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1. And God said unto Jacob. Moses relates that when Jacob had been reduced to the last extremity, God came to his help in the right time, and as at the critical juncture. And thus he shows, in the person of one man, that God never deserts his Church which he has once embraced, but will procure its salvation. We must, however, observe the order of his procedure; for God did not immediately appear to his servant, but suffered him first to be tormented by grief and excessive cares, that he might learn patience, deferring his consolation to the time of extreme necessity. Certainly the condition of Jacob was then most miserable. For all, on every side, might be so incensed against him that he would be surrounded with as many deaths as there were neighboring nations: and he was not so stupid as to be insensible of his danger. God suffered the holy man to be thus tossed with cares and tormented with troubles, until, by a kind of resurrection, he restored him, as one half-dead. Whenever we read this and similar passages, let us reflect that the providence of God watches for our salvation, even when it most seems to sleep. Moses does not say how long Jacob was kept in anxiety, but we may infer from the context, that he had been very greatly perplexed, when the Lord thus revived him. Moreover, we must observe that the principal medicine by which he was restored, was contained in the expression, The Lord spoke. Why did not God by a miracle translate him to some other place, and thus immediately remove him from all danger? Why did he not even, without a word, stretch out the hand over him, and repress the ferocity of all, so that no one should attempt to hurt him? But Moses does not insist upon this point in vain. For hereby we are taught whence our greatest consolation in our afflictions is to be sought; and also, that it is the principal business of our life, to depend upon the word of God, as those who are certainly persuaded that, when he has promised salvation, he will deal well with us, so that we need not hesitate to walk through the midst of deaths. Another reason for the vision was, that Jacob might not only truly perceive that God was his deliverer; but, being forewarned by his word, might learn to ascribe to God whatever afterwards followed. For seeing that we are slow and dull, bare experience by no means suffices to attest the favor of God towards us, unless faith arising from the word be added.
Go up to Beth-el. Though it is God’s design to raise his servant from death to life, he may yet have appeared to hold him up to derision; for the objection was ready, Thou indeed, O Lord, commandest me to go up, but all the ways are closed; for my sons have raised such a flame against me, that I cannot remain safe in any hiding-place. I dare scarcely move a finger: what therefore will become of me, if with a great multitude, I now begin to move my camp? shall I not provoke new enmities against me by my movements? But by this mode the faith of Jacob was most fully proved; because, knowing God to be the leader and guardian of his journey, he girded himself to it, relying on the divine favor. Moreover, the Lord does not simply command what it is his will to have done, but he encourages his servant, by adding the promise. For, in reminding him that he is the same God who had before appeared unto him as he was fleeing in alarm from his brother, a promise is included in these words. The altar also refers to the same point; for since it is the divinely appointed token of thanksgiving, it follows that Jacob would come thither in safety, in order that he might duly celebrate the grace of God. God chooses and assigns Bethel, rather than any other place, for his sanctuary; because the very sight of it would greatly avail to take away terror, when he should remember that there the glory of the Lord had been seen by him. Further, since God exhorts his servant to gratitude, he shows that he is kind to the faithful, in order that they, in return, may own themselves to be indebted for everything to his grace, and may exercise themselves in the celebration of it.
2. Then Jacob said unto his household. The prompt obedience of Jacob is here described. For when he heard the voice of God, he neither doubted nor disputed with himself respecting what was necessary to be done: but, as he was commanded, he quickly prepared himself for his journey. But to show that he obeyed God, he not only collected his goods, but also purified his house from idols. For if we desire that God should be propitious to us, all hindrances are to be removed, which in any way separate him from us. Hence also we perceive to what point the theft of Rachel tended. For, (as we have said,) she neither wished to draw her father away from superstition, but rather followed him in his fault; nor did she keep this poison to herself, but spread it through the whole family. Thus was that sacred house infected with the worst contagion. Whence also it appears, how great is the propensity of mankind to impious and vicious worship; since the domestics of Jacob, to whom the pure religion had been handed down, thus eagerly laid hold on the idols offered to them. And Jacob was not entirely ignorant of the evil: but it is probable that he was so far under the influence of his wife, that, by connivance, he silently cherished this plague of his family. And truly, in one word, he convicts and condemns both himself and the rest, by calling idols “strange gods.” For whence arose the distinction here made, unless from his knowing that he ought to be devoted to one God only? For there is a tacit comparison between the God of Abraham and all other gods which the world had wickedly invented for itself: not because it was in the power of Abraham to determine who should be the true God: but because God had manifested himself to Abraham, he also wished to assume His name. Jacob therefore confesses his own negligence, in having admitted to his house idols, against which the door had been closed by God. For wherever the knowledge of the true God shines, it is necessary to drive far away whatever men fabricate to themselves which is contrary to the true knowledge of him. But whereas Jacob had been lulled to sleep either by the blandishments of his wife, or had neglected to do his duty, through the carelessness of the flesh, he is now aroused by the fear of danger, to become more earnest in the pure worship of God. If this happened to the holy patriarch, how much more ought carnal security to be dreaded by us, in the season of prosperity? If, however, at any time such torpor and neglect shall have stolen upon us, may the paternal chastisement of God excite and stimulate us diligently to purge ourselves from whatever faults we, by our negligence, may have contracted. The infinite goodness of God is here conspicuous; seeing that he still deigned to regard the house of Jacob, though polluted with idols, as his sanctuary. For although Jacob mingled with idolaters, and even his wife, — a patroness of idolatry, — slept in his bosom, his sacrifices were always acceptable to God. Yet this great benignity of God in granting pardon, neither lessens the fault of the holy man, nor ought to be used by us as an occasion for negligence. For though Jacob did not approve of these superstitions, yet it was not owing to him that the pure worship of God was not gradually subverted. For the corruption which originated with Rachel was now beginning to spread more widely. And the example of all ages teaches the same thing. For scarcely ever does the truth of God so prevail among men, however strenuously pious teachers may labor in maintaining it, but that some superstitions will remain among the common people. If dissimulation be added to them, the mischief soon creeps onward, until it takes possession of the whole body. By being thus cherished, the mass of superstitions which at this day pervades the Papacy, has gained its influence. Wherefore we must boldly resist those beginnings of evil, lest the true religion should be injured by the sloth and silence of the pastors.
And be clean, and change your garments. This is an exhortation to the external profession of penitence. For Jacob wishes that his domestics, who before had polluted themselves, should testify their renewed purification by a change of garments. With the same design and end, the people, after they had made the golden calves, were commanded by Moses to put off their ornaments. Only in that instance a different method was observed; namely, that the people having laid aside their ornaments, simply confessed their guilt by mournful and mean apparel: but in the house of Jacob the garments were changed, in order that they who had been defiled might come forth as new men: yet the end (as I have said) was the same, that by this external rite, idolaters might learn how great was the atrocity of their wickedness. For although, repentance is an inward virtue, and has its seat in the heart, yet this ceremony was by no means superfluous; for we know how little disposed men are to be displeased with themselves on account of their sins, unless they are pierced with many goads. Again, the glory of God is also concerned in this, that men should not only inwardly reflect upon their guilt, but at the same time openly declare it. This then is the sum; although God had given no express command concerning the purifying of his house, yet because he had commanded an altar to be raised, Jacob, in order that he might yield pure obedience to God, took care that all impediments should be removed; and he did this when necessity compelled him to seek help from God.
4. And they gave unto Jacob. Though the holy man had his house in suitable subordination; yet as all yielded such prompt obedience to his command by casting away their idols, I doubt not that they were influenced by the fear of danger. Whence also we infer how important it is for us to be aroused from slumber by suffering. For we know how pertinacious and rebellious is superstition. If, in a peaceful and joyous state of affairs, Jacob had given any such command, the greater part of his family would have fraudulently concealed their idols: some, perhaps, would have obstinately refused to surrender them; but now the hand of God urges them, and with ready minds they quickly repent. It is also probable, that, according to the circumstances of the time, Jacob preached to them concerning the righteous judgment of God, to inspire them with fear. When he commands them to cleanse themselves, it is as if he had said, Hitherto ye have been defiled before the Lord; now, seeing that he has regarded us so mercifully, wash out this filth, lest he should again avert his face from us. It seems, however, absurd, that Jacob should have buried the idols under an oak, and not rather have broken them in pieces and consumed them in the fire, as we read that Moses did with the golden calves, (Exodus 32:20,) and Hezekiah with the brazen serpent, (Genesis 18:4.) The fact is not thus related without reason: but the infirmity of Jacob is touched upon, because he had not been sufficiently provident against the future. And perhaps the Lord punished his previous excessive connivance and want of firmness, by depriving him of prudence or courage. Yet God accepted his obedience, although it had some remainder of defect, knowing that it was the design of the holy man to remove idols from his family, and, in token of his detestation, to bury them in the earth. The earrings were doubtless badges of superstition; as at this day innumerable trifles are seen in the Papacy, by which impiety displays itself.
5. And the terror of God was upon the cities. It now manifestly appears that deliverance was not in vain promised to the holy man by God; since, amidst so many hostile swords, he goes forth not only in safety but undisturbed. By the destruction of the Shechemites all the neighboring people were inflamed with enmity against a single family; yet no one moves to take vengeance. The reason is explained by Moses, that the terror of God had fallen upon them, which repressed their violent assaults. Hence we may learn that the hearts of men are in the hands of God; that he can inspire those with fortitude who in themselves are weak; and, on the other hand, soften their iron-hardness whenever he pleases. Sometimes, indeed, he suffers many to cast up the foam of their pride, against whom he afterwards opposes his power: but he often weakens those with fear who were naturally bold as lions: thus we find these giants, who were able to devour Jacob a hundred times, so struck with terror that they faint away. Wherefore, whenever we see the wicked furiously bent on our destruction, lest our hearts should fail with fear and be broken by desperation, let us call to mind this terror of God, by which the rage, however furious, of the whole world may be easily subdued.
7. And he built there an altar. It has been already stated why it behaved the holy fathers, wherever they came, to have an altar of their own, distinct from those of other nations; namely, to make it manifest that they did not worship gods of various kinds, a practice to which the world was then everywhere addicted, but that they had a God peculiar to themselves. For although God is worshipped with the mind, yet an external confession is the inseparable companion of faith. Besides, all acknowledge how very useful it is to us to be stirred up by outward helps to the worship of God. If any one object that these altars differed nothing from other altars in appearance; I answer, that whereas others rashly, and with inconsiderate zeal, built altars to unknown gods, Jacob always adhered to the word of God. And there is no lawful altar but that which is consecrated by the word; nor indeed did the worship of Jacob excel by any other mark than this, that he attempted nothing beyond the command of God. In calling the name of the place “The God of Beth-el,” (122) he is thought to be too familiar; and yet this very title commends the faith of the holy man, and that rightly, since he confines himself within the divinely prescribed bounds. The Papists act foolishly in affecting the praise of humility by a modesty which is most degrading. But the humility of faith is praiseworthy, seeing it does not desire to know more than God permits. And as when God descends to us, he, in a certain sense, abases himself, and stammers with us, so he allows us to stammer with him. And this is to be truly wise, when we embrace God in the manner in which he accommodates himself to our capacity. For in this way, Jacob does not keenly dispute concerning the essence of God, but renders God familiar to himself by the oracle which he has received. And because he applies his senses to the revelation, this stammering and simplicity (as I have said) is acceptable to God. Now, though at this day, the knowledge of God has shined more clearly, yet since God, in the gospel, takes upon him the character of a nursing father, let us learn to subject our minds to him; only let us remember that he descends to us in order to raise us up to himself. For he does not speak to us in this earthly manner, to keep us at a distance from heaven, but rather by this vehicle, to draw us up thither. Meanwhile this rule must be observed, that since the name of the altar was given by a celestial oracle, the building of it was a proof of faith. For where the living voice of God does not sound, whatever pomps may be introduced will be like shadowy spectres; as in the Papacy nothing can be seen except bladders filled with wind. It may be added that Jacob shows the constant tenor of his faith, from the time that God began to manifest himself to him; because he keeps in view the fact, that the angels had appeared unto him. (123) For since the word is in the plural number, I willingly interpret it of angels; and this is not contrary to the former doctrine; for although the majesty of God was then conspicuous, so far as he could comprehend it, yet Moses does not without reason mention the angels whom Jacob saw ascending and descending on the steps of the ladder. For he then beheld the glory of God in the angels, as we see the splendor of the sun flowing to us through his rays.
(122) As the word Beth-el means the House of God, the farther addition of El, the name of God, seems to be a tautology; and this is made by Calvin the basis of an objection which he proceeds to answer. — Ed.
(123) Quia apparuerunt ei Angeli dum fugeret a facie fratris sui In the English translation the name of God is put instead of angels, and no doubt rightly. The reason given for Calvin’s translation of the word אלהים ( Elohim,) by angels is, that, contrary to the usual custom, when the word means God, it is accompanied by a verb in the plural number. But this is not conclusive. See note 2, vol. 1., p. 531, on chap. 20, ver. 13.
Yet there is some difficulty in the passage, arising from the apparent harshness of the repetition of El, the name of God, in this title. Bush thinks that the first EL does not belong to the name of the place. Rivetus reads the first El as the genitive, supposing the word place to be understood. “And he called the place, ‘the place of the God of Beth-el.’ This Dathe thinks harsh, and he follows Michaelis in connecting למקום with the first אל And he called the place of God, Beth-el.” — Ed
8. But Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died. Here is inserted a short narration of the death of Deborah, whom we may conclude to have been a holy matron, and whom the family of Jacob venerated as a mother; for the name given in perpetuity to the place, testifies that she was buried with peculiar honor, and with no common mourning. Shortly afterwards the death and burial of Rachel are to be recorded: yet Moses does not say that any sign of mourning for Deborah was transmitted to posterity; (124) therefore it is probable that she was held by all in the place of a grandmother: But it may be asked, how she then happened to be in Jacob’s company, seeing that he had not yet come to his father; and the age of a decrepit old woman rendered her unfit for so long a journey. (125) Some interpreters imagine that she had been sent by Rebecca to meet her son Jacob; but I do not see what probability there is in the conjecture; nor yet have I anything certain to affirm, except that, perhaps, she had loved Jacob from a boy, because she had nursed him; and when she knew the cause of his exile, she followed him from her regard for religion. Certainly Moses does not in vain celebrate her death with an eulogy so remarkable.
(124) The meaning, perhaps, is, that no monumental pillar was raised to Deborah, as was done to Rachel; the probable reason given for the fact, namely, that she was regarded as a grandmother, does not seem very intelligible. — Ed.
(125) It appears, from a calculation of the ages of Rebekah, of Jacob, and of Rachel, that Deborah must, at this time, have lived far beyond the common term of human life. “Jacob was then about one hundred and seven years of age. Isaac had been sixty years old when Jacob was born; he married Rebekah when he was at the age of forty, and she could not be less than twenty at the time of her marriage; it will follow that she bore twins in, or after, the fortieth year of her age. If these forty years be added to the one hundred and seven of Jacob’s life, this will make one hundred and forty-seven. Supposing Deborah to have been twenty-five when she was given as a nurse to Rebekah, she could not now be less than one hundred and seventy years old” — See Rivetus, p. 701. — Ed.
9. And God appeared unto Jacob. Moses, having introduced a few words on the death of Deborah, recites a second vision, by which Jacob was confirmed, after his return to Bethel. Once, in this place, God had appeared unto him, when he was on his way into Mesopotamia. In the meantime God had testified in various methods, as need required, that he would be present with him everywhere through his whole journey; but now he is brought back again to that very place where a more illustrious and memorable oracle had been given him, in order that he may receive again a new confirmation of his faith. The blessing of God here means nothing else than his promise; for though men pray for blessings on each other; God declares himself to be the sole Dispenser of perfect happiness. Now Jacob heard at this time nothing new; but the same promise is repeated to him, that he, as one who had returned from captivity to his own country, and had gathered new strength to his faith, might accomplish with greater courage the remaining course of his life.
10. Thy name shall not be called any more Jacob. We have before given the meaning of these words. The former name is not abolished, but the dignity of the other, which was afterwards put upon him, is preferred: for he was called Jacob from the womb, because he had strongly wrestled with his brother; but he was afterwards called Israel, because he entered into contest with God, and obtained the victory; not that he had prevailed by his own power, (for he had borrowed courage and strength and arms from God alone,) but because it was the Lord’s will freely to confer upon him this honor. He therefore speaks comparatively, showing that the name Jacob is obscure and ignoble when compared with the name Israel. Some understand it thus, “Not only shalt thou be called Jacob, but the surname of Israel shall be added;” yet the former exposition seems to me the more simple; namely, that the old name, having in it less of splendor, should give place to the second. What Augustine adduces is specious rather than solid; namely, that he was called Jacob in reference to his present life, but Israel in reference to his future life. Let this, however, be regarded as settled, that a double name was given to the holy man, of which one was by far the most excellent; for we see that the prophets often combine them both, thus marking the constancy of God’s grace from the beginning to the end.
11. I am God Almighty. God here, as elsewhere, proclaims his own might, in order that Jacob may the more certainly rely on his faithfulness. He then promises that he will cause Jacob to increase and multiply, not only into one nation, but into a multitude of nations. When he speaks of “a nation,” he no doubt means that the offspring of Jacob should become sufficiently numerous to acquire the body and the name of one great people. But that follows concerning “nations” may appear absurd; for if we wish it to refer to the nations which, by gratuitous adoption, are inserted into the race of Abraham, the form of expression is improper: but if it be understood of sons by naturals descent, then it would be a curse rather shall a blessing, that the Church, the safety of which depends on its unity, should be divided into many distinct nations. But to me it appears that the Lord, in these words, comprehended both these benefits; for when, under Joshua, the people was apportioned into tribes, as if the seed of Abraham was propagated into so many distinct nations; yet the body was not thereby divided; it is called an assembly of nations, for this reason, because in connection with that distinction a sacred unity yet flourished. The language also is not improperly extended to the Gentiles, who, having been before dispersed, are collected into one congregation by the bond of faith; and although they were not born of Jacob according to the flesh; yet, because faith was to them the commencement of a new birth, and the covenant of salvation, which is the seed of spiritual birth, flowed from Jacob, all believers are rightly reckoned among his sons, according to the declaration, I have constituted thee a father of many nations.
And kings shall come out of thy loins. This, in my judgment, ought properly to be referred to David and his posterity; for God did not approve of the kingdom of Saul, and therefore it was not established; and the kingdom of Israel was but a corruption of the legitimate kingdom. I acknowledge truly that, sometimes, those things which have sprung from evil sources are numbered among God’s benefits; but because here the simple and pure benediction of God is spoken of, I willingly understand it of David’s successors only. Finally; Jacob is constituted the lord of the land, as the sole heir of his grandfather Abraham, and of his father Isaac; for the Lord manifestly excludes Esau from the holy family, when he transfers the dominion of the land, by hereditary right, to the posterity of Jacob alone.
13. And God went up from him. This ascent of God is analogous to his descent; for God, who fills heaven and earth, is yet said to descend to us, though he changes not his place, whenever he gives us any token of his presence; a mode of expression adopted in accommodation to our littleness. He went up, therefore, from Jacob, when he disappeared from his sight, or when the vision ended. By the use of such language, God shows us the value of his word, because, indeed, he is near to us in the testimony of his grace; for, seeing that there is a great distance between us and his heavenly glory, he descends to us by his word. This, at length, was fully accomplished in the person of Christ; who while, by his own ascension to heaven, he raised our faith thither; nevertheless dwells always with us by the power of his Spirit.
14. And Jacob set up a pillar. Though it is possible that he may again have erected a sacred monument, in memory of the second vision; yet I readily subscribe to the opinion of those who think that reference is made to what had been done before; as if Moses should say, that was the ancient temple of God, in which Jacob had poured forth his libation: for he had not been commanded to come thither for the sake of dwelling there; but in order that a fresh view of the place might renew his faith in the ancient oracle, and more fully confirm it. We read elsewhere that altars were built by the holy fathers, where they intended to remain longer; but their reason for doing so was different: for whereas Jacob had made a solemn vow in Beth-el, on condition that he should be brought back by the Lord in safety; thanksgiving is now required of him, after he has become bound by his vow, (126) that, being strengthened, he may pass onward on his journey.
(126) Nune gratiarum actio ab eo exigitur, postquam reus voti factus est, ut confirmatus alio transeat. The French translation of “ postquam reus voti factus est ” is, “ apres qu’il a eu jouissance de son souhait,” “after he had obtained the enjoyment of his wish;” and this would read more smoothly than the translation given above; but is “ reus voti ” capable of such a version? — Vide Lexicon Facciolati, sub voce reus. — Ed.
16. And they journeyed from Beth-el. We have seen how severe a wound the defilement of his daughter inflicted on holy Jacob, and with what terror the cruel deed of his two sons had inspired him. Various trials are now blended together, by which he is heavily afflicted throughout his old age; until, on his departure into Egypt, he receives new joy at the sight of his son Joseph. But even this was a most grievous temptation, to be exiled from the promised land even to his death. The death of his beloved wife is next related; and soon after follows the incestuous intercourse of his firstborn with his wife Bilhah. A little later, Isaac his father dies; then his son Joseph is snatched away, whom he supposes to have been torn in pieces by wild beasts. While he is almost consumed with perpetual mourning, a famine arises, so that he is compelled to seek food from Egypt. There another of his sons is kept in chains; and, at length, he is deprived of his own most beloved Benjamin, whom he sends away as if his own bowels were torn from him. We see, therefore, by what a severe conflict, and by what a continued succession of evils, he was trained to the hope of a better life. And whereas Rachel died in childbirth, through the fatigue of the journey, before they reached a resting-place; this would prove no small accession to his grief. But, as to his being bereaved of his most beloved wife, this was probably the cause, that the Lord intended to correct the exorbitance of his affection for her. The Holy Spirit fixes no mark of infamy upon Leah, seeing that she was a holy woman, and endowed with greater virtue; but Jacob more highly appreciated Rachel’s beauty. This fault in the holy man was cured by a bitter medicine, when his wife was taken array from him: and the Lord often deprives the faithful of his own gifts, to correct their perverse abuse of them. The wicked, indeed, more audaciously profane the gifts of God; but if God connives longer at their misconduct, a more severe condemnation remains to them on account of his forbearance. But in taking away from his own people the occasion of sinning, he promotes their salvation. Whoever, therefore, desires the continued use of God’s gifts, let him learn not to abuse them, but to enjoy them with purity and sobriety.
17. The midwife said unto her. We know that the ancients were very desirous of offspring, especially of male offspring. Since Rachel therefore does not accept this kind of consolation when offered, we infer that she was completely oppressed with pain. She therefore died in agonies, thinking of nothing but her sad childbirth and her own sorrows: from the feeling of which she gave a name to her son; but Jacob afterwards corrected the error. For the chance of the name sufficiently shows, that, in his judgment, the excess of sorrow in his wife was wrong; seeing that she had branded his son with a sinister and opprobrious name; (127) for that sadness is not free from ingratitude, which so occupies our minds in adversity that the kindness of God does not exhilarate them; or, at least, does not infuse some portion of sweetness to mitigate our grief. Then her burial is mentioned; to which the holy fathers could not have attended with such religious care, except on account of their hope of the future resurrection. Whenever, therefore, we read concerning their burying the dead, as if they were anxious about the performance of some extraordinary duty, let us think of that end of which I have spoken; for it was no foolish ceremony, but a lively symbol of the future resurrection. I acknowledge, indeed, that profane and degenerate men at that time, in various places, vainly incurred much expense and toil in burying their dead, only as an empty solace of their grief. But although they had declined from the original institution into gross errors, yet the Lord caused that this rite should remain entire among his own people. Moreover, he designed that a testimony should exist among unbelievers, by which they might be rendered inexcusable. For since, independently of instruction, this sentiment was innate in all men, that to bury the dead was one of the offices of piety, nature has clearly dictated to them that the human body is formed for immortality; and, therefore, that, by sinking into death, it does not utterly perish. The statue or monument, erected by him, signifies the same thing. He reared no citadel which might stand as a token of his glory among his posterity: but he took care to raise the memorial of a sepulcher, which might be a witness to all ages that he was more devoted to the life to come; and, by the providence of God, this memorial remained standing, till the people returned out of Egypt.
(127) Rachel, in the act of dying, called her son Benoni, the son of my sorrow; Jacob called him Benjamin, the son of my right hand. It is worthy of remark that Benjamin was the only son of Jacob born in the land of Canaan. — Ed.
22. Reuben went and lay with Bilhah. A sad and even tragic history is now related concerning the incestuous intercourse of Reuben with his mother-in-law. Moses, indeed, calls Bilhah Jacob’s concubine: but though she had not come into the hands of her husband, as the mistress of the family and a partaker of his goods; yet, as it respected the bed, she was his lawful wife, as we have before seen. If even a stranger had defiled the wife of the holy man, it would have been a great disgrace; it was, however, far more atrocious that he should suffer such an indignity from his own son. But how great and how detestable was the dishonor, that the mother of two tribes should not only contaminate herself with adultery, but even with incest; which crime is so abhorrent to nature, that, not even among the Gentiles, has it ever been held tolerable? And truly, by the wonderful artifice of Satan, this great obscenity penetrated into the holy house, in order that the election of God might seem to be of no effect. Satan endeavors, by whatever means he can, to pervert the grace of God in the elect; and since he cannot effect that, he either covers it with infamy, or at least obscures it. Hence it happens that disgraceful examples often steal into the Church. And the Lord, in this manner, suffers his own people to be humbled, that they may be more attentively careful of themselves, that they may more earnestly watch unto prayer, and may learn entirely to depend on his mercy. Moses only relates that Jacob was informed of this crime; but he conceals his grief, not because he was unfeeling, (for he was not so stupid as to be insensible to sorrow,) but because his grief was too great to be expressed. For here Moses seems to have acted as the painter did who, in representing the sacrifice of Iphigenia, put a veil over her father’s face, because he could not sufficiently express the grief of his countenance. In addition to this eternal disgrace of the family, there were other causes of anxiety which transfixed the breast of the holy man. The sum of his happiness was in his offspring, from which the salvation of the whole world was to proceed. Whereas, already, two of his sons had been perfidious and sanguinary robbers; the first-born, now, exceeds them both in wickedness. But here the gratuitous election of God has appeared the more illustrious, because it was not on account of their worthiness that he preferred the sons of Jacob to all the world; and also because, when they had fallen so basely, this election nevertheless remained firm and efficacious. Warned by such examples, let us learn to fortify ourselves against those dreadful scandals by which Satan strives to disturb us. Let every one also privately apply this to the strengthening of his own faith. For sometimes even good men slide, as if they had fallen from grace. Desperation would necessarily be the consequence of such ruin, unless the Lord, on the other hand, held out the hope of pardon. A remarkable instance of this is set before us in Reuben; who, after this extreme act of iniquity, yet retained his rank of a patriarch in the Church. We must, however, remain under the custody of fear and watchfulness, lest temptation should seize upon us unawares, and thus the snares of Satan should envelop us. For the holy Spirit did not design to set before us an example of vile lust, in order that every one might rush into incestuous connections; but would rather expose to infamy the baseness of this crime, in an honorable person, that all, on that account, might more vehemently abhor it. This passage also refutes the error of Novatus. Reuben had been properly instructed; he bore in his flesh, from early infancy, the symbol of the divine covenant; he was even born again by the Spirit of God; we see, therefore, what was the deep abyss from which he was raised by the incredible mercy of God. The Novatians, therefore, and similar fanatics, have no right to cut off the hope of pardon from the lapsed: for it is no slight injury to Christ, if we suppose the grace of God to be more restricted by his advent.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. Moses again recounts the sons of Jacob in a regular series. Reuben is put the first among them, not for the sake of honor, but that he may be loaded with the greater opprobrium: for the greater the honor which any one receives from the Lord, the more severely is he to be blamed, if he afterwards makes himself the slave of Satan, and deserts his post. Moses seems to insert this catalogue before the account of the death of Isaac, for the purpose of discriminating between the progeny of Jacob and the Idumeans, of whom he is about to make mention in Genesis 36:1. For on the death of Isaac the fountain of the holy race became divided, as into two streams; but since the adoption of God restrained itself to one branch only, it was necessary to distinguish it from the other.
28. And the days of Isaac. The death of Isaac is not related in its proper order, as will soon appear from the connection of the history: but, as we have elsewhere seen, the figure hysteron proteron was familiar to Moses. (128) When it is said, that he died old, and full of days, the meaning is, that, having fulfilled the course of his life, he departed by a mature death; this, therefore, is ascribed to the blessing of God. Nevertheless, I refer these words not merely to the duration of his life, but also to the state of his feelings; implying that Isaac, being satisfied with life, willingly and placidly departed out of the world. For we may see certain decrepit old men, who are not less desirous of life then they were in the flower of their age; and with one foot in the grave, they still have a horror of death. Therefore, though long life is reckoned among the blessings of God; yet it is not enough for men to be able to count up a great number of years; unless they feel that they have lived long, and, being satisfied with the favor of God and with their own age, prepare themselves for their departure. Now, in order that old men may leave their minds formed to this kind of moderation, it behaves them to have a good conscience, to the end, that they may not flee from the presence of God; for an evil conscience pursues and agitates the wicked with terror. Moses adds, that Isaac was buried by his two sons. For since, at that time, the resurrection was not clearly revealed, and its first fruits had not yet appeared, it behaved the holy fathers to be so much the more diligently trained in significant ceremonies, in order that they might correct the impression produced by the semblance of destruction which is presented in death. By the fact that Esau is put first, we are taught again, that the fruit of the paternal benediction was not received by Jacob in this life; for he who was the first-born by right, is still subjected to the other, after his father’s death.
(128) The death of Isaac is mentioned here, out of place, to prevent the subsequent interruption of the history. The events of the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth chapters preceded it; for Isaac lived about fifteen years after the removal of Joseph into Egypt. — Ed.
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Genesis 35". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
Eve of Ascension