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Tuesday, June 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 35

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is a collection of somewhat miscellaneous items, some of them out of chronological sequence, but all of them pertinent to concluding the personal history of Jacob, reaching a climax in his accession to the patriarchal preeminence inherited from Isaac as head of the Chosen People. Alan Richardson called the chapter “a series of fragments to complete the story of Jacob.”(F1) There are indeed, “several brief paragraphs, in a sense disconnected, but together providing a useful transitional section in Genesis.”(F2)

The events recorded are:

(1) the return to Bethel (Genesis 35:1-7);

(2) the death and burial of Deborah (Genesis 35:8);

(3) God’s appearance again to Jacob, reaffirming the patriarchal promise (Genesis 35:9-15);

(4) the death of Rachel in childbirth at the birth of Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20);

(5) the incest of Reuben with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22);

(6) a list of the twelve sons of Jacob (Genesis 35:22 b-26);

(7) Jacob’s final visit to his father Isaac, Isaac’s last days, death and burial by Esau and Jacob (Genesis 35:27-29).

We shall not trouble the reader with the conflicting testimonies of critical scholars declaiming various and sundry opinions regarding the alleged “sources” of this chapter. Moses, of course, in a sense is the human source, but all of the sacred record here is of God Himself. Speiser caught a glimpse of this basic truth in the remark extolling the “credibility of each separate source (which) can only add to one’s appreciation of the work as a whole.”(F3) It is the WORK AS A WHOLE, i.e., the Bible upon which the focus should rest. How absolutely irrelevant is the imaginary analysis of the unknown and unknowable sources upon which Moses might have relied for information! Luke was an inspired evangelist who wrote the third book of the N.T.; and he mentioned his having information gathered and written down by many people, and also that he had personally interviewed many of the “eyewitnesses” of things he wrote. It must be supposed, for sure, that Moses did the same thing. However, the truth of what is written in the Bible is assured, not by the integrity or accuracy of the persons consulted or records reviewed either by Moses or Luke, but by the inspiration and reliability of the sacred writers, or compilers themselves. What difference could it make what record Moses might have reviewed in the compilation of a given paragraph? Are the alleged “scholars” of the present time, some 3,500 years after Moses, any better qualified than was Moses to affirm or deny the integrity and accuracy of what he wrote? He is indeed naive and gullible who might think so. In addition to the question regarding the ability of present-day scholars compared with Moses, there must also be added the factor of Moses’ having had the documents in hand (according to their theories). How can it be supposed that people are so skilled and intelligent that they can analyze documents they never saw better than such a man as Moses who, according to their theories, had the documents in his possession? This major assumption of critical scholarship in the current generation is preposterous, untenable, and actually ridiculous. If there was any certainty whatever about all of those imaginary “documents” or “sources,” or if even one of them had ever been seen by any human being living during the last 3,000 years, there might be some point in all the talk about “J,” “E,” “P,” “Some Fourth Source,” etc., etc. We consider it a phenomenal understatement by Francisco that, “There is considerable uncertainty about this!”(F4)

Regarding the fragmentary nature of the chapter, this also is in the highest tradition of all the sacred writings in both the O.T. and the N.T. Mark, for example, compiled totally unrelated and independent statements of Jesus Christ in consecutive sentences (Mark 8:38; Mark 9:1), as attested by the wisest scholars of our generation.(F5) In view, therefore, of this recurring phenomenon in the sacred Scriptures, it is exceedingly tenuous and precarious to depend blindly upon the position of either sentences or paragraphs in the text. For example, in this very chapter, the death and burial of Deborah might well have occurred many years prior to the events in which it appears to be sequenced here, although there is no problem of accepting the narrative either way.

Verses 1-7


“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments: 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. And they gave unto Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. And they journeyed, and a terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan (the same is Bethel), he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Beth-El; because there God was revealed unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.”

The acute distress of Jacob due to his sons’ massacre of the Shechemites had probably sent the patriarch to his knees in prayer. God’s answer came in the command to “Go up to Bethel,” a thing Jacob had long ago promised to do, but which he had neglected, despite the fact of its being only a day’s journey from Shechem. He had just been too busy making money. To go “up” to Bethel was true geographically, for the place was a thousand feet above the lowland of Shechem, but the expression “to go up to” was also true in another way. “The verb go up often described a religious pilgrimage.”(F6) In Jacob’s case both meanings are applicable, for it was indeed a renewal of religious faith on the part of Jacob.

As a preparation for this journey, Jacob demanded and received obedience from his family that they: (1) put away their idols; (2) purified themselves; and (3) changed their clothes. Francisco suggested that this latter requirement might have been the origin “of our custom of wearing `our Sunday best’.”(F7)

“The foreign gods” Included in the idols uncovered here were Laban’s which had been stolen by Rachel, a fact unknown by Jacob until this occasion. Josephus tells us that, “As he was therefore purifying his followers, he lighted upon the gods of Laban; (for he did not before know that they were stolen by Rachel).”(F8)

The reappearance of idols in possession of the children of Israel is noted in connection with the wilderness wanderings, centuries later (Acts 4:42); and, from this, it has been supposed that some of Jacob’s posterity might have recovered some of those “gods” after Jacob buried them. Certainly everyone knew where they were, and, if the gods were made of metal, they would have suffered no great damage in being buried. To avoid such inference, Whitelaw, and others, have supposed that Jacob “destroyed them before burying them.”(F9)

“And the rings which were in their ears” There was nothing innocent about those ear-rings. “These were amulets with idolatrous significance.”(F10) “They were often covered with allegorical figures and mysterious sentences, supposed to be endowed with talismanic virtue.”(F11)

“And they journeyed” The word here rendered journeyed literally means to “pick up the tent stakes,”(F12) and the imperative form of this verb, [~nasa’], is “sometimes printed on the green light of the traffic signals in Israel.”(F13)

“A terror of God was upon the cities” This mantle of God’s protection cast about the journeying Israel was all of grace and none of merit, because his evil sons certainly deserved to suffer for their massacre and enslavement of the Shechemites. That God nevertheless protected Israel in this extremity was due to the necessity of it in order not to allow the frustration of the ultimate purpose of making redemption available for all men. It will be recalled that a similar thing fell upon the citizens of Jericho at the approach of the Israelites after the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The harlot Rahab revealed to the spies of Joshua that, “I know that Jehovah hath given you the land, and that the fear of you is fallen upon us, and that all inhabitants of the land melt away before you” (Joshua 2:9). Again and again, God used this same device in the protection of the Chosen People.

“He built there an altar … called the name of the place El-Beth-El” “This is no double account of the same event. The new name presupposes the first visit.”(F14) Furthermore, this does not mean that he changed the name of it back to Bethel (Genesis 35:8), the use of Bethel in that verse probably indicating the time of Deborah’s death as being prior to this event. In fact, Jacob was “not renaming the place, but he reiterated it for the benefit of his household.”(F15) The name for God in this passage is plural, just as in earlier chapters. However, it is impossible for the reference here to be understood as “divine angels.”(F16) It is only another example of “singular-plural polarity in Israel’s idea of God.”(F17) We join many others in finding here intimations of the Triune Godhead revealed in the N.T.

Verse 8


“And Deborah Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak: and the name of it was called Allon-bacuth.”

As Richardson said, “This note, so surprising in its context, can only be explained as recording an event that took place.”(F18) Many have commented upon the fact that Deborah, a woman of low estate, should be accorded this special and devoted reference, whereas her mistress Rebekah died and was buried with no notice whatever of the event itself appearing anywhere in the sacred text. This is an outstanding demonstration of how worthless in the sight of God are the social distinctions so precious in the sight of men.

The place of Deborah’s burial was called Allon-bacuth, which means “Oak of Weeping,”(F19) indicating that Deborah was highly respected and sincerely loved.

Note that there is not the slightest indication in this verse of when the event recorded occurred. It might have been long before Jacob’s visit to Bethel on the occasion just related. Nevertheless, many respected scholars assume that it was a happening closely connected, timewise, with other events in the chapter. Of course, there is no problem either way it may be understood. If Deborah’s death occurred here at Bethel on the occasion of Jacob’s return, then she must have been at least 150 years of age, which is not at all unreasonable in view of the ages recorded for other people of that same historical period. Regarding the fact of Deborah’s being part of Jacob’s household, rather than that of Isaac, Keil has this:

“Deborah had either been sent by Rebekah to take care of her daughter-in-law and grandsons, or had gone of her own accord into Jacob’s household after the death of her mistress Rebekah. The mourning at her death, and the perpetuation of her memory, are proofs that she must have been a faithful and highly esteemed servant in Jacob’s house.”(F20)

Verses 9-15


“And God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob; thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; and the land which I gave unto Abraham and Isaac, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where he spake with him. And Jacob set up a pillar where he spake with him, a pillar of stone: and he poured out a drink offering thereon, and poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Bethel.”

As anyone familiar with critical comment could have known in advance, there are all kinds of allegations about this being a “repeat” from a different source of the previous mention of God changing Jacob’s name. But as Willis accurately discerned, “It is not inappropriate at all for God to repeat this.”(F21) The very terminology seems to say here, Look Jacob, you have still continued to live in your old character; but now, that you have returned to Bethel and have fulfilled your vow, purified your household, and put away the idols, you and yours must henceforth live as Israel. “God here summarized his previous revelations to Jacob: the name-blessing Israel, and the promise of nationhood in Abraham’s land.”(F22) The command to be fruitful and multiply does not apply to Jacob personally but to his posterity, who are here reminded to continue in the original mandate for humanity announced in Genesis 1:28. “It is clear that the change of name and the reiteration of the promise are connected with Jacob’s settlement in the land. Jacob settles in the land as Israel, claiming it by divine right.”(F23)

Verses 16-20


One tragic event after another was experienced by the patriarch Jacob, and one of the bitterest, perhaps, was that of the death of Rachel in childbirth, as the twelfth son of Jacob is born.

“And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. And it came to pass that when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not, for thou shalt have another son. And it came to pass, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath (the same is Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave: the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.

“Journeyed from Bethel” Was Jacob in violation of God’s command to “dwell” in Bethel? Since God did not specify how long he was to dwell there, and since Jacob had already built the altar and fulfilled his vow, as commanded, it would appear that he was not in violation of God’s will by this journey.

“Ephrath” We should be thankful for the ASV parenthesis, the same is Bethlehem, as it saves us from all kinds of allegations about contradictions and various sources. Bethlehem was the same as Ephrath; and sometimes, the names were even used together, as in Micah 5:2, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrath.” There is no reasonable ground whatever for denying the traditional site of Rachel’s grave near Bethlehem. It is significant that the sacred author here used both names interchangeably; and if he did so with regard to a city, why should it be supposed that the use of various names for God must always signify different writers, or sources, the same being an altogether unproveable and unreasonable proposition. Moses certainly knew many names for God, and no one can disprove the fact that he might have used such names interchangeably, just for variety, a device that is continually used by every critic on earth.

Note another thing. Nothing may be decided by the fact of the mother or the father naming the child. Here both Rachel and Jacob named Benjamin! We can identify with Jacob who did not desire that his twelfth son should bear such a sorrowful name as, “Son of My Sorrow.” One cannot forget the rash prayer of Rachel who had cried, “Give me children, or I die.” (Genesis 30:1). God answered her prayer, and she died!

“Benjamin” usually said to mean “Son of My Right Hand,” may, however, have had another meaning. Certainly, the Samaritan Version gives it as “Son of Days,” meaning “Son of My Old Age.”(F24) Another comment on this, worthy of attention, is that of William Whiston, famed translator of the works of Josephus, as follows: “The commonly explained meaning of Benjamin, son of my right hand, makes no sense at all, and seems to be a gross modern error only. Both the Testament of Benjamin and Philo de Nominum Mutatione explain the name not as `son of my right hand’ but as `son of days’.”(F25) Whatever the true meaning might be, “Son of Days” certainly makes more sense. J. R. Dummelow also recognized and reported this alternative meaning.(F26)

“The same is the Pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day” Such an expression always calls for claims favoring a late date for Genesis; but as Keil said, “This remark does not necessarily point to a post-Mosaic period, but could easily have been written even ten or twenty years after the event.”(F27) Therefore, we must reject the speculation of Francisco that, “It is quite unlikely that Moses, born in Egypt, knew of the location of Rachel’s tomb.”(F28) Our reply to this is that it is far more likely that Moses knew the grave of his famous ancestor than that Francisco has any valid information whatever about what Moses either knew or did not know.

Verse 21


“And Israel journeyed and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder. And it came to pass while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine: and Israel heard of it.”

This blunt note of Reuben’s conduct seems to have been introduced here in anticipation of Reuben’s loss of birthright (Genesis 49:4). It is amazing that none of the details about Jacob’s reaction to this crime, nor any other consequence of it, is cited here. His morality is mentioned again in Deuteronomy 33:6, and the fact of its costing him his birthright appears in 1 Chronicles 5:1.

Verses 22-29


“Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first born, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun; the sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin; the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid: Dan and Naphtali; and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid: Gad and Asher: these are the sons of Jacob that were born to him in Paddan-aram. And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiratharba (the same is Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.”

Genesis 35:26 should not be read as stating that Benjamin was actually born in Paddan-aram, for as Speiser noted, this is merely an “apparent” meaning.(F29) As a group, the twelve were indeed born in Paddan-aram; and even Benjamin was evidently conceived there and was born as they were leaving, or had just left, Paddan-aram. Such loose use of prepositional phrases is common in all languages, no less than in the sacred text. As Francisco pointed out, the arrangement of the sons in this list is according to rank and chronological sequence. Leah’s sons are first, then Rachel’s, this being the chronological order of the children of his two wives. Then the sons of Bilhah are given, for they were next born, followed by the sons of Zilpah, this being the chronological sequence of the sons of the handmaids. Due to their rank as children of a wife, not a handmaid, the sons of Rachel, though later than the children of the handmaids, are named before them. Other lists of the twelve do not follow this pattern. See other lists in: Genesis 49:1-28; Numbers 26:5-51; Deuteronomy 27:12-13; Deuteronomy 33:6-25. Francisco’s comment on the application of Paddan-aram here as the birthplace of the whole twelve is as follows:

“It simply means that when Jacob returned to Hebron, he was still regarded as being in the Paddan-aram journey. The reunion with his father marked the end of that undertaking. In a way, the statement is made from the viewpoint of Isaac when the sons were first brought to him. Jacob was bringing all of them back from Paddan-aram.”(F30)

Verses 28-29


“And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days: and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him.”

Isaac was buried in the cave of Machpelah, although that detail is not given in this verse.

This event also is related out of chronological sequence, for Isaac lived with Jacob at least 12 or 13 years after Jacob’s return from Paddan-aram. Keil relates the basis of the calculations that indicate Isaac’s living some dozen years after the events of Jacob’s return from Paddan-aram. “He lived to witness the grief of Jacob at the loss of Joseph, and died but a short time before his promotion in Egypt, which occurred thirteen years after Joseph was sold, and only ten years before Jacob’s removal with his family to Egypt, as Jacob was 130 years old when he was presented to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9), but the historical significance of his life was at an end when Jacob returned home with his twelve sons.”(F31)

It is clear that this chapter knits together a number of loose ends in concluding the accession of Israel to the headship of the Chosen Nation. After a brief interlude in the next chapter, relating to Esau, the story of Israel henceforth will be the story of the sons of Israel.

It is interesting that Esau is mentioned first in regard to the burial of Isaac. Although this is the last mention of the brothers in each other’s company, it is reasonable to suppose that they might have enjoyed many visits together, as the land of Seir was not all that far away from Hebron. The Bible never caters to the mere curiosity of its readers. It is also likely that Israel had visited Isaac repeatedly, although no visit is recorded. The appearance of Deborah as a member of Israel’s household almost guarantees this.

The account of Isaac’s death and burial here, at least 12 years before it happened, emphasizes the nature of the chapter as a collection of events pertinent to Jacob’s elevation to the position of covenant patriarch, a fact received and accepted by Isaac and Esau.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 35". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-35.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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