Well, wherever you are listening from around the world today, welcome to this verse-by-verse bible study. I’m Randy Duncan, and in this episode, we’ll be covering Genesis chapter 35.
In the last episode, we discussed the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. And then the deceptive act of revenge taken by her two brothers, Simeon and Levi, when they went into Shechem killing not only Shechem and Hamor, but many others.
But before we begin Chapter 35, one thing I want to point out about that last episode as we continue here, is that all of this occurred in Shechem, where Jacob had sort of set up camp. But Shechem is not where God had instructed him to go. He was to go to Bethel, where he had promised to follow and worship God, and to build an altar there. And what ends up happening, is that rather than bringing a blessing to surrounding nations, he brings a sword. Jacob was not where he was supposed to be.
I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us. If God calls you to do something, you do it. Be where God calls you to be, whether that is physically doing something, or whether that is being in a place spiritually in your relationship with God…you need to follow God’s guidance in your life. But the only way to become sensitive to hearing God’s voice, to perceive His prompting you, is to spend intentional time listening and paying attention, and in prayer
So, as we begin chapter 35, we are sort of reaching the end of our focus on Jacob. This is the last chapter that will focus on Jacob, as we’ll then see the focus shift to his son Joseph. And so, with that, let’s dive in
35 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
So, God says to Jacob, “Arise, get up, and go to Bethel, and make an altar there”. Again, this isn’t the first time God told Jacob to go to Bethel. I just went over that and discussed the unfortunate ramifications. It’s interesting that God says “Arise, get up”, because Bethel is geographically 1000 feet higher in elevation than Shechem. And so, this geographical ascent also symbolizes Jacob’s spiritual ascent to God.
But God also tells Jacob to build an altar there. This is interesting and significant, for a couple of reasons. First, because it is the only time that God instructed one of the patriarchs to build an altar. All the other times, they build altars of their own free will, in an act of worship. It’s also God’s way of reminding Jacob that Jacob has not delivered on his promise he made at Bethel. But it is also significant because Bethel had a long Canaanite history, and was well known to be sacred to pagans. And so, by Jacob building an altar to God there, it served to disrupt the sanctity of the site from its pagan history
In verse 2, Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away, or get rid of, the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves”. That phrase signals the peoples’ rededication of themselves to God, and it’s usually connected with some specific public ritual that symbolized a rededication to God. Repentance involves renouncing anything that hinders or tarnishes worship of God.
We would do good to keep that in mind ourselves, as there has never been in a time in the history of the world where we have more options for things that can pollute our worship of God. Even when he tells the people to change their clothes, it symbolizes a new and purified way of life. And so, what we see here, is Jacob renouncing any foreign or alien gods. For the first time in the Bible, we now see a tension between the God of Israel and the religion and gods of the surrounding people
Verse 4 tells us “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears.” Now there are a couple of different thoughts on what these foreign gods were. One, these may have been idols or household gods that were taken among the spoils after the raid on Shechem, or maybe those brought by the captives taken at Shechem. But it may also refer to things like the terafim that Rachel stole from her father Laban, and then hid, back in chapter 31.
But it also says the people gave Jacob all the “rings that were in their ears”. Now these were not just ordinary pieces of jewelry and amulets, but talismans adorned with pagan symbols.
And so, what we see here is the religious and spiritual maturing of Jacob. He is taking the spiritual leadership role in his family. He is finally on his way to fulfilling his promise to God.
5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6 And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. 8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So, he called its name Allon-bacuth.
So as Jacob and his people leave and head on toward Bethel, a terror from God falls on the cities that were around them, so that they didn’t pursue Jacob. IOW, the surrounding city-states don’t attack Jacob because they are themselves petrified. Remember in the last episode, Jacob chewed out Simeon and Levi because he was afraid their acts of revenge would lead to counter-attacks by the surrounding people. But here we see that those cities were scared to death of Jacob. But it wasn’t because they feared Jacob, or were afraid because of what they heard the sons of Jacob had done. They were afraid because a terror from God fell on them. It was God’s way of protecting Jacob and his family.
But Jacob finally arrives at Bethel, and he finally builds the altar. And he names it El-Bethel, which literally means “The God of Bethel”.
We follow that with the sudden mentioning of the death of Deborah, who was Rebekah’s faithful nurse. Now we are going to see three deaths are recorded in this chapter, but the mentioning of the passing of Deborah is interesting, because it was very rare and exceptional in the Torah to record the death of a woman. I mean even the deaths of Rebekah and Leah are sort of just passed over.
Commentators have different opinions as to why Deborah’s death is mentioned, and there is no consensus, but just as an example, one of the explanations is that there is a deeper purpose for mentioning her death. With the purging of all of the idols and idolatry and the arrival in Bethel, the contacts and ties with Mesopotamia are now finally severed, and so the mention of Deborah’s death becomes appropriate here because she was a living symbol of that connection. Again, that is just one of a few examples of some commentators’ reasoning.
Verses 9-15 continue…9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So, he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
So, God appears to Jacob again, and tells him “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name”. So, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel now for the second time. However, earlier, it was not God personally, but an angelic being that made the announcement. Also, that announcement was made on the other side of the Jordan River. Therefore, the new name of Israel is confirmed and validated by God Himself in the promised land. Jacob, by becoming Israel, is the true heir of the Abrahamic promises, the one through whom the nation of Israel will come into being
And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body”. So, this is very similar to what God told Abraham when he said “you will be the father of many nations”.
The community of Israel will consist of people from many nations not from the body of the patriarchs, they aren’t biological descendants, but the kings over the nation will come from the patriarchs, they will be biological descendants. Because when it says “kings shall come from your own body”, it literally means “from your loins”
And after reassuring Jacob that He will give him the land of Abraham and Isaac, God leaves Jacob, He parted from him” It literally means “God ascended from upon him”. And to commemorate the experience, Jacob sets up a stone pillar, just as he had done on the earlier occasion.
So, we now shift gears a bit, beginning in verse 16 through 21, which reads…16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
So, it tells us that Jacob’s wife Rachel went into labor, and that it was a hard labor. And during the most difficult part of the labor, her midwife tells her, Do not fear, for you have another son”.
And then we read the sad description of Rachel dying giving birth to her son. She is comforted by the words of her midwife, with the knowledge that God has answered her prayer for another son after the birth of Joseph.
And with her last words, as she is dying, she names him Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow”. But Jacob was apparently having none of that, and so he calls the child’s name Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand”, the right being a symbol of power and protection.
A couple of other possibilities for the meaning of Benjamin are “son of the south”, meaning the area in which Benjamin was born, or also “son of my old age”. But I believe most commentators agree that “son of my right hand” is the most likely.
Benjamin was the only son of Jacob born in Canaan, and is the last of the 12 sons. He was also the only son that Jacob actually named. It’s also noteworthy to remember that Joseph and Benjamin were the only sons of Rachel, the wife who Jacob loved. This will be relevant as we continue to read through Genesis, as it explains why Jacob is so protective and loving of the boys.
So, Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob of course buries her, and sets up a pillar over her tomb. We know that later, in the time of Samuel, Rachel’s tomb was a famous landmark. The traditional site of her grave is about four miles south of Jerusalem, and one mile north of Bethlehem, and it has been mentioned and described in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish writing since the 4th century. It has also been a place of pilgrimage for Jews through the ages.
It is currently a small, square shaped domed structure, and was even featured on a stamp issued for Palestine by the British government between 1927 and 1948. In 1948 it was taken over by Jordanian invaders, Jews were excluded from it, and it was converted into a Muslim cemetery until it was liberated by Israel in 1967. If you’re interested in seeing what it looks like today, just do a quick Google search and click on images.
Now I want to look at verse 22 by itself, just because of the subject and the flow of the narrative, but verse 22 says….22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.
So, Jacob’s son Reuben goes and sleeps with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. If you remember, Bilhah was given to Jacob by Rachel as a co-wife, and she was the mother of Dan and Naphtali. But Israel heard about all of this
So first off, make sure you understand that when it says Israel, it is referring to Jacob. It’s not referring to the nation of Israel. Remember, God has just changed Jacob’s name to Israel
Now, why in the world would Reuben do something like that? Why would he sleep with his father’s concubine? It’s like sleeping with your mother-in-law! Leviticus strictly forbids a sexual relationship between a son and the wife of his father
Sure, he could have just wanted to sleep with her to fulfill a sexual desire or lust. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s going on here. It’s much deeper than that.
In short, what Reuben was doing was protecting his own mother, Leah. Remember, Leah was Jacob’s first wife, who Laban had tricked into marrying. Reuben was her first born son.
By sleeping with, and violating Jacob’s marriage to Bilhah, Reuben makes sure that she cannot rival his mother Leah for the position of Jacob’s chief wife. As a result of sleeping with Reuben, Bilhah would acquire the status of “living widowhood”.
It was Reuben who, when he was younger, had played a role in securing the mandrakes for his mother Leah in that scene where Leah trades mandrakes for a night with Jacob. So even then, Reuben played a part in assuring the conjugal rights of his mother.
But the other motivation may have been that Reuben was prematurely laying claim to being the successor of Jacob’s inheritance. In those days, there was a widespread practice of the eldest son inheriting the wives of his father along with his estate. And it may have even been an attempt by Reuben to seize control of Jacob’s leadership position.
So how does this work out for Reuben? Well, we will see later in Genesis that he will be deprived of leadership, even though he is the oldest son. In Genesis 49, he is told that he will not assume leadership because “you ascended your father’s bed”.
Simeon and Levi were next, but we already know that as a result of their acts in the last episode, they also forfeit leadership. Which means, incidentally, that the next in line would be Leah’s fourth son, Judah. It will be from Judah’s line that the Messiah, The Lion of the tribe of Judah, will emerge.
And that brings us now to verses 23-26, which actually begins in the second half of verse 22, so continuing, they read…. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23 The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. 26 The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.
So, this is simply a listing of Jacob’s twelve sons. With the birth of Benjamin, the list is now complete, and so is appropriate to list here in full. Each son listed is a founding father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
It’s also sort of a fitting conclusion to the biblical narrative revolving around Jacob. Because what we see from here on is that Genesis will now transition and revolve around the story of Jacob’s son Joseph
But we now end this chapter by once again shifting gears in these last three verses. Verses 27-29 read…27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
So here we end this chapter with the recording of the death of Jacob’s father Isaac. Jacob’s journey has ended by sort of coming full circle, because the account of Isaac ends with his son Jacob coming to him. Many years earlier Jacob had deceived his father Isaac, and then had to flee from Esau. But now, he is back home, reunited with his father and his brother, as they both are there to bury their father.
It tells us that Isaac lived 180 years, and died, old and full of days. Now first for those who may be wondering how anyone could live to be 180 years old, I ‘m not going to get into that discussion here, but I encourage you to check out the episode where I discuss long lifespans in the Bible, which I covered in Genesis chapter 5. But keep in mind that Isaac’s 180 years are nowhere near the several hundred years of others, and we see the lifespans continuing to decrease ever since the flood. And they will continue decreasing until they stabilize to right at what we experience today
So, Isaac is buried by his sons, Jacob and Esau. And once again, we see Esau demonstrating his faithfulness as a respectful and dutiful son. And I will reiterate what I mentioned in an earlier episode, that Esau sort of gets a bad rap for giving away his birthright to Jacob. And although he wasn’t the right son to carry on and inherit the promises of God to Abraham and Isaac, he was apparently a decent person.
And so, like I said, this brings to a close the portion of Genesis that focuses on Jacob, and we’ll transition to Joseph being the main character. And we won’t waste any time, as the next episode will jump right into one of Joseph’s dreams!
But before I close out this episode, I would like for you to consider Jacob’s life and journey so far, because although the details are different of course, his spiritual journey is very similar to many of ours.
Jacob, if you remember, was a deceiver, he wasn’t a strong person or a good leader, and had done some borderline shady things, particularly in deceiving his father Isaac. Which leads to him having to run away, to flee for his life. While fleeing, and in the whole episode of being taken advantage of by Laban, and fearing his brother Esau, he begins to feel and suffer the consequences of his actions.
But this experience helps drive him to depend on God. It teaches him to look to God as his source of strength. And he eventually dedicates himself and his family to worshipping and serving God.
Again, the details are not the same, but isn’t that the path many of us have taken to God? Sure, some people hear about God, hear the Gospel, the message of salvation, and immediately accept that gift.
But for many others, that’s not how it works. We’re stubborn, rebellious, self-reliant, proud…and the list goes on. Unfortunately, many of us have to learn the hard way. And for us, the only way God can get our full attention is to break us. When we have nowhere else to turn, nothing else that can help, no other resources, then we are more open to God. Then we might cry out to God, even if it’s in desperation.
You see, Jacob’s story of coming to God is not all that different from ours. You should take comfort in knowing that even some of the greatest and most venerated people in the Bible struggled just like you do. The Bible doesn’t gloss over any of it. It tells it like it is. It’s actually just another indication that it’s true. It doesn’t paint its heroes to be perfect people. It presents them as they really were, warts and all.
You see, Jacob struggled for many years, just like many of us, looking and searching for what he thought would make him happy or what was missing in his life…which is the same thing many of us, and so many people in the world today do…always searching for that thing we are missing. Constantly searching for the next thing that will fill the void we sense in our lives, in our soul. And we try to fill it with material things, careers, relationships, status, money, drugs and alcohol, adventure, you name it.
But like Jacob, hopefully we finally learn that none of those things will ever bring us true peace. There’s only one thing, one person that will ever bring you true and lasting peace, and that is your relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
And so, I pray that no matter how long you’ve been looking, no matter where you’ve been looking, you’ll realize that Jesus is who you have been looking for all along