Jacob Returns to Bethel in Canaan [Genesis 35 Study]

In Genesis 35, Jacob returns to Bethel before seeing his father Isaac at Hebron and enduring several more trials including his wife Rachel's death.

Jacob Returns to Bethel in Canaan [Genesis 35 Study]
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  • Genesis 35 can be divided into two main sections
    • Jacob returns to Bethel, and God blesses him. (v.1-15)
    • The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel and Isaac (v.16-29)

Jacob Returns to Bethel (Genesis 35:1-8)

  • Genesis 35:1-8 begins with God telling Jacob to go up to Bethel and stay there

    • Bethel is likely about 15 miles south of Shechem.
    • Jacob is to build an altar there to God in commemoration of God’s faithful guidance
    • God identifies himself as the one who appeared to him when he left Canaan, fleeing from Esau
    • This trip back to Bethel will allow Jacob to fulfill his vows made in Genesis 28:20-22
      • “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, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
    • This is the only place in Genesis that God commands someone to build an altar.
  • Responding to God’s orders, Jacob instructed his household to prepare themselves for the trip to Bethel.

    • To complete his vows at Bethel, Jacob had to sanctify himself and his household.
    • So Jacob commanded his house to get rid of their foreign gods, indicating that some continued to worship various deities.
    • Some gods or idols may have been brought from Haran (like the household gods Rachel had stolen (back in Genesis 31:19); others might have been taken from the pillage of the Shechemites.
      -Jacob also ordered his house to purify themselves so that they could be in the presence of God without danger.
    • Ritual purification included bathing, shaving, and putting on clean clothes. It symbolized the removal of all that was unclean and sinful.
    • Jacob told his entire household that they were going up to Bethel, where he would build an altar to God, who had helped him in his distress and who had been present with him throughout his long journey.
    • The people responded willingly by giving Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears. These earrings must have had religious significance. Jacob disposed of all the idols and rings he had collected by burying them under the oak at Shechem.
  • As Jacob’s clan traveled along the road to Bethel, God put his terror upon the towns around Shechem.

    • The local inhabitants feared Jacob’s house, restraining them from taking vengeance.
    • Their plunder of Shechem aroused hatred in the local population, so Jacob and his family needed God’s special protection to travel in safety.
  • Jacob arrived at Luz, and he built an altar.

    • He called the place El Bethel, literally “the God of the house of God,” in remembrance of God’s self-revelation to Jacob when he was fleeing from Esau.
    • This name shows that Jacob was focusing on the God who had revealed himself rather than the location as holy.
  • Then in verse 8, we read that Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak.

    • They called that place Allon Bacuth, meaning “the oak of weeping,” a memorial to commemorate this great matriarch.
    • The matriarchs stood alongside the patriarchs, playing a key role in fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham.
    • This death report is surprising, for rarely does the Hebrew Bible recount the death of a woman, especially a handmaid, and nowhere else does it introduce a person by name by a death report.
    • Deborah, first introduced in Genesis 24:59, had probably been with Rebekah for her entire life.
    • This report is important to bring closure to Jacob’s relationship with Rebekah, his mother.
    • Genesis contains no further references to Rebekah after Jacob fled Canaan.
    • This omission is a stark contrast to the long account of Sarah’s death (Genesis 23:1–20).
    • Apparently Rebekah had died while Jacob was in Haran, and the account was lost to the tradition.
    • The death report of Deborah, her nurse, compensates for the absence of an account of Rebekah’s burial.
    • By attending Deborah’s burial, Jacob participated vicariously in the burial of his mother.

God Blesses Israel in Bethel (Genesis 35:9-15)

  • God appeared to Jacob again and blessed him.

    • Given the preceding report of Deborah’s death, this appearance of God must have come some time after Jacob built the altar.
    • Since Jacob’s name had been changed outside the promised land, God reaffirmed the change of Jacob’s name to Israel in the promised land.
    • God renews the covenantal blessings originally given to Abraham in Genesis 17:4-8 now to Jacob.
    • God identifies himself as El Shaddai (God Almighty), the same name he used before renewing the covenant with Abraham (17:1)
    • His offspring were to be so numerous that they would develop into a nation; also kings would come from his body (repeating the original promise made in Genesis 17:6).
    • The land that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, his forefathers, God promised to give to Jacob and his descendants. Then God leaves.
  • In response, Jacob sets up a stone pillar.

    • Either he erected a new stone or he rededicated the stone he had set up earlier (28:18–19).
    • He consecrated this pillar first by pouring out a drink offering on it and then by pouring oil on it.
      • This is the only time in the book of Genesis that a drink offering, a ceremonial pouring out of wine to God, is mentioned.
    • Jacob named that place Bethel, “the house of God.”
    • Just as God had reaffirmed the promises to Jacob, Jacob reaffirmed his commitment to God by setting up a pillar.
    • Just as God had restated that Jacob’s new name was Israel, so Jacob again named that site Bethel as he had done when God had first appeared to him there.

In the next section, we read four key events

  • Rachel dies as she gives birth to Benjamin
  • Reuben sleeps with Bilhah
  • There is a list of Jacob’s children
  • Isaac dies

Rachel Dies Giving Birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20)

  • Having left Bethel and still some distance from Ephrath, located in the territory of Benjamin, Rachel went into hard labor.
  • Her midwife comforted her by saying, “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.”
  • Remember that Rachel had expressed her longing for more children in naming her firstborn Joseph, “adding” (30:24).
  • At long last, that longing was being fulfilled but at the cost of her life.
  • She named her son Ben-Oni, which means “son of my sorrow” or “son of my wickedness.”
  • Mindful of the importance of a name, Jacob quickly renamed him Benjamin, meaning “son of the right side,” or “son of my right hand.”
  • Jacob then buried Rachel beside the road leading to Ephrath and set up a pillar over her tomb. This, the fourth pillar he erected (28:18 Bethel; 31:45–50 Galeed; 35:14 Bethel), reveals the great honor in which he held Rachel.
  • This pillar gave Rachel a perpetual memorial in the land of promise.

Reuben's Sin with Bilhah (Genesis 35:21-22a)

  • Israel continues the journey beyond the tower of Eder
  • There Reuben slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah.
  • This wording suggests that Bilhah complied with Reuben’s advances.
  • While the Biblical text offers no explanation for Reuben’s act, he probably wanted to influence his leadership in the clan.
  • One commentator suggests that Reuben did not want Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, to become the matriarch of the family in place of Leah, his mother, especially since Leah had never received from Jacob the affection she desired.
  • Another suggestion was that Reuben was trying to replace his father as the head of the clan by a pagan procedure.
  • Bilhah likely had to live as a widow, because she could not be legitimately joined to a man again (parallels the fate of David’s concubines after Absolom had slept with his father concubines in 2 Samuel 15-20).
  • When Jacob learned of Reuben’s treachery, he took no definitive action, similar to his response to the rape of Dinah (ch. 34).
  • Jacob’s self control bears additional witness that his character had indeed been changed at Peniel. He no longer resorted to trickery to retaliate against those who had offended him.
  • Reuben’s act, however, disqualified Reuben from the privilege of being the firstborn. (He loses his birthright and is rebuked by Jacob in Genesis 49:3–4 which is restated again in 1 Chronicles 5:1).

List of Jacob's Children (Genesis 35:22-26)

  • 35:22-26 gives a list of his twelve sons. Notice that Leah’s sons and those of Zilpah, her handmaid, frame this list. At the center are the sons of Rachel and Bilhah, her handmaid.

Isaac Dies (Genesis 35:27-29)

  • Here we read the account of Isaac’s death, signaling the close of the main portion of the Jacob narrative.

  • Isaac’s death coincides with Jacob’s traveling to the south.

  • This report prepares for the genealogies of Esau (ch. 36) and Jacob (37:1–2).

  • The location of this report suggests that the chronology of these events may not be chronological.

  • Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, which was near Kiriath Arba, later named Hebron.

  • Isaac died at a hundred and eighty years. Abraham died when he was 175 years old, so Isaac lived 5 years longer.

  • On the basis of this age, Isaac lived approximately twelve years after Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt.

  • The phraseology “old and full of years” means that he had lived a long, happy life under God’s blessing.

  • His two sons Esau and Jacob buried Isaac in the Cave of Machpelah (49:29–32). This may have been the first time the two had met since their reconciliation in Genesis 33.

  • Note that it is the Cave of Machpelah that Abraham and Sarah + Isaac and Rebekah are buried. Later, we will learn that Jacob and Leah will be buried there too.

  • Seeing Jacob and Esau honoring their father with a proper burial parallels what we saw with Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis 25:9.

  • To recap, we encounter three deaths: Deborah, Rachel, and Isaac.

  • We also witness God renewing his promises and Jacob fulfilling his vows.

  • We will cover the descendants of Esau in our next study in Genesis 36, so stay tuned.