Jacob Returns to Bethel and Erects an Altar There. God Renews His Covenant With Him. He Finally Joins With Isaac. The Death of Isaac (35:1-36:1a)
This covenant record is based around the theophany and covenant in Genesis 35:9-12. It is a moment of extreme sacredness on Jacob’s return to Bethel after so long an absence from the promised land and results in his finally joining his father Isaac and the main family tribe at Mamre.
‘And God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there, and make there an altar to God who appeared to you when you fled from Esau your brother.” ’
Jacob is still at Shechem (Genesis 35:4) but it would not have been wise to remain there in view of what has happened. It is thus timely that God appears again to Jacob with the command to move on. God’s motive is however slightly different. He had seen that Jacob had been ready to compromise. Now He requires him to go back to Bethel to reconsecrate himself and his tribe. A dangerous and covenant-wrecking situation has been averted.
We should note that the narrative is fully aware of Jacob’s previous visit to Bethel (Genesis 35:1; Genesis 35:7; Genesis 35:9). It is, of course, only ‘Bethel’ at this time to Jacob because of his experience there. To the outside world it is still in the region of Luz (Genesis 35:6).
The command then is to return to where he had had his previous vision. This will take him well away from the neighbourhood of Shechem. God is calling Jacob to a new dedication of himself. And indeed Jacob is aware that he cannot approach that holy place without re-examining his life for there he had met with God in an unusually vivid way.
‘Then Jacob said to his household, and to all who were with him, “Put away the strange gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your clothing. And let us rise and go to Bethel, and I will make there an altar to God who answered me in the day of my distress and was with me in the way in which I went.”
Jacob is aware of the solemnity of this moment. He is travelling back to where he had seen Heaven and earth meet, where he had made a solemn covenant with God, a place he could never forget. And this causes him to take a new look at the family tribe. The distinction between ‘his household’ and ‘those who were with him’ is interesting. His household, which would be those with whom he left Paddan-aram, would include his servants and retainers and would be quite large, but clearly others have joined up with them resulting in an even larger group, including the remnants of Shechem.
But this solemn moment must be prepared for. All is not well. Many are secretly worshipping strange gods, superstition is rife, loyalty to Yahweh is in abeyance. These strange gods may indeed include the teraphim stolen by Rachel which she may have begun to worship, although she may well have been doing so only in secret without Jacob’s knowledge. But they cannot go to that sacred place with these abominations (the name later given to idols). There can be no idols in Beth-el. There must be a new dedication.
So they are to put away these gods (it is not enough to stop heeding them, they must be got rid of). Then they are to ritually purify themselves, including changing their clothes, in preparation for the journey to Bethel. We have no hint of the method of ritual purification but it may well have included ritual washing and a period of abstinence from sexual activity, removing the ‘earthiness’ so that they can be fit to approach Bethel and God. The washing is to remove ‘earthiness’. The re-clothing suggests a presentation of themselves before God having rid themselves of the past (such semi-nomadic men did not regularly wash or change their clothing. Indeed the passion for cleanliness is a modern virtue). All would be aware that this was a life-changing moment.
As they did, it is good for us too to take time to re-examine our lives and rid ourselves of those things that have begun to hinder our walk with God. Then we too may have deeper experience of God.
The final purpose is to go to Bethel, where the God Who has continually watched over him had appeared to him, as they would all know, and to build an altar where he had erected the pillar. Shechem no longer holds a welcome for them so that a new sanctuary is required. And Jacob recognises that this is a call to return back to what Yahweh had intended for him from birth as previously confirmed at Bethel.
‘And they gave to Jacob all the strange 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.’
These would include small images, amulets, and other superstitious objects, which included earrings, which had idolatrous religious connections, and which would have been bought from passing merchants. These were collected together and buried under an oak in Shechem. Such trees were often connected with important events. They represented outstanding landmarks. Thus when they left Shechem they left their past behind them. It reminds us that God cannot be approached casually. If we would approach Him all hindrances must be removed.
‘And they began their journey, and a terror from God (or ‘a great terror’) was on the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.’
They made their escape from Shechem without interference. This was because of the fear that had spread round as a result of their activities. Stories about the raid by Jacob’s sons were probably spread from mouth to mouth, expanding as they went, so that by the time the other cities heard them a large, fierce army had been involved. And this was added to and used by God. Thus they kept away, and by the time the truth was known it was too late. Jacob’s sons had made their escape. Such a terror from God is witnessed to elsewhere in Exodus 23:27; 1 Samuel 14:15. It is implied in Joshua 10:10; Judges 4:15; Judges 7:22. God can work in men’s minds in many ways.
‘So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, (the same is Bethel), he and all the people who were with him.’
Luz was the name of the city in the area in which Jacob had erected the pillar on his first visit. Later it was changed to Bethel and a compiler’s note added here.
‘And he built there an altar and called the place El-Bethel because there God was revealed to him when he fled from the face of his brother.’
Previously Jacob had erected a pillar as a personal witness to his personal covenant with God. He had named its site Bethel. Now he erects an altar as a place of worship for his family tribe. And he calls the site of the altar ‘El-Bethel’ which means ‘the God of Bethel’. This was in memory of the fact that he had named the place where the pillar was Beth-el (house of God) when God had revealed Himself to him there. This is a public naming, with full solemnities of sacrifice and worship, in contrast to the previous private naming. Now the name is generally recognised in the tribe and not just personal.
‘And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak, and the name of it was called Allon-Bacuth.’
The ceremony was marred by a sad event, the death of Rebekah’s nurse. It is probable that Rebekah had sent her nurse to keep a motherly eye on Jacob on his flight to Paddan-aram as she could not do so herself. Thus she had been with him many years. It was the end of an era. (Alternately Rebekah may have come with her nurse to see Jacob on his return to Canaan). She had watched over Jacob these many years and now he has returned to Bethel her work is done She has done what God required. The writer probably saw it as the final evidence of the end of the past and a new beginning.
It may be that the death of such a faithful retainer at such a time was seen as somehow a fitting offering to God for she was buried under an oak tree ‘below Bethel’. The place was thus called Allon-Bacuth - ‘the oak of weeping’, an indication of the sorrow that accompanied her departure. Possibly it became for the people a place where they could weep when they were enduring sorrow.
‘And God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him.
“God appeared to Jacob again.” The ‘again’ refers back to the previous theophany at Bethel before he left Canaan (Genesis 28:10-22). This is now God’s renewal of that covenant on his return to the promised land at the place where he had first made His promises to him. Thus the writer is very much aware of Jacob’s experience then and what went on (compare Genesis 35:1 and Genesis 35:7). He is aware that part of the site has already been called Beth-el.
“When he came from Paddan-aram.” The writer wants us to have the whole context. This is not just another step in the journey, it is in direct relation to his leaving Paddan-aram to return to the promised land. It is the confirmation of the return of God’s chosen one from the far country.
“And blessed him”. This sums up what follows. Thus Jacob’s obedience to God and detailed preparations for the pilgrimage to Bethel to build the altar to His name is rewarded with a vivid experience of the divine, a great theophany, accompanied by great promises. This is the definitive experience. In it is summed up all that has gone before. In it is summed up all his hopes for the future. Both the name Israel and the name Bethel are as it were reconsecrated in recognition of the uniqueness of this occasion.
‘And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob. Your name will not any longer be called Jacob, but Israel will be your name. And he called his name Israel.” ’
A change of name for Abram occurred at God’s first revelation of Himself as El Shaddai, and here a second change of name is referred to on God’s second revelation of Himself as El Shaddai. It would appear that such revelations required the transformation of the recipients resulting in a change of name.
But as we know, Jacob had already been given this name after wrestling with God at Penuel (Genesis 32:28), and he had subsequently erected an altar to ‘God, the God of Israel’ (Genesis 33:20). But he had delayed in returning to the family tribe and as so often in men’s lives such life-changing events can dim with time. The idea of him as Israel has become faded. It is almost forgotten. The old Jacob had reasserted itself. Thus at this crucial renewing of the covenant at Bethel the change of name is renewed and emphasised. It is emphasising that what happened at Penuel is now to come into fruition. He is to be Israel.
A change of name in ancient days was seen as having deep significance. This is why at this crucial moment in the life of Jacob and of the tribe God emphasises his changed name. He must remember that he is no longer Jacob, but Israel. The past is behind him. The old Jacob is behind him. This is a new beginning. He is the one with whom God has striven and through whom He will carry out his purposes (Israel means ‘God strives’).
We may see here an implied rebuke against Jacob’s long stay in Succoth and Shechem. He had previously been given the new name of Israel preparatory to returning to the family tribe. But he had not done so, he had delayed. Now it is necessary for him to be renamed after the period of backsliding. It is a salutary thought that had he previously been faithful the shame of Shechem would not have occurred.
This change of name is emphasised later in the following verses. Once his twelfth son has been born and the full complement of sons made up he will journey on as Israel (Genesis 35:21). This also coincides with the death of Rachel. It is as though with her death, with the great hold she had had on him, he is now free to be what God wants him to be.
‘And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai (the Almighty God). Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations (goyim) will be from you, and kings will come from your loins. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to you will I give it, and to your seed after you will I give the land.” ’
The meaning of ‘El Shaddai’ is not yet apparent to us but the LXX translates it as ‘the Almighty’. God only reveals Himself under this title twice, to Abraham in connection with the greater covenant and to Jacob here, and in both cases there is stress on a change of name for the recipient. To receive a covenant from El Shaddai means a whole new direction in life.
So Jacob is confirmed as the inheritor of the greater covenant. Whenever God is mentioned under the name of El Shaddai it is in relation to many nations, not just to the family tribe. To Abraham in Genesis 17 ‘you shall be the father of a multitude of nations (hamon goyim)’, and Ishmael is a part of that covenant, to Isaac as he blesses Jacob in Genesis 28:3 ‘that you may be a company of peoples’ (liqhal ‘amim), and again to Jacob in Genesis 48:4 reference is made to ‘a company of peoples’ (liqhal ‘amim). It is in recognition of this fact that Jacob speaks of El Shaddai when he sends his sons back to Egypt to obtain the release of Simeon and entrusts them with Benjamin (Genesis 43:14). It is Yahweh as El Shaddai, the sovereign God over the whole world, who has the power to prevail over the great governor of Egypt. This may also be why Isaac used this title of Yahweh when he sent his son into a foreign land.
So Jacob is not just inheriting the promises related to the family tribe but those which relate to God’s worldwide purposes. However, as always, this includes these local promises, thus he will bear both a nation and a company of nations. His direct descendants will be kings and his seed will inherit the promised land.
These promises relate closely to those mentioned by Isaac in 28:3-4 in the context of El Shaddai. To be fruitful and multiply, to be a company of peoples, and to receive the blessing of Abraham in the inheritance of the land. Thus God confirms that he is speaking to him as the God of Isaac.
Less directly they also relate to the promises made when he first came to Bethel, for there too he was promised that he and his seed would receive the land (Genesis 28:13), that he would multiply greatly and especially that through him and his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 28:14).
“Be fruitful and multiply.” This has more the sons of Jacob in mind than Jacob himself. But their sons would be his sons, and their seed his seed. He would proudly look on further generations and finally they would become an innumerable multitude.
“A nation and a company of nations.” His family tribe would become a nation. But this would not be all, for a company of nations would also come from him. And later Israel was to be a company of nations, for it was to include not only his descendants but large numbers of peoples of other nations who joined themselves with Israel (e.g Exodus 12:38), and even further on peoples from all nations would gladly form the true Israel, the ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16 with 3:29; Ephesians 2:11-19).
“Kings shall be descended from you (come from your loins).” Nationhood would result in kingship, and those kings would be his own descendants. Indeed from him would come the greatest King of all.
And he and his seed would inherit the land. We cannot fully appreciate what it meant to a sojourner (alien and non-landowner), a wanderer, a landless person who must trust to the good nature of others and whatever bargains he could arrange and pay for in one way or another, to become the possessor of land. And here the promise to Abraham and Isaac is confirmed to Jacob. He and his seed will one day possess the whole land.
We note here that the promises are unconditional. At these great moments God does not lay down any terms. He is sovereign and will bring about His purposes. The only hint that response is required comes in the reference to Jacob’s change of name to Israel and its significance. But even this was part of God’s sovereign purpose and Jacob was the recipient. And this is recognised especially in the fact that Jacob makes no response as he had done previously at Bethel (28:20-22). This is not a time for man to make his promises and bargains. This is a moment of receiving in awesome silence.
‘And God went up from him in the place where he spoke with him.’
This is confirmation that here was a physical manifestation of God. Once God had finished re-establishing His covenant with Jacob He ‘goes up’, a recognition that He is leaving the world for His own realm. For ‘went up’ compare Genesis 17:22; Judges 13:20.
‘And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he spoke with him, a pillar of stone. And he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it.’
This is the second pillar that Jacob has set up. The first commemorated his first vision when he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on a ramp as they went about their heavenly business in the world, and was assured of God’s presence with him and watch over him and his participation in the covenant (Genesis 27:18). It was set up in the place where he slept. This one commemorates an even greater occasion, the awesome visible manifestation of God in renewal of that covenant now that he is back in the land of promise. Again the pillar is witness to the covenant that has been made. It is set up at the very site of the theophany. As we have seen earlier, Jacob was a great one for requiring evidence of covenants (Genesis 26:33).
“And he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it.” The first pillar was set apart to God by the pouring of oil on it and it marked God’s visit and presence, but there was no thought there of an offering. It was a reminder of what had happened and of the covenant made. Here the offering comes first. Jacob pours out a drink offering to God, and only then does he sanctify it to God. It is a recognition of God’s continued presence.
‘And Jacob called the place where God spoke to him ‘Beth-el’.’
The previous naming had been in private (Genesis 28:19) and was of the spot where he had had his vision. It was an extremely personal thing and was accompanied by a personal response. Now the naming is more public and covers a wider area where the altar has been set up. We cannot doubt that the whole tribe was involved. Thus the wider site becomes more widely recognised as ‘Beth-el’, the house of God. Later the name will be transferred to the neighbouring city of Luz as well.
The confirmation before all of the name he has previously given it establishes the new name. It is seen as sacredly connected to the important ceremony that has just taken place in the sanctifying of the altar. That had been named El-Bethel (God of the house of God) because of the previous naming. Now the vivid theophany has confirmed the whole place as Beth-el, the ‘dwelling place’ of God.
Now that he and his tribe are reconsecrated he begins the final part of his journey back to the mother tribe, to Isaac, via Ephrath (later to be Bethlehem) and the Tower of Eder.
“And they journeyed from Bethel, and there was still some way to come to Ephrath, and Rachel began to experience birth pains and she had hard labour. And it happened that when she was in hard labour the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for now you will have another son. And it happened that, as her life was departing, for she died, she called his name Benoni (son of my sorrow), but his father called him Benjamin (son of the right hand). And Rachel died and was buried in the way to Ephrath, the same is Bethlehem.’
The journey from Bethel to Mamre is interrupted by sad experiences of which the first is the death of Rachel in childbirth. But as she dies she is able to rejoice in the birth of a son, calling him Benoni - product of my sorrow. Understandably however Jacob does not want a continual reminder of the loss of his beloved wife, and changes the name to Benjamin. This name, ‘son of the right hand’ is probably intended to indicate good fortune. Jacob wants him to be connected with good fortune rather than with mourning. Note that it is not said the she was buried in Bethlehem itself. She was buried in ‘the way to Ephrath’, (‘there was still some way to come to Ephrath’ - Genesis 48:7), the Bethlehem Road on the way from Bethel, which goes through Benjaminite territory (1 Samuel 10:2-3; Jeremiah 31:15).
“The same is Bethlehem.” A later note added by a scribe to identify Ephrath.
The name Benjamin is attested elsewhere in the Mari texts (eighteenth century BC) as binu yamina which probably means ‘sons of the South’, but there is no good reason for identifying them with the later tribe of Benjamin. It is a name that could be given to many tribes for identification purposes, looking from a particular standpoint (compare ‘children of the East’).
‘And they saw him in the distance, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another, “See, the lord of dreams comes.” Come now therefore, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we will say, ‘An evil beast has devoured him’, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” ’
Joseph’s behaviour and attitude, and especially his dreams of superiority, have so filled his brothers with hatred that they decide to get rid of him once and for all. When they see him approaching, wearing his coat of many colours which emphasises his favoured position (it also showed he had not come to work), they felt bitter. There were a number of cisterns nearby, holes three metres or so deep widening underneath the surface, whose purpose was to catch and store rainwater for the dry season. Remains of such cisterns have been found near Dothan. They could easily hide a man’s body. So they decided to murder him and throw him into a cistern. It would be easy to suggest he had met with an accident, for who would ever know?
“The lord of dreams.” A bitter statement that demonstrates their feelings. The dreams and their suggestions of lordship had clearly affected them deeply, as their final comment shows.
‘And Jacob set up a pillar on her grave. The same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.’
The loss of Rachel is a deep blow and when she is buried he sets up a memorial stone. The setting up of such stones was a custom widely practised in Canaan in those days. The significance attached to such a pillar would vary between tribes as with so many customs and we are given no hint here what is in Jacob’s mind. It may well have been just because he did not want her burial place to be forgotten. Later Israel was certainly decidedly against any funerary cult. Possibly he felt that in some way it kept her alive. Consider how even today the loss of a very dear loved one results in people praying at the grave. They cannot believe the loved one has gone.
“The same is the pillar of Rachel”s grave to this day.’ ‘To this day’ may signify a long or a short time. It merely says that the writer is aware of the pillar and declares it is still there. We may therefore see it as the comment of the recorder of this covenant record within a relatively short time of the occurrence or as an added comment made later by the compiler.
This is the second death of someone important to him preparatory to his being restored to his family (compare Genesis 35:8). If only he had returned earlier what might have been avoided. Now he returns surrounded by grief. We must always beware of delay when dealing with God.
‘And Israel journeyed and spread his tent beyond the Tower of Eder.’
The name means ‘cattle tower.’ It is unidentified but clearly obtained its name from some well known local landmark. But what is significant is that we see Jacob’s new name applied to him in an historical record for the first time. He has come home as a new man. It is not Jacob who is coming home, but Israel. The contrast with ‘Jacob’ in the previous verse may well deliberately indicate that the death of Rachel brings in a new era. In some way he is a better man for being free from her influence. But this final step in the journey is mentioned also for another reason. A reason of shame.
Genesis 35:22 a
“And it happened, while Israel dwelt in that land that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father”s concubine, and Israel heard of it.’
The homecoming is marred. Israel may be coming home a new man but there is still sin in the camp. His son Reuben commits a great sin, and the news reaches his father. It is a sin that Israel never forgets even on his deathbed (Genesis 49:4) for it would bring great shame on him. It would seem that Reuben takes advantage of Bilhah’s new insecurity, for now that her mistress is dead she may well have lost status and be vulnerable and in no position to deal with the advances of her husband’s eldest son.
The significant use of Jacob’s new name ‘Israel’ stresses the final success of his period away. He is a changed man. The sin of Reuben warns against over exuberance.
“Israel heard of it.” The total lack of comment or of any indication of Israel’s reaction speaks volumes. The writer is aware of Israel’s shame and in deference to his master pulls a veil over the incident. It is enough that all will pass the same judgment and be appalled. It had to be mentioned because of the appalling nature of the sin, for it would colour the whole of Reuben’s future. But it was passed over without comment because of deep sensitivity for Israel.
The record finishes with a genealogy of Jacob’s sons, followed by the final homecoming and the death of Isaac. Such genealogies were commonly included in written records at that time and here it is especially pertinent. Jacob had left as a young man with only a staff to call his own, he comes home as the leader of a confederation of sub-tribes.
Genesis 35:22 b
”Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.”
The writer reverts back to the name Jacob. The name Israel will be take up again later. It was Jacob who had gone out, and now he returns a fully fledged confederation of tribes in the recognised twelve-fold pattern. His sons, apart from Benjamin, have grown up and are leaders of their own sub-groups, as what happened at Shechem (chapter 34) had demonstrated, and even Benjamin has those who watch over him. The picture is somewhat idealistic to demonstrate his outstanding success and the faithfulness of the God Who has been with him.
‘The sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. And the sons of Zilpah, Rachel’s handmaid: Dan and Naphtali. And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob which were born to him in Paddan-aram.’
“Born to him in Paddan-aram.” That is all but Benjamin. But the idea is rather that they were all born prior to his full return to the tribe after being sent to Paddan-aram. The writer views it as one seeing them all return home ‘from Paddan-aram’.
‘And Jacob came to Isaac his father, to Mamre, to Kiriath-arba (the same is Hebron) where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.
At last Jacob is home. He has come to take up his now rightful place as heir to the family tribe and the covenant promises. He is now in the line of Abraham and Isaac.
For Mamre see 13:18; 14:13; 18:1. Kiriatharba means ‘city of four’, possibly of four parts. It was as an annotator tells us the later city of Hebron. Compare for its use Joshua 14:15; Joshua 15:54; Joshua 20:7; Judges 1:10.
‘And the days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years, and Isaac yielded up his breath and died, and was gathered to his people old and full of days. And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him.
Isaac lives on for many years with Esau and Jacob as his support. He was not much more than one hundred when Jacob left for Paddan-aram and he had thus many years of life ahead of him. But he was blind and old before his days and there were no special covenants to record. However, as with all the ages of the patriarchs, the number is a round number and therefore probably contains a meaning of its own. The aim is to show a long and successful life. How close he came to those exact years neither he nor we would know. It is extremely doubtful that records of age were kept over so many years.
Meanwhile, after the return of Jacob their wealth of possessions and cattle and herds was so great that Esau eventually removes permanently, with all he possesses, to his well established base in Mount Seir (Genesis 36:6). His visits to his family home will now be far fewer and less protracted. Previously he has shared his time between assisting his father in times of necessity, lambing, sheepshearing, harvest and so on, and leading his band of warriors. Now that can be left to Jacob. But he remained in touch with his family and when his father died he came to join Jacob, and they buried him together.
These words may well have been added as a postscript to the previous covenant record.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 35". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany