The pinnacle of God’s saving promises is “I will dwell with them, and walk with them, and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ex. 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Zeph. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16). Jesus Christ became “God with us” to seal and fulfill this covenant promise. He is the covenant of God’s love and grace with us (Isa. 42:6). When he ascended up on high, triumphant over sin, death, and Satan, he poured out the Holy Spirit so that the promise of God indwelling universally in his people would be realized (Joel 2:28-32). More than any other word or idea, the Spirit uses “covenant” to describe our walk with God. To walk in covenant with God means that we trust his promises of life and salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ. It also means that reborn and indwelled by his Spirit, we walk in newness of life so that our delight is to please God in all things. And yet, because we are sluggish, he gives us many warnings so that we may be stirred to faithfulness and reminded that there are relational consequences for disobedience. Because God walks in a bonded relationship with us, his love does not alter. Our feelings wildly vacillate, but our relationship with God is not based upon how we feel about him but what he has done for us in his Son. And since he has drawn near to us in love, he will continue to purify us so that we may be zealous for good works and devoted to his praise. Each of these seasons of God’s covenant is evident in the lines below, as well as the sorrows that Jacob experience. When we walk with God, he does not promise us a trouble-free life; he promises to sanctify our troubles and show us his glory in them.
Seasons of Conviction (vv. 1-8)
1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. 2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: 3 And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. 4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. 5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. 6 So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him. 7 And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother. 8 But Deborah Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth.
He Will Convict: Keep Your Promises (v. 1)
About ten years have passed since Jacob returned to Canaan, but he has not yet fulfilled the promise he made to God at Bethel (28:20-22). You will recall that he had to flee home because Esau was determined to kill him for stealing his blessing. Upon leaving Canaan, God promised to take care of him, and Jacob responded by promising that if God would feed and clothe him and bring him back home, he would sacrifice on that very spot where he saw the angels ascending and descending in his dream. God would be his God. Jacob had not made good on his promise. It is not that he was being wicked or wasting time or had forgotten the Lord’s goodness. As with us, life simply happens – work, raising a family, and a hundred other things. But, when the Lord walks with us, he will remind us of our promises.
His word came to Jacob at an important time. Simeon and Levi had just committed their brutal crimes, and Jacob was fearful of the fallout. Still, he did not take any decisive action. Had he fallen into that worst of all spiritual pits – of being drowsy, weary and indifferent, cold or lukewarm toward the Lord? Perhaps. The important thing is that the Lord did not let him go or leave him in that pit. He would not let the Canaanites harm Jacob. Even more, he would not let Jacob remain in a state of listlessness and uncertainty. In great mercy, he told Jacob the exact problem – Jacob was living in disobedience to an outstanding pledge – to build an altar, to make public confession of his goodness, and to worship the Lord alone. Would recent miseries have occurred had Jacob been quick to keep his promise to the Lord?
It is a very odd fact that when troubles occur, we look around for any excuse but the one right in front of us. Here is Jacob, wondering if he is about to be exterminated by the Canaanites, and what does the Lord remind him of – a promise Jacob had made thirty years ago! The Lord has a long memory, an eternally present memory. He will convict us of sins, sometimes sins we thought dead and buried, but in some way, they are obstacles to our moving forward in righteousness, peace, and joy. They must be dealt with, not only with words of confession but with actual repentance – turning from the sins to do what God has said or what we promised him we would do. Take simply one example – our sacramental pledges or promises to God, both at our Baptism and the weekly Lord’s Supper. We promise here to walk with him, be “estranged from our sins,” as the prophet wrote, and come out from the world. Have we kept this promise? Are we seeking grace to keep it? Do we bear God’s name but dishonor his name by profane and worldly living? God has drawn near to us in mercy and love. He crucified his Son to redeem us to be his peculiar people. He will convict us of these truths. We are not perfected and dwelling with the angels and church victorious, so we need constant reminder and frequent chastening. Because the Lord loves us, he will convict us of our sins. It is a great mercy when he sends us his word through men to confront us gently with our duty and his promises. Let us not run away from the searching, convicting power of his living word (Heb. 4:12), but “think on our ways and turn our feet unto his testimonies” (Ps. 119:59).
He Is Holy: Put Away Your Idols and Be Cleansed (v. 2)
God’s word struck Jacob’s conscience like a lightning bolt. He remembered his earlier promise at Bethel – and that it went unfulfilled – how quickly we forget what we say to the Lord in times of trouble or anxiety or conviction, but he never forgets. He loves our espousals of love to him – if only they are sincere! Jacob must have been deeply humbled by the Lord’s goodness and longsuffering. He also, perhaps for the first time, took serious stock of his failure to lead his family in obedience. Recent events came crashing down upon him. I have been tolerating little gods in my house, vestiges of the idolatry that plagued my ancestors. My sons’ wicked wildness is due in large measure to my failed leadership, that I have not kept my promises to the Lord and tacitly permitted idols in my home. In his response to God’s quickening and convicting word, Jacob shows us as fathers how earnest we must be in teaching our families’ God’s ways (Gen. 18:19). Rather than burying our heads in the sand or running away from confrontation or blaming our wives, we must take up the mantle of servant leadership in our homes, without drama or fanfare. What did Jacob do? Put away your gods – Rachel’s, any picked up from the inhabitants of Hamor’s city – the Lord alone must be worshipped. And be clean and change your garments. This was more than an external reform – it was a call to heart renewal manifested in external consecration. It must be the same with us.
When God walks with us, he will bring seasons of conviction to us. We are not yet perfected in holiness and cannot expect to walk with the HOLY ONE without having our sinfulness confronted and rebuked. Remember, this is because “BLESSED ARE THE UNDEFILED IN THE WAY, WHO WALK IN THE LAW OF THE LORD” (Ps. 119:1, and the whole testimony of Scripture). Joy is found in the way of obedience (Ps. 1:1; John 14:15,21; 15:9-11; Heb. 12:2). Thus, when the Lord confronts our disobedience, his intention is to bring us to back to joy. If we take this as seriously as we should, we will not hold in our grief and conviction, but thankful for his mercy and goodness in calling us back to the right way, we shall outwardly confess our sinfulness and make amends for our evil ways before men. And why? Because God is holy; because he is love; because “in thy presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). He is a real person, and we must not treat him with contempt or disrespect. We must delight in him as he delights in us, which requires that we get to know him through his word, walk humbly before him, and set him always before us (Ps. 16:8), as our Savior did.
Also, and this is vital to remember, the Lord’s confrontation of Jacob is not joined with a threat to kill him if he persists in his sin. Bethel is the background – communion with God, Jacob as a type of Christ with the angels ascending and descending upon him, God near and blessing. These dynamics are much clearer now that Christ has come and brought in everlasting righteousness and secured heaven for us. The reason we must “awake to righteousness” (1 Cor. 15:34) and “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1) is not fear of punishment, for God will never strike us down because he struck his Son down in our place (Zech. 13:7)! He freely pardons our sins and lays not one charge against us (Rom. 8:33)! Yet, he is holy, and we must stand amazed at his love and grace to us, as well as desire to enjoy more of his fellowship. All our incentives to put away our heart idols are overwhelmingly positive, glorious. It is a tragedy that the flesh and Satan work day and night so that we see only the negative, feel only the guilt, and rarely remember that the One who is calling us to holiness is our Father who delights in us and rejoices over us with singing! Would we push him away by our foolishness, or gladly yield to him when he offers us the joy of his covenanted presence!
He Is Faithful: Protected in the Way of Obedience (vv. 3-5)
By the quickening power of God’s word, Jacob became a man of obedient, fervent action. He summoned his family to leave with him immediately and make the trek to Bethel. He announced his intention to build an altar to the Lord. To his family, he praised God for his faithfulness, constant presence, and deliverances. To his family and older sons, Jacob must have seemed very different, almost a new person. This is the marvelous work of God’s word and discipline when we yield ourselves to him. He is able to make us new, to fill us with new resolve and hope. Jacob’s family responded by giving him all their “strange gods” and all their earrings, likely so that they would be unable to make replacements. And as they travelled, no one bothered them, for the Lord protected them, placing upon the inhabitants of the land a terror. This is very different from Jacob’s fear after the bloody escapades of Simeon and Levi. Yet, when we walk in obedience to God, he will protect us. O, Christian man and woman, let these changes that you see in Jacob, his renewed leadership and steadfastness in obeying God, encourage you to yield yourself to God’s word. It was when God spoke to Jacob and confronted his sin that he was convicted and humbled to repentance. God’s word will do the same mighty work in you. Do not run from convicting, earnest, soul-searching preaching. Do not fear being brought too low, crying too many tears, or having too many layers of your sinfulness exposed. Fear instead remaining too high, not crying enough, and God leaving you alone in your sins; ask him to search and know you.
He Is Worthy: Worship Him with Praise and Thanksgiving (vv. 6-8)
One might think that the first thing Jacob would have done when he returned was to head straight to Bethel and keep his promise. He built an altar at Shechem (33:19), so he was worshipping the Lord during these years, but he did not keep his specific promise. Some in his situation might have balked at the Lord’s request for such meticulous obedience. Have I not built altars and worshipped you? Must I return to this particular spot? Apart from this, Jacob permitted family members to hold on to their “strange gods.” And yet, the Lord was merciful and patient with Jacob, and even now his rebuke-command to go to Bethel is couched in terms designed to encourage Jacob rather than to crush him. Always the Lord is tender toward us; never does he deal with us as our sins deserve. And always we must worship him for his goodness. Jacob named the altar “The God of the House of God.” It was a memorial to God’s deliverance thirty years previous. What God has done for us must never lose its hold upon our hearts, but we must rehearse his goodness and thank him. Even if we are generally faithfully but he corrects and chastens us for a specific sin, we must not act peevishly toward him but willingly receive his rebuke, for it is always given in love and is always intended to draw us to closer fellowship with him (John 14:21).
Seasons of Renewal (vv. 9-15)
9 And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him. 10 And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. 11 And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; 12 And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. 13 And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. 15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Bethel.
His Grace Gives a New Name and Makes Us Heirs in Christ (vv. 9-12)
None of us likes to be corrected for our sins. When the Lord corrects us, it is because he has something better for us. Do you not see this here? Jacob might have thought that a return to Bethel at this point was unnecessary and that he already done most of what he had promised. Because he yielded to the Lord’s will in this matter and humbly received correction, an unexpected season of blessing opened up. The Lord renewed his covenant promises and made them more explicit. We shall always find grace and more grace than we anticipated in the path of duty. Mark this well. Some seek grace as if it were lightning in a bottle – the right mood, or improved circumstances, or a little pushing of God’s hand to get what we want. The Lord teaches his children a different lesson. Do what I tell you, and I will open myself up to you, reveal more of myself to you, and show you my covenant (Ps. 25:14; John 14:21). Covenant walking with God is thus very different from the various strains of spiritualism that regularly make their rounds. God says simply, “Obey me, and I will love and bless you with myself. This is the way you walk with me, for I am your HOLY FATHER and your MERCIFUL SAVIOR who have drawn you to myself. Walk humbly with me (Mic. 5:7). “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Jacob obeyed the Lord, and the Lord renewed the “new name” – Israel – you have prevailed with God. Striking that Jacob could never have prevailed against the Angel unless the Angel had given him strength to do so, but then God turns around and gives credit to Jacob for overcoming him – this is beautiful grace. He loves us so much that he rewards his own grace in us, never says, “Hey, I really did this, so grovel some more,” but truly and graciously treats us as his sons and daughters, full heirs with a legal right to all that he has. Never can we love him enough for his goodness. As with Abraham, he reveals himself as the “Almighty God” (17:1), thus unifying all these promises. Many nations and kings shall come from you. And this land also – all to your seed, which is Christ (Gal. 5:13). So, like his grandfather, Jacob is here taught to see Christ’s day (John 8:56) – and he saw it by faith and was glad. All the blessings then as now are secured through the greatest promise of all – the Son of God incarnate, the Mediator of the Covenant, the Covenant, the Son of Righteousness, the great I AM, the Living Word, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
This has a tremendous bearing upon the way we walk in covenant with God. The name of Jesus Christ must be continually upon our lips, his faith sincerely in our hearts, and our faith looking up always to see him reigning, anchoring, and captaining our souls. If we seek any blessing from God, we shall find it only in our Lord Jesus. If we need fresh cleansing, it is found in his perfect sacrifice and intercession (1 John 1:9-2:2). If we need strength, it is found only in looking unto Jesus, abiding in his word, and being more in fellowship with his Spirit. He is the Covenant. He came down from heaven to reveal the Father, to give the Spirit, to bring in everlasting righteousness through his obedience, and to bring an end to sacrifice through his once-for-all death on the cross. See, first, that God revealed more of his Son to Jacob in the way of obedience. Always this must guide us. Many who walk at odds with God’s revealed will then complain that they can find no sweetness in the gospel promises. This is to invert the order – to taste the honey before you tend the bees. And not only do the Father and Son, together with the Spirit, reveal themselves to us in the way of obedience (Rev. 3:20), but ever we must seek truth, light, encouragement, and strength from Jesus Christ. All our hope of being heard and blessed must be upon his worthiness and intercession. All our affections must be set upon him, then we shall make our prayer to him continually and find that he has the dew of his youth, is fairer than ten thousand, and is truly our life, “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”
Let Us Worship and Give Thanks (vv. 13-15)
Then and there, Jacob worshipped the Lord again. He already built an altar, and in response to God’s renewal of the covenant of grace, he raised a monumental pillar, poured oil upon it, and again called the spot Bethel, the House of God. Jacob of course knew that God had been with him through all his wanderings, but this did not make him indifferent to the glories of the present occasion, or the duties to commemorate God’s goodness and faithfulness with heartfelt worship. Do we? Think of all these blessings promised to Jacob here. They are ours. Like his fathers, Jacob would confess, “Few and evil have been the days of my life.” He looked for the city that had foundations. He died in faith, like his grandfather and father, not having received the promised but being persuaded that God was faithful. And how was he persuaded of this except through the bare word of God!
And look what God’s word has now done for us in Jesus Christ – heaven opened; reconciliation; salvation accomplished and applied; the Spirit poured out on all flesh; the church built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ the chief cornerstone, a completed revelation from God in the Scriptures. Who could recount all the daily acts of mercy, patience, and kindness that he shows to his millions upon millions of redeemed saints in the earth! If Jacob worshipped, we must show forth God’s praises with constant exuberance. What is wrong with us? Why do we not praise his holy name with greater zeal? We do not meditate upon his blessings, give ourselves wholly to them, and deliberately set ourselves upon the path of praise and thankfulness. For his glory, the joy and quickening of our souls, and the strengthening of our churches and families, let us do so now!
Seasons of Sorrow (vv. 16-29)
16 And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. 17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. 18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. 20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day. 21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar. 22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: 23 The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun: 24 The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin: 25 And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid; Dan, and Naphtali: 26 And the sons of Zilpah, Leah's handmaid; Gad, and Asher: these are the sons of Jacob, which were born to him in Padanaram. 27 And Jacob came unto Isaac his father unto Mamre, unto the city of Arbah, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. 28 And the days of Isaac were an hundred and fourscore years. 29 And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
Rachel’s Sorrowing Death (vv. 16-21)
As much as we love seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19-21) and need them, walking in covenant with the Lord means that he will bring sufficient sorrow to teach us to call upon him with humble hearts and to set our appetite on edge for his eternal city. Soon after Jacob left Bethel, Rachel, whom we learn was pregnant, went into labor. The midwife gave assurances that the child would survive, but Rachel did not. As she lay dying after giving birth, in a moment of final bitterness, she named the baby boy, Benoni, son of my sorrow. Was Rachel ever truly happy after her father’s trickery? It seems that she died with the same bitter regret with which she lived. Of course, she had wanted another child desperately, and thirteen years later, God granted her desire, but it killed her. Jacob did not like this name – who ever that loved his child would saddle it with the name “sad boy?” – and called the infant, Benjamin, son of my right hand. With little ceremony, Jacob’s favorite wife died and was buried near Bethlehem. Jacob set up a pillar over her grave, which remained “unto this day.” The site was still known in the time of Moses, who mentions it to encourage the people of God struggling in the wilderness to aspire to be obedient so that God would bless them to return to the promised land.
Reuben’s Scheming Incest (vv. 22-26)
To compound Jacob’s sorrow, which is hardly mentioned as he has a little “Job season” in which hardships descend upon him in quick succession, his eldest son commits incestuous adultery with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. For my part, given their age difference, there was likely more than an evil lust stewing here. Reuben, Leah’s son, did not want his mother further dishonored by having his father elevate Rachel’s maid to favorite wife status. This is passed over quickly, but the stain was deep. Jacob now has twelve sons, as he comes to his father’s home in Mamre, but three of them are already notorious sinners. Jacob’s family is looking more like a rogue’s gallery than the fathers of the church. Nevertheless, the Lord was not finished with Jacob or his sons, and even their acts of violence and impurity did not thwart his purposes or overturn his grace and covenant.
The Death of Isaac (vv. 27-29)
Surely Jacob had seen Isaac in the ten or so years since he had returned to Canaan, but this is more of a settled return, with Jacob settling nearby. Jacob has come full circle, to Hebron, the ancient home of Abraham and Isaac. What glory to Jacob’s soul to walk again in the home of his fathers! According to the chronology set forth by Moses, Isaac was about 167 years old at the time of Isaac’s return. He lived another 13 years after Jacob returned to Hebron, which means that Isaac lived through much of the years of Joseph’s Egyptian captivity. He finally died at the age of 180, the last of the very long-lived patriarchs, full of days. Jacob and Esau buried him. His death is mentioned here not because the chronology is skewed but because there is nothing left to say about Isaac after this. His toledoth ended with the return of Jacob.
These sorrowful scenes pass in quick succession. Their impact may be lost upon us for that reason. When God walks with us, he gives sufficient tastes of his kindness and covenant mercies to encourage us to keep trusting and delighting in him. He also gives us sufficient sorrow to keep us trusting and to prevent us from going to sleep. Constant blessing in this life will put us quickly at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting the flesh and the devil. We need seasons of blessing, but we also need seasons of crying so that we can learn disciplined obedience. God is faithful, and he will bring us home, as we see he did Jacob. Let us resolve today to walk more carefully with him. Consider, believer, whether you are keeping your baptism pledge which is really a marriage vow to be the faithful wife of the Son of God? Have you gone out with Dinah to see the daughters of the land? Return to your husband now. Hear his word and be convicted unto repentance. Your husband will receive you and woo you back. Are you praising him for his goodness? If you are sad, let me encourage you to take a piece of paper and begin writing down all the answers to prayer and instances of God’s favor and blessing in your life. If you are a believer, it will not take you long to fill it up – and to set your soul to singing and rejoicing. Remember, finally, that God is holy and worthy of our careful, joyful obedience. Do not put off what needs to be done today. If you made promises to the Lord, keep them, even if it means that you have to begin with tearful telling him that you are too weak to keep what you have promised! Then, begin doing his will, and he will give you grace and reveal his love and strength to your heart.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What does it mean to walk in covenant with the Lord? Be specific and include the following aspects: promises, warnings, seriousness, joy – how are these related?
2. What are the three seasons through which Jacob passed in this chapter?
3. What does the Lord’s reminding Jacob of a promise made thirty years earlier teach us about the importance of keeping our word to God?
4. Are there any old sins that are casting long shadows over your life? What should you do about them?
5. How is the resurgence of Jacob’s family leadership a good example to Christian fathers who come under conviction?
6. Why do we tend to run from conviction when we should run toward it?
7. Are there any idols you are allowing in your home/family?
8. Why does God convict us of our sins? See Psalm 119:1 – what makes us truly happy? See John 14:17.
9. How did the Lord reward Jacob’s obedience/return to Bethel?
10. What is the relationship between obedience and blessing – see John 14:21-23?
11. Why does walking in covenant with God also have Jesus Christ at its center? Give specific examples.
12. How can we avoid dying with Rachel’s bitterness/sorrow?
13. What should we do with our sorrowful seasons? How can we improve them? What are some things we should not think when they come?