Dynamics of Human Failure and Divine Faithfulness
At this time in life Jacob has become complaisant and the next thing he knew he was in serious trouble. He has compromised with the culture of the land, he has begun to assimilate with the thinking of the Canaanites, his children are acting just like they were pagans in the land, there is no distinction, and he has forgotten all about his vow to God at Bethel. He is not paying attention to his spiritual life, his moral courage has evaporated and he won't stand up for his daughter. He isn't a leader in the family any more, and he reaches this horrible position where after his sons have basically annihilated Shechem he realizes that his reputation has been destroyed in the land.
In chapter 35 God appears once again to Jacob. Now God isn't going to appear to us and grab us by the collar and start shaking some sense into us. This is a different dispensation. He is going to do it through the Word of God and through the Holy Spirit and through divine discipline. Discipline is what has been going on in Jacob's life. God gives us time to fail.
Deuteronomy chapter eight is a call to the Jews to remember God during the times of prosperity. Tests of adversity are tough, we have all gone through those. When we go through adversity we cling to the grace of God and the promises of God. But the hard tests are the tests of prosperity. It is one thing to go through adversity because every day you want to listen to a tape, you want to be reminded of God's promises, and every day you claim God's promises; but once everything is going great, once you start going through tests of financial prosperity, it all comes with another load of distractions and it is easy to defer the intake of the Word—everything is going okay right now. This is what God warns about in Deuteronomy chapter eight, beginning in verse 11: "Beware that you forget not the LORD your God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command you today."
Just as a reminder, one of the key ideas in the book of Deuteronomy is love. Again and again there is this command to love the Lord you God with all your mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus summarized the law He was just quoting from Deuteronomy. So the book is really about what you do to love God, and the message of Deuteronomy is the same message that Jesus gave His disciples in John 14: "If you love me you will keep my commandments." Love for God is not exemplified by how you feel about God, about sentiment toward God, about singing hymns, about how much you love God; the barometer in Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, is that love for God is measured by our consistency in our obedience to Him.
So the Jews were told, Don't forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments. Application: You can go to Bible class all night long, but if you are not applying doctrine you are forgetting God.
Deuteronomy 8:12-17, "Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that he might humble you, and that he might prove you, to do you good at your latter end; and you say in your heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth."
That is the threat. We start thinking that we are the ones who are responsible for our prosperity and how well things are going. And so we become complaisant and then things begin to fall apart. God begins to discipline us, and God's discipline takes three different stages. The first stage is Galatians 6:7, we reap what we sow. This is the beginning of discipline. It is just warning discipline, we start realizing the consequences of our own bad decisions. The consequences of our own bad decisions don't come along always in an instantaneous manner. Sometimes we have five or ten years before our bad decisions comes back to start bothering us. So God lets enough time go by to give us an opportunity to recover on our own, and other times He gives us enough time to start realizing the consequences of our own foolish decisions. When that doesn't work, then God begins to give us intensive discipline, and this is the principle in Hebrews 12:6, "For whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives." This is a more active divine discipline and more intense than just the harmful negative consequences of our own bad decisions. This God does because He is focused on building the character of Jesus Christ in us. Then if we still don't listen there is the sin unto death.
So after the events of Genesis chapter thirty-four Jacob is in a position where there is a little teachability, a little humility, and we have what we often refer to as a teachable moment. He realizes that his very life is being threatened because of the action of his children, who obviously have rebelled against God and are acting just like all the other pagans, but because of what they have done they are all insecure, they are all being threatened, they could be attacked and wiped out by any of these Canaanites at any moment. So he is ready to listen to God.
In Genesis 35:1 God has waited for the right moment and appears to Jacob. "Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother." We can't understand Genesis 35:1 if we don't put it in the context of what God said to Jacob in Genesis 33, and what happened all the way back into Genesis 28. God's command involved four elements. First of all, "Arise." That is, get up and quit whining and focusing on your own problems and failures. Second, "Go up to Bethel." You have to finish what you started. You have been dragging your feet on your way back to Bethel. So even though Jacob had become complaisant about God and not completed his mission, God continued to exercise the initiative towards Jacob. That is an important principle. No matter how we fail God, God is never going to fail us. He is continually going to exercise the initiative of divine grace in our behalf. Jacob realized his failure and the need to get right with God. Before he could advance he had to cleanse himself. He had to deal with the sin in his life and he had to prepare to worship God. So this is just another one of those critical passage in Scripture to emphasize the fact that before we can worship God in any way there has to be spiritual cleansing of sin. This is just another example of 1 John 1:9.
Genesis 35:2, "Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourself, and change your garments." Notice that is something a little more complex than admitting his guilt before God. When we confess our sins it is simply admitting or acknowledging the sin. But what a lot of people think they can do is say, Well I have confessed my sons, and then five minutes later they commit the same sin again. They get into a cycle where they are going in and out of fellowship and they think that because they keep confessing their sin that they are growing. Confession doesn't get you growth; confession simply puts you back into the potential of spiritual growth. There has to be a realization that what I am doing is wrong. It is a sin, it is not simply good enough to confess the sin, but at some level I have to quit doing the sin and to advance and go forward. That is the principle we see in this verse. It is not only the principle of purification but also putting away "the foreign gods that are among you." They had become involved in idolatry. Remember, this is being written by Moses to the Israelites as they are on the verge of going into the land. So this is a reminder to them of the importance of putting aside any idol or false gods. The word in Genesis 35:2 for "purify yourself" is the Hebrew word taher, which means to be clean, to make clean, to be pure, or to make pure. The term occurs most frequently in the book of Leviticus where it is used for ritual cleansing of either things or persons. So it is a crucial word that describes the believer's cleansing so that he can come into the presence of God. This is the same word that is used in Psalm 51:2 where David is confessing his sin of adultery and conspiracy to murder. When it was translated into the Septuagint the Greek word KATHARIZO [kaqarizw] was used, the verb found in 1 John 1:9. So there was confession of sin in Jacob's household, indicated by the fact that they have to put aside the idols, it is not just enough to confess the sin and then keep the idols in the saddle bags—which is what a lot of people do in the Christian life and then wonder ten years later why they haven't got anywhere. Confession gets the believer back in fellowship, it doesn't produce growth. There has to be application of doctrine for there to be forward momentum. This is indicated here by the change of clothes. This is the standard practice in the Old Testament to symbolize the spiritual reality of cleansing in preparation before coming to the Lord in worship.
Genesis 35:3, "And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me in the way which I went." Notice the gratitude here. This an expression of his grace orientation. He realizes that all that he has and is is a result of God's provision and God's protection in fulfillment of the promise God made at Bethel. So this is his testimony that God had fulfilled what He promised in Genesis 28. Therefore Jacob has to fulfill the vow that he made in Genesis 28 and construct a place of worship of God, build an altar there in Bethel, and to fulfill his vow of a tithe to God at Bethel.
Genesis 35:4, the family responds positively. "And they gave to Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem."
Genesis 35:5, "And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob." This is God's fulfillment of the promise. They are back in fellowship. God fulfills His promise; He protects them. Even though Jacob has these fears that the Canaanites are going to execute vengeance upon them, God overrides whatever inclinations that were among the Canaanites and He is going to provide protection for them. In this Jacob learns that God is the true source of strength and security. It is not what he did, it is what God provided.
Genesis 35:6, 7, "So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother." Luz was the Canaanite name for Bethel. Every time we hear this city mentioned up to the conquest of Joshua it is always mentioned first by its Canaanite name and then by its new name of Bethel.
Then we find the first of three deaths mentioned in this chapter. Genesis 35:8, "But Deborah Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth." What happens here is that Deborah who was Rebekah's nurse—she must be between 170-180 years old, which fits the pattern for the age of this time—dies, and it indicates the passing of the previous generation. What we see in the rest of this chapter is that with these deaths there is a passing of the generation of Isaac and things are shifting to the next generation.
In verses 9-15 we see the center of this episode where God appears to Jacob again at Bethel and reaffirms His blessing of Jacob, reaffirms the renaming of Jacob by the new name Israel, and reconfirms the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob. This is the focal point of almost everything from Genesis 12 to the end of the book of Genesis—God's covenant with Abraham, and the reconfirmation of that many times (at least 20 times).
Genesis 35:9, "And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him." This is when he gets the blessing. Remember he stole the blessing from Esau, but God never blessed him. The first time God blesses him is at Peniel, and this is a reaffirmation of that, and both times associated with his new name, Israel.
Genesis 35:10, "And God said unto him, Your name is Jacob: your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name: and he called his name Israel." This is the sign of his new status, his new spiritual growth and orientation toward God.
Genesis 35:11, 12, "And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of you, and kings shall come out of your loins; and the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land." These are the seed and land elements of the Abrahamic covenant.
Genesis 35:13, 14, "And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon." This is a sign of sacrifice to God. It is a free will offering in return for all of the blessings that God has given to him. Genesis 35:15, "And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel."
Genesis 35:16, "And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour." "Ephrath is one of the sons of the twelve sons, one of the early fathers in the tribe of Judah, and he was given land in Israel not far from Jerusalem. So the territory Ephrath developed a village. It is called Bethelhem Ephrathah in Micah 5:2, the birthplace of the Messiah—Bethlehem of the territory of Ephrathah. So it was in that same location, Bethlehem, that Rachel gives birth to Benjamin, and it is there that Rachel dies and is buried.
Genesis 35:17, 18, "And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; you shall have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin." Benoni means in Hebrew, "son of my sorrow." Benjamin means "son of my right hand." So Jacob takes the sorrow and turns it to blessing. Benjamin will be his favorite because he is the last child of his favorite wife.
Genesis 35: 19, 20, "And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave to this day." "This day" is 1406 BC when the Jews were getting ready to go into the land. At the time that Moses wrote this the pillar over Rachel's grace was still in existence. Today there is, indeed, a place there in Bethlehem that indicates the location of Rachel's tomb.
Then we get more heartache in the life of Jacob. This is just a reminder that as believers, even when we are obedient to the Lord and the Lord is blessing us, it doesn't mean that we are not going to go through more tests and trials, that we are not going to have friends and loved ones reject us and do things that hurt us. This is part of living in the cosmic system. There will always be people who fail us, hurt us, attack us, and do things to harm us.
Genesis 35:22, "And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve." This is not seduction and is not done because of lust, as was the rape of Dinah in the previous chapter. This is a sign of rebellion against his father. He is indicating that he wants to take control of everything that his father has. This is the same kind of thing that is described in 1 Kings 2:13-25, the episode with Adonijah who wanted to have sexual relations with Abisgag the Shunamite in order to assert his authority as king and to assault the authority of his father, king David. This was a custom in the ancient world. This is what was behind the episode in vv. 22ff.
Then we have a listing of the twelve sons of Jacob in verses 23-26, and in verse 27 we are told of the death of Isaac. All this time since he has come back into the land, at least 10 years since the episode with Laban, Jacob has not seen his father Isaac. Now there is the reconciliation with Isaac. Genesis 35:27, "And Jacob came to Isaac his father unto Mamre, to the city of Arbah, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned." Hebron is about 20 miles south of Bethlehem.
Isaac was old and his eyes were dim when Jacob deceived him, and that happened when Jacob left the land. Now this is at least 30-35 years later. So Isaac has been old and blind for some time, and now he dies. Verse 29, "…and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him." But the episode ends on the note of Jacob's orientation to God. It ends on the note of God's reaffirmation of His promise, God's faithfulness to Jacob despite the failures of Jacob, the flaws of his sons, despite their sins. God is always faithful and He will always fulfill His promises. Even though we live in the devil's world, and even though we have to deal with all kinds of horrible things that go on around us, and even though we have to deal with family members and close friends who betray us and do all kinds of things to us, God never betrays us and He is always faithful. The issue in life for us as believers is our faithfulness to God, to continue to walk with Him and to trust Him, and realize the blessings that God has for us both in time and eternity.