Genesis 35 – Jacob in the Journey

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Today’s PassageGenesis 35

Sometimes a lot of different things happen in a chapter. In today’s chapter, for example, God tells Jacob to go dwell in Bethel, which Jacob does, and God has a message of blessing for him once he settles there. Also, people die: Rebekah’s nurse Deborah, Rachel as she gives birth to Jacob’s twelfth son Benjamin, and then old Grandpa Isaac. If you can find a common theological or spiritual thread through all these events, more power to you. But as far as I can tell, the only theme tying them together is “some things pertaining to Jacob’s family happened in Canaan.” Sometimes chapters are like that.

So, let’s look at what God has to say to Jacob, and what he does in response. God first commands him to leave for Bethel and make an altar there, and Jacob readily complies. He tells his family, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:2-3). The family buries their foreign gods, along with the jewelry associated with said gods, and leaves them behind near Shechem.

Among these, we can infer that we’d likely find the household idols which Rebecca stole from Laban. Laban referred to them as “my gods” (31:20) when he failed to find them in Jacob’s camp, and in a manner of speaking, the idols themselves are gods. They’re gods that human beings make out of stone or wood or rare metals. And as Paul and Isaiah both tell us, gods made out of matter are scarcely gods at all (1 Cor. 10:7, 14-20; Isaiah 44:9-20), in much the same way that a One that is not cold is scarcely a One at all (SBEmail 39). God will later instruct human beings not to make physical idols, even of himself, and this is because human beings are the physical representations of God himself (Genesis 1:26-27). We weren’t made to worship things we make. We were made to worship the Thing who made us.

So, that’s what Jacob does. Even before he makes his altars, he has his people clean up and change clothes, and he acknowledges God as the one “who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3). When was the “day of his distress?” Let’s recall with Jacob the time he was on the run from a murderous brother, with no traveling companions, heading to a land where he’d never been in order to seek refuge with an uncle he’d never met. There, God met him in a dream and told him, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). That’s when Jacob named the place Bethel and made an altar there, as an act of faith. Now, over two decades later, Jacob is going back there, with flocks, traveling companions, four wives, and a huge family. The day of distress is behind him, and God has been with him on every leg of the journey.

God continues to accompany him on the trip to Bethel. In the last chapter, Jacob was worried that the Canaanites and the Perizzites might consider him a minor threat to be stomped out promptly, because of how his sons took revenge on the people of Shechem. But he and his crew travel safely to their destination: “As they journeyed, there was a great terror (literally, ‘a terror of God’) upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob” (35:5). When Jacob reaches Bethel, he makes a second altar there, which he calls “El-bethel,” which means “the God of Bethel.” And since “Bethel” means “the house of God,” he is dedicating the altar to “the God of the house of God.” Redundant? Perhaps. But Jacob wants to underscore whose house it is, to whom it’s dedicated, who exactly has brought him this far and will carry him further still.

Jacob’s journey has not been free from sadness, not by a long shot. Sometimes terrible things happen. Sometimes people die along the way, even those closest to us. In time, even Jacob will die. But he’s making the journey with God, and in his book, a journey with God is a journey worth taking.

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