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Spiritual Renewal – Genesis 35

There comes a time in the lives of the Lord God’s true children – people who’ve become children of God through the blood on the cross of Christ Jesus – when it seems as if everything is out of control and problems escalate and it becomes imperative to spiritually take stock and to return to the place where their journey as a followers of Christ has begun.

Jacob could see how out of control his children were and how their actions were not at all in keeping with a walk with the Lord. He felt powerless and was in the dark about what he ought to do. And yet the Lord was so merciful towards Jacob that He gave him instructions about what he should do. The Lord told Jacob to return to the place where he had started from and where the Lord had appeared to him the first time. And He instructed him to build an altar to God there.

It is now almost 30 years since Jacob promised to return to Bethel, and 10 years since he left Laban on the way back to the Promised Land. Since then he failed to join Esau at Seir and instead he went to Shechem (in the opposite direction) where he built a house and formed alliances with the Canaanites. And that while Bethel was only 40km away from Shechem. One gets the impression that Jacob was more concerned with prosperity and security than with holiness and walking with God. As with so many Christians today, on the surface it looked as if Jacob walked with God, but the opposite was true. He still did the outward things, but inside, his heart was far removed from the Lord (cf. 2 Tim 3:5; Rev 3:5; Rev 3:15-17). THE QUESTION IS: IS THERE A WAY BACK? Genesis 35 points the way back! Thank God for Genesis 35!

Jacob could still very well remember the time when the Lord appeared to him at Bethel. And how afraid he was of Esau who wanted to kill him. On the way back to Bethel he could remember the dream he had where he saw the ladder that reached all the way up to heaven, with angels going up and down the ladder. He could remember the Lord’s promises. And how the Lord fulfilled them.

In times of trial and affliction it encourages a Christian-believer when he/she can think back and recall the times of meeting with the Lord. Times in the past where the Lord brought deliverance, and His promises were a reality.

But why did the Lord wait so long to instruct Jacob to go back to Bethel? Almost 10 years! Simple answer: Jacob was not listening. He wasn’t receptive. Despite his encounter with the Angel of the Covenant at the Jabbok (Gen 32) he very soon again lost the urgency to be obedient. Of course he did have it in mind to return to Bethel eventually, but there was no rush. The Lord DID speak clearly. But Jacob showed very little inclination to be obedient.

However, the tragic events described in Genesis 34 started to bring Jacob to his senses. His daughter was raped by a Canaanite and to revenge her, his sons murdered all the men of Shechem. Suddenly Jacob discovers how dangerous Shechem is. And he becomes more receptive for the Word of the Lord.

A Christian-believer certainly CAN be disobedient to the will of the Lord, but CAN NEVER perpetually thwart or frustrate God’s aims and intentions! The Lord definitely does reach His plan and intention in due course. The Lord gave Jacob rope and allowed him to go his own way and to feel on own his skin the consequences of his disobedience. But in the end, Jacob did obey the Lord’s will! And the Lord’s promises were fulfilled! That is how sovereign the Lord reigns. Although He is deeply grieved by His people’s folly, He does not explode and breathe fire and lightning. He allows the stubborn one to follow his mind and bump his head. Until He, by His Spirit, uses the circumstances to bring brokenness and receptiveness. THEN He speaks again.

Jacob had to go back to the place where he started – and stay there! Jacob knew that the place where he had to return to – Bethel (which means “house of God” ) – was a place which was consecrated to the Lord. Now suddenly he again had a realization of God’s standard of holiness and purity. At Bethel there was no room for sin and perversity and foreign gods. He therefore orders his family to get rid of their foreign gods and to purify themselves and change their clothes. They had some of the Canaanite idols in their possession. The women and children of Shechem were taken in with them after the slaughter of the men of Shechem. Those women undoubtedly brought their idols with them. And that was quite acceptable. Jacob did not say a single word about it. That is how spiritually wilted he was. But now, a new flame ignites in his soul. He realises and knows that God is holy and whoever lives in His presence, cannot walk hand-in-hand with sin. Therefore Jacob orders: All idols must be buried. Put on clean clothes.

Then a miracle takes place. There is absolutely no opposition from the Canaanites! No revenge for the thing that Jacob’s sons had done to the men of Shechem. No protest from the women of Shechem in their midst. Why not? Because the Lord had placed over them a tangible knowledge of His presence and fear of Him. Therefore they were disarmed. The Lord merely lifts His finger and the most powerful man becomes like a gnat. Because we find true life and security only in the fear of the Lord and not in our own strength or friendship with the world.

Verse 9 is significant. It says that when Jacob arrived in Bethel, the Lord appeared to him AGAIN. So as if He had appeared to Jacob only a short while before as well. But we know that there was a gap of many years between THIS appearance and the previous time when the Lord appeared to him. Those were the years of Jacob’s digression. But verse 9 simply wipes those years away as if it had never taken place. Because it was – from God’s point of view – lost years of no spiritual value. Times when the Lord’s true child lives in disobedience and independence, is wasted time. And should such a person return to the Lord, it is imperative to return to the spiritual place where he/she left the will of the Lord behind. Jacob could have travelled the few miles from Paddan Aram to Bethel. But now he arrives there TEN YEARS later. From heaven’s point of view those were lost years. And so bitterly unnecessary. With so much unnecessary damage done.

In Bethel the Lord repeated His promise and blessing that He had promised Jacob 30 years before. It was nothing else but a repeat of the promise of the Abraham-covenant. At the essence was the focus- and culmination-point of it: The birth and suffering and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Apostles and the start of the church of Christ and the gathering of all the elected to salvation and blessedness – which continues even today. THAT was the ACTUAL content of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Then the Lord changed Jacob’s name to Israel. It was already done at the Jabbok – as Gen 32 describes it. But now the Lord repeated the name-change in order for Jacob to realize that the Lord he was meeting THERE was the very same God with whom he had wrestled at the Jabbok. Jacob may have lost the way that the Lord had for him, but the Lord never left him! The Lord persevered with Jacob. That is why Jacob could find the way again!

Verses 16-29 is a report of a great sadness in Jacob’s family after they had arrived at Bethel and on the way further along.

Somewhere between Bethel and Bethlehem Rachel went into labour. It was a boy. Joseph was her firstborn. Joseph means “may He add” because Rachel wanted another son. And so it happened. Ben-Oni was born but Rachel died giving birth. Ben-Oni means “son of my sorrow”. Jacob did not want that to be the name of the child and he immediately changed it to Benjamin which means “son of my right hand”. Those then were the two sons Rachel bore Jacob: Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel was buried along the road to Bethlehem and a pillar was set up to mark her tomb. A pillar that remained standing through the ages so that the Israelites who were to enter the Promised Land years later could find it and be encouraged by a visible, tangible memorial pillar of how the Lord worked in the past and would do so again!

Rachel’s death was most probably a fulfillment of Jacob’s words to Laban many years before when he was fleeing from Laban, and Rachel had stolen the household gods and sat on them so that her father could not find them. What were Jacob’s words to Laban at the time? “If you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live” (Gen 31:32). He did not know that it was Rachel who had stolen Laban’s household gods.

But then something worse happened:

Reuben – Jacob’s eldest son – commits adultery with Bilhah who used to be Rachel’s maidservant and later became Jacob’s concubine . It seems that it was a once only act and not an ongoing relationship. That is why Jacob did not do anything when he heard about it. Later on though, Jacob would take the firstborn rights away from Reuben because of this sin.

The question is, why did Reuben receive such a severe punishment from Jacob. Well, we know full well that sin of a sexual nature is very serious and from the earliest days the Lord’s nation regarded it as such. And the NT confirms it.

Yet it appears as if there was more than that behind Reuben’s immoral deed. It was not about lust or that Reuben had his eye on Bilhah as a young women. All indications are that Bilhah was already rather aged.

Reuben wanted to take over the leadership from his father. According to culture, by taking over the leader’s harem, a person took over the reign of the leader. That is how it worked in those days. And it is THAT sin that Jacob punished when he removed Reuben’s firstborn right.

In 1 Kings 2 we see a similar situation. After Solomon became king, Adonijah went to Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother) and asked her to approach Solomon with the request that the king would give Abishag as his wife. When Solomon heard that, what did he do? He had Adonijah killed right away!

Perhaps you have read that and wondered why on earth Solomon had the poor man killed while he actually asked something quite reasonable. Answer: Adonijah wanted to take possession of Solomon’s harem and through that, of his throne!

Reuben committed that outrage against his father’s concubine in order to dethrone his father and so become head of the family himself. After all, he IS the firstborn! Why can’t he take over right away?

But in the end Reuben payed dearly. You see, God is love, but God is also holy and righteous and does not tolerate Himself to be mocked. A great truth even for our day and time.

Then finally, Jacob arrives home to his father Isaac, accompanied by Esau. Typical of how the Holy Spirit breathed out the Word and led the human author, there is no detailed description of that meeting between Jacob and Isaac. Only a few sober sentences. If MAN had been the primary author of Genesis, this meeting between Jacob and his father would have been blown up into a sensation. Just imagine it: Years ago Jacob deceived his father in a shameful way. How would the meeting have taken place?

But the Holy Spirit is never interested in human sentiments.

Jacob was scarcely home, when Isaac died. He was at his very last. And we do not know what took place there. However what did happen, was that Isaac and Jacob made peace at the end. Just the way the Lord always works: He is always on time. And He knows what He is doing. Jacob was reconciled with God and therefore he wanted to and had to and did become reconciled with his father. It is a Biblical principle – reconciliation with God and reconciliation with people walk hand in hand. The one cannot without the other. It is impossible to be reconciled with God, and live in peace with bitterness and disparity and be unforgiving towards others.

1 In Genesis 35 we learn how spiritual renewal works. Human logic works like this: To experience spiritual renewal, we should chase after and search for new experiences and new knowledge. What is new? What is exciting?

We find very little of that in Scripture. When Jacob returned to Bethel, he did not do or discover or experience anything. What the Lord said to him there, was only a repeat of what He had previously promised to Abraham and Isaac AND what He had previously promised to Jacob.

That must tell us something.

It was important for Jacob that he should develop a deeper and deeper understanding of what the Lord already promised. He should get a deeper appreciation of what already took place, but which he did not fully understand. He did not need anything new, but better insight. That is why the church in Ephesus had to hear that they must return to their FIRST love (Rev 2:4). That is also why Communion has to be repeated over and over and over and the signs of bread and wine never change and the content remains the same. That is also why the message of the cross remains unchanged and is always relevant.

The Biblical pattern is therefore, that one must get to Bethel and afterwards return to the same Bethel, where the Word of God remains the same. Initially we do not understand so much, and our insight and understanding are shallow, but growth in insight and comprehension results in growth of the believer’s relationship with God.

How does one reach that first Bethel? Do not try to return to Bethel if you have not been there before!
Then how does one get to Bethel in the first instance? 1) Realize and acknowledge that your soul is in grave danger. The danger to appear before God with your sin and receive eternal condemnation. Realize and acknowledge it. 2) Discover that the same Judge who has to condemn you, has worked the deliverance by punishing a Substitute in your place with the punishment that you deserve. That is Jesus on the cross. Your ONLY hope for deliverance. 3) Transfer your trust onto Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as your ONLY deliverance and salvation. JESUS is the ladder that Jacob saw the first time at Bethel. The ladder which connected earth with heaven and upon whom the angels of God climbed up and down.

2 The spiritual renewal that Jacob experienced at his return to Bethel, led to certain practical changes: He stopped his obstinate sinful way. He also began to live in obedience. He separated himself from the wrong things which he previously tolerated. He also became reconciled with his estranged father. Relationships were restored.

3 Spiritual renewal does not mean a nice comfortable road of moonlight and roses. The struggles and temptations of everyday life are still present. Yet these are the things that draw the believer closer to the Lord. If the disaster with Dinah hadn’t taken place, Jacob would never have woken up to the fact that he had to leave Shechem. Otherwise he might have remained there.

4 The person who is truly born of God and in whom the Spirit truly lives, SHALL arrive at God’s aim and plan, and will not in the long term be able to thwart God’s Divine plan. The LORD will triumph. Jacob HAD to go back to Bethel and he DID. If it had to depend on him, he would not have. But because the LORD was on the road with him, he DID! The good work that the Lord began, He WILL bring to completion (Phil 1:6).

Translated by Marthie Wilson
Main source: Bob Deffinbaugh

Category Genesis Series

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