JACOB RETURNS TO BETHEL
Genesis 34, 35:1-29
Key Verse: 35:3
“Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”
This message will end our study of God’s work in Jacob’s life, not because Jacob is no longer mentioned in Genesis, but because Jacob will no longer be the primary person God’s word will talk about. Briefly we will show how Jacob was able to taste peace and enjoy his blessings. Then it will show how Jacob’s tranquility was shattered. Most important we will learn in detail how God used Jacob’s troubles to turn him into a man of God whom God could entrust his great promises he gave to Abraham and Isaac. It seems most men are like Jacob was when he moved into Shechem. We work hard with the hope of enjoying the fruits of our labor on some tranquil vacation home. For some men God has allowed them to experience this life. Then there are men God has called to live for his name’s sake. In this message we will find if we are the people God has called to live for him then we should never try to find peaceful habitation in this world. Our purpose in life must become like Apostles Paul. “To live is Christ to die is gain.” We will find from Jacob’s life to take any easier path leads only to great personal troubles in our lives.
Part I. Jacob’s Life in Shechem
This Bible message begins half way through Genesis 33. We find God finally resolved the 20 years of distress Jacob had weighing on his mind regarding his brother Esau. Esau embraced Jacob and kissed him. Jacob said to Esau, “To see your face is to see the face of God now that you have received me favorably.” Esau wanted to accompany Jacob. Jacob declined his help. He told Esau: All he wanted from Esau was to find favor in his eyes. With these words Jacob and Esau parted company as loving brothers. Finally it seemed God had resolved all of Jacob’s lifelong conflicts. There was no more Laban to deceive him. Jacob no longer had to watch his back. He even found that elusive peace with God by wrestling with God all night. For the first time in his life Jacob settled all his conflicts. Even though God told him to go back to the land of his fathers in Genesis 31 Jacob thought he could serve God his own way. After all he finally had peace. He had a large family with many possessions he never had time to enjoy. Jacob may have believed now was the perfect time to both serve God his way and enjoy the blessings he worked so hard to obtain. The Bible tells us Jacob found a nice plot of ground owned by a man named Hamor who had son named Shechem. He bought this land, set up his tent and proceeded to build an altar to God which he called “El Elohe Israel” which means the mighty God of Israel. On one hand life looks wonderful. For the first time he now seems to be able to enjoy the blessings God gave him. At the same time he seems to be trying to make an effort to keep his faith in God. However certain biblical principles make us uneasy about Jacob’s new life in Shechem. First we know it is hard to enjoy the world and enjoy God. Abraham knew he couldn’t do this, so he did not live in Sodom. Nonetheless, we think maybe Jacob is different. Then we also notice Jacob didn’t even pray to God about his decision to settle in Shechem. Praying and seeking God’s guidance is basic when it comes to settling down some place. God sees things we don’t. More than that maybe it isn’t God’s will. We can find this out if we humbly inquire to God. Jacob did not pray. He followed his feelings. This is how Genesis 33 ends.
By the time the second verse in chapter 34 is ended Jacob’s one and only daughter Dinah is violated. Her rapist had the same name of the town Jacob settled in, Shechem. The Bible does not say how Jacob felt when he heard his daughter was defiled. It does clearly express Dinah’s brother’s turbulent emotions. Verse 7 reads: “Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened, they were filled with grief and fury because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter-a thing that should not be done.” According to Jacob’s testimony in Genesis 49:6, 7 Simeon and Levi assembled the brothers to organize vengeance against Shechem and all the men living in Shechem. Since these brothers grew up among two of the worlds greatest deceivers they had become master deceivers. It was no problem for them to deceive all the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves. Verses 25-29 tell us what Simeon, Levi and the other brothers then did. Looking at this event from a cold historical view I wish the Bible shared more military details such as exactly how many men these two brothers killed. Did they do it early in the morning, late at night or broad day light? What the Bible does share is Jacob’s reaction to his sons slaughter and pillage of Shechem. At our MBA meeting it seemed most men did not condemn Simeon and Levi’s actions. Especially I noticed those who have daughters had empathy for what Simeon and Levi did. Jacob their father on the other hand categorically condemned their actions. First he tells Simeon and Levi in verse 30. Later in Genesis 49: 5-7 he says to them: “Simeon and Levi are brothers- their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” Thus ends chapter 34 with Jacob in infinitely worse trouble than what he experienced when he was fleeing from Laban and Esau.
Part II. Jacob Returns to Bethel
Jacob’s sons took vengeance in their own hands. His family was now in danger of organized retribution from Shechem’s neighboring towns. Now is the time to ask: What does God have to say about all of this? Look at chapter 35:1 “Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” This is God’s response to Jacob’s sons’ vengeance and pillage of the town of Shechem. It seemed God used the trouble and violence of his sons to push Jacob to settle in Bethel and build an alter to God. Before when God told Jacob to go back to the land of his fathers he did not take it too seriously. Conditions were much different now. They forced Jacob to take God’s direction seriously. We learn from Jacob in time of big trouble making a serious effort to go back to God is always the best direction to take.
Let us now learn from Jacob how to seriously follow God. The first step one must take is to repent. Look at verse 2: “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him. “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.” Before this event Jacob tolerated the sin of people in his household. Maybe it was because he was a hen picked husband whose favorite wife Rachel carried around her father’s foreign gods. The events of chapter 34 changed Jacob. Big trouble that could destroy his whole household caused Jacob to stand up and tell them: “Get rid of all your foreign gods”.
God does not want his people to have backup gods. It’s ok to have a spare tire in our car, but God does not want his people to carry around spare gods. It’s ok to learn the language of other cultures, but God does not want his people to also acquire foreign gods. We say to ourselves: “I already know this, I already practice it.” The only way we can be sure we are practicing this is when each one of us is facing life’s lowest common denominator, death. Missionary Elijah Park was sitting next to an American woman on a plane he was flying on as he was coming home from China. This woman had acquired the foreign god Buddha during her trip to China. She told Missionary Elijah she believed there were more gods than just the God of the Bible. Her attitude changed when the plane suddenly took on every sign that it was headed for a violent crash landing. She no longer grabbed onto Buddha. She grabbed onto Missionary Elijah. Missionary Elijah held onto to his faith in Jesus Christ who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
Jacob also told his household to purify. Jacob’s household had a massive amount of innocent blood on their hands. They looted the town of Shechem of its wealth, women and children. They were in no spiritual condition to now go and build alter to God. In the New Testament much is said about the importance to purify ourselves. Jesus taught; “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Mt.5:8) James 1:26, 27 writes: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” These verses showed me exactly one area in my life I had to purify my own self in. It is in the area of keeping a tight reign on my tongue. Because I work around only men, I think I can sometime swear and vent my anger with curse words. I learn my religion is both worthless to God and to the men I work around. James also speaks of not being polluted by this world. It is so easy to be polluted by this world. Just a simple subject search on the internet can pollute us. What then can we do to purify ourselves? Our bible teaches we purify ourselves by keeping hope we will be changed to be like Jesus when he comes. 1 John 3:2, 3 reads: “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” Do you or I ever feel too impure? What should do? We should stop thinking about pleasing our sinful nature. Instead we should think about being like Jesus Christ when he comes in his Father’s great and awesome glory.
Lastly we see Jacob even told his household to change their clothes. We thought only our old fashion parents would say change our clothes. Jacob told his household to change their clothes. Maybe their clothes were bloody, dirty and smelly. Maybe the women’s clothes were too revealing. Clothing can be very distracting. When we go to worship God with others we should make sure we are wearing appropriate clothing that honors God and doesn’t distract others.
Look at verse 3: “Then come let us go up to Bethel where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in my day of my distress and who has been with me where ever I have gone.” This is the first time our Bible’s record Jacob has decided to make a determined effort to do something for God. Furthermore he is leading all in his household to come join him.
When Jacob was clear and not double minded in his decision to follow God’s direction, how did his household respond to him? Look at verse 4. “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.” Take note of the word, “ALL” They gave to Jacob ALL their foreign gods.” If they would have only given 98 percent of their foreign gods their repentance would have been meaningless. But they gave up all their foreign gods. Sometimes we might repent part way and hide some of our sins. We may rationalize I’ll repent Monday through Friday. Then on the weekend I’ll take out my sins and enjoy them. This repentance is meaningless. We must get rid of all those things that cause us to sin. Moreover, we see they gave up their earrings out of their own initiative. Jacob didn’t even tell them to give him their earrings. Why did they give him their earrings? We know males outnumbered females in Jacob’s household. This would mean many males had been wearing earrings. Males that wear earrings wear their earring as a good luck charm. To them their earring is no different than a person who caries around a foreign god. The repentance in Jacob’s household was not whitewash repentance. It covered both seen and unseen sins. They took all their foreign gods and buried them under an oak tree in Shechem. Shechem was Jacob’s home of sin and compromise. He learned such a lifestyle plunged his whole family into trouble. Never again would he return to the type of life he had in Shechem. In Shechem he put to death his sin and compromise by burying all the foreign gods.
Let us now see what happened when Jacob and his household completely repented. Look at verse 5: “Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.” These towns were rallying together to attack Jacob for what his sons did to the Shechemites. With this eminent danger looming over his household this time Jacob didn’t try to protect his household by many smart plans. Instead he completely repented before God. Then he chose to follow God regardless of what dangers could be awaiting him.
This turned out to be the wisest strategy. Because of Jacob’s repentance and decision to follow God, God in turn brought the worst type of terror of all on the towns around Jacob. It is called the “terror of God”. When men terrorized America on 9/11 America could fight back. But when God terrorizes, there is no fighting back. The only thing people can do is repent or perish. Who knows maybe Jacob’s repentance caused all these towns to also repent?
As we carefully study the events that happened in Genesis 34 and 35 we find a life of compromise and sinning is what brought great trouble upon Jacob’s household. As we observed complete and total repentance was the only cure for Jacob and his household. Are we in trouble; is our family in trouble or our country in trouble? Verse 35:2 shows us the first things we should do to find God’s cure for our troubles: “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.”
Look at verses 6-7. Jacob built his altar to God, just as God told him to. Mission accomplished. For the first time in his life Jacob followed through with what he said he would do for God. We find only when Jacob put his plan to build the altar before all his other plans could he build the altar. In a similar way only when we put what we want to do for God before all our other plans and desires can we do something for God.
Verse 7 shows us why God wanted Jacob to specifically build the alter in Bethel. It is because it was there God first personally revealed himself to Jacob when he was fleeing from his brother. How would you like to be fleeing from someone who is trying to kill you? We normally wouldn’t call this a very precious time. For Jacob it was a precious time of his life because only by living under the distress and tension of fleeing for his life, was his heart and mind open to God’s revelation of himself. None of us like to see the ones we love live under distress or tension. We ourselves don’t want to live under such distress. Nevertheless instead of immediately trying to find a human solution to our distress, we should pray God will use it to open our heart and mind to the revelation of Jesus Christ. When we pray for others we are concerned for we should pray God would use the distress in their life to open their heart and mind to their own personal revelation of Jesus Christ.
After building the Alter to God and returning from Paddan Aram, God appeared to Jacob again in verse 9. He said to him: “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel. So he named him Israel.” Israel means he struggles with God. This marks the end of Jacob’s struggle with men. No longer would Jacob focus his energies on struggling with men. Now he would place his focus on God. He would struggle to know God and live for God. Isn’t it a wonderful God wants all of his people to stop struggling with men and to struggle with him? God does not want us to live our whole lives struggling with men. Instead he wants us rise far above the struggles in this world to where he lives. He wants us to struggle with him to know him, to be like him, to live for him in all we think, say and do. Paul writes: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Verses 11-12 God again repeats the promises he would fulfill for Israel. God promised He would bring nations, kings and give him the land he gave to Abraham and Isaac. Twenty years earlier God gave a similar promise. The only thing Jacob cared about was protection, food and clothing. This time Jacob heard and understood what God promised him. This time he believed God would do what he promised. He showed his belief by building a stone pillar, then offering a drink offering on it along with pouring oil on it.
Jacob still had many more years to live. What we find is they were years filled with much pain - pain not self inflicted but pain that comes from living in a cursed world. In this chapter alone his wife he loved the most Rachel dies while giving birth to her second son. His oldest son Reuben slept with one of his concubines. This made him ineligible to receive the blessing of the first born. At the end of the chapter Jacob joins Esau again to bury his father. In later chapters he is given a bad report wild animals devoured his precious son Joseph. Still later a famine wipes out all his wealth, which in turn causes him to possibly lose two more of his sons. In all this Jacob never turns his back on God. Finally he learns Joseph is alive. He is invited to Egypt to live. There God uses Jacob to bless Pharaoh. He blesses the two sons Joseph had while living in Egypt. In blessing them he revealed God had been his shepherd all his life. Jacob himself had been a shepherd his whole life. He knew how dumb and short sighted sheep were. He knew a sheep might not like how the shepherd is leading. At the same time to go their own way is certain death. Jacob chose to let God be his shepherd both in good and hard times. This is the choice God gives to us. We can either go our own way like a sheep straying from the shepherd or we can allow Jesus our good shepherd to lead us by repenting according to his word and following his direction. Our Bible promises Jesus is the shepherd that will never leave us nor forsake us. We may think we are unchangeable. This is not the lesson of Genesis. The book teaches God changes all he calls to become a blessing. Today let us allow Jesus to change us so he can use our lives to be a blessing.