1. As the chapter opens, God tells Jacob to go back to Bethel. (The name means house of God.) One can surmise that he was only too happy to comply with these instructions because it would take him away from anyone who might come after his family and him in the wake of his sons' actions at the end of chapter 34.
2. Before leaving, Jacob tells his family and all their party to get rid of the idols and "lucky charms."
We may shake our heads in incredulity at the need for doing this when we consider all of the scrapes through which God has taken the Abrahamic family. What are they doing "hedging their bets" by invoking humanly-created gods and the moral equivalents of rabbit's feet?
The answer to that question is a bit complicated:
First, it's important to understand what historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other students of the human family show us. Quite simply, human beings are inherently religious creatures. We only have to hit a few snags in life to become aware that we're not the self-sufficient big shots we sometimes pretend to be. So, we're inclined to look for someone or something that has more power than us to help us. We look for gods to worship.All of these elements may have pulled and tugged at Jacob's family and servants. But Jacob tells them to give up on these gods and superstitions and to rely on God alone. All the religious paraphernalia is buried under a tree. As the group leaves, renewed in their commitment to trusting only in the one true God of the universe, a fear seizes the residents of the towns and villages through which they pass. God gives them a favor which their small numbers and powerlessness doesn't warrant.
But we also prefer that our idols be within our control. One of the reasons that, many years ago, I was hesitant to throw in with the God of the Bible, the God ultimately revealed to the world through Jesus Christ, is that He was (and remains) beyond my control. He wasn't like the idols of ancient civilizations, or the lucky charms or superstitions preferred by many, or like the finite stuff by which people today measure the value of their lives--things like money, good times, or achievement. Rather, this God was (and is) bigger than me and dared to tell me what was best for me.
The God worshiped by Jacob was, at this point, so far as we know, only worshiped by Jacob and his family. That means that they were surrounded constantly by those who believed in other gods. That would have created what we might call peer pressure on Jacob's family, especially when difficult streaks come along. The God of the Bible calls people to follow Him even when bad things happen. God isn't a good luck charm. He is, as Pastor Rick Warren notes in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, vastly more interested in our character than our comfort. Our characters, after all, are eternal. The bodies we seek to keep comfortable are mortal.
3. Grief comes at Bethel and in the next town to which Jacob and family go, Eprath. First, Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, dies. Later, grief is intermingled with joy as Rachel, Jacob's beloved, dies while giving birth to another son, Benjamin.
But in the midst of these events, God reiterates His promise to Jacob, essentially the same promise given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac:
I AM the Strong God.After this encounter with God, Jacob erected a pillar dedicated to God's honor, poured a drink offering on it, and then anointed it with oil.
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.
As was often true in those times, Bethel had long been considered a place of worship. But the objects of worship there and elsewhere often changed. Now, Jacob dedicated the house of God to the God of all creation.
In Jacob's encounter, God also gave him a new name: Israel. The name, of course, would come to be applied to all of Jacob's descendants. Although the exact meaning of this important word is somewhat obscure, among its most important is God-Wrestler.
This may seem to be a strange designation for the people meant to be a light to the nations of the world and the womb from which the Messiah would be birthed. But as was true of Jacob, who wrestled with God, it's really only people who believe in God who bother wrestling with Him, struggling to understand His will and ways, sometimes rebelling, sometimes fighting fears and doubts, often wanting to make faith into a matter of the performance of holy rites rather than trusting surrender to the God Who made us. It's from these struggles that, as was also true of Jacob, blessings come.
4. The chapter ends with the death of Isaac. Jacob and Esau, apparently reunited for the last time, bury their father.
[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: