This section of text is a transitional section that moves us from the generations of Isaac to the generations of Jacob. To help us make the transition the writer moves us along with the itinerary of Jacob (from Paddan-Aram, to Shechem, to Bethel, to Mamre) and reports 3 deaths and two genealogies.
The first Bethel experience is the linchpin of the Jacob narratives (28:10-22). Jacob, like every person, had a hole right in the center of him that he tried to fill through deception, trickery, and magic. In Jacob’s mind, he was pursuing birthright and blessing, but he had defined those in his own terms as something he could gain. They were realities, however, that only God could define and give.
As creatures, we are in no position to determine what our needs are and what is good and what is evil. God has already told us what we need, and what is good. Humans have but one need ultimately, and that is to live in covenant relationship with God.
The God who met Jacob at Bethel promised to “be with him, keep him, and bring him back” (28:15). God promised to Jacob the only thing that could fill the hole inside of him, a life in relationship with God. Jacob responded to this revelation of God by making a vow, essentially, promising that if God would do what He promised, then, God would be his God, he would return to the house of God, and he would give a 10th of whatever he had to God.
After 20 years of serving the arch-trickster, Laban, the God of Bethel called Jacob to return to Bethel and reminded Jacob of his vow (31:13; c.f. 28:18-22).
Jacob, apparently, had out promised his own ability and willingness to deliver. As I have heard Lee insightfully say, “We easily overestimate our own strength in the faith.” God called Jacob to return to Bethel reminding him of his vow, confronting Jacob with his own lack of faith and his need to be in covenant relationship with God (31:13). God called Jacob again at the lowest point of his life to return to Bethel (35:1). There God renewed the covenant with him, and Jacob fulfilled his vow (35:11-15).
God relentlessly pursues His people in covenant relationship with him. Along the way at the high-water marks, we make commitments to God in response to His pursuit of us. We, also, fail in our commitments. Perhaps, you have failed in your commitment to God. He calls you back to Him. He calls you from your sin, to a renewed experience of His grace, to take you farther and deeper than you can imagine. That is what we see in this text.
Perhaps you have come to faith in Christ, but you’ve become complacent, non-committed, cold, indifferent, and fallen into sin, embracing a sinful lifestyle. Christ and the church are of little importance to you, etc. This text addresses you, and calls you to a vibrant, growing faith that becomes simply the way you live life.
1. Past experience with God is no guarantee of present faithfulness (33:18-34:31).
We would think that encountering God at Bethel (28:13), being called by God to return to Bethel (31:13), and having a hip pulled out of socket wresting with the Angel of the LORD (32:24) would have put Jacob on the “straight and narrow.”
Jacob disobeys God
Not so. Look how the text handles this in 33:18. There is a play on words with “safely” (salem) and in “peace” (shalom 28:21). The writer wants us see God kept His promise to Jacob (28:15), but Jacob has not kept his promise to God.
Jacob is keeping up appearances. He bought a field, erected an altar, and called it “God, the God of Israel” (33:20). The writer means for us to contrast the promise of Jacob in Genesis 28 and Jacob “camping before the city of Shechem” (33:18b). When we think of “camping,” we think a night or two, something very temporary. Jacob was a tent dweller. Where he pitched his tent was his home. Shechem was his home for about 10 years.
Jacob’s daughter would have to have been at least 7 when Jacob left Paddan-Aram. In Genesis 34, she is probably 16 years old or older. The point is Jacob has had plenty of time not to keep his vow. God called him to go to Bethel (31:13), not Shechem. Jacob is disobedient, pure and simply.
Perhaps, you are simply disobeying God. He has told you to do something, and you are not doing it. Obedience is a matter of faith taking God at His word. I fear the idea is aloof that regardless of what the Bible says unless we have that subjective feeling of God telling or leading us to do something, we are under no obligation to do it. Maybe we get that from reading stories in the Bible where God appears in some way to a character and tells them what to do. I don’t want to disregard subjective instruction from the Lord, but I do want to say that if the Bible tells you do something and you don’t do it, you are disobedient. This is basic discipleship. Obey the Bible. The Bible says “give,” give, “witness,” witness, “assemble with the saints,” assemble, “repent,” repent, etc. You don’t know better than the Bible.
You cannot turn away from obedience to the word and things turn out well for you.
Downward spiral of disobedience
Did Jacob think that he could settle where he jolly well pleased in disobedience to God and maintain the focused, missional faith to which he was called? The problem is when he left off one thing, going back to Bethel, others areas of life began to slide. Jacob once again became the passive disengaged father he was in 29:31-30:24, when his wives sowed the seeds of deep-seated envy in his family.
Do you, friend, really think you can disengage from obedience and it not spill over into your family and every other area of life? Do you really think if you don’t do what you know to do, things are going to turn our well for you and your family? Jacob is camped before Shechem, how long can it be before his kids are “Shechemized?” Dinah decided to go out and “see the women of the land.” Canaanites were notorious for their sexual perversion. Dinah was raped by the prince and taken captive in his house (34:2,26b). Shechem “saw” and “seized her” (2), the same activity as the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2. He forcefully lay with her and did violence against her (2). Then “his soul was drawn to her, he loved her, and spoke tenderly to her” (3). That is the definition of a sick society. You can measure the depravity of a society by its views on sexuality and sexual expression. Shechem was not only not disciplined by his father but was supported throughout by his father (vv4,6,8,20).
The text shows us Jacob’s passivity in several ways. One way is the repetition of family relationships (vv1,3,5,8,19). The text is saying, “Wake up, Man. She’s your daughter.” In verse 5, Jacob heard, but held his peace. Where is the moral outrage? Jacob’s passivity is seen in that it’s Dinah’s brothers who take up the outrage Jacob should have shown (7). It’s the sons of Jacob, not Jacob, who answer Shechem and Hamor (13).
Jacob’s passivity will lead his sons to overreact, become vigilantes, and confront their fathers self-preserving objections to their crime with “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute” (30-31)?
The promise in jeopardy and God providentially preserving it
Two recurring themes in Genesis and the whole Bible are the constant state of jeopardy of the seed of the woman and God working good to preserve the seed of the woman in the same events men mean for evil. This text is no different. There are two threats to redemption here and both of them are because of the disobedience of the chosen family. The solution to the offence offered by the Shechmites is intermarriage (9-10), which means becoming one people (16). This would absorb Jacob into the Canaanites.
A second way the seed of the woman is jeopardized is revenge by the inhabitants of the land (30). Dinah’s brothers deceive the Shechmites by agreeing to their proposal on the condition that the Shechmites be circumcised (15). When the Shechmites were incapacitated by the surgery, Simeon and Levi murdered them. Here is where the family of Jacob is. They take the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, the sign that meant one was by faith participating in the Abrahamic covenant and used it for a pretext for mass murder! This is not good.
Do you see the dilemma of the seed because of Jacob’s layover in Shechem? It was an inevitable dilemma. Merge with the Canaanites or be attacked by them and forced to merge.
Do you realize that seed of the woman is always under attack? Only God could bring about redemption. Satan tried to stop the seed of the woman from saving His people by inciting wicked men to murder Him. But God was working in the same event to offer Him up as a sin offering for us all. He raised Him from the dead and gives forgiveness of sins to all who repent and believe in His saving work. Since that moment, Satan has sought to stamp out the church and silence its witness to the good news. Even now we see the forces of evil arrayed against the only redemptive, hopeful voice in the world. But the church will not be silenced, she cannot be silenced because we, like the first disciples, cannot help but speak what we have seen and heard. God will uphold her until His work of redemption is done!
2. God graciously, continuously calls His people to return to Him (35:1-15)
At the lowest point in Jacob’s life, God intervened and said, “Arise, and go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau” (35:1). Daughter raped. Murdering sons. Canaanites ready for revenge. God calls. Jacob is at the point that unless God intervenes, he is done. Your situation cannot be more dire than Jacob’s, but even if it is, you are not beyond the reach of God’s grace. God can call you out of your lust, perversion, addiction, anger, bigotry, and transform your life.
In some sense, we all have to come to a similar point of desperation before we will move out of Shechem. Sin is always self-destructive. The sad but true thing about humans is we will run toward hell as fast as we can, all the while ignoring the fact that our pursuits are killing us. You may not be at the point of realizing the desperation of your situation. Perhaps sin has deceived you, and you feel comforted and protected by your lust, anger, and hatred. Miserable comforters are they all. Deceivers. Killers. Let the Word of God come to your life, define your need, define what is good, and awaken you to your own sin. Perhaps you are like the unwary traveler speeding down the highway at night unaware the bridge is out just ahead, and you are going to suddenly plunge to your death. Sin must become sinful to us. This is the work of the Spirit of God. How can we return to God?
We can see a couple things in this text involved in returning to God—repentance and renewal.
Notice the repentance of Jacob’s family. It’s shocking. How could they possibly have thought that foreign gods and loose living were compatible with living in covenant with the God is Israel? These verses explain the root of the fiasco that had become the lives of the Jacob family. Some things are incompatible with living in covenant relation with Christ, and those things must go.
Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, and renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ. It involves understanding that sin is wrong, assenting to the teaching of Scripture about sin, and a personal decision to forsake sin and obey Christ. Sorrow for one’s actions is not repentance unless it is accompanied by a sincere forsaking of sin and intention to obey Christ.
We can see these elements of repentance in Jacob’s family. First, they turned from their idolatry and all the elements involved with it (4). This is nothing short of worldview transformation, a reorientation of life whereby they began to see life through the lens of faithfulness to the God of Israel. (repentance and renewal).
Second, they left Shechem and traveled to Bethel (5). They didn’t just try to stop sinning. They turned from idols and headed in a different direction altogether. They moved out to Bethel in obedience to the Word of God. God preserved them by terrorizing those who would have destroyed them. There is power in a Godward life. Those big-toothed demons cower at the power of God when sinners repent and head in faith in a Godward direction.
Third, they turned their heartfelt devotion to the God of the covenant. No more going through the façade of devoted life, building an altar in Shechem and calling it “God the God of Israel” (33:20), an altar in the front yard and pagan pursuits in the city. Now it’s “God of the House of God” (7). It’s coming home to God.
Fourth, I don’t want you to miss the community aspect of repentance. This is Jacob and “all the people with him” (6). Perhaps, you will say, “I’ve been down this road before. It doesn’t last.” That begs the question, “How can we be Christian and live in the world? This world’s kool-aid is deceptive and alluring. Often the present sin in front of us looks much better than Christian life. Repentance brings us into the community of the repenting. As we have often said, “The pursuit of holiness is a corporate pursuit,” so is repentance. We must have the expectation and accountability of community. Without community the present corruption of the Canaanites begins to take root in our lives.
Discipleship takes place in community. Here the means of grace abound. When you separate yourself from community, you remove yourself from the ordinary means of grace God has given to aid you to walk in repentance. In the community of faith, the most basic elements of following Christ are taught, developed, and strengthened. Here we learn to give, to love, to die to self, to serve, to pray, to think, to grow. In community, over and over, we are renewed. If this is absent in your life, you may be going to hell.
Between the two aspect of returning to God—repentance and renewal—stands verse 8, the death notice of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse. This is an odd and strange placement of this text. There is no death notice of the mother of Israel, but only the death notice of her nurse. I think it stands there between repentance and renewal of the covenant to show that God’s redemptive purpose is going to move forward regardless of the sinfulness of some of the characters. Rebekah is simply written out of the story. How this is a warning to us and a call to cultivate a lifestyle of repentance in the community of faith.
The second aspect of returning to God in this text is renewal of the covenant (9-13). Obviously, the renewal of the covenant with Jacob does not apply to us the same way it applied to him, but we are the beneficiaries of the covenant that God cut with Abraham and reaffirmed with Isaac and Jacob. The writer intends for us to read this and think of God’s renewal of His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:1-8. In Genesis 17 Abram’s name was changed, he was to be fruitful and multiply, nations and kings would come from him, and the Land would be given to his offspring. I want you to see that even this early in the text, the primeval mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” is ultimately bound to the royal offspring of David and the gathering of the nations in Him.
What does this have to do with repentance and renewal? Everything.
The reason that Shechem was so appealing to Jacob and his family is because their vision was too small. Kingdoms and nations are a much bigger vision that pitching a tent in front of a sexually perverse Canaanite village!
How this applies to our renewal is, if we are to escape the thrill of this world, we must have far more enticing and larger thrill in view. To be renewed is to abandon the truncated vision of church being about you, family being about you, marriage being about you, money being about you, careers being about you, education being about you, your life being about you. In other words, self-centeredness must go. And we must be captured by the mission of God to gather all things together in Christ. It’s that, or we, like Rebekah, will be irrelevant to the ongoing story.
God calls us leave our sin and return to him.
3. God calls us to a future beyond what we can imagine (35:16-37:1)
In this closing section of Isaac’s story, what I want to take up from the text is the juxtaposition of the families of Jacob and Esau. I think it takes us to a major theme of Genesis, the blessing of the nations. God calls his people to bless the nations. Jacob was in no way a blessing to Shechem, but in the aftermath of repentance and renewal Jacob is once again in the position of blessing the nations. But it’s a future beyond his and our imagination.
Jacob and Esau are meant to be contrasted in this text. In 36:8, “Esau settled in the hill country of Seir.” His children were “born in the land of Canaan” (36:5b). He moved from the Land to the east to Seir. This is always the movement away from God. His movement recalls the movement of Cain, the Babelites, Lot, and Ishmael. In fact, the way 36:6-7 is written calls to mind the separation of Abram and Lot (13:5).
Jacob, however, “Lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan” (37:1). To further set up the contrast with Esau, the writer gives the genealogy of Jacob’s sons and says, “These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram” (35:26b). He is saying, unlike Esau who moved away from the land, Jacob’s sons were born outside the land but moved to the land. The one moves away from God, the other to God—that is repentance.
This movement of the Jacob family anticipates the movement of the nations to Christ, and the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdoms of Christ. It is then that Rachel’s weeping will be silenced and replaced with joy. The family of Jacob will bless the nations.
How will they bless the nations? In this transitional text, we also see the emergence of the line of Judah. Reuben, in a grab to displace his father by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine (22), is disqualified from leadership (49:2-4). Simeon and Levi are disqualified by their violence at Shechem (49:5-7). So Judah is the son from whom the seed of the woman will come who will bless the nations (49:8-12).
Esau then becomes representative of the nations that God will gather in Christ. It’s almost comical to have Jacob’s 12 sons listed in 35:22b-26 beside the genealogy of Esau. The basic movement of Esau’s genealogy is from a family (36:1-8), to tribes (36:9-19), to their absorption of the Horites by conquering (Deut 2:22) and intermarriage (36:20-30), to becoming a kingdom (36:31-39) that had 8 kings before any king ruled in Israel (36:31).
In comparing Jacob’s family and Esau’s family, we are meant to feel the overwhelming number of the Edomites compared to the Israelites. Esau was blessed and prosperous, strong and independent. Such prospering of the enemies of God moved the Wisdom writers to lament, “Why do the wicked prosper?” The implication is that subduing the nations would be a work of God. God would raise up a greater Israel that would rule Edom (25:23; 27:40). Israel was forbidden from conquering Edom in the conquest. “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deut. 23:7). By God’s grace, Esau has a future. This future is anticipated in David bringing Edom into his kingdom (2 Sam 8:14 “Then he put the garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became David’s servants.”).
The prophets picked up this theme. Obadiah said, “Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (21). Amos speaking of the restoration of all things said, “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, declares the Lord who does this” (Amos 9:11-12).
This Amos text was picked up at the Jerusalem council as the church struggled with the inclusion of the gentile nations in the church. James said to the assembly that the prophets agree that God has a purpose of grace for the gentile nations. He quoted the Amos 9 text: “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old” (Acts 15:16-18).
So Esau prefigures all the nations who will come to Christ by the wide preaching of the gospel among them. My how Esau has grown! 3 billion of them have never heard the gospel. Another 3 billion of them could not care less. Nestled up beside such a massive Edomite genealogy is the church, the children of Abraham who believe. The point is God is saying to the church, “It is not how numerous and prosperous you are, but it is who I am, my glory and my power and my name that is incomparable to the nations. Just go to them and say what I want said! I’ll do the rest. Don’t fear them, don’t hide from them, don’t back down, don’t get off message, don’t set your tent up at Shechem!”
“Know that you can’t do what I’ve called you to do. Repent of all your self effort, of being enchanted by the life of the perishing, and think big because what I have called you to is a future that is beyond your imagination. It is enough to satisfy your heart. Don’t envy evil doers, evangelize them. They are going to hell. Don’t join the world, bring them into the church.” The whole world will one day come under the reign of the offspring of Abraham, the heir of a throne that David could only foreshadow because it encompasses the globe!