PILLARS OF REMEMBRANCE MARK SIGNIFICANT MILESTONES ALONG LIFE’S JOURNEY FOR JACOB
Every life is marked by a number of significant milestones. Such was the case for Jacob. Some of these milestones were full of joy – others were full of sorrow and part of the tragic consequences of various failures in the life of Jacob. Through it all, Jacob was learning to walk with God along life’s varied journeys. The sovereign grace of God reigned supreme in Jacob’s experience and sustained him despite his many flaws.
You see a lot of memorials established as memory aids along the journey.
I. (:1-8) RETURNING HOME — JOURNEY TO BETHEL / ERECTION OF ALTAR / BURIAL OF DEBORAH – GETTING ON TRACK
A. (:1) Renewed Call of God to Consummate Pilgrimage to Bethel
“Then God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’”
God graciously commands Jacob to pull up roots and complete his calling by going to live in Bethel. It was there that God wanted an altar erected for worship of the one true God.
Hughes: Following his escape from Laban (after 20 years), Jacob willfully spent a decade doing much as he pleased, first dwelling for a time outside the promised land and then, when he did cross over into Canaan, settling in prosperous Shechem instead of traveling the twenty miles further to Bethel.
Parunak: Jacob’s response to the slaughter of Shechem was one of fear, 34:30. He has forgotten God’s proven protection from the anger of Esau, and the Lord gently reminds him of this.
Note how the Lord’s command puts the finger right on Jacob’s weakness. The Lord seldom commands us to do easy things; his commands are intended to purge and instruct us, and they invariably exercise us where we are weakest. After the slaughter of Shechem, Jacob would want to lay low and fortify the encampment, not encounter other cities who might have heard of his violent conduct. But the Lord puts him back on the road.
Deffinbaugh: The tragic and painful events of chapter 34 greatly improved Jacob’s ability to hear and obey God. His daughter had been raped, his sons had put the men of Shechem to death, and it appeared that neither he nor his family could live safely in that region any longer. . . It was only at the point where Jacob sensed great danger and where it seemed impossible to stay in Shechem that Jacob was willing to listen to the voice of God reminding him of his duty to return to Bethel.
B. (:2-5) Consecration and Journey to Bethel
1. (:2) Purification
“So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments;’”
The need for such purification speaks to the spiritual adultery that had compromised the household of Jacob. Assimilation with the world and intermarriage had brought along the temptation to worship foreign gods.
Parunak: Jacob’s command includes two groups: “his household and all that were with him.” The second group includes:
• bondservants acquired in Haran (30:43);
• captives from Shechem (34:29).
Parunak: We see here how corruption can creep into even a believing family. Rachel’s theft of the family gods from her father (31:19) has led to a diffusion of idolatry throughout the household, perhaps reinforced by idols that might have been among the spoil from Shechem. Jacob is not ignorant of this (else he could not have given this command). But up to now he has winked at the offense. Now, fearful of the coming journey, he realizes he cannot afford to offend the Lord, and commands his family to prepare.
Parunak: and be clean.—Better, “purify yourselves.”
Putting away the physical idols is not enough. The worshippers were defiled, and needed to be purified. So we as believers require cleansing from the defilements we encounter in our daily lives. Two NT passages bear on this point.
• John 13:6-10. The Lord instructs Peter on the need to wash his feet in order to have fellowship with the Lord.
• 1 John 1:9 describes confession as the means by which we can be cleansed spiritually.
2. (:3) Purpose
“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.”
As Jacob thinks back through all of the twists and turns of his life to this point, he testifies to the faithfulness of the presence of God to sustain him, despite his multiplied sins and failures.
Keith Krell: Jacob was in constant distress; yet, in each instance, God remained faithful to His promise and delivered him.
3. (:4) Participation
“So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem.”
Hughes: The earrings were not everyday jewelry but amulets and talismans engraved with pagan symbols. Most likely the earrings were largely from Shechem’s booty. Archaeological digs in other parts of Palestine have yielded crescent-shaped earrings that celebrated the moon god.
Seems strange for Jacob to hide the items rather than destroy them. Was he leaving the path open to perhaps come back at some point and recover these items??
Keith Krell: The oak referred to here seems to have been the oak of Moreh (lit. “teacher”) where God had appeared to Abraham shortly after he had entered the land (12:6). At the same spot, possibly prompted by Jacob’s example, Joshua issued a very similar call to Israel. In Josh 24:15, Joshua commanded the people of Israel to “… choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Later, in Josh 24:23, he said, “…put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”
4. (:5) Protection
“As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.”
It was a step of faith to make themselves vulnerable and set off on such a dangerous journey. But God supernaturally protected them.
C. (:6-7) Arrival in Bethel and Erection of Altar
1. (:6) Arrival in Bethel
“So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him.”
Luz – almond tree
W. H. Griffith Thomas: What memories the place must have called up as he reviewed the past with all his varied experiences! And how thankful he must have felt to be at length in the pathway of God’s will, and assured of peace, rest, protection, and blessing!
2. (:7a) Erection of Altar
“And he built an altar there,”
Bruce Goettsche: When we want to be centered in our living we need to gain perspective by returning to Bethel, to get rid of the stuff that hinders our walk with God, and then we need to focus on God. And that is really what worship is about. . . When our spiritual lives begin to feel stale and unfruitful, we need to take a trip back to Bethel.
3. (:7b) Significance of the Name
“and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him, when he fled from his brother.”
Ligon Duncan: “the God of the house of God” – The point of Bethel was not that it was a sacred place that could give Jacob grace. The point was it was the place where the God of Bethel had indeed met with him and shown him grace and faith. It was a place, an instrument in the hands of the gracious God.
D. (:8) Death and Burial of Deborah – Era of Patriarchal Transition
“Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak;
it was named Allon-bacuth.”
“oak of weeping”
W. H. Griffith Thomas: Faithfulness to God does not exempt us from sorrow.
Parunak: Why does Moses mention her here? The reference emphasizes that Rebekah is not mentioned after ch. 27. Her cunning attempt to secure the blessing for her favorite son backfired on her, and she never saw him again after he left for Haran. Her nurse must take her place as the one who welcomes Jacob back to Canaan, and then only with her dying breath.
George Bush: From the respect paid to her memory, we may fairly infer that Deborah was a venerable matron of exemplary piety. If we suppose her to have been fifty years of age when she left Mesopotamia with Rebekah, she could not have been far from a hundred and eighty at this time.
II. (:9-15) REAFFIRMING REVELATION — BLESSING IN THE PROMISED LAND
A. (:9-13) Promises of God Reaffirmed
1. (:9-10) Blessing in Renaming Jacob Israel
“Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. And God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He called him Israel.”
Ligon Duncan: Now Israel was the name that was to signify all that God had planned in and for Jacob. It was a name that was to separate him from his somewhat shady past. But Jacob didn’t live like Israel very often. And it’s exceedingly precious, I think, that in His very final meeting God refuses to think of him as Jacob and thinks of him as Israel. . .
This is the end of the days of God’s personal manifestations, conversations in the form of a man with the patriarchs. We see a shift in the mode of revelation. What will be the primary mode of revelation in the days of Joseph, the next patriarch? Dreams. And even Moses, God will only show him His back. So we see a shift in the mode of revelation here.
2. (:11-13) Blessing in Reiterating the Covenant Promises
a. Covenant Maker
“God also said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;’”
Parunak: El Shaddai is the almighty God, but not in an abstract sense. He deploys this power to bring blessing to his people.
b. Covenant Command
“Be fruitful and multiply;”
c. Covenant Promises
“A nation and a company of nations shall come from you,
And kings shall come forth from you.
And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you,
And I will give the land to your descendants after you.’”
d. Covenant Conclusion
“Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him.”
Hughes: 4 Parallels to account of God blessing Abraham (chap. 17)
1) Name change – here, with the change of Jacob’s name to Israel (which originally had been done on the other side of the Jordan at Peniel), he was not rehabilitated, confirmed, and validated by God himself in the Promised Land!
2) God named as El Shaddai (God Almighty) provides the blessing (17:1)
3) Blessed with fruitfulness and with the land promise
4) Theophany ended as “God went up from him,” as He had done with Abraham (17:22)
Deffinbaugh: Christians seem to ever be seeking some new and exhilarating experience. They wish to go from one novel experience to another. In the Scriptures, however, I see little of this happening, either to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. What Jacob did at Bethel was hardly novel, and what God said to him at His second appearance was nothing new. That should tell us something. What was really important for Jacob was that he gain a deeper and deeper appreciation of what he had already experienced but not fully grasped. He needed nothing new, but a greater grasp of that which was old.
B. (:14-15) Pillar of Stone for Remembrance
1. (:14a) Erection of Pillar
“And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He had spoken with him, a pillar of stone,”
2. (:14b) Worship Ceremony
“and he poured out a libation on it; he also poured oil on it.”
3. (:15) Significance of the Name
“So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel.”
III. (:16-20) REJOICING AND MOURNING — JOURNEY TOWARDS EPHRATH / BIRTH OF BENJAMIN / BURIAL OF RACHEL
A. (:16-17) Pain and Joy of Childbirth
“Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor. And it came about when she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, ‘Do not fear, for now you have another son.’”
Keith Krell: it is important to recognize that Jacob is not disobedient to God in leaving Bethel. God’s instructions to go to Bethel and “live there” (35:1) were evidently directions to dwell there while he fulfilled his vow. God did not command permanent residence there.
Jacob moves quickly from one of the most pleasant milestones in his life to one of his most grievous.
B. (:18-20) New Life and Grievous Death
1. (:18) Birth of Benjamin
“And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”
“Son of my sorrow” – changed to “son of the right” = favored side; favored son
S. Lewis Johnson: When you study systematic theology, one of the things that you study is the states of Christ, the state of humiliation, the state of exaltation. These two names, Benoni and Benyamin or Benjamin reflect those two states and the fact that he was born of Rachel, the mother of Israel, reflects again the fact that the Messiah shall come from Israel but he will be a son of suffering as well as a son of exaltation. The one being the outgrowth of the other. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath that is Jerusalem.
2. (:19) Death and Burial of Rachel
“So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”
3. (:20) Memorial to Rachel
“And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to
Deffinbaugh: Significantly, Moses added that this pillar was still standing in his day. While this may mean little to us, I think that it was of great interest to his first readers, the Israelites, who were about to enter into the land of Canaan. It informed these travelers that if they looked for this pillar when they possessed the land they would find it. What a sense of history this pillar must have helped to create. The events of the past were intended to be remembered and commemorated. Visual reminders had a great place in Old Testament times, not to mention the present (cf. Exodus 13:14ff.; Joshua 4:4-7; I Corinthians 11:26).
IV. (:21-28) REGROUPING AND TRANSITIONING — ENCAMPMENT AT EDER / INCEST OF REUBEN / JOURNEY TO HEBRON / BURIAL OF ISAAC
A. (:21) Encampment at Eder
“Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”
B. (:22a) Incest of Reuben
“And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.”
Hughes: Reuben’s sin had its impetus in Jacob’s favoring Rachel’s children at the expense of the children of Leah, his unloved wife. We have already seen how Jacob’s lack of concern for the honor of their sister Dinah fueled her brothers’ anger and homicidal rampage. Here Reuben sensed that with Rachel’s death, her servant Bilhah would become Jacob’s favorite over his mother Leah. So Reuben seduced her to ensure that she could not rival Leah’s position. The result of Reuben’s liason with Bilhah was that she was accorded the status of “living widowhood.” just as happened to David’s concubines when his son Absalom defiled them (cf. 2 Samuel 15:16; 16:20-23).
Ligon Duncan: a rationale for why Reuben and Simeon and Levy are displaced in favor of Judah in the headship of the family.
C. (:22b-26) Aside: Twelve Sons of Jacob
“Now there were twelve sons of Jacob—”
Constable: This paragraph is important because it records the entrance of Jacob into his father’s inheritance. Jacob presumably visited Isaac in Hebron on various occasions following his return from Paddan-aram. However, on this occasion he moved his family to his father’s encampment and evidently remained there as Isaac’s heir.
Jacob had left Beersheba with only a staff in his hand. Now he returned with 12 sons, a large household, and much livestock. The most important aspect of God’s blessing was his 12 sons, grouped here with their four mothers, through whom God would fulfill His promises to the patriarchs.
Benjamin was not born in Paddan-aram but near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16-18). Therefore the statement that Jacob’s 12 sons were born in Paddan-aram (Genesis 35:26) must be understood as a general one, possibly a synecdoche.
1. (:23) Sons of Rachel
“the sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin;”
2. (:24) Sons of Bilhah
“and the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali;”
3. (:25) Sons of Zilpah
“and the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher.”
4. (:26) Sons of Leah
“the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, then Simeon and Levi and Judah and Issachar and Zebulun;”
“These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.”
Keith Krell: Jacob had left Beersheba with only a staff in his hand. Now he returned with 12 sons, a large household, and much livestock. Through Jacob’s 12 sons God would fulfill His promises.
D. (:27-29) Journey to Hebron and Burial of Isaac
1. (:27) Arrival at Father’s House in Hebron
“And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre of Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.”
2. (:28) Summary of Isaac’s Days
“Now the days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years.”
3. (:29) Death and Burial of Isaac
“And Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”
Steven Cole: Jacob’s final sorrow in this chapter is the death of his aged father, Isaac. A casual reading might make us think that Jacob arrived just before Isaac’s death. But from other chronological notices in Genesis, we learn that Jacob lived in Hebron with Isaac about twelve years before Isaac died. But Isaac’s death is presented here to wrap up this part of Jacob’s history. It was another sorrow for Jacob, as another link with the past was removed.
Constable: The purpose of this notice is not simply to record Isaac’s death but rather to show the complete fulfillment of God’s promise to Jacob (Genesis 28:21). According to Jacob’s vow, he had asked that God watch over him during his sojourn and return him safely to the house of his father. Thus, the conclusion of the narrative marks the final fulfillment of these words as Jacob returned to the house of his father, Isaac, before he died.
Keith Krell: The Bible says that when he died he was “gathered to his people, old and full of years.” That thought of being “gathered to his people” is an early hint of life after death. This, incidentally, is the last recorded time that Jacob and Esau meet. Many years earlier they had separated because of their father; now they had come together to bury him (35:27-29).
Ligon Duncan: he’s waited his whole life to assume the headship, the official headship of the covenant, and when the time finally comes the scene shifts from him.
“The steps of a man are established by the LORD; And He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand. I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Or his descendants begging bread. All day long he is gracious and lends; And his descendants are a blessing” (Psalm 37:23-26).