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Chapter 35

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ch. 35:1-16  ch. 35:17-29 

Jacob Returns To Bethel   (ch. 35:1 - 16)     


In verse 1 God tells Jacob to move to Bethel.  I think that this was more than a simple request by God.  Bethel was where God wanted Jacob all along, but Jacob never moved there. Now God is telling Jacob to get there in no uncertain terms.  Bethel means "the house of God". 


Many commentators believe that Jacob wasted the previous thirty years of his life.  Jacob left his homeland because  he feared his brother would  kill him  since he had deceived his brother out of his inheritance.  Because of fear and sin Jacob fled not just from Esau but from the will of God.  God called Jacob back to His will and Jacob proceeded but didn't complete the journey to God's will.  Once again, at this point, God is calling him back again.  The ironic thing through all of this is that Jacob acted as if he was in God's will.  He had built altars to God and worshipped at the altars. He even met with God and wrestled with Him.  He saw angels.  Still, Jacob was not in the place God wanted him.  That sounds like the history of Israel, right up to this very day.  It also sounds like the history of the church. I think there are many parallels between the history of Israel and the history of  the church.


Also in verse 1 God tells Jacob to build an altar to worship once he got to Bethel.   The text does not say, "build and altar to me."  It says, "build an altar to God; who appeared to you when you were fleeing your brother Esau."  Built into this command by God was a reminder that God had begun to appear and speak to Jacob decades ago.  Some might even take this as somewhat of a rebuke, suggesting that Jacob should have been in Bethel long ago.


In verse 2 we see that before Jacob and his people would go to Bethel he told all those with him that they must get rid of their "foreign gods", purify themselves and change their clothes."  You might wonder why Jacob's people even had foreign gods when Jacob was monotheistic, and believer in just one God, the God of his father.  Well, we know that Rachel took her father's god from him when they left to return to Jacob's homeland.  It might be that she still had these gods.  It might also be the case, and I tend to believe this, that Jacob's people, including his sons, were believers in more than one god.  Whatever the case, they had these gods and now it was time to get rid of them.  Jacob knew that they could not worship the God of Abraham and false gods at the same time, something that was always a problem with Israel throughout history. 


The changing of clothes is symbolic.  It represents an inner change.  This is seen throughout the Bible, both in Old Testament Judaism, and New Testament Christians.   At the end of this age, all true believers will receive a new set of clothes and will be clothed in white, as the book of Revelation states.


In verse 3 Jacob makes the call to go to Bethel .  He says that they must worship the God who has been with him throughout his life, especially in the "day of his distress".   The "time of distress" might be  when Jacob returned home and saw Esau with his four hundred men. That being said, I'd suggest it was actually the time when Jacob was fleeing Esau decades earlier when he saw the vision of angels ascending and descending from heaven at Bethel.  I believe verse 7 might suggest this.  


Jacob's people respond in verse 4 by giving him all their foreign gods as well as their ear rings.   Jacob buried both in the ground.   It is easy to understand the foreign gods being buried, but scholars are divided to why the ear rings were buried.  There is nothing wrong with ear rings.  We see ear and nose rings mentioned in the Old Testament, and in many cases they are a gift with no immoral significance.  It is my thinking that these ear rings had some kind of association to these foreign gods and that is why they were buried in the ground.


I can picture Judas of New Testament fame, if he had have been there.  He would have probably suggested to Jacob that these things should have been sold and put the money to good use.   It seems to me that Scripture tells us to clearly bury, get rid of sin, get rid of worldly gods, not sell them to someone else.  If a god is bad for you, it will be bad for someone else.  The Bible does not suggest us profiting from worldliness and sin, even when we are in the process of getting rid of sin.


In verse 5 it tells us that "the terror of God" fell on all the towns around, to the degree that no one dare attack them.  There is nothing ironic about this.  Jacob and his people had just cleansed themselves of all unrighteousness to follow the one and only true God, and God says throughout the Old Testament, that when Israel obeyed God, they would be a nation in charge.  They'd be the head and not the tale as the Law of Moses states.  This is one example where Israel was the one in charge, the head and not the tale.  They haven't been in this position very often.


 Verse 6 states that they arrived in Bethel.  Verse 7 states that this was the place where God met Jacob when he was fleeing from Esau.  This is why I think the "time of distress" mentioned earlier refers to the time Jacob was fleeing Esau, not the time when he returned home to see Esau with four hundred men. 


Verse 8 tells us that Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died and was buried.  Remember, Rebekah was Jacob's mother.  In those days, women with even moderate wealth were given maid-servants and a nurse when they got married.  Some might wonder just why this death is mentioned.  I don't know for sure, but this whole chapter is about death.  The mentioning of Isaac's death is in this chapter, although most scholars say that he actually died maybe ten years beyond this point.  Some people suggest that the topic of death in this chapter signifies the departure of the past life and the entrance into a new life with God.


From verses 9 through 14 we see God speak to Jacob.  We see God blessing Jacob and restating the terms of the covenant He first spoke to Abraham and then to Isaac.  This is yet another confirmation of how God will deal with Israel.


Verse 10 tells us that God changed Jacob's name from Jacob to Israel .  Now this is not the first mention of this. Back in chapter 32 when Jacob wrestled with God, God had changed his name then. This verse actually is a recounting of the time when God renamed Jacob.  We shouldn't see this verse as a different event.  Most scholars believe that the name " Israel " means "to wrestle with God".  Some suggest that it means "to bless".   I believe  in either case, the name speaks volumes about Israel.  They constantly wrestled with God throughout their history past, and still do today, even though they are blessed by God. 


In verse 11 God calls Himself "the God Almighty".  That's "El Shaddai". This is the second time in Genesis that this term is used of God.  It means "the almighty breasted one who looks after His people.  Shaddai comes from a root word meaning "breasts".   For this reason some scholars say that God is both male and female. 


God then says "to be fruitful and increase in number", something He told Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob.  Increase in numbers does mean something to God. 


All along God told Abraham and Isaac that he would turn into a great nation.  Here in verse 11 God elaborates on that a bit.  He said that "a nation and a community of nations" will come from Jacob.  It is easy to understand that Jacob would become a great nation.  It is a bit harder to understand what is meant by a "community of nations".  That means more than one nation.  The only thing I can say concerning what this means is that this might be a reference to when God finally ends the history of the earth and recreates the earth into the new earth.  In Revelation 21:24 you see the new earth with the new Jerusalem.  It is said that kings and  nations of the earth will come into the new Jerusalem.  I think these nations might be the nations that are spoken of here.  They are all a result of Israel , and God dealing graciously to Israel.  I believe these nations are Gentile nations.  These nations consist of people who have come to Jesus throughout the age of grace as Gentiles.


We see something here about nations.  God deals with mankind on two fronts.  He deals with us individually and as nations.  Evangelicals often stress the point that God deals with individuals, but not so often about Him dealing with nations, but he does, and often when the Bible speaks of God dealing with nations, it is in reference to how those nations deal with Israel.


Verse 12 speaks of that part of the Abrahamic Covenant that deals with land issues.  God promised Abraham a certain piece of land.  He promised the same to Isaac, and now He is promising the same to Jacob, and to his descendents.  As I've said over and over again, Israel has never fully got all the land, but she will at the end of this age when Jesus returns to earth, captures the land for Himself, and hands it over to Israel.


Verse 13 states that God left Jacob by saying "He went up from that place".  This is why many people believe that where God lives is up from us, as in the skies or heavens.  I'm not convinced that the word "up" should be thought of in terms of geography.  I'm not convinced that God is up.  I tend to see Him as being around us, but in another dimension, a spiritual dimension.  Up is more transcendent here, not geographical, or so I think.


Verse 14 tells us that Jacob built another altar here to worship God.  He poured out a "drink offering".   We don't know much history of a drink offering.  It was not a part of the Law of Moses that was written later on.  It was clearly some kind of ceremony that was already in Jacob's society.  Paul speaks of a drink offering to the New Testament.  He viewed his life as a drink offering, meaning, he poured all of himself out in the service of the Lord. 


Jacob also poured oil on the altar.  This too was probably some kind of social ceremony.  Remember, the  Law of Moses was not yet written or dictated by God to Moses, but still, there were certain things done by the patriarch's of Israel that become part of the Law of Moses.  Why and how these things came about is debatable.


Verse 15 simply says that Jacob named this place Bethel.  This place was already named Bethel by him years earlier.  The writer is just restating a past fact.


The Deaths Of Rachel And Isaac (ch. 35:16 - 29)


Verse 16 states that Jacob and his people "moved on from Bethel ".  How long they stayed in Bethel I don't know.  The only thing I know is that Bethel is where God wanted Jacob.  He finally moved there, and now he leaves, and this is the man that God's blessing is upon.  It only goes to show you that the apostle Paul in his discourse on the Jews in Romans nine through eleven is right when he says that God's choosing of people doesn't depend on their goodness, but His sovereign choice.  God is God, so He can do what He wants.


We also see in verse 16 that while Jacob and his people were moving away from Bethel Rachel was giving birth with some difficulty.  It makes you wonder if the difficulty was not a result of Jacob's decision to move from Bethel.  On the other hand, Rachel was not as young as she once was, which may be another reason.


In verse 18 the midwife that was helping Rachel tried to make Rachel feel better by telling her that she had given birth to a son.  This was her second son, after all the years of trying.  Joseph was her first son who was born when her and Jacob lived with her father Laban. 


Verse 18 states that Rachel "breathed her last."   The next phrase says that she died.  The Hebrew word "nephish" is the word translated as "breathed" in the NIV, and "soul" in the KJV.  The word "soul" occurs more in the KJV than it does in the NIV.   "Nephesh" means "breathe or wind", that's why the NIV uses the word breathe. 


The KJV states that Rachel's "soul departed".  Her soul left her.  If is commonly known that Hebrew culture understood the totality of life as being one's soul.  As a matter of fact, the word "nephish" is often translated as life in the Old Testament. 


Greek culture understood life as being made up of three parts, the spirit, the soul, and the body.  You can see this in Paul's writings, (1 Timothy 5:23) although Paul also uses the Hebrew culture's understanding in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as it related to creation.


Because the Greeks saw a clear separation between body, and soul, they understood the soul to be sacred while the body not sacred.  This is why they had no problem with sexual immorality, even during religious worship.  Temple prostitutes were common through Grecian  and Roman religious worship.  As long as their soul was pure, everything was fine, or so they thought.  Hebrew culture could not think in those terms because the soul included all parts of a life.  If one part of a life was defiled, so was another.  


In many verses in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, you'll see the phrase "my soul".  You might think by saying "my soul" that this does not fit the Hebrew thinking of soul.  You might think that means, "my soul" is one part of me, my spirit is another, and my body is yet another.  That's not really the case.  The word "soul" in this case should be seen as "my life", that is, all of who I am.  


Rachel lost her life, lost her soul, here in Genesis 38:18.  She lost her very breath.  She lost that witch made her human, but her loss was only in a human sense, her existence on earth.  Her soul "departed" from her as the KJV states.  This should be understood not in the sense that her soul left her body, but her soul, her life, that witch made her human left this planet.  Her life departed to another place.  Her physical breathing ended.  Her spiritual breathing remained.  


So the Hebrew word for "soul" is "nephish" which means breath.  It is interesting that the New Testament word spirit is translated from the Greek word "pnuema" that also means breath or wind.  Without getting further complicated, because both "nephish" in Hebrew, and "pnuema" in Greek both mean breathe or wind, I think we can safely say that both spirit and soul are related to each other, maybe so related that we should not try to separate the two.  At this point in the discussion there is disagreement among Bible scholars.  Some hold to the Hebrew thinking, some to the Greek.  I simply suggest that the lines between spirit and soul are pretty blurred, and I'm not so sure we can clearly distinguish between the two.          


Just before Rachel died she named her son "Ben-Omi", which means "son of my trouble".   After Rachel died, Jacob renamed the new born son "Benjamin", which means, "son of my right hand".  The naming of children might have been a co-operative thing between husbands and wives back then, but ultimately it was the father's decision to name the child.  Why Jacob named his new son "son of my right hand" has been well debated.  My guess is that Jacob viewed Rachel as his right hand in life.  He loved her more than Leah or any other. 


Verse 19 says that Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.  Her tomb is still marked as a special place for the Jews today. As I write, here in March 2010, there is much controversy over this tomb and also the tomb in Hebron where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others are buried.  The Jewish government is making both these places a national historic site.  The Palestinians oppose this because they claim the sites to be their religious and historic sites.  The Palestinians should have no claim to these two sites.  Historically and religiously these sites concern Jewish ancestors, not Palestinians ancestors.   It's amazing to me that something I'm writing about now that happened over two and a half thousand years ago has such present day significance. 


Verse 22 tells us that Jacob set up a pillar over the place where Rachel was buried.  The text states that the pillar is still there, that is, is still there when the author of these words were writing them.  Most conservative commentators believe that Moses is saying that this pillar is still there as he wrote the words.  Some commentators suggest that Ezra edited the first five books of the Bible, and that might well be, and that he was saying that this pillar was still there in his life time, but that's a number of centuries down the line.


In verse 21 we see Jacob moving again.  He is still not in Bethel, the place where God wanted him.  He is like his grandfather Abraham.  Some might suggest that because he is a herdsman, that is the reason why he moves so much.  There may be some truth in that, but I am not convinced that is the reason why he was constantly on the move.


We note here, and in the next verse, we finally see Jacob being called Israel.  This is the first mention of Jacob being Israel in Genesis.


Verse 22 tells us that while Israel was living in these particular parts, Rueben went in a slept with Jacob's concubine.  Jacob actually heard the activity take place.  I'm sure he was not very happy with that.


Rueben was Jacob's oldest son.  He was the first son born to Leah.  Why he would do such a thing is not known for sure.  Some say he wanted to make sure he got the blessing of the firstborn, but that would be something he already had.  He might well have been taking after his father, with an abundance of hormones.


Whatever reason Rueben had, this act disqualified him from receiving the birthright of the first born.   Jacob would not pass the leadership of the family on to him.  We also learn elsewhere that Levi and Simeon were disqualified because they killed all the men in a city because one of them raped their sister Dinah.


Verses 23 to 26 list all the twelve sons of Jacob.


In verses 27 and 28 we see that Jacob returned to his father's home in Hebron.  It was there that Isaac finally died and was buried.  The wording of his death is the same as Rachel's earlier in this chapter.  The text states that he "breathed his last and died".  You might want to refer back to my thoughts abut the word "soul" from verse 18.


In verse 29 we see the words that Isaac "was gathered to his people".   In Hebrew culture this simply means that Isaac left earth and was gathered to where his relatives were, in a place called Hades, the place of the departed dead. 


Both Esau and Jacob buried Isaac, just as both Ishmael and Isaac buried Abraham.  Both Abraham and Isaac were buried in tombs in Hebron that are celebrated to this day by the Jews in Israel as an historical site, although it is being fought over by the Palestinians, who in my opinion have no historical claim to this site.

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