We come to the last two chapters of telling the story of Jacob this morning, and, apart from the first few verses, these chapters seem pretty easy to skip over as they seem to simply record a few random stories, some deaths, and then a long genealogy. Yet these chapters, in bringing the focus on Jacob to a close, act as a summary of some of the key themes of his life. A theme that can be summarized very easily: God is Faithful.
God is Faithful. If there ever was an appropriate summary to Jacob’s life, it is that God is faithful. The chapter begins with an command from God to Jacob, that we quickly looked at last week:
Gen. 35:1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, 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.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
First we see God’s faithfulness on display, in contrast to the half-hearted faithfulness of Jacob’s own family. God had protected and blessed Jacob through all his wanderings, from the time he appeared to him at Bethel when he was a young man, throughout the time spent with Laban, upon his return to the land and his confrontation with Esau, and even in the midst of the sorrow we spoke of last week in the incident with Shechem, God has been faithful to his promise to Jacob.
Many have pointed out that Jacob’s return to the land had been marked by half-hearted obedience. Though he had vowed many years earlier that he would return to Bethel and worship the Lord, and though he had been instructed by the Lord to return, Jacob settled in the city of Shechem, a mere 30 miles or so from Bethel. That 30 miles might not seem like a lot, distance-wise, but given the context of Jacob’s vow and God’s command, that 30 miles suggest a reluctance to whole-hearted dedication to the Lord. And yes, we see evidence of this in Jacob’s life. He was willing to make compromises with the inhabitants of the land, rather than remain a distinct people. His family, apparently, had accumulated idols and ornaments that identified them with the people and the worship of the land. He was so close to God, yet had not yet fully submitted his life, his obedience, his family, his devotion to the Lord.
Some people are truly scared to go all the way in with God. They will skirt along the margins of the faith, scared of what God might demand of them, scared of what wholehearted obedience would look like. Will I lose friend? Popularity? Will God send me to some strange land as gasp - a missionary? I was like this, you may have been like this. You’re a Christian, but your holding on to your own life and haven’t yet surrendered everything to God. You’re holding on to a bunch of stuff - dreams, desires, demands.
Yet this half-hearted living had contributed to the tragic consequences that we read about last week. And now, Jacob, to his credit, hears the command from the Lord to continue on to Bethel, and is ready to confront some of the idolatry that has crept into his family life. He confronts that idolatry and demands that his family leave the false gods that they have accumulated behind so that they might go up to Bethel and worship, as Jacob says, “the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” God has been faithful to Jacob, even through his families half-hearted faithfulness.
As they purged the idols from their camp, God’s faithfulness is on display as they move among the people of the land.
Gen. 35:5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6 And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother.
Contrary to Jacob’s concern at the end of chapter 34, that the inhabitants of the land would retaliate against Jacob’s clan because of what his sons did to the people of Shechem’s city, God gives them some sort of divine protection and Jacob has a clear path to Bethel. This divine protection over Jacob was previously revealed to us as Jacob fled Laban, as God revealed himself to Laban and commanded that he not harm Jacob. And Jacob builds another alter in Bethel, and the point of verse 7 is that he has come full circle. Its been nearly 30 years since he had had fled from his brother and first set up the pillar at Bethel, and now he has returned, yet through all his wanderings, God has been faithful. God has protected him.
Finally, God’s Faithfulness in on display and he reassures and reaffirms his covenant with Jacob.
Gen. 35:9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
For all of Jacob’s failures and struggles with God and men, God reaffirms to Jacob that the promises made to his fathers will be expanded through him. He is here told that his clan will expand into a nation of people, led by kings, established in the land of promise. He is to be called Israel, God reminds him, for he is the one who struggles with God and has prevailed, not because of his faithfulness, but because God is faithful.
And so this is pretty much the final word on Jacob’s life before the focus turns to his sons. Jacob is who he is, because God is faithful. He has not merely survived death and servitude many times, but actually thrived and his family has grown because God is faithful.
Aren’t you glad today that God is faithful. That for all of our wanderings and half-hearted devotion, God is faithful to the ones upon who he has set his name? I can see the older Christians nodding, for you have walked with God and you know that he has been faithful to you through the struggles, through the pain, through your wanderings. You know that what Paul says is true when he says:
11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
And I want to talk to you if you are new in your faith, or if you’re not yet a Christian, or if your struggling in your faith. Our hope in not in our righteousness, or our goodness, or in our faithfulness. It is in the faithfulness of God who has kept all his promises in Christ. He had promised the human race that he would send a deliverer to save us from our sins. And he has. He promised Abraham that he would raise up a descendent from his line who would be a blessing to the nations, as he has. He promised Jacob that kings would raise up from his own body, and later promised that one of those kings would reign forever in righteousness, justice and peace, and he has done it. Jesus Christ, is the son of Adam, the son of Abraham, the son of Jacob. He is God in the flesh, faithful to his promises. He lived a perfect life, showing us the love of God in action. He was crucified for our sins in our place, and raised from the dead, offering forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who receive him as king, Lord and saviour. He is faithful. And so if you’re a new Christian, or not yet a Christian, or a struggling Christian or a wandering Christian, do not look to yourself; look to Christ. The faithful one. And walk after him.
Now, when we say God is Faithful, does that mean that once we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to God, he makes it so we no longer have to face difficulties or trials? Of course not. And we see that right in this passage. and so how the faithfulness of God works itself out in this passage is also an encouragement to us.
God is faithful in loss, grief and death
For one thing, there is a lot of death in this passage. A lot of grieving, a lot of loss. In verse 8,
8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.
No sooner does Jacob arrive in Bethel, than death strikes the family, as Jacob’s mother’s nurse passes away. He names the place - the oak of weeping. And so Bethel - the house of God - is also the place of weeping. Yet the weeping over a longtime member of the household, is multiplied greatly after they journey on.
Gen. 35:16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
Jacob experiences his greatest sorrow, in the midst of what should be joy. Rachel, the barren wife becomes pregnant, which must have been an occasion of great joy; yet she does not survive the childbirth.
The chapter ends with a third death, the death of Isaac, Jacob’s father. Jacob has returned home, been reconciled to his family, only to lose his father in his old age.
This chapter of renewal and dedication, this chapter which so underscores God’s faithfulness, is packed with death. Yet, though there is weeping, God’s faithfulness takes the sting out of death. We weep, but not as the world weeps, because we know God is faithful.
God is faithful in situations of sin, betrayal, and chaos
Also in the middle of this chapter of renewal and rededication, there is a terrible betrayal.
Gen. 35:22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.
Now we’re not immediately told of Jacob’s response to Reuben’s act, but we can imagine how painful a betrayal it was. Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, the firstborn son of Leah. After Rachel died, Reuben lay with Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s servant and was the mother of two of Jacob’s other sons. Many think that this was not an act of lust, but Reuben’s way of expressing his dominance over the other brothers, especially Rachel and Bilhah’s sons. In any case, it was an act of aggression against Jacob himself. What betrayal!
And if we were Jacob we might ask, “Why God? Why, just when I’m starting to really follow you, first you take my wife away from me, and now my son has betrayed me? What are you doing God?” And that is when all those stones that Jacob has been setting up hopefully speak to him and to us, “God is faithful. God is faithful”. She we have to be convinced of God’s faithfulness in the past, to get through these moments in the present when it doesn’t look to us that God is faithful. Human sin and betrayal hurts, yes; but it doesn’t negate God’s faithfulness. And yes, walking with Christ does not get you a “get out of having jerky people doing jerky things to me card.” Sadly. But God is faithful even in betrayal.
God is faithful beyond our years
Lastly, God is faithful beyond our years. Genesis 36 is one long genealogy, and surprisingly, this long chapter is not Jacob’s family tree, of how all his descendent are blessed, and the great nation that they will become, but it is the legacy of Esau. Now, we’re not going to go deep into this genealogy, but I want to draw your attention to one verse,
Gen. 36:31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
It seems that the point of this genealogy is to make an admission that, while Jacob was promised in chapter 35 that kings would come from his body, the dependents of his older brother Esau were the first to have their kingdoms established. This is especially significant when you consider that in the years that Esau’s descendants were flourishing, Jacob’s descendants were languishing in slavery in Egypt. However, while the older brother grew into an older kingdom, the kingdom of Edom, the younger brother would give rise to a younger nation, Israel, that would supplant Edom, just as Jacob supplanted Esau. About 800 years after these events, the descendants of Jacob, led by David, will conquer the descendants of Esau. And about 200 years after that, the kingdom of Edom will be completely destroyed, as prophesied by Obadiah. Now this would not happen for hundreds of years, spanning generation and generations. Yet the point of this chapter seems to be that God is faithful beyond our years. We are limited in our perspective, we think in terms of days, weeks, months, semesters, years. God’s faithfulness extends over generations.
“Thomas Obadiah Chisolm had a difficult early adult life. His health was so fragile that there were periods of time when he was confined to bed, unable to work. Between bouts of illness he would have to push himself to put in extra hours at various jobs in order to make ends meet.After coming to Christ at age 27, Thomas found great comfort in the Scriptures, and in the fact that God was faithful to be his strength in time of illness and weakness, and to provide his needs. Lamentations 3:22-23 was one of his favorite scriptures: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.” https://www.independentbaptist.com/great-is-thy-faithfulness1/
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!