Genesis 35:1-5 “Then God said to Jacob, ‘Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.’ So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no-one pursued them . . .” and on to verse 29]
Bethel had been the first resting place for Jacob as he had fled from Esau about thirty years or more earlier. At Bethel God had met with him showing him a vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase from heaven to earth. There God had spoken to him, and he had covenanted to be his God, to protect him and bring him back to this land. All the time we have been waiting for Jacob and his family to return to this place, and finally God makes it unanswerably clear that Jacob must go to Bethel. So . . .
1. JACOB RETURNED TO BETHEL.
Jacob has been doing what seemed right in his own eyes Even after personal blessings and restorations once and again there appeared new distrust and spiritual disintegration in his life. Don’t we all know it? After so many years of following the Lord we continue to make errors of judgment. So we are very encouraged in seeing that God mercifully comes and speaks to Jacob again, and he urges Jacob to do what he should have done long before.
i] Go up to Bethel. That is, ‘Go to the place where God once blessed you and made himself known to you.’ Go to God! Have dealings with God. Perhaps he really has dealt with you in the past, or maybe you imagined he was dealing with you, but it was just your feelings. Now it is time to be sure, to cry mightily to him that he will deal with you deeply and permanently. Go up to Bethel! Incidentally Bethel was a thousand feet higher than Shechem, so Jacob and all his family would have to climb up there. Their endurance and the strength of their determination to do God’s will was going to be tested. But there is more . . .
ii] Settle in Bethel. What an awesome command! You must not only go to God’s place but you must dwell there – in the secret place of the Most High. His habitation must become your habitation. God dwells in light unapproachable and that is where you too must dwell. How is it possible? If God commands it then it must be possible, and God will provide grace and mercy for you. It is through Christ standing in the white heat of the holy justice of God that you can live there and look at God. There is a way for man to rise and dwell in Bethel, that sublime abode. In every command of God there is an offer of grace to obey. God is assuring Jacob that the angels who come down from heaven at Bethel will not be bearing vials of wrath to pour out upon him. God will meet with him there. Jacob will not be destroyed there. “Your sins are forgiven, Jacob! Come into my presence, and welcome, in spite of your constant disobedience.” But there is more . . .
iii] Build an altar there to God. Worship Jehovah! Which God? The God who involves himself in every detail of our lives. Our Sovereign Protector. See what God says? “Build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” Why focus on this? God had done so many things for Jacob. Why not say, “Make an altar to the God who appeared to you in Bethel”? The reason was this, that Jacob was scared that what his sons had done in murdering all the men of Shechem would make the Canaanites rise up, get together and wipe out him and his family. They were many and he was one family. Jacob’s inclination was not to head south for Bethel deep in the land of the Canaanites but to flee! Let him go to Seir where his reconciled brother Esau lived and there he would have protection. But God says to him. “Ascend to Bethel. Build an altar, stone by stone and make sacrifices to me because I am the Lord who has always protected you, for example, when you were fleeing from your brother. I saved you from him as I saved you from Laban, and I can certainly save you from the Canaanites. Do not be afraid of them, and don’t make the mistake of trusting in the strength of Esau’s 400 men.” Jacob must trust in the strength of the Lord who protected him from Esau.
That is the first message that came to Jacob and it comes to us, the children of the God of Jacob. It urges us to go to the house of God. Come each Lord’s Day. It is God who invites you. It is Jehovah who commands you. And settle there, not just each Lord’s Day; the services of today are not just to ‘recharge’ you and send you back into the world. The preaching of the word of God is to stamp you with the identity of Christ, whose name you bear. As you came bringing him with you so you go taking him on your way. Don’t slip back effortlessly into the world and behave and laugh and enthuse and think just like people without Christ behave. Live as one who has settled in the presence of the Lord all your days, who bears his name and blessing because the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. And build your altar to the Lord and offer yourself as living sacrifices to him, and don’t fear what will happen if the world hates you. Christ has overcome the world. You will not be harmed. So that is where Jacob’s renewal started, with his own return to Bethel and staying there and building an altar. But though our religion is personal it is also corporate; we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. So . . .
2. JACOB LED HIS HOUSEHOLD IN WORSHIP AND OBEDIENCE.
Having determined to obey God, Jacob gathered all his family, sons, wives and workmen together and spoke to them. He used the authority that God had given him over his servants and his household and he addressed them. What did he say?
i] “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you” (v.2). What is he talking about? You haven’t forgotten that his wife had stolen her father’s gods, and then were there gods they had also had taken from Shechem – as ‘lucky charms’! Those gods were man-made insurance. Their message was to trust in the devices of men; love anything and pray to anything except God. Jacob looks at them all eyeball to eyebal
l and he says, “We’ve got some housekeeping to do. You’ve got foreign gods . . . get rid of them! Now!” And he waits while they go to their tents and opened their saddle bags, and they bring them all to him. “What are you going to do with them?” “Bury them!” he said. “Utterly destroy them so that they are no temptation to you again.”
ii] “Now I want your earrings,” he said, and all the Israelites hearing Moses reading this 600 years later would know why he demanded this too. They had rebelled against the Lord and they had gone to Aaron the high priest, and they had asked him to make them a god, and they had given to Aaron their gold earrings and he had melted them down and made a golden calf. An identical thing happened at the time of Gideon. Then again the women took out their earrings and gave them to Gideon so that he could melt them down and make an idol. Here was Jacob’s family heavily involved in the massacre of all the men of Shechem all profiting from the plunder of that community, Shechem slaves standing there sullenly on the fringes of the group. What dastardly cruelty. Who are these people serving, was it the god of war, the god of battles, the god of the sword and spear? Were many women wearing new earrings from the booty? “Take out your earrings and we will bury them. We will destroy the idols you have stolen and we will also destroy the possibility of your making any idols of your own.” He is making them burn their bridges. Jacob is hemming them in to the Lord alone.
iii] “Now purify yourselves and change your clothes.” “You are a rotten sinful people.” Had there been no godly sorrow at the murder of the men of Shechem? Had there been pitiful attempts to excuse and justify the brutality? Had no one spoken up? Had few grieved? Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. It was time for them to enter the laver of repentance and cleanse their hearts and show it outwardly in the washing of water and the putting on of clean clothes. They must know that sin cannot dwell in the presence of God and it is to Bethel, before Jehovah’s awful throne, that they are going to gather. He bore testimony to them, “God . . . answered me in the day of my distress and . . . has been with me wherever I have gone” (v.3).
And they did exactly as Jacob had commanded. All the foreign gods and the earrings were handed over to be buried under the oak tree in Shechem, the place where they had slaughtered defenseless men, old and young. Let us show the same spirit. Remember the last words of John in his great first letter, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21). Even the dearest idol you have known. Ask God to help you tear it from its throne. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. It is the way to disaster to have two gods or three or any more than the one living and true God. Turn your back on the gods your friends worship. Please do it today! Exterminate them! Is there something that might become an idol in your life? Then turn from that too. You want to do something today that you won’t regret in 900 years’ time. Speak to your families and tell them that you cannot protect them from Satan and sin and the world but only Christ, the Lord Sabaoth’s Son can keep them. He alone. Are they in him? Are they safe hiding in the wounded side of the Redeemer? Put away your love of the world, of money, or reputation, of comfort. This world can offer you nothing. When you are tempted to sin then ask what will that sin look like on your coffin? How will you see it on the day you are going to die? How often have I spoken to you about this? You are in the presence of the living God and soon you will be standing before him. What was to be the consequence of Jacob speaking to the people in this way? Did they sulk and rebel? Did they run off to the gods of the heathen? Were they now a vulnerable people, lacking any gold to give to their enemies to bribe their way out of occupied territory in order to get safely to Bethel. See what happened . . .
3.THE FEAR OF THE LORD FELL ON THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITIES.
Jacob did whatever God told him to do; the patriarch exhorted the people over whom he had any influence to turn from their idols and serve the Lord, and do you see what happened? God’s mighty walls of deliverance went up around these people and not one of them was hurt; “and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no-one pursued them” (v.5). God was as good as his word. The family and the servants began to pack up their tents and possessions, and they drove their flocks and herds slowly before them, and they moved off, climbing up to Bethel, and the angry Canaanites who had all lost cousins and uncles and nephews, who were seething with hatred and plotting, did absolutely nothing at all. It was not that they lacked the manpower, or the weaponry, it was that the fear of Jehovah the God of Jacob was so crippling that they lacked the strength to lift an axe or pick up a pitchfork. They were too scared of the living God. Even the stragglers in Jacob’s household like elderly Deborah were safe. The idols had all been destroyed; the people had all been purified and their garments had all been renewed, and then God came upon them. Matthew Henry says that when there was sin in Jacob’s household he was terrified of his neighbours, but when that sin was put away his neighbours were terrified of him.
Later on, when the descendants of Jacob came into Canaan the same thing happened. Jericho trembled before them. And later still the demons were terrified when Christ, the true seed of Jacob, came into Palestine. The devils feared and fled; they came cringing and crying out in despair begging him not to torment them. Then when judgment fell on Annanias and Saphira great fear fell upon the church and no one in the world dared to join them. So Jacob and his household left Shechem without a hair on their heads being plucked. They were like a wagon train heading west through hostile Indian territory, with tribe after tribe ignoring them. So they ascended to Bethel and there Jacob erected an altar and they all worshipped the God of Bethel.
It’s very interesting that Jacob calls the place and the pillar El Bethel, not just Bethel. It’s not because Jacob is some sort of a pantheist who’s worshipping rocks or trees or a particular parcel of ground. The point in fact is the opposite of that. Jacob knows that Bethel is a special place because of his encounter, but he’s also aware that the place means nothing without the God of Bethel. So this time he calls it El Bethel, that is, ‘the God of the house of God.’ Matthew Henry says: “The comfort which the saints have in holy ordinances is not so much from Bethel, the house of God, as from El Bethel, the God of the house of God. The ordinances are but empty things if we do not meet with God in them.” The point of Bethel was not that it was a sacred place that could give Jacob grace. The point was it was the place where the God of Bethel had indeed met with him and shown him grace and faith. It was a place, an instrument in the hands of the gracious God.
But then a little incident happened there, and it seems at first an irrel
evance. Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah died. In other words this old retainer had been his mother’s maid, and nurse, and best friend. Decades earlier she had seen the servant whom Abraham had sent to find a wife for his son Isaac arriving with all his camels at their home, and how her mistress Rebekah had gone and watered all the camels. The next day Deborah had been chosen by Rebekah’s family to go and live with her and Isaac far from their home. She now was an old woman; she had been with Rebekah when she died, and somehow she had attached herself to Jacob when the families had met, Esau’s and Jacob’s, this frail lady, and she had ascended to Bethel with them all.
Now it is often pointed out that though the deaths of Sarah and Rachel are recorded for us in Scripture there is no record of the death of Rebekah and that is perplexing. Men have suggested that Rebekah never repented for what she had done in plotting the theft of Isaac’s blessing on Esau. We do not know, but here was Deborah, and what a link with the past she represented, when there had once been such hope resting in Isaac and Renekah, so much in love with one another and finally God gave them twins. What hope! But the two boys were at loggerheads for most of their lives, and each parent foolishly sided with a favourite son. What folly! What sadness! Why is the death and burial of Deborah mentioned here? Because there is one problem that holy Bethel, or any place in this world, cannot solve. Our families will at different times die one by one. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had died, and then her nurse also died, and in burying her Jacob was also in a sense burying his mother. He had dilly-dallied so long in the home of his father-in-law Laban that his mother had died and he had never seen her. So here he can pay his respects to Deborah and his mother. Bethel itself and all its associations were good, but not good enough. There is still sorrow and partings in this world. So we read of the death of faithful Deborah and her burial was at a place that became the ‘oak of weeping’ as if to suggest Jacob had wailed at the funeral, at all the memories he had of his mother and ‘Aunty Deborah. So our eyes are being drawn upward to our heavenly Bethel where there is neither sorrow nor death, where God himself shall wipe away all tears from our eyes. That is one reason why the death of Deborah is here in Scripture. But there is another that I have alluded to . .
Alas, it was Rebekah who had encouraged Jacob to trust in his own cleverness and steal Isaac’s blessing by deceit. Now just as Jacob had buried those idols he buries his mother’s nurse. Symbolically he is turning his back on what his mother represented and the bad influence she had had on his life. Jacob is on his way to becoming a man who trusts in God alone.
4. GOD APPEARED TO JACOB AGAIN.
We read this; “After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.’ So he named him Israel. And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.’ Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him” (vv. 9-13).
i] This is not only God’s final appearance to Jacob, this is his final appearance to any patriarch. In other words, this is the last time that God makes a personal visit with a patriarch in the Bible. This is the end of the days of God’s personal manifestations, and conversations in the form of a man with the patriarchs. “God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him” (v.9), never to talk with him in that way again. There is henceforth a shift in the mode of revelation in the Bible. The primary mode of revelation in the days of Joseph, the next patriarch, will be by dreams, and even to Moses God will only show his back.
ii] God reveals himself to Jacob thus, “I am God Almighty” (v.11). He has been saying this to Jacob many times, as he has said it so often to us, yet Jacob needed to learn it again as we do. He is telling Jacob that he is Almighty on Jacob’s behalf. It is not that he is omnipotent and all powerful as displaying some divine attribute in order to be admired, but actively in his focus on Jacob and us. His Almightiness is there for Jacob and Israel and ourselves. They can be fruitful and will multiply in a hostile world because God is there for them and with them.
iii] God is renewing the covenant promises he had first made to Abraham. In this passage God is going back all the way to the words that he had spoken to Abram (Genesis 17:4-6), and further than that, even right back to the cultural mandate or creation covenant, “Be fruitful and multiply” and he is reminding Jacob of the grace of the covenant which he had established with Abram and then with Isaac and now with Jacob. There are four parallels between the covenant with Abraham and this covenant:
A) The name change – Abram to Abraham, and Jacob to Israel.
B)The promise that kings will come from his body (v.11).
C)The exhortation to be fruitful and increase in number.
D)The promise that a “community of nations” would come from him.
So I am saying that the promise to Jacob is a reaffirmation of the promise made to Abraham. So God is saying to the patriarchs, “Your future is one of fruitfulness.” Multitudes of Jews and Gentiles in the Old Testament and in the New Testament will be saved through faith in the Messiah and they will become heirs of the promises of God. So these are our words. This covenant is ours. We today are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because we have believed on the Christ that they were promised would be born as one of their descendants. We are in this great covenant line with its promise of fruitfulness.
iv] In his very last meeting with Jacob God refers to him as ‘Israel’. Now Israel was the name that was to signify all that God had planned for Jacob and would effect through him. It was a name that was to separate him from his somewhat shady past. But
Jacob didn’t live like Israel very often, and it’s exceedingly precious, I think, that in his very final meeting with the patriarch God refuses to think of him as Jacob and addresses him as Israel. Men and women, we are confronted here with grace, with the benefits of justification and God looking upon us not as we are in ourselves but as we are in Christ. So God looks upon Jacob in this way. He says, “The name given to you was Jacob, but I’m not going to call you Jacob. You will always be Israel to me.” So the last thing which Jacob ever heard from the lips of God came to one the Lord called ‘Israel’ and so we see something of God’s grace and his free justification of Jacob the sinner.
When you and I meet the word ‘sinner’ in the Bible then we are to put our own names there. We will then read there the divine analysis of our condition, and the warnings God makes to us as sinners, and most of all the promises to sinners who have cried to God for mercy, that for them there is no condemnation. We come to God through Jesus Christ alone, and we see him sweating blood in the Garden and hanging in agony on the cross crying, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and it is then that we begin to understand the sinfulness of sin. There we realize that the Father would rather not spare his Son than let a single one of our guilt and blame be overlooked. We learn to realize that sin is exceeding sinful. Then we’ve had to go to the place where God has met us in the past and find again the way of mercy, that is, Golgotha. Walk under your new name; don’t be ashamed of your new name, and whenever you see the word for believer, or saint, or disciple in the Bible then that is your name and the privileges and duties it describes are yours.
5. THE FINAL ACTS IN THE LIFE OF JACOB.
Jacob moves on to his father’s household no doubt with many hopes in his heart, and there are four final scenes in the life of the old patriarch.
i] The death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin. We can only imagine Jacob’s heartache. He had loved Rachel from the moment he had seen her and now she was expecting her second child. His hopes had been built up, and God had blessed him and told him to be fruitful, so he had every expectation that all would go well, but what happened, even in the child-birth of his son Benjamin, was that Rachel died. We do not know why. That is a secret thing that belongs to God, and if we try to suggest why then we will find ourselves falling into sin. We do not know. No one knows why God took her. We see through a glass darkly, but one day we will know the reason for these griefs, and we must be content with that. Rachel was buried near Bethlehem, appropriately right at the border of the land that the tribe of Benjamin would one day occupy. This pillar which Jacob set up for her was still known in the time of Moses and even in the time of Samuel. And Rachel is not forgotten in the Bible. There’s going to be at least one poignant reference to her even in the gospel account itself.; “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.”
ii] The fall of Reuben (vv.21&22). Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son, slept with Bilhah, his aunt, the mother of his own half brothers Dan and Naphtali. Moses tells us this in passing as though it were too shocking to dwell on. But the Holy Spirit is going to come back to this in Genesis 49, verses 3 and 4 as Moses recounts Jacob’s final words to his son: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honour, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” And we’re beginning to realise why Reuben and also Simeon and Levy (who massacred the men of Chechem) were displaced in favour of Judah in the headship of the family.
iii] The numbering of all the sons of Jacob (vv. 22-26). They are now complete and they are carefully listed for us. These twelve sons will become a powerful symbolic number representing the whole of Israel, even though after the time of Joseph there will, technically speaking, be thirteen tribes, eleven full tribes and two half tribes. So, arithmetically there will be thirteen tribes, but the twelve tribes of Israel will be the symbolic number for the whole of Israel. It’s the same in the new covenant where you have the ‘twelve.’ Even though technically you begin with twelve, Judas kills himself and there are eleven, and then Matthias is added to make it up to twelve and then Saul of Tarsus is added to them so that numerically there are thirteen apostles, but they are always referred to as the ‘twelve.’ The twelve apostles in the book of Revelation will be symbolic for the whole of the people of God. There are twelve foundation stones for the heavenly Jerusalem not thirteen. The number thirteen does not occur in the New Testament. So Moses records this list for us here because he’s setting the stage for the roles of these ideal tribes not only in the rest of the book of Genesis, but in all the first five books of the Old Testament and in the remainder of the Old Testament as a whole.
iv] The death of Isaac (vv. 27-29). Jacob and Esau are united at their father’s deathbed. It often happens that members of the family are hostile and refuse to come to family gatherings until a parent dies and then they are brought together. We are told that the patriarch Isaac “breathed his last and died” (v.29). So Jacob, at last, was the head of the covenant family. Abraham had died and now Isaac had died and here Jacob stands. He reminds me a little of the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles has an onerous task, waiting in the wings for years (he is now in his 60s) for his mother to die and then he become the King. Jacob waited much of his life to attain the headship of the covenant, and finally his father Isaac dies and Jacob does become the head of the covenant, but immediately (you’ll see this in Genesis 36 and 37), the whole focus of Moses shifts from Jacob to Joseph and to the other brothers, the sons of Jacob. So Jacob has waited his whole life to assume the headship, the official headship of the covenant, and when that time finally comes the scene abruptly shifts from him, and for much of the rest of the book of Genesis the focus is on his son Joseph.
How can I turn this? I can say that sometimes God has a plan for our lives in which we are simply a smaller part of a greater purpose, and though we are preparing for one thing all our lives, there is actually something else that God has planned to use us for. It may be the case in the lives of our own families, perhaps that the things of grace that God is doing in our own hearts he’s doing in preparation for our children’s lives, or even our grandchildren. What we think is a secondary part of our lives is actually what God is going to use and bless. That will actually be the legacy that we leave behind us and not what we thought would be significant.
Then we are told this, Isaac
“died and was gathered to his people” (v.29). This is the beginning of the Christian hope, that death is not annihilation, that we are not merely told that Isaac died. He died and then this, he was gathered to Abraham and Sarah and to Rebekah and to Deborah and his family of Jehovah worshippers. I would believe that as there are closer friendships on earth than our other relationships with men and women whom we know that this will be the case in heaven too, without any sinful reasons for that. Christ was so close to his mother that he spoke of her future on the cross. He was close to Lazarus and his sisters, and loved John the apostle. In heaven there certainly won’t be cliques, and posturing, and jealousy but there will be the particular friendships of those who once knew finger-wagging and blame. I imagine Adam and Eve walking hand in hand without Adam ever thinking, “the woman you gave me caused such trouble . . .” I would think that the absence of having one close friendship on earth which has made you sad, will not be the case in heaven. Your people will be much closer to you. There will be familiarity in the old relationships, and discovery in new relationships. We will be with billions of people all delivered from sin but all of them wise and contented and thoughtful and fresh and kind and creative. What wonderful company – being with “our people” for ever.
20th March 2011 GEOFF THOMAS.