From Jacob to Israel
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 35. Tonight we come to a portion of the life of Jacob in which we are drawing towards the close of Moses’ focus on him as one of the patriarchs. It's interesting, for most of his adult life Isaac, his father, has continued to live, and in some senses to be the lead patriarch in the family which God is building. And as we have said many times in our studies from Genesis 30 on, God has been endeavoring to prepare Jacob to trust in Him and to acknowledge Him alone.
But when last we were studying Jacob, we studied a very disturbing passage, Genesis 34 where the violation of Dinah is recorded, and where the vengeance of the sons of Jacob, the immoral and illegal vengeance of the sons of Jacob against the Shechemites is recorded. And we said once you've read Genesis 34, you can never read those last verses of Genesis 33 in the same way again. The minute you hear the word that Jacob decides to settle in Shechem instead of going to Bethel, as God had called him to, and as he had promised God he was going to do when he came back from the strange land. Instead of going to Bethel, for some reason Jacob settles in Shechem. Maybe it was because it was a crossroad of trade. He thought it was a place where he could do well financially. He thought it would be a good place for his family to settle down. And it turned out to be a disaster. In fact, we said Jacob almost ended up being another Lot. And God intervened, and in this horrendous providence displaced him from settling in Shechem. And so that is the passage which is immediately prior to this great passage here in Genesis 35, verses 1 through 29. This passage in Genesis 35 speaks of a very sweet communion between Jacob and God. It speaks of God's grace towards Jacob, but it's also a passage filled with great sorrow. So, let's remember as we hear it, this is God's word. Let's listen attentively. Genesis 35:
Our Lord and our God, this is Your word, and we ask now that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your law. Speak to our hearts, show us Your grace, teach us the truth, even as we wait expectantly upon this your divinely inspired revelation. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.
In this chapter we see three communions and three funerals. God experiences or provides Jacob with a tremendous experience of communion in verses 1 through 3, as in grace He comes and He speaks to Jacob and He gives Him a call. Then in verses 6 through 7 you see Jacob respond to God's call with worship. And again his soul communes with God. And then in verses 9 through 13, God subsequently again appears to Jacob and communes with him. These are the three great communions of the passage. But they are also three funerals in this passage. In verse 8 we learn of Deborah's death. She was the maid to Rebekah, a beloved member of the family almost. And then in verses 16 through 20 we see the sad account of the death of Rachel, even as she is giving birth to Jacobs favorite son, Benjamin. And then finally, Jacob's father died in verses 28 and 29. This is recorded. And so this is a passage of sweet communion with God in grace.
But it's also in some sense a school of sorrows for Jacob. I was talking to a friend not long ago who was describing his last year, and he was saying you know, it's been a hard year. My family's been sick, my wife's mother and father and brother have died all in the last ten months, and it's been a very hard year. You can imagine that this was a very hard time in the life of Jacob, even though he was experiencing a sweet and gracious communion with God. But Bethel is important for another reason, and I just share with you the words of Derek Kidner who says, “Bethel occupies something of the same focal place in Jacob's career that the birth of Isaac occupied for Abraham. Bethel tested his fluctuating obedience and his hold on the promise for more than twenty years. His return to Bethel marks an end and a beginning. A time of parting in the death of the old retainer Deborah, and of the beloved Rachel, and a point of transition as the promise was reaffirmed and the family was completed by the birth of Benjamin. Jacob was to live on, but the center of gravity would now shift to his sons.”
Now I want to look a little more closely at the two parts of this chapter. If you look at verses 1 through 15, basically those verses speak of Jacob's journey to Bethel. Then if you look at verses 16 through 29 these verses speak of his journey from and beyond Bethel, as he makes his way to his father's homeland. Let's look at these two parts.
I. God's grace is very evident in His dealings with Jacob.
First, we’ll look at verses 1 through 15. Jacob, in response to God's call, finally completes his pilgrimage to Bethel. He had promised the Lord that he would go there, and the Lord had called him in faithfulness to come to Bethel, but it was not until the Lord Himself speaks to Jacob that he begins to make the first steps. Even in the wake of the disaster at Shechem, it's not until the Lord speaks to Jacob that he begins to make his final path towards Bethel. And we see here God's grace very evident in the way He deals with Jacob and Israel. There are basically six distinct scenes in these first fifteen verses.
First of all there's God's gracious address to Jacob. Then there's Jacob's response to God's address in the spiritual directions that he gives to his household. Then there's God providential protection of Jacob and his family on the way to Bethel. Then there's the family worship that's recorded for us at Bethel. Then there's the death of the faithful and beloved Deborah, and then finally there's God's final appearance to Jacob. Let's look at those very briefly.
First, look at verse 1, and you’ll see there God's gracious address to Jacob. Jacob had stumbled and stumbled badly at Shechem, and for God to come to Jacob and to graciously and gently and patiently call him on to Bethel is really an act of grace. In some ways it parallels Jesus’ coming to Peter after his denials and saying, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.” And repeating in kind those words, those calls, those claims to Peter even as Peter had denied Him three times. And God comes to Jacob here, even though Jacob has stumbled badly, and so His call is a virtual word of grace to him.
Then if you look at verses 2 and 3, Jacob senses the significance of this. Jacob's response to God's call is obedience and a greater sense of responsibility for his household spiritual well being than Jacob has probably ever shown. Jacob has put up with allowing household idols to be existing, and perhaps even open and evident in his household for a period of time. And now having had this call from God to go back to Bethel, the place where he had first encountered Him and received the promises before he went to sojourn in a strange land. Suddenly Jacob senses a gravity: If we're going to go worship God at Bethel, then we've got some housekeeping to do. It's a little bit reminiscent of the children of Israel and God's dwelling in their midst on the way out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. When you dwell closely with God, it's a bit of a pain, because God is holy, and therefore we must have a corresponding holiness if He dwells in our midst. And you remember the people of God had all manner of rules that they had to follow because God was in their midst as they went out.
It's also interesting, isn't it, that Joshua at the very end of the book of Joshua, when he is at Bethel with the people of God, he calls them to do what? To turn their back on their household idols, to turn their back on the foreign gods, and to serve who? Only the one true God. The God of Israel. And so there is a sense in which Jacob's call to his family to put aside their household gods is a precursor to Joshua's call to the children of Israel. And he exerts here more spiritual leadership than we've ever seen him exert before.
And then if you look at verses 4 and 5 you see how God providentially protected Jacob and his family as they made their way to Bethel. You remember Jacob had been fearful after his sons had committed that vengeful execution of the Shechemites, Jacob had been fearful that the peoples of the land, the tribes of the land would gather together against them, outnumber them and crush them. But look what happens here. God calls Jacob. Jacob is faithful in response to God, and God in His promise and in His providence is faithful to Jacob to protect him. And we're told very frankly by Moses that God put a terror in the hearts of the tribes around Jacob so that they would not touch him. God had given a word of grace to Jacob. Jacob had responded to that word of grace with obedience. And as he was in the way of duty, God protected him every step of the way. God honors His faithfulness in his devotion by protecting him from his enemies.
And then in verses 6 and 7 they finally get to Bethel and the whole family gathers, and they worship the God of Bethel. It's very interesting that Jacob calls the place and the pillar El-bethel, not just Bethel. It's not because Jacob is some sort of a pantheist who's worshiping rocks or trees or a particular parcel of ground. The point in fact is the opposite. Jacob knows that Bethel is a special place because of the encounter. But he knows that the place means nothing without the God of Bethel. So this time he calls it El-bethel. The god of the house of God. The God of Bethel. Listen to what Matthew Henry says about this: “The comfort which the saints have in holy ordinances is not so much from Bethel, the house of God, as from El-bethel, God of the house. The ordinances are but empty things if we do not meet with God in them.” 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.
Then in verse 8 we see the death of the faithful and beloved Deborah. The loss of Deborah — Deborah, you remember had been a maid to Rebekah and the loss of a faithful household retainer like Deborah in this time, in the very timeframe in which they had arrived at Bethel would have been bittersweet. Perhaps southerners are in a peculiar position to understand the unique relationship which would have been sustained by this faithful household retainer in the family. She had been with the family for many, many years, and perhaps after Rebekah's death she came to be with Jacob's family and to teach the ways to the maids of his house. And so she was an honored person, and it's interesting that the name that is given, if you look there in verse 8, the name that is given to that oak where she is buried is Allon-bacuth, which means the oak of weeping. She was greatly loved in the house, and so there's a real bittersweetness here.
And then finally in verses 9 through 15 God makes His final appearance to Jacob. God, in this passage, makes His final, personal appearance to a patriarch, and He reiterates the promises that He had first made to Abraham. In fact, in this passage God goes all the way back to the words that He had spoken to Adam: Be fruitful and multiply. He goes right back to the creation covenant, and He repeats the responsibilities of the covenant, and He reminds Jacob of the grace of the covenant which He had established with Abraham and with Isaac and now with Jacob.
There are only a few things that I'd like to mention to you to draw your attention to this night. First of all, notice that God in His grace, in His very last meeting with Jacob calls him Israel. 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. My friends, you see there the benefits of justification and God looking upon us not as we are in ourselves but as we are in Christ. And so God looks upon Jacob in this way. He says your name is Jacob, but I'm not going to call you Jacob. You’re Israel. So the last things which Jacob ever heard from the lips of God were through the name Israel. And so we see something of God's grace and justification of Jacob.
Secondly, I'd like you to note again that this is the last time that God makes a personal visit with a patriarch in the Bible. 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. T
Then, let me just mention one other thing. This visit of God and Jacob here in Genesis 35, verses 9 through 13, is sandwiched in between two historical events. The death of Deborah in verse 8. The death of Rachel in verses 16 through 20. How tender is God's concern for His people that He should choose this time to come and visit with His servant, Jacob. His fickle, His foibling servant Jacob. He comes to him precisely in the greatest time of his need for His final visit for soon His servant will lose his wife.
Now God's grace is evident throughout this passage towards Jacob, especially in his calling Jacob on to Bethel. I mean you might have expected God to say, well that's it, I've been waiting for twenty years for you to come back to Bethel and to fulfill your vows. You haven't done it, I've had enough. I'm done with you. But God in His grace calls Jacob on to Bethel. And that grace in turn stokes Jacob's devotion and his obedience, and he leads his family on to Bethel.
II. God completes the number of the twelve tribes.
Then in verses 16 through 29 Jacob, having fulfilled this vow, journeys on towards his father's house. You can imagine the experience of Bethel. It was bittersweet, the loss of Deborah, the sweetness of communion with God, the visit of God, the worship of God. And now Jacob, with a very pregnant Rachel begins to make his way towards his father's household. And you can imagine the hopes of his heart. Perhaps my youngest son, my most recent son, he didn't know he would be his final son, but perhaps my newest child will be born in the very household of my father. And perhaps I’ll be able to lay that child on the bed of my aged father. And my father will be able to praise my wife, Rachel, and will be able to hear faintly the cries of my son. And all that hope brings a greater sorrow, doesn't it, because in this part of the chapter we note four scenes or sections if you look at verses 16 through 29.
First of all you see the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin. Then you see the sin of Reuben, then you see the numbering of the completed sons of Jacob, and finally the death of Isaac. Let's look at these four scenes.
The death of Rachel in the birth of Benjamin is recorded there in verses 16 through 20. We can only imagine Jacob's heartache. His hopes have been built up, and now even in the birth of his son, Benjamin, Rachel dies. And she's buried near Bethlehem, appropriately right at the borders of the land that the tribe of Benjamin will one day occupy. This pillar which Jacob set up for her was still known in the time of Moses and even in the time of Samuel. And Rachel is not done with in the Bible. There's going to be at least one poignant reference to her even in the gospel account itself.
And then in verses 21 and 22 Moses gives us a brief mention of the sin of Reuben. And Moses leaves us to imagine what a shocking breach developed in the family because of this sin. In fact, Moses is going to come back to this in Genesis 49, verses 3 and 4. And we're going to see the strong words of judgment against Reuben. By the way, having recounted this story, Moses is explaining to you why Reuben and Simeon and Levy, and we’ll see the role of Simeon and Levy later, as well as now; in the past and the whole mess with the Sheckemites, but he's giving you a rationale for why Reuben and Simeon and Levy are displaced in favor of Judah in the headship of the family.
Now in verses 22 through 26 the sons of Jacob are now complete and they are numbered for us. The prayer and birth of Jacob's eleventh son back in Genesis, chapter 30, verse 24 is finally fulfilled in the birth of Benjamin. And now these twelve sons will become a symbolic number representing the whole of Israel, even though after the time of Joseph there will, technically speaking, be thirteen tribes, eleven full tribes and two half tribes. Even though, technically speaking, there will be thirteen tribes, the twelve tribes of Israel will be the symbolic number for the whole of Israel.
Now it's the same in the new covenant. In the new covenant you have twelve apostles. And even though technically you have twelve and then eleven and then twelve and then thirteen apostles. The twelve apostles in the book of Revelation will be symbolic for the whole of the people of God. And so this will be a very significant number in the numerics of the Bible. And Moses records it for us here because he's setting the stage for the roles of these ideal tribes in not only the rest of the book of Genesis, but in the rest of the first five books of the Old Testament and the rest of the Old Testament as a whole.
Finally, in verses 27 through 29 Moses records for us the death of Isaac. Jacob and Esau are united at their father's deathbed and the patriarch is gathered to his people. But in this passage we see something very interesting. Jacob is somewhat like the Prince Charles of the patriarchs. He waits much of his life to attain the headship of the covenant. Finally, his father dies and he becomes the head of the covenant, but immediately, you’ll see this in Genesis 36 and 37, immediately the focus shifts from Jacob to Joseph and to the other brothers, the sons of Jacob. So 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.
It reminds us doesn't it, it reminds us that sometimes God has a plan for our lives in which we are simply a smaller part of a greater purpose. And though we are preparing for one thing all our lives, it may be another thing in fact that God is planning to use us for. It may be the case in the lives of our own families. It may be that the things of grace that God is doing in our own hearts, he's doing in primary preparation for something he's going to use our children to do. We should never forget that. It's an illustration that we draw even from the life of Jacob as God completes the number of the twelve tribes, and now turns our eyes to Joseph and what he's going to do through him. Let's pray.
Our Heavenly Father, in this passage of transition of grace, of communion and sorrow, we sense something of the poignancy of life. A man who had walked with you inconsistently for many years, shown grace at the very end, faithfully brought to the place where he had vowed to return so many years before, losing the wife of his youth, even in the birth of a son who represented the prospects and hopes of a new generation. We recognize that story in our own lives, and it simply drives us back into your arms, trusting in your grace and in your goodness to carry us all the way to our land of Canaan on the other side of the Jordan. We pray, O Lord, that You would take us there in trust, that our faith would grow. We pray, oh Lord, that you would make us mindful of the grace which you must show us each step of the way, lest we be undone. And we ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.