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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 35

Verse 1

XXXV.
JACOB RETURNS TO BETH-EL AND HEBRON.—DEATH OF ISAAC.

(1) Arise, go up to Beth-el.—The position of Jacob at Shechem had become dangerous; for though the first result of the high-handed proceeding of Simeon and Levi was to strike the natives with terror (Genesis 35:5), yet reprisals might follow if they had time to learn the comparatively small number of Jacob’s followers. It was necessary, therefore, to remove; but besides this, Beth-el was the goal of the patriarch’s jonrneyings. He had made a solemn vow there on his journey to Padanaram, and though forty-two years had elapsed, it had not been forgotten (see Genesis 31:13); and the Divine command to go thither Was the outward authorisation of what his own conscience dictated. On this account we cannot believe that he had remained long at Shechem. Nomads are singularly leisurely in their movements. There is nothing of the rush and hurry of city life in their doings or purposes. They are capable of a great effort occasionally, but then relapse into their usual slowness. And so, when Jacob found good pasture and plenty of room for his cattle at Shechem, he remained there for awhile; but he did not abandon his purpose of going first to Beth-el, and finally to Hebron.

Verses 1-29

THE TÔLDÔTH ISAAC (Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 35:29).

THE BIRTH OF ISAAC’S SONS.

Abraham begat Isaac—The Tôldôth in its original form gave probably a complete genealogy of Isaac, tracing up his descent to Shem, and showing thereby that the right of primogeniture belonged to him; but the inspired historian uses only so much of this as is necessary for tracing the development of the Divine plan of human redemption.

The Syrian.—Really, the Aramean, or descendant of Aram. (See Genesis 10:22-23.) The name of the district also correctly is “Paddan-Ararn,” and so far from being identical with Aram-Naharaim, in Genesis 24:10, it is strictly the designation of the region immediately in the neighbourhood of Charran. The assertion of Gesenius that it meant “Mesopotamia, with the desert to the west of the Euphrates, in opposition to the mountainous district towards the Mediterranean,” is devoid of proof. (See Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1, p. 304.) In Syriac, the language of Charran, padana means a plough (1 Samuel 13:20), or a yoke of oxen ( 1 Samuel 11:7); and this also suggests that it was the cultivated district close to the town. In Hosea 12:12 it is said that “Jacob fled to the field of Aram;” but this is a very general description of the country in which he found refuge, and affords no basis for the assertion that Padan-aram was the level region. Finally, the assertion that it is an ancient name used by the Jehovist is an assertion only. It is the name of a special district, and the knowledge of it was the result of Jacob’s long-continued stay there. Chwolsohn says that traces of the name still remain in Faddân and Tel Faddân, two places close to Charran, mentioned by Yacut, the Arabian geographer, who flourished in the thirteenth century.

Isaac intreated the Lord.—This barrenness lasted twenty years (Genesis 25:26), and must have greatly troubled Isaac; but it would also compel him to dwell much in thought upon the purpose for which he had been given to Abraham, and afterwards rescued from death upon the mount Jehovah-Jireh. And when offspring came, in answer to his earnest pleading of the promise, the delay would serve to impress upon both parents the religious significance of their existence as a separate race and family, and the necessity of training their children worthily. The derivation of the verb to intreat, from a noun signifying incense, is uncertain, but rendered probable by the natural connection of the idea of the ascending fragrance, and that of the prayer mounting heavenward (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4).

The children struggled together.—Two dissimilar nations sprang from Abraham, but from mothers totally unlike; so, too, from the peaceful Isaac two distinct races of men were to take their origin, but from the same mother, and the contest began while they were yet unborn. And Rebekah, apparently unaware that she was pregnant with twins, but harassed with the pain of strange jostlings and thrusts, grew despondent, and exclaimed—

If it be so, why am I thus?—Literally, If so, why am I this? Some explain this as meaning “Why do I still live?” but more probably she meant, If I have thus conceived, in answer to my husband’s prayers, why do I suffer in this strange manner? It thus prepares for what follows, namely, that Rebekah wished to have her condition explained to her, and therefore went to inquire of Jehovah.

She went to enquire of the Lord.—Not to Shem, nor Melchizedek, as many think, nor even to Abraham, who was still alive, but, as Theodoret suggests, to the family altar. Isaac had several homes, but probably the altar at Bethel, erected when Abraham first took possession of the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7), and therefore especially holy, was the place signified; and if Abraham were there, he would doubtless join his prayers to those of Rebekah.

Verse 2

(2) Strange gods.—Besides Rachel’s teraphim, many, probably, of the persons acquired by Jacob at Haran were idolaters, and had brought their gods with them. Besides these, the numerous men and women who formed the”tafs” of the Shechemites were certainly worshippers of false deities. The object, then, of this reformation was not merely to raise Jacob’s own family to a higher spiritual state, but also to initiate the many heathen belonging to their households into the true religion. Outward rites of purification and changes of garment were to accompany the religious teaching given, because of their symbolical value; and we can well believe that much deep and earnest religious feeling would be evoked by the solemnities which accompanied this drawing near of the whole tribe to God. This reformation is also interesting as being the first of a long series of such acts constantly recurring in the history of Israel; and especially it is parallel to the sanctification of the people at Sinai. There, also, there was the initiation not merely of the lineal Israel, but also of the mixed multitude, into the true religion—for Jacob’s family had then grown into a nation; and there, also, symbolical washings were enjoined (Exodus 19:10-14). These subsequently were still practised under the Law, and grew into the baptism by which we are now admitted into the Church of Christ.

Verse 3

(3) Who answered me . . . —The narrative of Jacob’s life, and the detail of God’s providential care of him, would doubtless affect strongly the minds of his followers, and make them ready to abandon their idols, “and worship the God that was Israel’s God” (Genesis 33:20).

Verse 4

(4) Earrings.—Earrings seem to have been worn not so much for ornament as for superstitious purposes, being regarded as talismans or amulets. Hence it was from their earrings that Aaron made the golden calf (Exodus 32:2-4).

The oak.—Not Abraham’s oak-grove (Genesis 12:6), referred to probably in Judges 9:6; Judges 9:37—the Hebrew word in these three places being êlôn—but that under which Joshua set up his pillar of witness (Joshua 24:26), the tree being in both these places called allâh, or êlâh, a terebinth.

Verse 5

(5) The terror . . . —Heb., a terror of God, that is, a very great terror (see Genesis 23:6; Genesis 30:8). But to the deeply religious mind of the Hebrew everything that was great and wonderful was the result of the direct working of the Deity. (But see Note on Genesis 48:22.)

Verse 7

(7) El-beth-el.—That is, the God of the house of God: the God into whose house he had been admitted, and seen there the wonders of His providence.

God appeared.—The verb here, contrary to rule, is plural (see Note on Genesis 20:13), but the Samaritan Pentateuch has the singular. No argument can be drawn either way from the versions, as the word for God is singular in them all, and the verb necessarily singular also. In no other language but Hebrew is the name of God plural, but joined with verbs and adjectives in the singular.

Verse 8

(8) Deborah.—As she was at Hebron with Rebekah when Jacob journeyed to Haran, he must have somehow gone thither before this, have seen his father, and told him of his fortunes. Apparently Rebekah was then dead, and Jacob brought back Deborah with him. (See Note on Genesis 33:18.) How dear she was to them is shown by their calling the tree under which she was buried the oak of weeping. This oak was “beneath Beth-el,” that is, in the valley below it. Deborah must have died at a great age, for she gave Rebekah suck, and must therefore have been grown up at her birth. Now Jacob, when he returned from Padan-aram, was ninety-seven years of age; and as he was born twenty years after his mother’s marriage—if we allow the shortest possible space for the interval spent at Succoth and Shechem—Deborah must have been nearly one hundred and sixty years of age. This again confirms the conclusion that Dinah’s dishonour occurred very soon after the arrival of Jacob at Shechem. (See Note on Genesis 34:1.)

Verse 9

(9) When he came out of Padan-aram.—The word “out” is not in the Hebrew, which says, on his coming from—that is, on his arrival at Beth-el from Padan-aram. The insertion of the word “out” lends to a confusion with the revelation recorded in Genesis 31:3. At Beth-el Jacob, when going forth, had seen the dream which assured him of Divine protection; at Beth-el, on his return, God renews the covenant, confirms to him the name of Israel, and transfers to him the promises of a numerous seed and of the possession of the land. It was the ratification to him of the inheritance of all the hopes and assurances given to Abraham.

Verse 11

(11) God Almighty.—Heb., El-shaddai, the name by which God had entered into the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1).

A company.—Heb., a congregation of nations. (See Genesis 28:3, where it is “a congregation,” or church, “of peoples.”)

Verse 13

(13) God went up from him.—This formula, used before in Genesis 17:22; Genesis 18:33, shows that this manifestation of God’s presence was more solemn than any of those previous occasions upon which the Deity had revealed Himself to Jacob. It was, in fact, the acknowledgment of the patriarch as the heir of the Abrahamic covenant.

Verse 14

(14) Jacob set up a pillar.—In doing this Jacob was imitating his previous action when God manifested Himself to him in his journey to Haran, Genesis 28:18. This consecration of it by pouring on it oil, and offering to God a drink-offering, was in itself natural and right. But as these memorial pillars were subsequently worshipped, they were expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law, the word correctly rendered “pillar” in this place being translated standing image in Leviticus 26:1, and image in Deuteronomy 16:22.

Verse 15

(15) Jacob called . . . —See Genesis 28:19. The name had, of course, remained unknown and unused, as what then passed had been confined to Jacob’s own inward consciousness. He now teaches the name to his family, explains the reason why he first gave it, and requires them to employ it. But with so grand a beginning the town was debased to unholy uses, and from being Beth-el, the house of God, it became Bethaven, the house of iniquity (Hosea 10:5).

Verse 16

(16) But a little way.—Heb., and there was still a “chibrath” of land to come to Ephrath. This word occurs four times in the Old Testament: here, in Genesis 48:7, in 2 Kings 5:19, and in Amos 9:9, where it is used in the sense of a sieve. Many of the Rabbins, therefore, translate “in the spring-time,” because the earth is then riddled by the plough like a sieve; and the Targum and Vulgate adopt this rendering. The real meaning of the word is lost, but probably it was a measure of distance; and the Jewish interpreters generally think that it meant a mile, because Rachel’s traditional tomb was about that distance from Bethlehem.

Ephrath (the fruitful) and Beth-lehem (the house of bread) have virtually the same meaning, but the latter name would be given to the town only when its pastures had given place to arable lands, where corn was sown for bread.

Verse 18

(18) Ben-oni . . . Benjamin.—Rachel, in her dying moments, names her child the son of my sorrow; for though on has a double meaning, and is translated strength in Genesis 49:3, yet, doubtless, her feeling was that the life of her offspring was purchased by her own pain and death. Jacob’s name, “son of the right hand,” was probably given not merely that the child might-bear no ill-omened title, but to mark his sense of the value and preciousness of his last born son. Abravanel well remarks that earthly happiness is never perfect, and that the receiving of Divine revelations made no difference to Jacob’s earthly lot. God had just solemnly appeared to him, and he is on his last journey, within two days’ easy march of Hebron, when he loses the wife whom he so loved. For more than forty years he had been an exile from his home; he was now close to it, but may never welcome there the one for whom he had so deep and lasting an affection.

Verse 20

(20) That is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.—This is a later addition, but whether inserted by Moses or Ezra we cannot tell. Its site was known in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:2); and as the pillar would be a mass of unwrought stone, with which the natives would have no object in interfering, its identification upon the conquest of Canaan would not be difficult.

Verse 21

(21) The tower of Edar.—Heb., Eder. Micah (Genesis 4:8) calls it “the hill of the daughter of Zion;” but the word used often means a beacon-hill, a hill on which a tower for observation is erected, wrongly translated in the Authorised Version a stronghold. The tower may, therefore, have been a few miles south of Jerusalem; and as the word “beyond” includes the idea of up to, as far as, the meaning is that Jacob now occupied this region permanently with his cattle. Until Esau, with his possessions, withdrew to Seir, there would be no room for Jacob and his flocks and herds at Hebron, but he would at Eder be so near his father as to be able often to visit him. And thus his exile was now over, and he was at last at home.

Verse 22

(22) Reuben.—Again another grief for Jacob to mar his return home, and this time it arises from the sin of his first-born, who thereby forfeits the birthright. It was the thought of these miseries, following upon his long years of exile, which made Jacob speak so sorrowfully of his experience of life before Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9).

And Israel heard it.—The Masora notes that some words have here fallen out of the text, which the LXX. fill up by adding, “And it was evil in his sight.”

Verse 26

(26) In Padan-aram.—The words are to be taken only generally, as Benjamin was born in Canaan.

Verse 27

(27) The city of Arbah, which is Hebron.—Better rendered Kirjath-arba in Genesis 23:2, where see Note.

Verse 28

(28) The days of Isaac were an hundred and fourscore years.—As Isaac was sixty when his sons were born, Jacob was one hundred and twenty years of age at his father’s death, and one hundred and thirty when he appeared before Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9). Now, as Joseph was seventeen when sold into Egypt (Genesis 37:2), and thirty when raised to power (Genesis 41:46), and as the seven years of plenty and two of the years of famine had passed before Jacob went down into Egypt, it follows that the cruel deed, whereby he was robbed of his favourite child, was committed about twelve years before the death of Isaac.

Verse 29

(29) Esau and Jacob buried him.—Esau, who apparently still dwelt at Hebron until his father’s death, takes here the precedence as his natural right. But having in previous expeditions learnt the physical advantages of the land of Seir, and the powerlessness of the Horites to resist him, he gives up Hebron to his brother, and migrates with his large wealth to that country.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 35". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-35.html. 1905.