Genesis 35:1-15 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.
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.
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.
The main point of this passage is that Jacob finally made it back to Bethel—the house of God, the place God had met with Jacob, the place he’d been forced and commanded to flee from many years earlier, and the place he’d promised to return to if God would protect him. Throughout the entire time of Jacob’s exile, God had been wholly faithful to Jacob and, as we see in His visit and covenant reminder, would continue to be wholly faithful as well. For his part, over the years since leaving Bethel, Jacob had come in and out of faithfulness. In this passage, however, he is almost entirely exemplary in his obedience to God. He did just what God said, put off idols, watched as the holy terror of God held back his enemies, put up an altar and a pillar to honor God, made offerings to God, and led his family to join him in all of this.
God had determined and promised to save a people, and to do so through one particular family, not because they were special or deserving, but precisely because they were not. God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so that all would know that it was God alone who saves. Their sin was truly sinful, but it was also, as Paul noted in Romans 5:20, an unmistakable declaration that if anyone were to be saved, it would be because of God’s mercy and grace, not their merit. In this passage we move further along toward the fullness of that salvation in the offspring of Abraham. Let’s pray that God would help us appreciate both what this meant in Jacob’s day and what it means in ours, in order that we’d be able to honor God because of it.
GOD SAID (1-4)
Before we get to the heart of the text, would you look at the first two words of chapter 35? I’ve pressed on this before and I’ll press on it again. Fight with me to appreciate what these words mean: “God said”.
The Voice of God
It’s hard (probably impossible) to quantify the significance of the words, “God said”. In those words is limitless power and glory and grace and ferocity and wisdom and authority. For those who reject God as God, His words are a reminder of His continual reign and judgment. But for the children of God, the words of God are a reminder of His continual presence and care and love and guidance.
In Jacob’s day (as we see here), God often spoke directly to His chosen people.
Later He spoke primarily through the prophets (Hebrews 1:1).
In the NT times He spoke through His Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:2), who is the very Word of God (John 1:1).
Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the primary place “God says” is in the Bible. The Bible contains the words of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and written down by the apostles. It is entirely clear, sufficient, powerful, and necessary.
That’s why we make such a big deal out of it at Grace Church. That’s why we preach carefully and slowly through it. That’s why all of our music is chosen based on how clearly, faithfully, and beautifully it expresses the words of God. That’s why we seek to pray through and memorize passages of the Bible. That’s why our children’s curriculum comes straight from the Bible. And that’s why we try to make every decision in light of the teaching of the Bible.
Why? Because we believe that God is God and therefore that His Words are our light and life.
Therefore, when we read the words “God said” at the beginning of Genesis 35 (or anywhere else), our ears perk up, our eyes lock in, our hearts beat faster, and our minds more fully engage. God is about to speak and in that, once again, comes a tidal wave of power, glory, grace, ferocity, wisdom and authority. Learn to love that, Grace.
So, what did God say?
A Command from God
In simplest terms, God spoke a command (actually, two commands) to Jacob. Before we look at the specifics of the commands, I’d like to press again on another familiar banner. To do so, I’d like to ask the kids a question.
Kids, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when your parents tell (command) you to do something? In my experience, even if unconsciously, the first thought of most kids is, “Will it be fun?” If so, great! Obedience to fun commands is easy, right? If not, however, all-too-often, out come the “Why’s?” and “Do I have to’s” and “Just a second’s”. Obedience to not-so-fun commands is not as easy, is it?
God has told you to obey your parents (Ephesians 6:1) and so you should, even if it doesn’t seem fun and even if you don’t fully understand. Of course, your parents aren’t perfect and so their commands are sometimes misguided (even if well meaning). This makes obedience right, but trickier.
For instance, more times than I can remember I told my boys to trust me with cutting their hair even though I didn’t really know what I was doing early on and 50% of the time I’d draw blood with the trimmer. I didn’t mean to mess their hair up or cut their ears, and it was right that they obeyed me, but they were also right in being a bit nervous.
But kids, Grace Church, God’s commands are never like that. He is never misguided. His commands are always perfect and trustworthy. They are never optional—we dare not refuse God the joyful obedience He is due—but they are always good. Truly, every command of God is a precious gift for His people. Learn to love that, Grace.
What, then were God’s commands to Jacob? He said, “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.” For Jacob these ought to have been music to his ears. Clear commands from God meant a clear path to treasure.
Because he’d tricked his brother, Esau wanted to kill him. Because Jacob was the chosen son of the promise, to save his life, God commanded him to leave Bethel, to leave the Promised Land. Jacob promised God that if He would protect him outside of the land of promise, he would return to Bethel and honor God as God.
At the proper time, God commanded Jacob to return (31:3), and Jacob mostly obeyed. At God’s command he immediately returned to the Promised Land, though not to Bethel as he’d promised. In this passage, as I just read, God commanded Jacob to go the rest of the way, to fully obey. Jacob was to go to Bethel and honor God as God (the altar was intended to be a visible sign of obedience to the second part of Jacob’s vow).
It seems clear that in this instance Jacob understood both the non-optional and precious-gift aspects of God’s commands, for he began to obey immediately. Interestingly, it also seems that Jacob recognized another built-in aspect of God’s commands—they come from One who is entirely set apart from everything common and corrupt. They come from One who is holy, holy, holy.
Without having to be told, Jacob “2 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.”
Had Jacob collected foreign gods or just his family? Why had he tolerated them to this point? What exactly were these “foreign gods”? Were they part of the spoil from the family’s plundering of Shechem? We don’t know the answers to those questions. The main point, though, is that Jacob knew God was a holy God and as a result he chose to honor Him as God by obeying and ending his family’s disobedience.
Do you get that, Grace? For Jacob to obey God’s command but do so while toting around idols (or tolerating them among his people), would have been entirely absurd. He understood something we all need to settle on: either God is God, He has no rivals, and deserves total obedience or He isn’t and isn’t worth obeying at all.
So much of Jacob’s response here is commendable. And yet, as we’ve come to expect, rarely do we find an act of total faith and obedience. Instead of completely destroying the foreign gods, “Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.” Years later, one of Jacob’s descendents, Moses, would find himself in this same position. Instead of burying or hiding the idols, however, he “burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20). Indeed, We don’t know for sure why Jacob hid them instead of destroying them (perhaps this really was the best he could do under the circumstances), but we do know that in doing so he left open the possibility of returning to them.
And therein is a significant lesson for us. Do you seek to kill your sin as God’s Word calls you to (Colossians 3:5; Romans 8:13) or do you seek to simply set it aside? Do you try to put it to death or simply suppress it? In either case, the immediate response looks the same—you place some distance between yourself and your sin. But the heart is very different between the two. The heart that seeks to put to death the deeds of the flesh by the power of the Spirit is one that has seen sin in light of the holiness of God. The heart that seeks to simply suppress sin is one that has likely experienced (or imagined experiencing) some undesirable earthly consequences that may eventually let up, leaving open the possibility of returning to the sin. The first, Paul says, leads to life while the second leads to death (Colossians 3:5).
So again, this passage invites us to consider whether we mean to honor God in the mortification of our sin or leave the door open to return to it by “hiding them”. Do we mean to honor God entirely, or just conveniently?
TERROR FROM OBEDIENCE (5)
The next section is truly remarkable. This small band of chosen misfits marched on through the enemy territory that had been promised to them. They were outsiders in the land and, therefore, entirely vulnerable from a worldly perspective. And yet, as we’ve seen over and over, to be a child of God is to be anything but vulnerable and to see things from anything but a worldly perspective. Consider v.5.
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.
At the end of chapter 34, after his sons slaughtered Hamor and his clan, Jacob openly worried, “My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” But by the mighty hand of God, what he experienced was the opposite. The nations feared the few because God Almighty was with them.
God does not always work this way, but what is clear and visible here is always true—to walk in obedience is to be free from any real danger. Don’t misunderstand me. You might die by obeying God. Many have. But Grace, even if obedience to God leads to our death, we are never safer than when we are in the will of God. That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. ” (Philippians 1:20-21). And to that end we’ll sing shortly, “Be still and remember the worst that can come but shortens our journey and hastens us home.” When you obey, perhaps the nations will tremble or perhaps they will put you to death, either way, there is no more secure place you can be.
ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE HOUSE OF GOD (6-8)
And so, the family of Jacob continued on unharmed, all the way to Bethel and all through the building of the altar.
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.
How sweet it is to receive a clear command of God; to know exactly what God wants and how to do it! And how sweet it is to obey God’s command in the power God provides; to be so clearly carried along in obedience by the strong arm of God! As I said a moment ago, God does not always work exactly like this, but it is a grace that we are right to seek out and pray for continually.
“God, through your Spirit, your Word, and your people, help me to know your will for this decision and that one and every one. Help me to walk in your ways and for your glory. My flesh may be confused and weak, it may even fail, but your power and grace are sufficient. In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore; and so I will follow you, in faith, wherever you lead and whatever it costs; in the knowledge that there is in store for me (and all who believe) a crown of righteousness in everlasting life.”
This passage marks the faithfulness of God and the fulfillment of Jacob’s vow. It is sweet even as it ends with a brief note on the death of Deborah.
8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.
Deborah would have been 180 years old at this point. The main purpose of including this simple note was to note the completion of the long journey and the transfer of covenant promises from Isaac to Jacob. God’s salvation would come through this family and through the chosen son within it from each generation.
COVENANT CONFIRMATION (9-15)
In this final section of our passage this morning, Jacob received another visit from God. Just as we began with a brief reflection on the preciousness of God’s words, we’ll end with the preciousness of His presence.
9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him.
Once again, for those who reject God as God, the presence of God is a terror. But for those who love Him as God, His presence is His greatest blessing. Let this serve as a reminder that heaven’s greatest gift is not a family reunion or restored health or the end of material lack. If those things are your greatest desire you will never receive them or heaven. Rather, heaven’s greatest gift is the blessed presence of God. Fellowship with God is the greatest gift and highest reward.
In the next few verses, God was kind to reiterate and confirm Jacob’s nature, His own nature, and Jacob’s inclusion in God’s covenant promises. Vs.10-15 are verses of remembrance. They point back six different times to key events in covenant history. The first two are in v.10.
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.
This is both a parallel to his grandfather’s experience when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in order to confirm that he was indeed the chosen one of God (chapter 17), and a reminder of who Jacob truly was, one who had wrestled with God and prevailed (chapter 32). Jacob was to walk with God in the unique confidence that these things provide. Again, this chapter is one of completion and v.10 helps us to see that.
The third reflection is in the beginning of v.11 where God reveals His name and nature.
11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty…
In another reminder of something first revealed to Abraham (17:1), God introduced himself once again as El Shaddai, God Almighty. God was making great promises to Jacob and Jacob was right to believe them because of the nature of the one who made them, the God of all might and power and authority.
The fourth draws our minds all the way back to the very beginning of Genesis and the creation of mankind.
11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply.
This was the command God gave to Adam and Eve back in Genesis 1. They were to fill the earth with offspring who would do good works. Jacob was to fill the earth with offspring who would believe God’s promises.
The fifth flashback comes in the second half of v.11 and 12. It is a restatement of the two key covenant promises—land and people.
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.”
Jacob was the one through whom God’s covenant promises, first made to Abraham, would continue.
Finally, then, as God departed we get one more batch of remembrances.
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.
Back in chapter 28 where Jacob dreamed of the ladder to heaven, we find an almost perfect parallel. He first named this place “Bethel,” set up a pillar, poured oil on it, and made his vow to God which finally came to fruition in this passage, ““If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (28:20-21). What an awesome scene this is. Jacob, the chosen one of God, decades later, finally made it all the way back to God and the house of God.
In conclusion, let me remind you that the real key to this passage is only hinted at in this passage. In the middle of v.11 God promised Jacob that kings would come from him. Indeed, they would; David and Solomon among the greatest. But one day, long after Jacob, David, and Solomon, a different kind of King would come. His name is Jesus. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He would make a way for all the world, not just the physical descendants of Jacob, to become the chosen people of God. The way was through faith in His sacrificial death and resurrection. Jesus, the greatest King promised in v.11, would die in place of sinners to pay the ransom for sin.
As we continue to move through Jacob’s story, then, remember that it is a part of a larger story, the greatest story.