36. The Way Back (Genesis 35:1-29)
Nearly thirty years have passed since Jacob vowed to return to Bethel, where God had revealed Himself to him during his flight from Esau to Paddan-aram. Far worse, it had been ten years since Jacob had left Laban and returned to the land of promise. Jacob had built a house in Succoth (33:17) and formed alliances in Shechem with the Canaanites, which would have brought about the ruin of the nation that was to emerge from Jacob’s descendants. It was thirty years after Jacob’s vow to return to Bethel that he determined to fulfill it, and this in light of the fact that Bethel lay only thirty miles from Shechem.11
From outward appearances Jacob was not that far from God—only thirty miles distant from Bethel. He had also built an altar at Shechem (33:20), so there must have been some kind of religious observance there. Spiritually, however, Jacob was not near to God at all. Jacob told Esau he would meet him at Seir (33:14), but he went the opposite direction to Succoth, then to Shechem. Jacob somewhat passively accepted the rape of his daughter and even entered into an agreement whereby the purity of the covenant people of God would be lost (chapter 34). Jacob was preoccupied with prosperity and security at the expense of purity and piety. He is near Bethel but not near to the God of Bethel—at least not in chapter 34.
Jacob’s condition is not that different from many Christians in our own time. We may appear to be walking close to God while the opposite is true. We may still continue to preserve the forms and observe the rituals of piety, but, in fact, the reality is not there. Paul described this condition as “…holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” (II Timothy 3:5). We may be like those in the church at Ephesus, who have “lost their first love” (Revelation 2:4), or those at Laodicea who, due to their wealth and security, considered themselves to be doing well spiritually when they were destitute, cold, and indifferent (Revelation 3:15-17).
Since every one of us will face times when we have strayed from an intimate walk with God, Genesis 35 provides us with a pattern for finding the way back. And so this chapter not only describes the way back for Jacob, but it also outlines the way back for any believer who has grown cold and indifferent by failing to walk in the path which God has made clear.
Back to Bethel
Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. So Jacob come to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. And he built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him, when he fled from his brother. Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; it was named Allon-bacuth (Genesis 35:1-8).
Insofar as the Scriptures report, God had been silent for nearly ten years, ever since He had commanded Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to Bethel (31:3).12 The question must be asked, “Why did God wait so long to instruct Jacob to get on with the matter of returning to Bethel, as He had clearly commanded him earlier?” To me, the answer is quite simple—until now Jacob wasn’t listening.
In spite of his dramatic encounter with the Angel of Jehovah in chapter 32, Jacob quickly lost any sense of urgency about doing what God had commanded. No doubt Jacob intended to get around to going up to Bethel in time, but there was no hurry in his mind. I have previously suggested that Jacob would have felt obliged to give the tithe that he had promised (28:22), which might have been a bitter pill to swallow. After promising to meet Esau at Seir (33:14), Jacob traveled the opposite direction, first to Succoth, then to Shechem. Jacob agreed to allow his children to inter-marry with the Canaanites in order to preserve peace and to enhance his prosperity (34:8ff.). Jacob seems to have little desire to do the will of God which he knows. God had, after all, clearly spoken. Was it of any value to speak again?
The tragic and painful events of chapter 34 greatly improved Jacob’s ability to hear and obey God. His daughter had been raped, his sons had put the men of Shechem to death, and it appeared that neither he nor his family could live safely in that region any longer. You see, while all of the men of the city of Shechem had been put to the sword, the women, children, and cattle had been taken as booty (34:28-29). The relatives of those who were killed and those taken captive were not inclined to take the actions of Jacob’s sons lightly. Jacob was correct in his assessment of the danger of staying in that area (cf. 34:30). It was only at the point where Jacob sensed great danger and where it seemed impossible to stay in Shechem that Jacob was willing to listen to the voice of God reminding him of his duty to return to Bethel.
Surely there is a principle here for all Christians pertaining to God’s will and man’s. The Christian does have a free will in the sense of being able to choose whether or not he (or she) will obey that which God has commanded.13 We can resist the commands of God, but we cannot thwart His ultimate purposes.14 God allowed Jacob to go his own way and to reap the consequences of his disobedience. But in the final analysis we will do what God has purposed. God does not, like many of us do as parents, yell and holler, fuss and fume, over the disobedience of His children. He is, of course, deeply grieved by disobedience, but he will allow us to go our own way and to reap the painful price of sin. And then, when we have gotten our fill of sin and there is no other way to turn, He will speak to us again, reminding us of that which He has previously spoken. Then, too, we shall surely listen and obey. God’s will can be resisted for a season and at a great price, but ultimately God will create an atmosphere in which we will gladly hear and obey. And then His purposes will be realized in our lives.
Jacob was to return to the place of his beginnings, spiritually speaking, and to dwell15 there. While oblivious to divine standards of holiness and purity in Succoth and Shechem, Jacob was intent upon putting off impurity before coming into the presence of God. Jacob had to be aware of the presence of the foreign gods in his camp. Further, he seemed to be content to do nothing about them until now. One reason may have been that Rachel, his favorite, had set the precedent when she took with her the household gods of her father (31:19). But here we are told that the possession of such “gods” was much more common in the camp of Jacob than by just Rachel. Part of the explanation for this is the fact that many foreigners had been added to Jacob’s household. While all of the men of Shechem had been put to the sword, the women and children were taken alive. These Canaanites undoubtedly kept their gods with them (or made new ones) when they were taken captive. Finally this idolatry had to be reckoned with.
The foreign gods and also the earrings, which must have had some unacceptable pagan religious associations (cf. Hosea 2:13), were collected and buried under the oak tree near Shechem. Not many years after the Israelites read of the burial (literally, “hiding”) of these pagan artifacts, they would be called upon by Joshua to put away their foreign gods. Under this same oak tree, it would seem, their gods were put away, and a large stone was set up as a witness to this act (Joshua 24:19-28).
One cannot help but remark about Jacob’s casual attitude toward separation and purity while dwelling in Shechem. He tolerated the possession of foreign gods. He was about to enter into a relationship with the Canaanites which would undermine the purity of this chosen race. But all of a sudden, when God called him to return to Bethel, he was greatly concerned about purity. Jacob knew that there could be no approach to God in an impure condition. Perhaps this explains, in part, his reluctance to “go up”16 to Bethel before now. Following our Lord has always been costly, and men should not do so without counting that cost (cf. Luke 9:57-62). And lest you be too quick to condemn Jacob for this, let me remind you that this is precisely the case today. Many Christians are unwilling or hesitant to fully commit themselves to God for fear of what that commitment will cost them. There is a song which says, “… whatever it takes to be closer to Thee, Lord, that’s what I’ll be willing to do.” I doubt that many of us are willing to make that kind of commitment for fear of what might have to be set aside.
Jacob had every reason to fear some kind of reprisal from the relatives of those Shechemites who had been put to death by his sons. Furthermore, the wives and children, who were taken captive and would be taken away, must have had Canaanite relatives eagerly seeking revenge.17 After all, what had been done to Dinah was committed on a grand scale by her brothers in their killing the men of Shechem and kidnapping the women and children.
Contrary to his fears, not so much as one finger was raised to resist their departure to Bethel thirty miles or so to the south and then beyond this. The explanation is to be found in the great terror that came from God. The Canaanites feared any military action or resistance because they were convinced of the fierceness of the sons of Jacob and of the might of their God. This same terror would again fall upon the Canaanites when Israel marched from Egypt to Canaan (cf. Exodus 15:16; 23:27; Deuteronomy 2:25).
In this experience Jacob learned a lesson which is pertinent to us as well: safety is not to be found in our own strength nor in alliances with pagans, but in the fear of God, which causes us to maintain the purity He demands.
The fear of man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted (Proverbs 29:25; cf. Exodus 14:13-14; Proverbs 8:13; 10:27; 14:26; Isaiah 8:13-15).
National defense was a prominent issue in the last presidential election. I do not wish to imply that I am in favor of no military defense system or in a weak or obsolete one. But I must say that it is not our military strength that is going to keep us secure. Our security will never come from the “arm of the flesh,” but only from the Sovereign God Who cares for His own (cf. Psalm 20:7, 33:13-22; Isaiah 30:1-3, 15, 31:1, 41:10-16; Jeremiah 5:17, 17:5-8).
In obedience to the command of God, Jacob finally returned to Bethel, and there he built an altar, calling the place El-Bethel, for the God of Bethel had revealed Himself there. Nowhere are we told that Jacob gave a tithe, as he had promised years before (28:22). God did not remind him of this promise as He did of the commitment to return and build an altar. I suspect that this is for two reasons. First, there was no need for a tithe here. What would have been done with it? Second, I am convinced that when Jacob made this promise he did so in a bargaining mentality, and God does not bargain with men. God may thus have chosen to let this promise pass by. Some commitments are rashly made, especially by those who are immature. God seems to have overlooked this one, too hastily made by Jacob.
It was here at Bethel that Deborah, Rebekah’s maid, died. We are not told why or when she came to stay with Jacob. It is possible that she came bearing the news of Rebekah’s death and then stayed on with Jacob. No doubt Deborah was one to whom Jacob felt very attached, especially if he knew that his mother had died. Under the oak18 her body was buried.
God’s Blessing Reiterated
Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you.” Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a libation on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel (Genesis 35:9-15).
Verse 9 takes us somewhat by surprise, for it seems to suggest that God may have made several appearances to Jacob since he had come up from Paddan-aram.
The word “again” particularly inclines us toward this conclusion. In Genesis 35:1 Jacob was commanded to return to Bethel, where He had appeared to him. The first appearance of God was at Bethel, thirty years previous. The second appearance (“again") was also at Bethel, as recorded in verses 10-13. God did not appear when He commanded Jacob to return to Bethel in verse 1, it would seem, but only spoke to him.
Verse 9 is unusual in that it almost seems to overlook the time which lapsed between Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his going up to Bethel. Moses, under inspiration, wrote in this fashion to suggest something significant for us from the life of Jacob. Verse 9 brushes aside ten years as though they did not exist. Thus, God’s appearance to Jacob “the second time” is recorded as though it happened shortly after he returned to the land of Canaan. The inference I see here is that those ten years were of little or no spiritual value. They were lost years, for they were a time of independence and disobedience on Jacob’s part. Whenever the people of God choose to go their way, they must always return to the point where they departed from the revealed will of God. While it should have taken Jacob only days to get from Paddan-aram, it took ten years. No real growth or progress in Jacob’s spiritual life could take place until he returned to Bethel.
The blessings spoken by God are remarkably similar to those given to Abraham in Genesis 17:4-7. Virtually nothing new was promised Jacob here, and the former promises given to him at Bethel 30 years before were simply reiterated. Jacob would henceforth be called Israel. He would be fruitful and would become a nation and a company of nations, and the land promised Abraham would be his and his descendants. The repetition of the change of Jacob’s name to Israel further assured him that the One he had seen face to face in chapter 32 was the same God who had twice revealed Himself to him at Bethel.
God visibly ascended before Jacob’s eyes from the place where He had spoken (verse 13). Jacob set up a pillar there and poured oil and wine upon it (verse 14). Again, Jacob gave this place, which was presently known as Luz, the name Bethel (verse 6). Once the Israelites possessed this land, it would become known by the name which Jacob had given it.
For Jacob, this event served as a rededication to the God Who had set His love on Him in eternity past and Who had sought him out thirty years before when he was fleeing from Esau. For the sons of Jacob and all those who were in his household, this may have been the first clear evidence and explanation of the faith which he possessed but so poorly practiced before them. Soon they must take up the torch of faith, and the purposes of God will be carried on through them. The faith of Jacob must become the faith of his children.
Heartache in the Family
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor. And it came about when she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.” And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day (Genesis 35:16-20).
Somewhere between Bethel and Bethlehem, Rachel went into hard labor. As the child was being born the midwife tried to encourage Rachel by informing her that it was the son she wanted so badly. We should recall that Joseph, the name she had given her first son, meant, literally, “add to me” (Genesis 30:24), expressing her desire for yet another son. With her dying breath Rachel named this second son Ben-oni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” Jacob would not allow that name to stand, however, and changed it to Benjamin, “the son of my right hand.” Rachel was then buried on the way to Bethlehem, and Jacob and his household proceeded on, having set up a pillar along the way.
Significantly, Moses added that this pillar was still standing in his day. While this may mean little to us, I think that it was of great interest to his first readers, the Israelites, who were about to enter into the land of Canaan. It informed these travelers that if they looked for this pillar when they possessed the land they would find it. What a sense of history this pillar must have helped to create. The events of the past were intended to be remembered and commemorated. Visual reminders had a great place in Old Testament times, not to mention the present (cf. Exodus 13:14ff.; Joshua 4:4-7; I Corinthians 11:26).
Rachel’s death should be viewed from the vantage point of two previous events:
Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1).
Rachel demanded children of her husband out of jealousy toward her sister Leah. She said she would die if she could not bear children. In truth, she would die in the bearing of children.
A second passage is even more striking. In the context of this text, Jacob has fled from Laban, not knowing that Rachel has stolen her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19-20). After bemoaning the fact that Jacob took his family away before he could give them a proper farewell, he got to the real bone of contention demanding the return of his gods. In response to this charge Jacob hotly retorted:
The one with whom you find your gods shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen point out what is yours among my belongings and take it for yourself (Genesis 31:32).
While the sentence may have been delayed in its execution, it is my conviction that Rachel’s death is the result, to one degree or another, of these words spoken by her husband.
While Jacob was dwelling beyond the tower of Eder, another painful incident saddened his heart:
Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now there were twelve sons of Jacob—the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, then Simeon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Zebulun; the sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin; and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram (Genesis 35:21-26).
Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, initiated an illicit sexual union with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid and later Jacob’s concubine. This report is given to us here because it fits into the chronological scheme at this point, and it prepares us for the time when Jacob will take away from Reuben the rights of the firstborn (Genesis 49:34).
A careful look at this event suggests that there is more to the story than what is seen at first glance. So far as we are told, there is only one act of immorality rather than an ongoing relationship. Jacob was told of it but did nothing.19 This was probably because the sin had been committed only once and was not repeated. What could be done to prevent what had already happened?
Furthermore, this act is not described in terms of lust or sexual desire, such as the incident with Shechem and Dinah (cf. 34:1ff.). There seems to be little question but what Bilhah was a woman who was far from young. No mention is made of her youthfulness or attractiveness. The deeper significance, I believe, is to be seen in her position as Jacob’s concubine, not in her personal beauty. An incident later in the history of Israel helps us to grasp what prompted this act and the penalty exacted by Jacob.
When David became old and it was time for him to designate who was to replace him as king, he delayed. As a result, Adonijah set out to make a claim to the throne by gaining the allegiance of the leaders of the nation. Only due to the urging of Bathsheba did David designate Solomon, her son, as the heir to the throne. Adonijah then made one last daring attempt to regain supremacy. He did so by asking Bathsheba to intercede with David for one seemingly harmless and innocent request:
Now Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, “Do you come peacefully?” And he said, “Peacefully.” Then he said, “I have something to say to you.” And she said, “Speak.” So he said, “You know that the kingdom was mine and that all Israel expected me to be king; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the LORD. And now I am making one request of you; do not refuse me.” And she said to him, “Speak.” Then he said, “Please speak to Solomon the king, for he will not refuse you, that he may give me Abishag the Shunammite as a wife.” And Bathsheba said, “Very well; I will speak to the king for you.” So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said, “I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Ask, my mother, for I will not refuse you.” So she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as a wife.” And King Solomon answered and said to his mother, “And why are you asking Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him also the kingdom—for he is my older brother—even for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah!” Then King Solomon swore by the LORD saying, “May God do so to me and more also, if Adonijah has not spoken this word against his own life. Now therefore as the LORD lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of David my father, and who has made me a house as He promised, surely Adonijah will be put to death today.” So King Solomon sent by Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he fell upon him so that he died (I Kings 2:13-25).
Adonijah knew that to claim the king’s harem was to possess the kingdom. That was the basis for his request. Solomon knew it also and had him put to death for treason. Is this not also the explanation for the actions of Reuben? He, like Adonijah, was the older brother, who would have been expected to assume the rights of the firstborn. He, like Adonijah, could, by this act of possessing the harem, assume the headship that seemed to be his by virtue of being the eldest brother.
If this explanation is correct, is this not a kind of poetic justice for his father Jacob, who so desired the headship of the family that he would cheat his brother and deceive his father? The chickens, I am compelled to remind you, do come home to roost. That is precisely what happened here, in my estimation.
As Jacob begins to fade from the spotlight, his twelve sons come to the forefront. Moses therefore lists these twelve sons according to their mothers, beginning first with Leah, then Rachel, and concluding with Bilhah and Zilpah. Previous to this time, God had chosen to fulfill His covenant to Abraham through one son to the exclusion of others. Now God’s people will be begotten through all the sons of Jacob.20
The final event of the chapter seems to have been inevitable—the reconciliation of Jacob, his father Isaac, and his brother Esau:
And Jacob come to his father Isaac at Mamre of Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Now the days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years. And Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him (Genesis 35:27-29).
Perhaps the most difficult thing in the world for Jacob to do was to stand before his father, whom he had deceived in order to obtain the blessing. Personally, I view Jacob’s reluctance to return to Bethel and to his father as stemming from his sense of guilt and shame. But reconciliation with God and the renewal at Bethel necessitated the reconciliation described in verses 27-29.
One might conclude that Jacob had scarcely arrived at his father’s home when Isaac died, and so it seems that Jacob arrived just in the nick of time. More careful calculations inform us that there was something like ten years or so between Jacob’s return and his father’s death.21 Moses simply did not care to stress this fact. It is time for Isaac to step aside, as well as Jacob, at least for the time being. The burial of Isaac was a cooperative effort of both Jacob and Esau. There is not so much as a hint that Esau still intended to carry out his threat from years past that he would get even with Jacob once his father died (cf. 27:41).
Several lessons may be learned from the events of this chapter. First, I am deeply impressed with the importance of renewal. Christians seem to ever be seeking some new and exhilarating experience. They wish to go from one novel experience to another. In the Scriptures, however, I see little of this happening, either to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. What Jacob did at Bethel was hardly novel, and what God said to him at His second appearance was nothing new. That should tell us something. What was really important for Jacob was that he gain a deeper and deeper appreciation of what he had already experienced but not fully grasped. He needed nothing new, but a greater grasp of that which was old.
It was George Bush (not the Vice President of the United States but the author of one of the old, classic commentaries on Genesis) who most clearly verbalized this truth:
These incidents may teach us that the most precious favors of heaven often come to us, not in the form of blessings or promises entirely new, but in the repetition or revival of those which we have already experienced in times past. And so, on the other hand, it may be that the most acceptable manner in which they can serve God will be, not by engaging in something unattempted before, but by “doing our first works,” by reminding ourselves of our covenant vows, and seeking anew that spiritual communion which is the life of our souls.22
I believe it is precisely for this reason that our Lord has commanded believers to frequently and systematically observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Table.23 It is here, week after week, that we are taken back to our initial encounter with our Lord and reminded that all we are, all that we will be, and all that we will ever accomplish of any eternal value will be on the basis of that which took place on the cross of Calvary 2,000 years ago.
But perhaps I am assuming too much. It may be that I should not be urging you to “go back to Bethel” at all, particularly if you have never been there. If you have never come to that point which Jacob had come to thirty years previous to this time, the point of recognizing your sinfulness and impending peril, the point of recognizing that the only way to God’s heaven is through some means which God Himself provides, then you must come to God by faith for the first time. You must, in biblical terminology, be born again (John 3:3); you must be saved (Acts 4:12; 16:31). I pray that you will do this now by simply acknowledging your sin and your utter inability to gain God’s favor or admission into His kingdom. The way has been provided in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who died in your place and Who offers His righteousness to all who will believe on Him alone for salvation.
Jacob’s renewal at Bethel necessitated several actions on Jacob’s part. First, he came to the point where he stopped going his own sinful way and once again obeyed that which he knew to be the will of God. There cannot be renewal without obedience. Second, there cannot be renewal without separation. Jacob put away those foreign gods which he had so long tolerated and which were so offensive to God. Finally, Jacob’s renewal involved reconciliation with those who had been injured and offended by his sins. We cannot be reconciled to God without being reconciled with men (cf. Matthew 5:23-24).
The second lesson which Christians need to learn is that even when we do renew our relationship with God, all things will not go smoothly for us. Life, even the Spirit-filled life, is full of sickness (Philippians 2:25ff.), suffering, and sorrow (II Corinthians 6:4-5; 12:7-10). Walking in the path which God has revealed to us is not strolling along some rose petal-strewn pathway, free from the adversities of life. In fact, these adversities and afflictions are the very things which draw us nearer to God and strengthen our faith (cf. James 1:2-4). Had the tragedy regarding Dinah not occurred or the slaughter of the Shechemites angered the surrounding Canaanites, I am convinced that Jacob would have been content to remain amongst the Canaanites, and worse yet, to have become one of them.
The third lesson has to do with “reaping what we have sown” (cf. Galatians 6:7). Much of the heartache which Jacob experienced in this chapter was the result of his previous sins. Now I want to be very clear that Jacob did not suffer the penalty for his sins. No Christian ever suffers the penalty for sins, for Jesus Christ has borne our sins on the cross. But while the guilt and condemnation are dealt with, the consequences of sin remain. David sought God’s forgiveness for his sin and received it (Psalm 51, 32), but the consequences for his acts were not held back (cf. II Samuel 12:9-12).
The final lesson is what we might call the certainty of sanctification. God had purposed that Jacob would someday return to Bethel and to his father. While Jacob dilly-dallied and drug his feet for ten years, he finally arrived. We cannot thwart the purposes of God for our lives. We may, of course, resist them, but we cannot prevent them.
Let us not conclude, therefore, that it matters little what we do. It matters a great deal. There was much needless heartache and sorrow in Jacob’s life because of his waywardness. Sin is never worth the price. We can be fully assured that what God has begun, He will finish (Philippians 1:6). Whether this is done the “hard way” or the “easy way” is determined by our resistance or cooperation, but God’s purposes will be achieved (Romans 8:28-30). Is this not the very thing which motivates us to be faithful and encourages us when we have failed?
The steps of a man are established by the LORD; And He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand. I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Or his descendants begging bread. All day long he is gracious and lends; And his descendants are a blessing (Psalm 37:23-26).
For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, But the wicked stumble in time of calamity (Proverbs 24:16).
11 “Bethel was only thirty miles away from Shechem, and yet it was quite ten years since Jacob’s return into Canann. And it was over thirty years since he had made his vow to return to Bethel and acknowledge God’s hand if he were brought back in peace.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 329.
12 We can deduce that some time has passed from two lines of inquiry. First, from the age of Dinah in Shechem as compared to her age at the time of Jacob’s departure. When Jacob left Paddan-aram, she must have been a very young child, for Dinah was born after Leah had borne Jacob six sons (cf. 30:21). By the time Jacob was in Shechem, Dinah was of a marriageable age (cf. 34:1ff.). Secondly, we know that Joseph was 17 when he was sold into slavery, and this seems to be not too long after Jacob went to Bethel for the second time (37:2). Since we know that Joseph was born at the end of Jacob’s 14-year contract with Laban (30:25-26), he would have been about six years old when Jacob left Paddan-aram (cf. 31:41). Thus, there is a period of nearly ten years between Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his final arrival at Bethel.
13 The “bondage of the will” is a soteriological concept, unrelated to our present discussion. By it, theologians refer to the inability of any unsaved person to voluntarily “choose” to obey or trust in God. We are by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Man cannot first choose God, for he is born at enmity with God. That is why the scriptures speak of God first opening the heart of men (cf. Acts 13:48; 16:14; Philippians 1:6,29). Christians can choose to sin by disobeying the revealed will of God (I John 1:8-9), as countless examples in Scripture evidence, but ultimately we cannot thwart the purposes of God. This is a lesson which Jonah had to learn the hard way.
14 Elsewhere I have referred to the commands of God as His “declared will,” the expressions of the desires of God as His “desiderative will,” and the decree of God as His “determined will.” Only the last of these is inviolable. God’s Word is not always obeyed (sometimes we would better say, not often obeyed), even though God commanded it. God’s desires are not always realized (such as the salvation of all men, I Timothy 2:4), even though it would please Him. But God’s determined ends always come to pass, without a hitch and without delay. (For further information on this subject, consult the series “Guidelines For Guidance,” which I did some time ago.)
15 It may appear from God’s command that Jacob was to “dwell” at Bethel (35:1) and that his departure from Bethel after a time was sinful disobedience. But was it not needful that Jacob return to his father to be reconciled to him and to be with him before his death? Leupold removes our difficulties by explaining the meaning of “dwell” or “tarry”:
“He should ‘tarry’ (shebh, imperative from yashabh; here not in the sense of ‘dwell’ but ‘tarry’) just long enough to carry out the injunction laid upon him. Jacob was not to ‘go up to Bethel to live’ (Meek). This rendering creates an unnecessary conflict with what Jacob actually does.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 914.
18 Both in verse 4 and verse 8, the oak tree is called “the” oak, not “an” oak. This is probably due to a combination of two factors. First, trees were not all that numerous there, and so it may have been the only tree around. Second, it designates a specific oak, probably one that could be pointed out in Moses’ day (cf. verse 20).
19 More precisely, Israel was told of Reuben’s sin and did nothing. The name Israel, rather than Jacob, may suggest that here the patriarch responded rightly (as Israel, not the old “Jacob”) to this situation.
21 “. . . Isaac’s death is now reported, though it did not take place for another twelve or thirteen years. For shortly after this, when Joseph was sold into Egypt, he was seventeen years old. When he stood before Pharaoh he was thirty (41:46). Seven years later when Joseph was thirty-seven, Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130 (47.9). Consequently Jacob must have been ninety-three at Joseph’s birth and at the time of our chapter 93 + 15, i.e. about 108 years. But Isaac was sixty years old when Jacob was born; 108 + 60 = 168 = Isaac’s age when Jacob returned home. But in closing the life of Isaac it is proper to mention his death, though in reality this did not occur for another twelve years. Strange to say, Isaac lived to witness Jacob’s grief over Joseph.” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 929.
23 The command of our Lord, “This be doing in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19, my translation), is a present imperative, suggesting a continuing observance through the ages, till He comes (cf. also I Corinthians 11:26).