If you’ve been reading along through the book of Genesis, you may have noticed a pattern that we’ve seen again and again. That pattern has four parts:
- Someone makes an appearance on the Biblical stage.
- That person creates a legacy by his or her actions.
- He or she then passes from the scene.
- Somebody new appears and repeats the cycle.
You see, each of the major characters that we’ve seen in the book of Genesis is connected with a legacy (or heritage) that they created by the way they lived. For instance, Abel was a righteous man- that’s his heritage. Noah created a legacy as someone who lived for God when no one else would. Abraham left a legacy as a man of faith. Each of these men left a positive heritage for other people to follow.
But then there were others who left a very different legacy. For example, there was Cain, a man who became the very first murderer. There was Laban, a person who will forever be known as a scheming, manipulative con-man. Then there were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those people were so bad that God completely wiped out their cities.
We remember these people now because of what they did back then- and they each are locked into the legacies they created by the way they lived. They can no longer go back and change what they did- and they will forever be what they were. But here’s something to consider: the only real difference between these Biblical characters and people today is that God has not chosen to display our lives in the Scriptures as He has done with them.
So here’s a question: what kind of legacy are you creating today? What kind of investments are you making with the life that God has given you? Do you want to be remembered as someone like Laban or would you rather be remembered as a person like Abraham? What kind of legacy are you leaving today?
Now as we go into Genesis chapter 35, we’re going to find that this is the last chapter that really focuses on Jacob. While Jacob is not going to disappear entirely, the center of attention will begin to shift more towards his sons after chapter 35. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs in this chapter and some people who are very close to Jacob are going to die. But we’ll also see how God will sustain Jacob through these events and encourage him despite the his circumstances.
“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'” (Genesis 35:1).
It has now been about 30 years since Jacob first met God at a place he called Bethel. You might remember that Bethel was the area where Jacob saw a stairway that with one end on the earth with the other end reaching to heaven. This was also the place where Jacob saw the angels of God ascending and descending upon this stairway with the Lord Himself standing above it according to Genesis 28:12.
It was there that God said to Jacob, “’I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you’” (Genesis 28:13b-15 NLT).
So God was calling Jacob back to a familiar place where they had been together before. But first, Jacob had some cleaning up to do…
“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. 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.’ 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” (Genesis 35:2-4)
Now Jacob was leading his family in the right direction, but there was something that’s not entirely right about this. Notice that Jacob said, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you…” and not, “If you have any foreign gods, get rid of them…” This implies that Jacob knew that his family was involved with idolatry but had not done anything about it up to this point.
So where did these foreign gods come from? Well, we’ll look at some possible answers to that question next.
“Jacob said to his family and to everyone else who was traveling with him: Get rid of your foreign gods! Then make yourselves acceptable to worship God and put on clean clothes” (Genesis 35:2 CEV)
So where did these foreign gods (or “idols”) come from? Well, we know that Jacob’s wife Rachel had at least two because she stole them from her father’s home when she left with her family.
Another possibility is that one or more of Jacob’s sons had a few of these idols. For example, Simeon and Levi had already plundered the city of Shechem and taken the women and children who had lived there as slaves. If the people of Shechem kept idols that were made from valuable materials (such as gold, for instance), then it’s likely that these items were also included among the spoils that Simeon and Levi took out of the city.
Now before we go any further, we should stop to answer an important question: what exactly is an “idol?” Well, back in the days of the Scriptures, people would often put their faith in objects made of wood, stone, or metal. They would do this by creating an image that was carved out of wood, molded out of metal, or chiseled out of stone. Then they would bow down to worship the idol they created or offer some sacrifice to it as their “god.”
As ridiculous as this may seem today, its important to remember that an “idol” doesn’t have to be something made from wood, clay, or metal. For example, its possible for someone to make an idol out of a car, or money, or a member of the opposite sex, just to name a few examples. That’s because an “idol” can be anything that someone loves, fears, or depends on more than God.
In reality, an idol can be anything that takes the place of God in someone’s life. Once something has become more important than God in your life, that thing (whatever it is) has become your “god.” And so, the person for whom money is the most important thing in life is just as guilty of idolatry as the person who bowed down before the statue of some false god in Old Testament times.
But now that Jacob was re-establishing his relationship with God, all those things had to go. He then went on to say, “purify yourselves and change your clothes.” The idea here is that Jacob wanted his family to get clean on the inside and on the outside. We’ll take a look at what this means for people today next.
“Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes” (Genesis 35:2b).
So what do these actions mean for people today? How can people purify themselves, or make themselves acceptable to worship God? Well, the answer to that question is found in 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV).
This Scripture tells us that whenever someone recognizes and admits to God that he or she has done something wrong, God will forgive that person and clean him or her up from anything that is wrong or dirty. This is made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross. His sacrifice served as the payment for the things that we’ve done wrong and allows us to come to God freely through Him.
But what about that part where Jacob told his family to change their clothes? How would something like that apply for people today? Well, while it’s true that you can’t always judge someone by their outward appearance, the clothes that someone wears on the outside often says a lot about what that person is like on the inside.
In this instance, Jacob wanted his family to demonstrate their respect for God through their outward appearance. In other words, Jacob wanted their external appearance to match their internal respect for God.
This same idea also holds true for people today. You see, everyone has a set of beliefs that govern their lives. Our clothing, speech, and appearance then help communicate that set of beliefs to others. For example, the most important thing in life for some people involves having the “right” hair, the “right” clothes, and being seen with the “right” people. A person with those internal beliefs will often go on to express them through his or her external clothing, speech, and appearance choices. That’s because the way we look on the outside usually reflects what we look like on the inside.
So with this in mind, here’s a question: what does your clothing say about you? Do you dress in a way that honors God or do you dress in a way that’s designed to draw other people’s attention to your body? Does your clothing, speech, and appearance show respect for God or does it demonstrate something else?
Remember that you represent what a Godly person should be to others. If you demonstrate respect for God through your outward appearance, you’ll also provide everyone else with the right example to follow.
So Jacob instructed his family and those who were traveling with him to do three things: get rid of their idols, get cleaned up, and put on some good clothes. Here’s how they responded….
“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” (Genesis 35:4).
While everyone handed over their idols, the Scripture quoted above tells us that they also gave Jacob something else: “…the rings in their ears.” This means that everyone handed over their earrings along with the idols that Jacob requested. Apparently, these earrings had a connection with false religious beliefs, so everyone handed them over even though Jacob didn’t specifically ask for them.
But let’s step back and think about this for a moment. Does this Scripture imply that wearing earrings are wrong? If so, then what about other types of body piercings? And how about other forms of body art like tattoos? Does this Scripture cover that as well?
Well, when thinking about a question like this, the best place to start is by looking at the entire Bible (and not just one isolated part of it) to see it has anything specific to say about the subject.
We can start by looking at the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy where chapter fourteen, verse one (14:1) tells us, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead…” (NIV). While some people have used this verse to forbid most forms of body piercing, its likely that this verse actually refers to something very different.
You see, it was a practice within the pagan cultures of those days for people to make cut marks on their bodies. This was done in connection with the worship of false gods (see 1 Kings 18:27-28 for an example). Because of this, it doesn’t appear that Deuteronomy 14:1 is speaking specifically about body piercings. Instead, God was making a point to tell His people not to follow the same practices as the ungodly nations that were around them.
If we continue looking at this subject in the Scriptures, we’ll find that earrings for God’s people (both men and women) are also mentioned in Exodus 32:2. We also find that nose rings were worn by women in Genesis 24:30 and Ezekiel 16:12. So it seems that we cannot rule out all body piercing as something that is definitely unbiblical.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all body piercings are OK, and we’ll look at some Biblical principles for making good decisions on this question next.
“So everyone gave Jacob their idols and their earrings, and he buried them under the oak tree near Shechem” (Genesis 35:4 CEV).
One place where we can go to get some good Biblical insight on the subject of body jewelry is 1 Timothy 2:9-10. That portion of Scripture says this…
“And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do” (NLT).
Although this verse speaks specifically to women, the idea is the same for everyone: a Godly attitude should govern our appearance. This would also include any piercings that someone may have. Here’s another Scripture that helps to illustrate this point…
“Don’t depend on things like fancy hairdos or gold jewelry or expensive clothes to make you look beautiful. Be beautiful in your heart by being gentle and quiet. This kind of beauty will last, and God considers it very special” (1 Peter 3:3-4 CEV).
These Scriptures help to remind us that God is much more interested in the “internal you” than the “external you.” After all, if you really are a God-honoring person on the inside, then your outward appearance (including any piercings) will naturally follow along.
Another important Biblical principal is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful…” (NKJ). If we were to apply this principle to the subject of body piercings, we could say that it may be OK for you to pierce, but that still doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.
When it comes to the question of body piercing, the questions to ask are the same as any other so-called gray area. If you are trying to decide if this is right or wrong, just ask yourself a few basic questions:
- “Will this build my faith or weaken it?”
- “Does this support those things I believe in or try to tear them down?”
- “Am I doing this just so I can fit in with my friends or conform to the culture?”
- “Is this pleasing to God?”
Remember, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us, “Test everything. Hold on to the good…” Jacob did this by having his family go through all their stuff and throwing out anything that didn’t honor God.
“Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them” (Genesis 35:5).
In the last chapter, we saw how Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi had wiped out the town of Shechem after their sister had been sexually assaulted by a man from that town. Jacob’s response to his sons at that time was to say, “You have gotten me into trouble; now the Canaanites, the Perizzites, and everybody else in the land will hate me. I do not have many men; if they all band together against me and attack me, our whole family will be destroyed” (GNB).
In other words, the relatives of the people who were killed and the people of the surrounding towns were not likely to let that incident be forgotten- and Jacob was clearly concerned. But the verse quoted above tells us that no one did anything to Jacob or his family because God stepped in to protect them.
This does not necessarily mean that God approved of what Simeon and Levi did, but it does indicate that Jacob and his family enjoyed God’s protection as they continued to do what He told them to do. Their experience reminds us that the best place to be is the place where we are following God’s instructions, no matter what the outward circumstances may look like.
“Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother” (Genesis 35:6-7).
While “El Bethel” may sound like a place that you might find in Mexico, Central America, or the southwestern United States, the name is actually very significant. You see, the “El” portion of this name refers to God. The “Beth” portion means, “house of.” When you put it all together, the name “El Bethel” means, “God of the house of God.”
Although it may seem a little redundant to name a place, “God of the house of God,” it’s really not that strange when you think about it. After all, there may be many places that are identified as “a house of God” but the real question is, “Is the Lord the God of that house of God, or is it just another building with a fancy religious name?”
“Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth” (Genesis 35:8).
Although she wasn’t identified by name, Deborah was someone who was part of the group that was with Jacob’s mother Rebekah when Jacob’s parents got married in Genesis chapter 24. So this means that Deborah must have been very, very old at the time of her death.
This also means that Deborah was someone who had been a part of Jacob’s life from the time he was born. We don’t have any other information about Deborah or how she came to be a part of Jacob’s group except to say that she must have been a dearly loved member of his family. We know this because the place where she was buried -Allon Bacuth- means, “Oak of Weeping.”
So Deborah’s death must have been something that was very difficult for Jacob because the place where she was buried was identified with a time of great sorrow.
“After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. 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” (Genesis 35:9-10).
You may remember that God had already renamed Jacob and given him the name “Israel” back in chapter 32. So why would God do the same thing again here in Genesis chapter 35? Well, remember that the original meaning behind the name “Jacob” carried the idea of someone who was a swindler, deceiver, cheater, thief, or con-man. On the other hand, Jacob’s new name (Israel) meant “governed by God.”
Unfortunately, the last few chapters have shown us how Jacob had been acting more like the meaning of his first name rather than someone who was actually “governed by God” during that time. So by renaming Jacob again here in chapter 35, God served to remind him of what he had become (a man governed by God) instead of what he once was (a deceiver, cheater, and thief).
So God made sure to refocus Jacob’s attention on his new identity and this is also true for people who follow the Biblical God today. We know this because of something that God tells us through the pen of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians…
“…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV).
“And God said to (Jacob), ‘I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.’
Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him. 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. Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel” (Genesis 35:11-15).
If you travel though almost any town, village, or city throughout the world, you are certain to find a stone, plaque, or memorial that honors or commemorates an important person or event in that area. In much the same way, these verses tell us that Jacob set up a stone pillar to serve as a remembrance of a place where God had spoken with him.
We are then told that Jacob poured oil and a drink offering on this memorial, two actions that carried an important symbolic meaning. First was the drink offering. This consisted of a liquid (such as water) that served as a physical representation of someone who had decided to “pour out their life” for God’s service. This is the first mention of this type of offering in the Bible and it later will go on to become an important part of the spiritual lives of Jacob’s descendants.
Next was the act of pouring oil upon this memorial. The practice of putting oil on (or “anointing”) a person or a thing in the Scripture is often associated with the idea of “consecration,” or the act of being set apart for God. Perhaps the best example of this type of usage can be found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus where God directed Moses to set apart a man named Aaron to serve as a priest. Leviticus 8:12 tells us how Moses did this…
“He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.”
Although there were other types of oils that could have been used for this purpose, it’s most likely that Jacob used olive oil to anoint the stone pillar that he had put up in Bethel. So in doing these things, Jacob took some steps to outwardly demonstrate his internal commitment to honor God with his life.
“Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty” (Genesis 35:16).
The town of Ephrath was about 15 miles (24 km) south of Bethel, and that’s where Jacob and his family were going when his wife Rachel began to give birth. Now the important thing to remember is that there were no hospitals, emergency rooms, or medical centers available for someone who had a medical emergency in those days. A pregnant woman had no one to assist her during birth except perhaps for a midwife, if one was available.
This meant that childbirth was something that could be extremely dangerous for a woman who was living in the days of the Old Testament. This lack of medical care meant that there was always a strong possibility that a woman could die while giving birth- and unfortunately, that’s what happened to Rachel…
“And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.’ As she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin.
So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb” (Genesis 35:17-20).
You may remember that Rachel had once been so desperate to have children that she said to Jacob, “‘…Give me children, or else I die!'” (Genesis 30:1). As it turned out, Rachel’s life ended in the very act of having the children she so desperately wanted.
As her life was slipping away, Rachel named her son Ben-Oni, a name that means “son of sorrow.” However, Jacob apparently didn’t want his son to live with a name that reminded him of the fact that his mother died while giving birth to him. So Jacob chose to give his son a new name: Benjamin, a name that means “son of my right hand.”
While this may sound like a name with an unusual meaning, it makes sense if we stop to consider the culture of that time. You see, most people tend to be right-handed and because of this, the right hand (or right arm) was generally associated with greater skill and strength during that time. Because of this, Benjamin’s name carries the idea of his father’s strength, skill, and honor. And with his birth, Benjamin became the last remaining link to Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, the woman that Jacob loved the most.
Following the death of his wife, we’re told that Jacob and the rest of his family continued on with their journey…
“Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder” (Genesis 35:21).
Did you notice that Jacob is specifically referred to as “Israel” in this verse? This is more important than it may appear at first glance. You see, the name “Israel” means “governed by God.” This is important because Rachel’s death was something that could have left Jacob emotionally and spiritually paralyzed for a long, long time. But here we’re told that “…Israel (the man who was governed by God) moved on…”
While it’s natural to experience times of sorrow or grief in life, it’s also true that people sometimes have difficulty in moving on from an event that has caused trouble, suffering, or pain in their lives. But this passage of Scripture tells us that a life that is governed by God has the ability to move forward despite the difficulties and circumstances of life.
So Israel moved on and made his next camp beyond a place called Migdal Eder. Migdal Eder was a shepherd’s watchtower that was located between the towns of Bethlehem and Hebron. But while he was there, something bad happened…
“While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it” (Genesis 35:22a).
You may remember that Bilhah had once been Rachel’s servant and later became the mother of Jacob’s sons Dan and Naphtali (see Genesis 30:1-8). This helps make it difficult to understand why this incident happened.
Perhaps Bilhah was tired of being the “secondary wife” and wanted to get back at Jacob in some way. It’s also possible that Jacob had not been paying any attention to Bilhah and that she was so starved for affection that she slept with the only person with enough authority to do something like that- the first born son. Or it could simply be that Bilhah was a very good looking woman and Reuben was just sexually attracted to her.
However, the wording of this passage does seem to indicate that Bilhah willingly slept with Reuben. It certainly doesn’t look as if she tried to say no and refuse him. Whatever the reason, nothing was said about this incident at the time. But Israel knew about it- and this episode is going to come back to hurt Reuben later.
“Jacob had twelve sons: The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram” (Genesis 35:22b-26).
These verses give us a quick outline that identifies the lineage of Jacob’s twelve sons. They will be the men who will eventually go on to fulfill the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That promise had it’s beginning back in Genesis 12:2 when God said to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
We’ll take a closer look at Jacob’s sons a little later on, but for now, let’s just say that these twelve men are not going to start off as the best spiritual or moral examples for others to follow. In fact, Jacob’s sons will actually turn out to be people with some serious problems, at least in the beginning. In this respect, Jacob’s sons are not unlike the men that Jesus would later choose to become His disciples. After all, when you look at the biographies of Jesus’ disciples, you’ll quickly find that there weren’t very many all-stars in that group either. Nevertheless, God helped them overcome their rough beginnings and reach their potential to be everything that He created them to be- and He can do the same for people today as well.
“Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Genesis 35:27-29).
It’s interesting to note that this passage tells us that Isaac was “gathered to his people” following his death. This term has important implications because it means that Isaac could not be “gathered to his people” unless there was definitely an afterlife for those people after they died. Why is this important? Well, unlike those who believe that there is “nothing” following death, the Scriptures tell us something different: there is definitely life after death.
So Isaac was gathered to his people following his death, but here’s a question for those of us who are alive today: who are your people? What kind of people will you be gathered to following your death?