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Deeper Commentary

Gen 35:1 God said to Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there. Make there an altar to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother- God wished to restimulate in Jacob memories of how God had been with him from others who sought to kill him in the past. And He works in our lives according to the same pattern. God was asking Jacob to perceive that the promise that he would return home in peace had in fact been fulfilled; and Jacob needed to respond. Jacob had promised that "this stone which I have set for a pillar shall be God's house" (Gen. 28:22). It seems Jacob had somewhat forgotten that wonderful incident (Gen. 31:13 also sounds like a reminder), and his promise of response. This is why God uses the name "Bethel", house of God, rather than Luz, the local name of that place. Jacob didn't need to build a house for God, Bethel; God had already done that in building Jacob a house in the sense of a family, by His grace. David had to learn the same lesson. But what God wanted was grateful sacrifice in response; and this God is our God.

Gen 35:2 Then Jacob said to his household, and to all who were with him, Put away the foreign gods that are among you- They were "foreign" in that they had taken them with them when fleeing Laban. Just as Israel took the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea. The moment of truth came during Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel. He realized then that in our relationship with God, it's all or nothing. And after that, he firmly rejected the ways of the world in his own life and that if his family; he made them bury all their idols. This connection between the night of wrestling and Jacob's rejection of idols is hinted at in 1 Kings 18:31; here, Israel openly renounce their idolatry and claim to turn to Yahweh with their whole heart. To celebrate this, "Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob unto whom the word of Yahweh came saying, Israel shall be thy name". The change of name that night, and its repetition here after they throw their idols away, is associated with Israel's rejection of idolatry. And then finally, at the very end, Jacob realizes his earlier idolatry and confesses it, and emphasizes his utter conviction that there is only one God, the God of his fathers, Yahweh, the God of Messiah, his very own God. Jacob resigned the things of this world for the sake of what was implicit in the promises, when he told his family to throw away their idols. These household teraphim would have been the property deeds to Laban’s property, but because of what God had promised him at Bethel all those years ago, Jacob was willing to resign all that hope of worldly advantage. 

Purify yourselves, change your garments- The garments were presumably used for pagan rituals. The young Joseph may well have had to do this, and the same words are used of how he did so later when leaving prison and going before Pharaoh (Gen. 41:14). So much in Joseph's life repeated; and it was as if God was weaving a theme with him concerning his clothes, which are mentioned at several critical points in his life. The connections for Joseph would've continued, as he reflected how he had been saved out of his "anguish" (Gen. 42:21), the same word translated "distress" in :3, just as his father and indeed Joseph and all the family had been at this time.

Gen 35:3 Let us arise, and go up to Bethel- The language of arising and going is all careful obedience to the command received in :1, and echoes the call of Abram to leave Ur and go where he was told.

I will make there an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went- As noted on :1, Jacob is aware of his promise in Gen. 28:22 and wishes to recognize that God has returned him in peace. But he had to recognize that by faith, because he was at this point fearful that the surrounding tribes would wipe him out in revenge for the murders at Shechem. He reasons that God's past deliverance of him must encourage them that He would continue to do so. The Hebrew word for "distress" is often used about the anguish and distress which befell Israel / Jacob because of their sins; and yet by grace they were delivered from them. All those deliverances are based upon this deliverance of Israel / Jacob and his sons from the consequences of their shameful actions at Shechem. And this looks forward to Israel's latter day deliverance likewise. Jacob shall be saved from his final day of distress at the hands of the peoples of the eretz (Jer. 30:7), and yasha, "saved", is a form of Yehoshua, Jesus- for He will be the final source of that great salvation by grace. But it requires a like repentance, of casting away their idols and self reliance.

The LXX uses the same word as the New Testament does for “tribulation” in several passages pregnant with latter day significance:

“The day of my [Jacob’s] distress” at the hands of Esau (Gen. 35:3)

“The anguish of his [Joseph’s] soul” at the hands of his half brethren and the Ishmaelites (Gen. 42:21)

“I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?” (Dt. 31:17)- a passage in the Song of Moses regarding Israel’s latter day tribulations.

“Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and blasphemy” (2 Kings 19:3)”- Sennacherib’s Assyrian invasion at this time was a clear prototype for the latter day invasion described in Ezekiel 38 and elsewhere.

“The time of Jacob’s trouble” from which he will be delivered (Jer. 30:7)

“There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book” (Dan. 12:1). This time of trouble is specifically for Israel in the last days.

Gen 35:4 They gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hands, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem- Ornaments / amulets were worn at the time in order to fend off evil spirits; the way Moses records how at least twice Israel threw them away could be understood as a hint that they needed no defence against demons, because of God's Almightiness (Gen. 35:4; Ex. 32:24). As in the New Testament, the false beliefs concerning demons / gods are not tackled head on, but rather by implication. The Law of Moses required that such things be destroyed, so we wonder quite why Jacob "hid" them under an oak which was doubtless used in pagan worship, part of the "grove" there (Gen. 12:7). Perhaps this is a hint that the repentance was not total. We think of Achan hiding such things in the earth (Josh. 7:21 s.w.). The idols were typically made of gold or precious stones and would have been the basis for much of the family's material wealth. But they sacrificed it all because they threw themselves now on Yahweh alone. Although we fear that the hiding rather than destruction of them suggests a hope to somehow regain them at some time.


Gen 35:5 They travelled, and a terror of God was on the cities that were around them, and they didn’t pursue the sons of Jacob- "Terror" is literally 'dismay' and this is commonly used to describe the terror / dismay that came upon the Canaanites as Israel approached them. The primary audience of Genesis was Israel in the wilderness; they were being encouraged to ditch the idols they had brought from Egypt, as Jacob's sons did with the idols they brought from Mesopotamia; and to believe that their more powerful enemies would likewise be stunned with dismay, just as the earlier inhabitants of Canaan had been at this time.

 Gen 35:6 So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him- As noted on :1, God specifically spoke of Bethel and not Luz, in order to help Jacob see that his plan to build a "house of God" at the place where he had slept (Gen. 28:20-22) was inappropriate; God had already done that. All Jacob had to do was offer grateful sacrifice. The stress on "in the land of Canaan" is perhaps to show that indeed God had returned Jacob to his father's house in peace; although Jacob was at that point surrounded by his enemies. But he had to believe that with God's abiding help, he was indeed at peace. Or perhaps he now understood "peace" as not meaning peace in this world, in which we must have tribulation, but peace with God.


Gen 35:7 He built an altar there, and called the place El Beth El; because there God was revealed to him, when he fled from the face of his brother- See on Gen. 33:11. As noted on :1 and :6, Jacob now accepts the new name for Bethel, realizing that it was the grace of God's revelation to him which meant that effectively God had built His own house; and Jacob's response was to recognize that and offer grateful sacrifice. "Revealed" translates a word used often in the Pentateuch to mean 'expose naked', to denude, multiple times used in the phrase "uncover nakedness". This in Hebrew is a shocking, radical idea. That God revealed Himself naked as it were to Jacob, that night he laid down alone when fleeing from Esau. The denuding was in showing what God is really and essentially about- which is pure grace, offering to a man who didn't yet fully believe in Him to preserve him and return him home, and do him good at his latter end. 

 

Gen 35:8 Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; and its name was called Allon Bacuth- Why the mention of this, and the stress on such great grief for her (Allon Bacuth = "oak of weeping")? Perhaps because she had been the de facto mother figure for Jacob. We note that little is said of Rebekah apart from her stellar commitment to the leading of the Spirit when invited to go and marry Isaac. Her evil plan for Jacob to get the birthright blessings reveals very much that is faithless and unspiritual; and she has no other recorded behaviour in the record. If indeed she was a distant mother to her children, hence the note about Deborah, this might explain some things. Deborah is presented as being buried under an oak just as it was beneath an oak that the idols were buried (:4). Again, one could suspect that this pagan symbol was being somehow taken over by Jacob's family.

Gen 35:9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan Aram, and blessed him- This may not be strictly chronological, in which case it is not a description of the name change being repeated a second time. Whether that is the case or not, the idea is that God appeared to Jacob "again" as He had done at Bethel, where God denuded Himself to Jacob (see on :7). The idea would then be that this amazing self revelation of God at Bethel was repeated when Jacob's name was changed. This could refer to the night of wrestling, or to some new appearance when the name change was repeated. The 'denuding' of God was in showing the very barest essence of Himself; which was grace, to call Jacob "Israel", by grace.


Gen 35:10 God said to him, Your name is Jacob. Your name shall not be Jacob any more, but your name will be Israel. He named him Israel- As noted on :9, this may not be a repeat of the name change, but rather a historical reference to the name change on the night of wrestling. If it is a repeat, the suggestion would be that just as Jacob appears to have somewhat forgotten about the significance of God's appearance at Bethel 20 or 40 years previously (see on :1), so he was failing to appreciate the wonder of the name change. 

Jacob’s name change being repeated may reflect God's perception that Jacob had changed; or it could be that he was being encouraged to accept it still, to accept that it was really true. 2 Kings 17:34 criticizes men for worshipping Yahweh but also their own gods; they are rebuked with the comment that God had made a covenant with "the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel". The suggestion is surely that when Jacob became Israel, he quit the life of half-hearted service to God. This was the decision he came to that night when he wrestled with the Angel, and his name was changed. Then he realized that there were only two ways, the way of the flesh and the way of God (cp. Mt. 6:24; 7:13,14; James 3:11,12). It is for this reason that soon after the wrestling incident and change of name, Jacob purges his family of their idols (:2). Once he has done this, God now reminds him the second time that his name has been changed. Like Jacob, we find it very hard to ascertain our spiritual growth; the very construction of our natures makes 100 % accurate self-examination impossible (Ps. 19:12; Prov. 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:4 RSV). It's not only that we fail to perceive all our errors; we also fail to realize when we have made a significant turn for the better in our lives. Yet God perceives this, as He did with Jacob that night when He renamed him. This perhaps the hardest struggle we have; to really grasp the height of God's positive perception of us. It took Jacob, spiritual hero that he was, 50 years; for only in his final speeches does Jacob openly use the term Israel about himself. And a like joy, that almost child-like playing around with that 'new' name he'd received 50 years back, should characterize our spiritual maturity. 


Gen 35:11 God said to him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations will be from you, and kings will come out of your body- See on Gen. 43:14. The command to be fruitful and multiply recalled the command to Adam and to Noah. It was as if Canaan was now a new land for them to populate; as it were, empty of anyone else. This promise was given only once Jacob had openly renounced idolatry in his family. At this point, Jacob already had plenty of sons and probably grandchildren. His sons had been old and strong enough to destroy Shechem. So Jacob is being led to realize that the essential fulfilment of the promises was not in immediate material things. He was being led to realize that the fruitfulness in view was yet future, and the promise of "kings" was only going to be fulfilled in the future. For his sons never became kings but remained as shepherds all their days. It may even be that "kings" was to be read as an intensive plural, hinting at the one great Messianic King who was to come. Likewise it is hard to see any immediate fulfilment of the idea that from one nation would come "a company of nations"; indeed, the idea is apparently contradictory. How could one nation be a company of nations... The fulfilment was and is in the way that peoples from all nations can be baptized into Jacob's great seed, the King, the Lord Jesus, and be counted as part of the one nation of God's people. And who knows how much of this Jacob perceived as he mulled over this strange promise. 

Gen 35:12 The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, and to your seed after you will I give the land- Again, upon closer examination, these words were pregnant with future implication. The land was not given to Abraham and Isaac in their lifetimes; they died without possessing it, let alone eternally. It was given to Abraham in the sense that it was 'given by promise' (Gal. 3:18); the promise of future inheritance was seen as the gift in this life. And as the land had thus been 'given' to his fathers, so it was given to Jacob. 


Gen 35:13 God went up from him in the place where He spoke with him- Why is this mentioned? Perhaps to invite us to see the Angel ascending away from Jacob, recalling to his mind the vision of the stairway to heaven  in Gen. 28:12,with Angels ascending and descending upon it, directly from him to heaven. But the same term is used of God going up from Abraham (Gen. 17:22); clearly Jacob is being assured that he is the seed of Abraham with the very same promises made to him. All Abraham's seed go through the same reassurance.


Gen 35:14 Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it- There are a few hints that the way of thinking associated with a life of idolatry was still in Jacob. Thus he set up pillars to God and also put a pillar over Rachel's grave (:20); something which was later forbidden under the Law because of its evident association with idolatry (same word in Lev. 26:1; Dt. 12:3; 16:22; 2 Kings 3:2; 10:27). He had done this previously, in a way his forefathers are not recorded as doing (Gen. 28:18,22; 31:45,51,2). However, this was done at this moment in time as a genuine sign of his devotion to God. Instead of building a house to God as he had earlier promised, by turning the pillar he had earlier set up into a temple (Gen. 28:22), he simply repeated what he had done there 40 years ago- he just set up a piece of rough stone as a makeshift altar, recognizing that this was all he was, rough stone; and that was in fact all God wanted. The anointing of the rock with oil was later understood by Jacob as pointing forward to the Messianic seed, Jesus the good shepherd; for he ends his days with reflecting upon "the shepherd, the stone of Israel / Jacob" who would 'come out of' him (Gen. 49:24).

Gen 35:15 Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him Bethel- God had already referred to the place by this name (:1), in allusion to how Jacob had promised to build God a house there, but by grace God had built him a house / family there. Only now does Jacob accept this, and refer to Luz as Bethel. It's rather like his slowness to accept his renaming from Jacob to Israel. It had to be twice repeated to him, and even then, only at the end of his life did he openly use the word about himself.


Gen 35:16 They travelled from Bethel. There was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel travailed. She had hard labour- The fact Rachel did just before Ephrath or Bethlehem, where Messiah was to be born, may be another hint at her unspirituality. She didn't make it to Christ. We wonder why they were travelling when Rachel was about to give birth. Perhaps they travelled because they were still fearful of the vengeance of the tribes because of their massacre of Shechem. If they had trusted in God's protection, they would have remained in one place at least until Rachel had given birth. Perhaps it was this lack of faith and the stress connected with fearing death at the hands of the surrounding tribes which contributed to Rachel's pregnancy complications and untimely death.


Gen 35:17 When she was in hard labour, the midwife said to her, Don’t be afraid, for now you will have another son- The reference was to Rachel's proud boast when Joseph had been born some years before, that Yahweh would give her "another son" (Gen. 30:24). She must have struggled in those years as she failed to fall pregnant. God had not promised her another son; she presumed upon that. And getting pregnant now much later in life was not without its risks, and led to her death. The "don't be afraid" may well be a reference to Rachel's fear that her proud boast that Yahweh would add another son would not be fulfilled.


Gen 35:18 It happened, as her soul was departing (for she died)- The soul of a person is their life, and at times the idea of soul and spirit are interchangeable; the idea is that as she breathed her last, she used her last bitter breaths to name the child Benoni.

That she named him Benoni, but his father named him Benjamin- There is a strange appropriacy in Rachel dying in childbirth; for in great unspirituality she had asked Jacob [who had served 14 years for her, so great was his love for her] to give her children or else she would die (see on Gen. 30:1). We do tend to get what we really want, with all its consequences. Rachel dies not in joy that Yahweh had given her another son (Gen. 30:24), but rather in depression, naming the child "son of my sorrow". She passes from the scene a bitter woman, who was ultimately unfulfilled and untouched by the unusual love of Jacob for her, let alone the love of God. Jacob tried to reverse this shameful naming, by calling the son Benjamin, the son of his right hand, almost implying favouritism in the very name.


Gen 35:19 Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath (the same is Bethlehem)- As noted on :16, Rachel didn't quite make it to the birthplace of the Messianic seed, the Lord Jesus. She was buried by the roadside, rather than in the family grave where Leah was buried along with Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 49:31). Jacob sadly recognized that the love of his life for whom he had been obsessed for 14 years and made such huge problems for himself... was not really one of the faithful family, and had no real heart for the things of the promises.


Gen 35:20 Jacob set up a pillar on her grave. The same is the Pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day- Pillars were later forbidden because of their pagan associations, but it's left an open question as to whether there were such associations with Rachel. However the others of the faithful family were buried in a cave (Gen. 49:31); no mention is made of a pillar. It was Rachel who so loved her father's idols that she felt she couldn't live without them, and therefore stole them. So perhaps the paganic associations of a pillar were appropriate for her.


Gen 35:21 Israel travelled, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder- This is the "tower of the flock" associated with Bethlehem in the Messianic prophecy of Mic. 4:8. Rachel died before reaching Bethlehem; Jacob went there and beyond. I have suggested this may hint at her lack of Messianic appreciation, and in this case, Jacob would be presented here as having what she lacked in this respect.


Gen 35:22 It happened, while Israel lived in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve-  It could be that with Rachel's death, it became clear that Jacob favoured the sons of Rachel and Joseph, although one of the youngest sons, was effectively now the firstborn for Jacob; even though Reuben was the firstborn. He therefore rapes Bilhah as an expression of his anger with his father, and also as an expression of power; we recall how Absalom slept with his father's wives publically in order to demonstrate his power, rather than doing so from lust. I suggest that Reuben's action was likewise not from lust, but rather he used sex as it is still often used in primitive societies- as a demonstration of power. It was for this reason that at the end of his life, Jacob stripped Reuben of the birthright and effectively gave the double portion intended for the firstborn to Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's sons. Sadly, Jacob never fully learnt to forget the whole 'thing' about the blessing of the firstborn that he and his mother had been so wrongly obsessed with gaining. And Reuben too didn't learn the lesson. We too can come to our deathbeds with elements of weakness, no matter how God has sought to help us overcome them. And yet like Jacob, we are still saved by grace.

As with the incident concerning Dinah and Shechem, Jacob comes over as being informed of the matter but not doing much. He did however strip Reuben of the birthright, although apparently only at the very end of Jacob's life.

The Hebrew of this verse has a strange pause in the middle of it, suggesting we need to pause and consider how awful was the thing Reuben had done. Paul may well have the incident in mind when he rebukes the Christian church in Corinth for a brother sleeping with his father's wife, which Paul says is unheard of amongst the Gentiles (1 Cor. 5:1). But, it was heard of amongst the people of God- Reuben, the firstborn of Israel, had done it. And so the theme develops that the people of God are often more immoral than the unbelieving world around them; but are saved by grace, not their good works. This seems so true of the Abraham family, whose 'faithful' members often contrast poorly with the more decent and ethical unbelievers amongst whom they lived. The point is that the people of God aren't necessarily good people, although they ought to be; they simply throw themselves upon God's grace.


Gen 35:23 The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun- The list is of twelve tribes, and this number rather stuck throughout the Biblical record. And this raises the question as to whether Jacob's attempt to incorporate Joseph's two sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his personal sons... was really accepted as legitimate by God. Because in this case, there would have been 14 tribes of Israel.


Gen 35:24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin- We wonder why Benjamin is listed amongst the 12 sons born to Jacob in Paddan Aram (:26). I think that the answer is that quite simply, Semitic writing and culture is not so strictly accurate as Western and other cultures today. There are no footnotes pointing out exceptions; numbers and situations are rounded up; "all" is used in a very general sense. This is difficult for literalists to cope with, but it is of such pathetic literalism that has arisen so much of the petty criticism of the Biblical text.


Gen 35:25 The sons of Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid): Dan and Naphtali- The order is: Sons of Leah, sons of Rachel, sons of Rachel's handmaid, sons of Leah's handmaid. Perhaps the order is an attempt to demonstrate that the sons of the handmaids were finally accepted as legitimate sons of Jacob, although the sons of the proper wives are put first as if to reflect that God never fully accepted the handmaids as  Jacob's legitimate wives.


Gen 35:26 The sons of Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid): Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram- See on :24. The impression is being given that the people of Israel / Jacob were formed outside the land of promise, and then brought into it. Just as Adam was as it were introduced into Eden, and Abraham likewise brought into the land. It was again so relevant for the wilderness generation, who had been born in Egypt and were being brought into the eretz as they heard Genesis first read to them.


Gen 35:27 Jacob came to Isaac his father, to Mamre, to Kiriath Arba (which is Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac lived as foreigners- This is presented as his first meeting with Isaac after returning from Laban, but quite some years had passed now, around 10-14. The promise that God would return him to his father's house in peace was not therefore fulfilled at this point; it was fulfilled in him coming to his father's house in the sense of his family, Esau, in peace- in peace with God through forgiveness, most importantly. I think that is how Jacob came to understand it, otherwise we would expect to read of him making some symbolic visit to his "father's house" immediately after meeting Esau acceptably.


Gen 35:28 The days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years- This meant that he would have lived until the time Joseph supposedly died. The record is not in strict chronological sequence, as the story of Joseph is told separately, and this concludes "the generations of Isaac" (Gen. 25:19).


Gen 35:29 Isaac gave up the spirit, and died, and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. Esau and Jacob, his sons, buried him- "Full of days" rather than full of years could mean that his days had been filled with significance, rather than living the same day over and over year after year. The term is clearly not the same as just meaning "old".