October 22, 2015

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

 

PART III: HISTORY OF ISAAC AND JACOB (Gen. 25:19-36:43)

 

Topic #E:  JACOB'S RESIDENCE AT SHECHEM, BETH-EL AND HEBRON. (Gen. 33:18-36:43.)                

 

 


Lesson III.E.3: Jacob Returns to Beth-el. (Gen. 35:1-8)

 

 

 

Genesis 35:1-8 (KJV)

 

1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.

2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:

3 And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.

4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.

5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.

6 So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him.

7 And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.

8 But Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

We have now come to the last chapter in the story of Jacob’s spiritual life.  We have seen how God saved Jacob (28), how God subdued Jacob (29-32), and how God separated Jacob (33-34).  The final chapter, chapter 35, tells how God sanctified Jacob.  From that point on the great focus of Genesis is on Joseph, not Jacob, although Jacob, of course, does appear and become prominent in the narrative once more at the time of his death.

 

There are three locations in the chapter—Bethel, Ephrath, and Mamre.  Jacob is depicted as moving southwards by stages from Shechem to Mamre (35:27); Beth-el (35:6) is the halfway point and certainly the place of chief importance.  The chapter records four burials and three funerals.  God was still cutting the ties that bound Jacob to earthly things.  Some of those ties were very dear.  The death of Rachel, for instance, must have seemed to Jacob to be the “the most unkindest cut of all.”

 

Moving from Genesis 34 to Genesis 35 is like going from a desert to a garden or from an emergency room to a wedding reception.  The atmosphere in Genesis 35 is one of faith and obedience, and the emphasis is on cleaning and renewal.  God is mentioned 10 times in chapter 35; and He used His name El Shaddai which means “God Almighty, the all-sufficient One.” Best of all, in chapter 35 you see God’s Pilgrims making progress and arriving at the place God has assigned.  The good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to stay the way we all are.  No matter how many times we’ve failed the Lord we can go home again if we truly repent and obey.  It happened to Abraham (13:1-4), Isaac (26:17), David (2 Samuel 12), Jonah (Jonah 3:1-3), and Peter (John 21:15-19); and now it’s happening to Jacob.

 

Chapter 35 opens with God’s renewed command to Jacob to go to Bethel.  It is at Bethel that Jacob has his first real encounter with God and is told about God’s plan to bless him.  It is also at Bethel that Jacob first builds an altar of worship to the Lord.

 

 

 

Commentary

 

1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.

 

Allow your mind to linger upon this chapter’s first three words, “And God said.” They are not new.  In Genesis one comes upon them again and again.  They are so short and seem so simple that it is possible to pass over them almost without notice.  Yet in those three syllables there resonates a supreme theme of this whole book.  “And God said . . .  God said” the words that made creation.  “God said” what Adam and Eve should hear in Eden.  “God said” to Cain, “Thou art cursed from the earth”; and to Noah, “With thee will I establish my covenant.” He spoke to Abraham, and to Isaac, and now to Jacob.  In the actual issues of life, and to all sorts of men, the good and the bad and the in-between, God makes his purpose known.  That is the continual message of Genesis and nothing in the book is more important than that.

 

For several years, Jacob had lingered 30 miles away from “Bethel” and had paid dearly for his disobedience[1].  But Everything comes to a head when “Jacob,” receives directions from God: “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” God reminded Jacob of the vow he had made at “Bethel,” and sent him there to perform it.  It would seem as though he had forgotten his vow, or, at least, had put it off for too long.  All those that God loves, He will remind to do their duties, one way or another, by conscience or by providence.  When we have vowed a vow to God it is best not delay the payment of it— “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4)— yet better late than never.

 

God gave Jacob the command, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there.” It was given tenderly and respectfully.  The Lord must have known that the disgraceful and perilous events that have recently taken place in the patriarch’s family have produced in him a strong desire to leave the vicinity of Shechem for a safe place to live, for him and his family.  Oppressed by an overwhelming sense of the criminality of his two sons—they had offended God and dishonored the true faith. He was distracted, too, with anxiety about the probable consequences which their barbarity might bring upon himself and his family, should the Canaanite people combine forces to wipe out such a band of robbers and murderers. He must have felt this call is affording a great relief to his afflicted feelings.

 

By now he had spent six years residing in Sukkoth, and it had been seven or eight years since he came to Canaan. There may have been some contact between him and his father’s household during this interval; the presence in his family of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (35:8), is a clear indication of this.

 

Three areas of Jacob’s spiritual life needed to be thoroughly renewed—his spiritual vitality, his spiritual victory, and his spiritual verity (truth). He needed to have his spiritual vitality renewed, to have new life put into some of his basic beliefs.  Beliefs, like hinges, can get rusty if not kept oiled and used.  Jacob’s beliefs needed to be revitalized.  The process began with the mention of a place, “Bethel.”  “Bethel” was a special place to Jacob for many reasons.  It was a place of sacred and fragrant memories.  It was at “Bethel” that Abraham the pilgrim first staked his claim to Canaan and built his first “altar” in that land.  He had come back to “Bethel” after his disastrous backsliding in Egypt.  It was at “Bethel” that Jacob first met God, first saw the ladder, first became a truly believing man.  “Bethel”!  There are some places in life that we associate with holy memories, just as there are some places we shun because they haunt us with our sins.  To come back to “Bethel” was to come back home, for Jacob already knew that “Bethel” was God’s appointed place for him and his family, but he had been slow to obey.  Now God is calling this man back to Beth-el.  After the sad experience of Shechem, he is prepared to go.  You see, he didn’t have faith to move out before, but Jacob now begins to take the spiritual leadership in his home.  

 

The purpose for sending Jacob back to Bethel is revealed to us within the verse.  And “dwell there,” Jacob was told.  “Build an “altar” there.” God evidently wanted Jacob to soak his bruised soul in the healing balm of sacred memories. “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (Revelation 2:5). Bethel was a mere dozen miles north of Jerusalem, the place where Melchizedek had lived, king of righteousness, priest of the Most High God, blesser of Abraham.  God wanted Jacob to go to “Bethel” and “dwell there,” just as He would have us take our journey to Calvary, pitch our tent there for a while, and have our faith renewed, our spiritual lives revitalized.

 

 

2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:

 

“Be clean”; cleanse the body, as a token of the cleaning of your souls. Dirt, like sin is defiling and must be the washed away (Psalm 51:2, 7; Isaiah 1:16; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 John 1:9).  For the believer, that means confession of sins.  You have to deal with sin in your life.  You cannot come to church on Sunday and dismiss the way you have lived during the week that has just passed.  If there is no confession of the sin, there is no cleansing.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  There must be the confession.  He will forgive, but we must confess.

 

“Change your garments.” In other words, get rid of the old “garments.” Put on your best attire, suitable to the holy occasion. Our old “garments” typify the old life with its failures (Isaiah 64:6), but God in His mercy gives us “new garments” so we can make a fresh beginning (Genesis 3:21; Isaiah 61:10; Luke 15:22; Revelation 3:18).  In scripture “garments” speak of habits.  We speak of an equestrian wearing a riding habit or of a football player wearing a uniform—which is his habit.  In like manner, the child of God should dress in a way to mirror who he is and to whom he belongs.  Do you wear the habits of the Lord?  Can you be detected in business or in school or in the neighborhood as wearing a habit.  The day that “Jacob” went back to Beth-el, he started living for God.  Up to then, I don’t think he was.  Now he says, “Let’s go back to Beth-el”—that’s the thing that we too must do.

 

Jacob’s instructions to his entourage to wash and change their clothes are the kind of instructions that often signify spiritual preparation for a new beginning.  “Jacob” commanded “his household” (his wives and his children) and “all that were with him” (his men-servants and maid-servants) to prepare for the ceremony; not only for the journey and confiscation, but for the religious services that were to be performed.  It is noteworthy that before God gave the law at Mount Sinai, He ordered the people to wash and change clothes; for they were about to enter into a solemn covenant with God (Exodus 19:9-15). 

 

Heads of families should use their authority for the promotion of religion in their families.  Not only we, but our houses (families) also should serve the Lord— “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).  Observe the commandments he gives “his household.” They must put away the “strange gods.”  “Strange gods” in Jacob’s family; how could that be!  Here and there along the way Jacob’s wives and children had picked up idols.  Rachel perhaps still had Laban’s “household” baals.  Levi and Simeon undoubtedly had quite a hall of local images from the sack of Shechem.  In Hebrew “strange gods” means “gods of the stranger,” that is, the gods of foreign nations.  “Jacob”had hired a number of Mesopotamian employees, who were addicted to superstitious practices.  Their idols must be put away. In families where there is a facade of religion, and an altar to God, there are, many times, lives in a mess, and more “strange gods” than one would suspect. In this case, the “strange gods” include the teraphim, which Rachel had secretly taken from her father’s house, and the rings which were worn as amulets or charms.   UNBELIEVABLE! Could such a family, one that was taught the good knowledge of the Lord admit “strange gods” into the family on an equal basis with the One True God?  It doesn’t seem possible, but that is precisely what they did.  But God would no longer tolerate their disobedience and lack of respect.  God would no longer turn a blind eye to the possession of idolatrous symbols such as figurines, amulets, or cultic charms (“earrings”), including Rachel’s stolen teraphim (31:19).  The whole lot was buried out of sight (35:4); and Jacob’s people demonstrated their obedience by bathing (35:2) and changing into clean clothes (35:2); all served to portray both cleansing from defilement by idolatry and consecration of the heart to the Lord.  But all this purification (getting rid of idols, washing themselves, and changing their clothes) was instructive for “Jacob” who later would need such a consecration when they entered the land of promise (Joshua 5:1-9).

 

 

3 And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.

 

He who had appeared there to Jacob as the Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac, is now described as (house of El), the Mighty One, probably in allusion to Bethel (house of God), which contains this name, and was at that time applied by Jacob himself to the place.

 

 

4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings[2] which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.

 

The God, Jacob’s God, is distinguished by means of contrast to “the strange gods” already mentioned.  It was easy to tell them apart because the true God was not made by hands, was not dead, was not just a piece of wood or stone; but was the God of miracles, and love, and mercy, and grace. In contrast to the “strange gods,” He was eternal, living and invisible. 

 

His family surrendered all they had that was idolatrous or superstitious (see 35:2).  Perhaps if “Jacob” had asked for these things sooner, they would have parted with them sooner.  Sometimes attempts for reformation succeed better than one could have expected; and people are not as obstinately against them, as we feared.  “Jacob”  buried their images beneath “the oak which was by Shekem[3],” because he feared they might find them afterwards and return to worshipping them.  That is the first burial recorded in this chapter.  It would have been better if those images had been burned, not buried.  We are ready enough to put our idols away, in times of spiritual awakening, but all too prone to put them where we can go back to them later if we wish.

 

What a revelation of Jacob’s tolerance of evil!  His household, evidently, worshipped idols either (1) instead of God, or (2) along with worshipping God.  He appears to have been tolerant of it, until God ordered him to confiscate and hide them.

 

 

5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.

 

The surrounding communities were evidently plotting vengeance for the Shechem massacre.  Had that vengeance been aimed solely at Simeon and Levi, it would have been justified, but vengeance gets out of hand.  Almost certainly, once the killing began, the Canaanites would have made a clean sweep of every living soul in Jacob’s camp.  Thus the purpose of God to bring blessing to the world through “Jacob” would have been foiled.  So God acted.  A supernatural dread here called, “The terror of God,” not of “Jacob” but of God; a dread awakened in the breast of the people of Canaan by some indication of the Divine presence being with “Jacob.”  The world had to learn that, despite their many sins, sins that God Himself would deal with in His own perfect way, “Jacob” and his people were on the victory side, and that to fight them was to fight against God.

 

The patriarch seems to have retained possession of the land he had purchased and gained by conquest, in this place. His flocks are found there very shortly afterwards, as indicated by Genesis 37:12— “And his brethren went to feed their father's flock in Shechem.” Many years later, he alludes to it, and disposes of it in his discussion with Joseph and his sons— “And to you I give one more ridge of land than to your brothers, the ridge I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow” (Genesis 48:22)—and his well is there to this day.

 

The inclusion of the phrase “the sons of Jacob” suggests that the other “cities” feared Jacob’s boys because of what they had done to the people of Shechem— “There shall no man be able to stand before you: for the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as he hath said unto you”(Deuteronomy 11:25). Yet it also seems evident that, as “Jacob” obeys the Lord the Lord protects “Jacob” and his family by Divine power, causing a fear to fall on the surrounding cities; consequently, the trip to Bethel was without incident.  When we are about God’s work, we are under special protection; God is with us, while we are with Him; and if He be for us, who can be against us?  (Exodus 34:24.).  God governs the world more by secret terrors on men’s minds than we are aware of.

 

There is a rule that we may be able to garner from this incident in Jacob’s life: “When God’s people are doing God’s will in God’s way, they can depend on God’s provision and protection (Isaiah 41:10, 14; 44:2, 8; 43:1-5).  When we fear God, we don’t need to fear anyone else.”

 

 

6 So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him.

 

“Luz, which is in the land of Canaan,” seems at first glance to suggest that there was a “Luz” elsewhere, and the location— “in the land of Canaan,”—was added by the Holy Spirit in order to identify the “Luz” referred to here. “Luz[4] means an “almond tree,” and may have designated many places. But the reader of Genesis could have needed no such marker, since “Jacob,” by going from Shechem to Hebron is clearly in the land of “Canaan.”

 

 

“Jacob” faithfully fulfills his vow to God at “Luz” (Genesis 35:7-15), which he renames “Bethel,” or “house of God.”

 

 

7 And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.

 

God had promised to bring Jacob safely back to Bethel (28:15), and He kept His promise, as He always does (Joshua 21:45; 23:14; 1 Kings 8:56).  Jacob kept his part of the agreement by building an alter and leading his household in worshipping the Lord.  Once again, Jacob gave a new name to an old place.  “Luz” he had renamed “Bethel, the house of God” (28:19); and now he expanded “Bethel” to become “the God of Bethel” (“Elbethel”).  It wasn’t the place that was important but the God of the place and what He had done for Jacob.  Through these several acts of worship, fulfillment of his vow (28:20-22), and renaming the site, Jacob reconfirmed his allegiance to God, who also affirmed his commitment to Jacob by reappearing to him, repeating the change of name (35:10; 32:28), and reiterating the Abrahamic promises (35:11-12).  In response, Jacob also repeated the rite he had performed when he first met God at Bethel (35:14) and reaffirmed its name (35:15).

 

God is going to bring Jacob back to basic truth.  He must learn that the soul must not rest on miracles, even the kind of miracle that held the Canaanites in check, but on God’s own Word.  Thus Jacob’s relationship to God was professed anew (35:6-8), and he immediately acknowledges God by building an alter where he had once erected a stone pillar: “And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-el,” “The Mighty God of the house of God.” It was a great step forward to get beyond God’s house to God Himself.  The floodtide of Jacob’s feelings, when he arrived back at Bethel, carried him on, as God meant it to do, to a fresh confession of his love and care for God Himself.

 

The name of the alter suggests that he is thinking of God only, and not of himself as in Genesis 33:20: “And he erected there an altar, and called it EleloheIsrael.” Thus has Jacob obeyed the command of God, and begun the payment of the vow he made at this place twenty-six years earlier.

 

The Jewish people considered many places to be special because of what God had done for them there, places like Bethel, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, the Jordon River, and Gilgal.  Perhaps all of us have places that are especially meaningful to us because of spiritual experiences we had there, but a “holy site” must never take the place of the Holy God. To visit a special location and try to recapture old blessings is to live in the past.  Let’s ask God for new blessings and a new revelation of Himself. 

 

 

8 But Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth.

 

A note of sorrow was added to the other emotions when “Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died, and was buried.” “Deborah” must have been very old.  Some 150 years had passed since she herself had left Padan-aram to accompany “Rebekah” when she had come to marry Isaac.  “Deborah” and Eliezer are good examples of the honorable position assigned to servants in these times of patriarchal simplicity.  “Deborah”  means “bee.”

 

It is likely that “Rebekah” was already dead, for if she were still alive, it would be highly unlikely to find “Deborah” transferred to Jacob’s household. “Rebekah” may not have lived to see her favorite son on his return. Scripture leaves no record of “Rebekah’s” death or of when her “nurse” had joined Jacob’s family circle, but she was evidently with them long enough to gain their affection.  “Deborah” dies in the family in which she began life. She is “buried” under “the well-known oak” at “Bethel.” Jacob drops a natural tear of sorrow over the grave of this faithful servant, whom he had known all his life, and hence, the “oak” is “called Allonbachuth,” which means “oak of weeping.” But one may wonder why Deborah’s death could find a place in the narrative at all unless there was one clear reason, namely, her loss was grievous to somebody?  It had no importance in history, but there was somebody whose heart was feeling what another would one day put into words:

 

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Jacob was 77 years old when he left home, and since he remained 20 years with Laban, this means he was 97 when he started for Bethel.  Isaac was 60 years older than Jacob.  Thus he was 157 when Jacob returned and still had 23 more years to live (35:28).  Isaac’s death is recorded in verses 27-29, but the sequence of events in the Biblical record is not always chronological.

[2] “Earrings“ were worn superstitiously as charms, and were often inscribed with magical formulas. 

[3]The oak which was by Shechem may have been the oak of Moreh, under which Abraham pitched his tent (Genesis 12:6).  The oak—or terebinth—a towering tree, which, like all others of the kind, was a striking object in the scenery of Palestine, and beneath which (at Shechem) the patriarch had pitched his tent.  He had the images and amulets delivered to him, at the root of the tree, by his Mesopotamian dependents. The old oak was deemed a consecrated tree; to bury them at its root was to deposit them in a place where no one would venture to remove them.

 

[4] “Luz” was the ancient name of Bethel (Gen 28:19; Jdg 1:23; compare Gen 35:6; 48:3; Josh 16:2; 18:13).

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