Verses 1-15: Setting things right
In the first verses of this chapter, God speaks to Jacob, telling him to go to Bethel. Even thought Jacob has fear of the other inhabitants of the land, his going to Bethel is not described as fleeing; God simply tells Jacob to go and he goes. God also tells Jacob to make an altar to Him at Bethel. This was the place where Jacob had first made a vow to God and where God had first appeared to Jacob. It is poignant at this time for God to tell Jacob to go back to Bethel because of the spiritual growth that Jacob experienced between then and now.
Straightaway Jacob instructs all of his family members to “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes.” We should remember that Leah had taken the household idols from her father when she left her home. This idolatrous heritage evidently is now something that has blossomed into an issue large enough to need purifying. Jacob, imperfect from the start and imperfect still, has knowledge of the idols within his family and does not choose to expel them from his midst until now as he goes to build an altar to God. What is the significance of burying or hiding the idols instead of simply destroying them? Does this reveal a lingering sentiment that Jacob holds for the idolatrous ways of his family (or even his own)?
We are not given these answers, but we do know that as they traveled, God protected them from the men in the cities that were around them. God was allaying the fears expressed by Jacob in Genesis 34:30 after so many had been slain over Dinah. When Jacob arrived at Bethel, he built the altar and named the place “El Bethel, because there God appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother.” Here at this place and at this time, Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died.
Still at Bethel, God appears to Jacob again and changes his name from Jacob to Israel. Then God gives Jacob the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant in terms of what is an attestation of their strong relationship. As Jacob builds another altar to God, we get a sense that his name change to Israel has been earned, signifying Jacob/Israel’s growth in faith and stature as a true man of God.
Verses 16-29: 1 birth, 2 deaths, 12 tribes
Rachel gave birth to Benjamin, but died during childbirth. Isaac also died during this time, and was fittingly buried by Israel (Jacob) and Esau together, a reconciliation in brotherhood that more than likely would have pleased Isaac. At this time also, there is the unfortunate record of Reuben (Israel’s first son by Leah) laying with Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah (here recorded as Israel’s concubine). Israel came to know this also.
The record in this chapter of Benjamin’s birth gives us twelve sons of Jacob/Israel by four different mothers. Looking back to the time when Jacob was enamored of Rachel, we will remember that he first married Leah, then Rachel, and that both wives had handmaids through which he also bore children: Bilhah (Rachel) and Zilpah (Leah). Here is a breakdown:
Bore by Leah
Son 1: Reuben – Genesis 29
Son 2: Simeon – Genesis 29
Son 3: Levi – Genesis 29
Son 4: Judah – Genesis 29
Son 9: Issachar – Genesis 30
Son 10: Zebulun – Genesis 30
Daughter: Dinah – Genesis 30
Bore by Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid)
Son 5: Dan – Genesis 30
Son 6: Naphtali – Genesis 30
Bore by Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid)
Son 7: Gad – Genesis 30
Son 8: Asher – Genesis 30
Bore by Rachel
Son 11: Joseph – Genesis 30
Son 12: Benjamin – Genesis 35
This is the initial formation of the men that will head, in one way or another, the twelve tribes of Israel. Levi will eventually be a “tribe” of priests but will be dispersed through the other tribes to serve them as such. Also, Joseph will designate his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh as leaders of tribes whose descendants will be members.
It is from here – back from Adam – Noah – Abraham – to Jacob’s sons and the odyssey of faith that God’s people will experience through the Old and New Testaments, that we see how the Abrahamic covenant will finally come to full fruition when Christ becomes King.
There is a plan. God is the architect. We are all part of it.