God sends Jacob and his people to Bethel – without their foreign gods (Genesis 35:1 – 35:15)
God appeared to Jacob as he was fleeing from Esau and told him to go to Bethel and settle there. Jacob was instructed to build an altar to God when he arrived.
Jacob told his family:
“Get rid of your foreign gods, purify yourselves, and change your clothes. Then we will go to Bethel where I will build an altar to God who has been with me wherever I have gone.”
The family gave Jacob all the foreign gods and the rings in their ears. Jacob buried them under the oak at Schechem.
As they travelled to Bethel, the fear of God fell on the towns around them so that no one pursued them. Jacob and his family arrived in Luz (Bethel) where they build an altar as god had instructed them. They called the placed El Bethel because it was there that God revealed himself to Jacob when he was fleeing from his brother Esau.
Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, died and was buried under the oak tree outside Bethel. They named the place Allon Bakuth.
After Jacob returned from Paddan-Aram, God appeared and blessed him. God told him,
“Your name is Jacob but you will no longer be called Jacob. Your name will be Israel.”
God said to Jacob,
“I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a community of nations will come from you and kings will be among your descendants. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I also give to you and your descendants after you.”
Then God went up from him.
Jacob set up a stone pillar where God spoke to him and poured out a drink offering to it. He also poured oil on it. Jacob called the place where God spoke to him Bethel.
What the story means to us today
Reaffirming our commitment to God when we backslide
Previously, in Genesis 28:20, Jacob pledged:
“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I may return safely to my home, then the Lord will be my God.”
After vowing to make God his god, Jacob placed a pillar in Bethel. But this promise was made in distress and likely held less value to Jacob (as evidenced by his backslidden behavior). After things settled down, we see Jacob’s people have still not wholeheartedly given their lives to God. Now God is calling Jacob to task.
Having tolerated Rachel’s teraphim until now, Jacob now commands his people rid themselves of foreign gods (seraphim) and reconfirm their faith. In a manifest gesture of commitment, they build an altar confirming their allegiance to the one true God.
It is easy to give in to temptation, revert to bad ways, to forget about God in good times – then turn to him for help when life’s struggles weigh us down. During backslidden days, we may feel a faint tug at our heart, a twinge of pain as we furtively acknowledge our direction has turned. This is the time to act. As with Jacob, when we backslide, no matter how small the regression, we must “clean house”, rid ourselves of heathen ideals, and overtly reconfirm our faith in God.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The similarity of events to those described in Genesis 28 along with the mention of various names for Bethel may seem confusing to readers. The verses tell us that Jacob and his people came to “Luz” and in a parenthetical note, add that the location is called “Bethel”. Archeologists have uncovered Canaanite ruins at the location dating back to at least 3200 BC (today Bethel is typically identified with the modern city of Beitin in the central West Bank of Palestine). It is believed that the Canaanites built the town of Luz and named it from the almond trees that grew around it. The Israelites name for Bethel probably did not supersede the Canaanite name until quite some time.
Our story describes Jacob setting up a sacred pillar in Bethel. As described in Genesis 28:18, Jacob has previously set up a stone at the same spot. Some think the story refers to the prior event (and use this belief as evidence that the book of Genesis came from different historical sources). However, it is more likely that this event was a re-consecration of the location and the renaming to Bethel a reaffirmation of Jacob’s vow to follow God.
The death of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah
Some may find it odd that Deborah’s death is mentioned in the middle of Jacob’s story. Deborah had been Rebekah’s nurse but later became Jacob’s nurse. She likely was around 180 years old when she died. Her position in the family would have been elevated, similar in importance to the mother’s status. Certainly, to Jacob she was a beloved, motherly figure having helped raise and nurture him as a child. Her death during Jacob’s travels was a significant event in his story.
A nation will come from Jacob
God tells Jacob a nation and community of nations will come from him and adds that kings will be among his descendants. The nation referenced is of course, Israel, and the kings represent their great leaders throughout time. But the “community of nations” that God refers to is unclear. It likely infers a larger relationship between Israel and other countries. Given the ease of travel and relocation in modern times, this could refer to the assimilation of Jews in countries throughout the world. More likely, it refers to Israel’s many nation-state partners, particularly those, such as the United States, who support Israel primarily on religious grounds.
The science and history behind the story
Ancient drink offerings
At Bethel, Jacob “poured out a drink offering” on the stone pillar. Drink offerings in ancient Israel were typically wine or occasionally blood and meant to signify sacrifice for the sake of following God’s commands.
Notes on Biblical translation
The “fear of God”
The verses say the “terror of God”, or “fear of God”, fell on the towns around Jacob so that no one pursued them. The phrase “fear of God” is still popular today. It is ambiguous though, its meaning not entirely clear. It could mean fearing God’s actions or God himself. Or it could mean fear deliberately instilled in men by God. Similarly, it could be a superlative referring to “tremendous fear”, much as the expression is used today.
“God revealed themselves”
Most interpretations say “God revealed himself to Jacob” at Bethel. The original Hebrew text however, is plural, and would be more accurately interpreted as “God revealed themselves to Jacob”. The plurality of God frequently surfaces in the Bible’s text and is one of the mysterious characteristics that Man is yet to truly understand. Some take the plurality to include God and the angels.
God tells Jacob, “I am God almighty”. The original phrase is “Shaddai” or “El Shaddai” and its meaning is unknown. The translation to God Almighty originated in the Latin Vulgate when Jerome translated it as “all powerful”. The phrase typically appears in the Bible when referencing God as the source of all life, and thus, likely attempts to encompass God’s supreme significance to us and reverence to him as the giver of our existence.
35 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.”
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. 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.” 4 So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. 5 Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
6 Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 7 There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, h because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.
8 Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak outside Bethel. So it was named Allon Bakuth.
9 After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, n God appeared to him again and blessed him. 10 God 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.
11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants. 12 The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.” 13 Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.
14 Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. 15 Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
35 God spoke to Jacob: “Go back to Bethel. Stay there and build an altar to the God who revealed himself to you when you were running for your life from your brother Esau.”
2–3 Jacob told his family and all those who lived with him, “Throw out all the alien gods which you have, take a good bath and put on clean clothes, we’re going to Bethel. I’m going to build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in trouble and has stuck with me everywhere I’ve gone since.”
4–5 They turned over to Jacob all the alien gods they’d been holding on to, along with their lucky-charm earrings. Jacob buried them under the oak tree in Shechem. Then they set out. A paralyzing fear descended on all the surrounding villages so that they were unable to pursue the sons of Jacob.
6–7 Jacob and his company arrived at Luz, that is, Bethel, in the land of Canaan. He built an altar there and named it El-Bethel (God-of-Bethel) because that’s where God revealed himself to him when he was running from his brother.
8 And that’s when Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, died. She was buried just below Bethel under the oak tree. It was named Allon-Bacuth (Weeping-Oak).
9–10 God revealed himself once again to Jacob, after he had come back from Paddan Aram and blessed him: “Your name is Jacob (Heel); but that’s your name no longer. From now on your name is Israel (God-Wrestler).”
11–12 God continued,
I am The Strong God.
Have children! Flourish!
A nation—a whole company of nations!—
will come from you.
Kings will come from your loins;
the land I gave Abraham and Isaac
I now give to you,
and pass it on to your descendants.
13 And then God was gone, ascended from the place where he had spoken with him.
14–15 Jacob set up a stone pillar on the spot where God had spoken with him. He poured a drink offering on it and anointed it with oil. Jacob dedicated the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel (God’s-House).
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
35:1 Then God said to Jacob, “Go up at once to Bethel and live there. Make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 35:2 So Jacob told his household and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. 35:3 Let us go up at once to Bethel. Then I will make an altar there to God, who responded to me in my time of distress and has been with me wherever I went.”
35:4 So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods that were in their possession and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob buried them under the oak near Shechem 35:5 and they started on their journey. The surrounding cities were afraid of God, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.
35:6 Jacob and all those who were with him arrived at Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 35:7 He built an altar there and named the place El Bethel because there God had revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother. 35:8 (Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel; thus it was named Oak of Weeping.)
35:9 God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan Aram and blessed him. 35:10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but your name will no longer be called Jacob; Israel will be your name.” So God named him Israel. 35:11 Then God said to him, “I am the sovereign God. Be fruitful and multiply! A nation—even a company of nations—will descend from you; kings will be among your descendants! 35:12 The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you. To your descendants I will also give this land.” 35:13 Then God went up from the place where he spoke with him. 35:14 So Jacob set up a sacred stone pillar in the place where God spoke with him. He poured out a drink offering on it, and then he poured oil on it. 35:15 Jacob named the place where God spoke with him Bethel.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
35 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Beth-el, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. 2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: 3 And let us arise, and go up to Beth-el; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. 4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. 5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. 6 So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Beth-el, he and all the people that were with him. 7 And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-el: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother. 8 But Deborah Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried beneath Beth-el under an oak: and the name of it was called Allon-bachuth. 9 And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. 11 And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; 12 And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. 13 And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. 15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Beth-el.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.