covenant household. They move on from Bethel to Ephrath (verse 16). Then Israel (note the use of this name!) moves again toward Migdal Eder (verse 21). He will also come to Hebron (the older name being Kiriath-arba) around the time when his father Isaac passes away.
This chapter records the death of several people:
1. Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse dies, and she is buried under the oak below Bethel. It is not exactly clear why we are told this. Has Rebekah died already? Did this (presumably elderly) nurse come to live with Jacob? We cannot be completely certain.
2. Rachel dies while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (“son of the right hand,” or, “the south”). There is some irony in her death. She at one time said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I die!” When Joseph was born, she had hoped for another son. So now, when her second son is born, she dies in childbirth. But Rachel dies near Ephrath, i.e., Bethlehem (Ruth 1:2; Micah 5:2), the village where our Lord Jesus Christ would be born, the One who would conquer death once and for all. Benjamin is the only son born in the Promised Land; the others all born in Paddan-Aram (Mesopotamia).
3. Isaac dies. We might say, “finally dies,” since when he sensed his death approaching back in Genesis 27, that was at least two decades earlier. Reports of his imminent demise were greatly exaggerated! He had remained living in the southern region of the Promised Land. His age at death (180 years) was actually five years longer than his own father Abraham’s age at death. There is a beautiful statement in verse 29, not to be missed, when we read that both twin sons, Esau and Jacob, join together to bury their aged father. Peace between the brothers seems to be holding.
These are all deaths in the Promised Land. Isaac is gathered to his family. Believers have the confidence that while we live, our life is defined by Christ, for Christ. Dying is never loss for the believer; it is gain (Phil. 1:21). God is the “God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” See Matthew 22:29-32 (paralleled in Mark 12:26,27 and Luke 20:37,38). Though now they are physically dead, to our living God, they are alive.
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid- America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.
Lesson 14: Points to ponder and discuss
1. At the end of Genesis 34, Jacob was concerned about his reputation becoming a stench to his neighbors, and he feared for his safety and that of his family. What does our society today think of the Christian church and of Christian people? What testimony do our words and lives give to the world around us? Should we even care what opinion the world has of Christianity?
2. The “foreign gods,” superstitious charms, etc., had to be removed, even buried, before Jacob’s household could meet the LORD. Today published horoscopes are still with us, psychic readers do business in our cities, and witchcraft is still practiced in North America. Does this affect Christians you know? What explains this, especially in areas that supposedly have had a Christian heritage?
3. At Bethel, God repeated His gospel promises of children and land to Jacob. Why did Jacob need to hear this again? How many times did he hear it during his life? Why do Christian churches need to preach the gospel, and why do Christians need to hear it again? Can church members ever become tired of hearing that “old, old story?” If they do, why is that the case?
4. Rachel dies as she gives birth to her second son. She gives him the name Ben-Oni, “son of trouble,” but Jacob overrules this by calling him Benjamin, “son of the right hand (or, the south).” Why, do you think, did Jacob give him such a name? Could it be, as some commentators suggest, that Jacob did not want the son of his beloved wife Rachel to go through life with a sad and negative name? How does Jacob treat Benjamin later when his ten sons want to take him to Egypt (when Joseph is in charge in Egypt)?
5. Genesis 35:22 records that Reuben slept with Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maidservant. More importantly, she had become one of Jacob’s concubines, the mother of Dan and Naphtali. How do the brothers react to this sexual sin? How does Israel respond to this? Compare their response to Dinah’s violation in Genesis 34. To sleep with a man’s concubines suggests that he wants to take over the reins of power and leadership. Read 2 Samuel 3:7; 16:20–22; and 1 Kings 2:22. Does Reuben want to usurp the leadership from his aged father? What does this act cost Reuben in the end (see Gen. 49:3,4)?
6. It was Isaac’s sense of his impending death that led to Jacob’s deception and then Esau’s hatred in Genesis 27. Isaac’s actual death brings the brothers together in one last labor of love in which they together bury their father. What hope could Esau and Jacob have concerning life after death? What could other Old Testament saints have with respect to this? See Job 19:25–27; Psalm 17:15; 49:15.