Chapter 35 marks the end of the Jacob story as the main topic of the narrative. The chapter recounts a series of events that illustrate what has been true of Jacob his entire life. What Jacob teaches us is that choices have ramifications; life is chaotic; man is erratic; and God is faithful.
After Simeon and Levi’s massacre of the men of Shechem’s city, God tells Jacob to travel to Bethel and settle there. God’s message comes at the perfect time as Jacob is reeling from the actions of his sons. God not only tells him when to leave and where to go, He protects him on the way so he doesn’t have to worry about Canaanites wanting to avenge Shechem. God meets Jacob at Bethel and renews the promises He first gave to Jacob at their first Bethel meeting over 20 years earlier. After Bethel, Jacob’s life returns to its dysfunctional norm as Rachel dies in childbirth and Reuben – his firstborn – betrays him. Finally, Jacob comes to Isaac and witnesses his last days and – along with Esau – buries him. The chapter swings wildly between triumph and defeat, and gladness and sorrow – just like all of Jacob’s life.
Jacob castigated his sons for their betrayal and murder of the men of Shechem because he knew it would make him odious among the inhabitants of the land (34:30). As he likely ponders what to do to protect his family as a result, God comes to him and tells him to move to Bethel. The timing is perfect. Just when Jacob is in crisis, God appears and takes over. And by telling Jacob to go to Bethel He enables Jacob to keep the vow he made many years earlier when he left Canaan and met God at Bethel for the first time. At that point Jacob swore to worship at the same place if God brought him back safely (28:22). To this point he hasn’t fulfilled the vow so God decides for him that the time to keep it is now.
Jacob tells his family to prepare for worship in Bethel by purifying themselves. To do this they must bathe, change their clothes, and – most importantly – put away the foreign gods among them. The people give all their gods and earrings (perhaps worn as charms?) to Jacob and he buries them. Presumably among the buried foreign gods are the household gods of Laban that Rachel stole and the gods of the people of Shechem that Simeon and Levi just plundered (and perhaps gods and earrings belonging to the women and children of Shechem who now live with Jacob’s family).
Jacob explains that the purpose of going to Bethel is to worship God who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone. Jacob appreciates all God has done for him and knows God has followed through on the promise He made at Bethel when Jacob fled from Esau. God has repeatedly proved Himself faithful even in the face of Jacob’s inconsistencies and deceit – and perhaps even as Jacob has allowed worship of false gods in his household. God has blessed and watched over Jacob wherever he’s gone and whatever he’s done.
Jacob and his family travel to Bethel and God protects them on the way. What Jacob fears regarding the people of Canaan coming after them for the massacre at Shechem doesn’t come true, but only because God intervenes. He causes a great terror to fall on the people in the surrounding cities, so no one pursues them. Jacob was right to fear their response, but God watches over him yet again and makes sure their response to Jacob is only fear.
When they arrive in Bethel Jacob builds an altar to God – just as he promised he would. The text doesn’t mention it, but it may be that he sacrifices a tenth of all his wealth which was also part of his earlier vow (28:22).
After the group reaches Bethel, Deborah – Rebekah’s nurse – dies. They bury her under an oak and spend time mourning her loss. They name the oak Allon-bacuth, which means “oak of weeping.”
This is the first we’ve heard of Rebekah’s nurse since Rebekah left her father’s house and traveled to Canaan to marry Isaac (24:59). Assuming this is the same woman (she wasn’t named in the earlier story), she must be very old as presumably she was the woman who nursed Rebekah as a baby. Since Rebekah didn’t give birth to Esau and Jacob until she’d been married to Isaac for 20 years (25:19,26), and since Jacob is perhaps in his 90s or older at this point, Deborah is likely more than 150 years old at her death.
Her presence isn’t explained. That she is with Jacob instead of Rebekah probably means Rebekah is dead. If so, it very well could be that Rebekah never saw Jacob again after he fled to Laban. Deborah’s presence may also mean that Jacob has visited Isaac and brought Deborah from Isaac’s house since there was no longer any need for her to be there. Perhaps Jacob wanted her with him as a reminder of his mother and because she was likely instrumental in his early years (it would make sense that as his mother’s favorite, Jacob likely received more attention from his mother’s nurse than did Esau).
God appears to Jacob and restates the promises He first made over 20 years ago (although He doesn’t specifically say He will be with Jacob wherever he goes as He did before). God also changes Jacob’s name to Israel – just as He did at Peniel. God tells Jacob He will make a great nation of Jacob’s descendants (interestingly, he tells Jacob to be fruitful and multiply – a command Jacob can honestly say he’s more than fulfilled) and will give the land of Canaan to them. He also tells Jacob that kings will come from his descendants – likely a reference both to the actual kings (notably David) and to the Messiah.
As a result of his encounter with God, Jacob sets up a pillar of stone and pours a libation on it – just as he did after his first encounter at Bethel. He again names the place Bethel and notes that he’s seen the God of Bethel (El-bethel).
The text doesn’t say how long the family stays in Bethel. It is interesting that God told Jacob to live there (vs 1) when He commanded him to leave Shechem, but apparently Jacob doesn’t take this to mean he must permanently settle there. Jacob decides to leave Bethel after a time and journey to see his dad in Hebron.
On the way, Rachel gives birth to Benjamin – the last child of Jacob. Nothing has been mentioned to this point about her pregnancy, but God apparently has answered the prayer she made upon the birth of Joseph – “May the Lord give me another son” (30:24). Unfortunately, the labor is severe and she dies during delivery. As she is about to die, the midwife lets her know it’s a boy. Rachel names him Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow.” Jacob later changes his name – likely because he doesn’t want the boy to have a name that refers to the death of his mother – to Benjamin (“son of the right hand”).
Jacob sets up a pillar over Rachel’s grave. Nothing is mentioned about mourning, but it’s reasonable to assume Jacob mourns greatly over losing his beloved wife. Rachel was the love of his life – the woman he essentially worked 14 years for and the woman he cherished more than any other. In that light, it’s interesting that she dies before Leah or the two maids. Because of where and when she dies, she is not buried in the family grave along with Abraham and Sarah as Leah will be. And it’s not through Rachel’s line that the Messiah will come – it is Leah’s. Leah lives longer and ends up with more honor than her favored sister. Rachel had first place in Jacob’s heart. Leah has first place in history.
Verse 22 is a one sentence description of an event with far-reaching ramifications. Sometime after the death of Rachel, Reuben sleeps with Rachel’s maid – and his father’s concubine – Bilhah. No mention is made as to what precipitates this.
There is no way to know the age difference between Reuben and Bilhah, but it may not be as large as we might assume. Since Reuben is the firstborn son of Leah, and the text of Chapter 30 makes it sound as if Bilhah doesn’t give birth until Leah bears several sons, and since it’s reasonable to assume that Bilhah was a teenager when she gave birth, it could be that she is only 12-15 years older than Reuben.
That said, it still seems odd that he would want to sleep with someone linked to his father. Is it possible that this isn’t simply a case of lust? The timing is interesting. That this takes place after the death of Rachel may mean that Reuben has intentions beyond physical desire. Could it be that he acts to make sure that Bilhah doesn’t assume Rachel’s spot as his father’s favorite? Might this be an attempt to make sure Leah – his mother – isn’t pushed aside again? And could it also be an attempt to prematurely take his place as the leader of the family as the firstborn son? Perhaps he takes his father’s concubine to show that everything that belongs to his father now belongs to him and the other sons need to acknowledge that he is the head.
If this last possibility is the reason, it backfires completely. Reuben will lose his birthright as a result of this sin. The text mentions no reaction by Jacob – other than noting he finds out – but later Jacob will make it clear that Reuben is cursed as a result (49:4). Joseph – through his two sons – will assume the birthright that is stripped from Reuben (48:5 and I Chron 5:1-2).
For Jacob, this is one more grief brought on by a son of Leah. First it was Simeon and Levi, now it’s Reuben. The dysfunction of his family never seems to end, and events like this have to wear him out. The fact is, the decisions of his earlier years – deceit, scheming, conceiving children with four women, playing favorites – will never stop producing a bitter harvest for the rest of his life.
The text gives a full accounting of Jacob’s sons. There are six sons of Leah, two sons of Rachel, two sons of Bilhah (Rachel’s maid) and two sons of Zilpah (Leah’s maid).
Jacob and the family arrive in Hebron where Isaac lives. The text doesn’t say how long they’re there, but sometime after they arrive, Isaac dies at the age of 180. Esau and Jacob – perhaps showing that Jacob’s no-show in Seir hasn’t caused strife – bury him. Their coming together to bury their father is similar to Isaac and Ishmael burying Abraham (25:9). They bury Isaac in the same cave where Abraham and Sarah are buried and where Rebekah also lies (49:29-32).
Chapter 36 records the names of Esau’s wives and his descendants.
Chapter 35 is somewhat of a hodge-podge of events in Jacob’s life. All serve to show the same thing we’ve seen throughout Jacob’s story; Jacob in some ways is a faithful servant of the Lord, and in other ways he’s really made a mess of his life and suffers the consequences of his poor decisions continually. Here he sees God’s faithfulness clearly displayed both in how God protects him on the way to Bethel and in how God meets him there and blesses him. But no sooner does he leave Bethel and his favorite wife dies (that he HAS a favorite wife is clear proof of his dysfunctional life) and his oldest son betrays him. Even the death of his father after a long life takes on somewhat of a shadow as the brother he’s treated questionably throughout their lives comes back to help with the burial. Esau’s appearance can’t help but remind Jacob of his repeated deceit.
The bottom line with Jacob is the same bottom line for all of us. We never deserve God’s faithfulness. And that we experience it points to a great God of love and mercy, not to any deserving righteousness in us. We all live messy lives full of contradictions and varying degrees of obedience and sin. But we serve a God who is constant and gracious and who never fails to respond to us in love.
Life is messy. We are messy. God is faithful.