Genesis 35: Jacob Returns to Bethel
The household must bury their idols, Jacob must bury his fear, and then they all must bury Deborah, Rachel, and Isaac.
Have you ever felt that God was preparing you for a difficult season?
In Genesis 35, God prompts Jacob to go to Bethel before recording three significant deaths.
vv. 1–8 - After the devastation in Shechem, God graciously calls Jacob to get to where he ought to have been; namely, at Bethel. It is a relatively short journey, and you wonder why it took so long for Jacob to return. Back in Genesis 28:20-22, Jacob vowed to do certain things if God caused him to return safely to Canaan. In addition, God commands him to build an altar there, which is the first time this has happened. So Jacob gets his household to do three things before leaving: put away their idols, wash, and change their clothes, symbolizing their new commitment to God. It would appear by Jacob’s act of burying the idols and earrings by Shechem, that they had acquired these earrings and idols from there, and were symbols of superstition and idolatry. Abraham’s servant gave Rebekah a golden earring, so there must have been something about these earrings that were associated with superstition or idolatry. It is also noted that God forbid Jacob’s fears from being realized, putting a fear upon potential adversaries as they journeyed to Bethel and settle there. Jacob renames the place El bethel, i.e. the God of the house of God. He is no longer focusing on the place, but the God of the place. It is at this point we have the record of the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse. In other words, the woman has been with the family for multiple generations. It is quite possible that some time after Rebekah settled into marriage that she returned to Haran, but joined with Jacob’s company when they left.
vv. 9–15 - We are given the last direct revelation to any of the patriarchs. God appears to Jacob again and repeats that his name as Israel. Why repeat it? Because like all believers, sometimes you need to be told to be what you are. You are are Christian, therefore live like a Christian. God also reaffirms the Abrahamic covenant.
vv. 16–21 - We read the bittersweet experience of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel. the woman he loves and it is in childbirth. Rachel had the hope of Gen. 30:34, that she would have yet another son. Prior to that, she also cried out to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.” In a certain sense, both cries come together. And unlike the other patriarchs and their wives, who are buried in the cave of Machpelah, they bury Rachel near Bethlehem. Jacob, reflecting increased faith, changes the name of Benjamin as an act of faith. He will not be called, ‘son of my sorrow,’ but ‘son of the right hand.’ Christ, as the ultimate Son of the right hand, Jacob sees by faith.
vv. 22–29 - we are given a few details that show Jacob’s continued experience of sorrow. With Rachel dead, Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, lies with Rachel’s handmaiden, Bilhah. Perhaps it is a power struggle between the father and the firstborn, similar to David and Absolom. Or perhaps it was a foolish attempt to direct Jacob’s affections towards his own mother, rather than Rachel’s handmaiden. We don’t know. But this act of wickedness is mentioned in Genesis 49, and the sin of polygamy is chastened, as often we discover it to be in the Bible. The chapter then closes with a reference to Jacob’s sons, and the death of Isaac, which would have taken place at a later time, but is detailed here so it does not interrupt the narrative surrounding Joseph.
God never justified a man without sanctifying him as well. We noted Jacob’s negligence in the previous chapter, and he suffered greatly for it. But God always works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure, and He will remind us of our vows and our sins of commission and omission. He will use His Word and providence to afflict our conscience to bring us where we are meant to be.
Shocking sins are often God’s instrument to produce deep repentance. The events of the previous chapter probably had a sobering effect and instilled a sense of fear in everyone. This made them ready to receive Jacob’s call to repentance, and to remove the influence of the world upon the household. Fathers, seek to bring about steady household reform and pray for change in the inward and outward life. And should you realize you and your household have fallen into great sins, lead the way in repentance. How wonderful it is to see all members of our household put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man (Col. 3:9–10). To see our children “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Tit. 2:10).
We must obey God, not only when He removes our fears, but despite our fears. In the previous chapter, Jacob remarked on his fear of the surrounding communities. However, when he obeyed God, God took care of the source of his fears by bringing a terror on upon the surrounding cities. Young people, learn early in life to not let your fears hold you back from obedience. God calls you to be a witness for Him. Don’t let your fear make you silent.
God has his anonymous servants who have proven faithful over many years. Deborah, who is not named until this chapter, was no doubt a helpful presence in the home. Most of us will live anonymous lives, but let them be faithful and fruitful for God’s glory.
Memorable worship does not take away the trials of life, it prepares us for them. Jacob returns to Bethel, and has the sweet privilege of worshipping the Lord with his entire household some 30 years after God had met with him there. What a highlight in his life to account what God had done, and how God had led him and multiplied him since that occasion. But having enjoyed this mountaintop experience, they all soon enter a valley of grief. The scene is a reminder of the importance of family worship, and having our collective meetings with God. Children, this is why going to church every Lord’s Day is so key, because we never know when tragedy will strike, and it is around the means of grace that we’re strengthened by God.
In times of sorrow, the Christian’s hope is at God’s right hand. Jacob named only one of his children, Benjamin. In doing so he reflected the focus of his hope. Years later, the psalmist would declare, “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself” (Ps. 80:17). What encouragement there is that God made Christ strong in order to purchase our eternal salvation.
“Every now and then, dear brothers and sisters, we shall find it necessary to say to ourselves and to our family, ‘We must come out from among worldlings, we must be separate. We are forming connections which are injurious to us, and we must snap the deceitful bonds. We are being led into habits and customs in the management of the household which are not such as God would approve.’” — Charles Spurgeon
Genesis 35: Jacob Returns to Bethel