In the last chapter, Jacob was weak and in pain, but God snaps him out of it and gets him moving again. God sends Jacob back to Bethel, to the land where he saw angels jumping up and down on a ladder from heaven. The Psalms are sometimes referenced as a book of remembrance, a poetic look at how God is constantly teaching his children to remember his good works and character. Much the same is at work here, with Jacob needing to remember his unique deliverance from Esau.
Likely at work is God calling in a vow made in chapter 28. The vow pertains to God bringing Jacob home in peace, and Jacob taking the initial stone and building up God’s house, as in creating a godly legacy and teaching future generations about the Lord. Oddly enough, Bethel lies almost dead center between Hebron and Shechem, yet Genesis gives no reference to Jacob ever going back to Bethel until now. It seems Jacob stayed too long in Shechem, a place with beliefs and habits contrary to the Lord.
For protection, God placed terror on the cities around them, ensuring safe travels.
Altars In Genesis
In principle, an altar is a place of communion with God. The making of one, in this case, the piling on of a few stones, is designed to tell others God has met with me. Genesis follows an interesting pattern of altar building, with Noah (8:20), Abraham (12:7), Isaac (26:20), and now Jacob each building one for different reasons. None of these altars were much to look at.
Interestingly, in Genesis 31 Rachel holds onto the idols of her youth. What they actually look like is anybody’s guess, what they represent is a devotion to the spirituality of folk religion and pantheism, to say nothing of demons. Along with the way some accumulated more idols, so rampant is this problem that when Jacob calls for a cleansing, he gives instruction regarding the changing of garments and the doing away with idols. His call to purity worked, with the text mentioning all the foreign gods, including rings were turned in, with Jacob burying them next to a tree.
A Girl Named Deborah
There is sweetness toward the mentioning of Rebekah’s nurse, a woman named Deborah, and we know nothing about her except she served faithfully, and is mentioned with tremendous honor. Her death seems sudden, having lost her life somehow on the way to Bethel, and she is buried on the outskirts of that place.
You Are Now Israel
God appeared again is a constant theme in the life of Jacob, whose name is now permanently changed from Jacob (Schemer) to Israel (God is the victor). Paddan-aram is a geographic description of Laban’s hometown.
Lord God Almighty is literally El Shaddai which interestingly means I am God who can overpower – as in anyone, anything, at any time. The name El Shaddai is found most frequently in the book of Job.
Be fruitful and multiply is a look back to Genesis 1, and that promise of land/seed/blessing is Israel’s new legacy.
Rachel died just outside of Bethlehem, in an area known as Ephrath while giving birth to her son. There is a play on words regarding the name. According to Robert Alter, Rachel’s naming him Ben-Oni and can mean Son of my Vigor. Others see it as Son of my Sorrow, its also possible a double meaning exists regarding both definitions. Either way, Israel was uncomfortable with the confusion and named his son Bin-Yamin, Son of my Right Hand. The mother usually did the naming, so the name change is a bold move, meant to ensure proper blessing came his way.
Benjamin will play a central role once Joseph rises to power in Egypt. In a hilarious moment, Joseph will toy and bait with his brothers, heaping mounds of food on Benjamin’s plate, and earlier in the drama holding them hostage till Benjamin was brought to him.
Do Not Do This…Unthinkable
Rueben takes to bed a much older woman, one of his father’s lovers, the mother of Dan and Naphtali. Likely the affair was consensual, and in terms of the pecking order, the hope for a woman like Bilhah was to take the place of honor held by Rachel, which was never going to happen. Her insecurity possibly drove her to exchange sexual favors with a much younger man in hopes that when Jacob passes on she will still be able to maintain some sense of financial security and social standing.
For Rueben, he sinfully seeks to move into his father’s place of authority.
The text is chilling with its poetic timing – and Israel heard of it. Decades later, when Jacob is on his deathbed, and Joseph is Prime Minister of Egypt, he will restrain his blessing, rightly accusing him of being unstable, mounting what was not his to mount, and is told he no longer will prevail (Genesis 49).
The bloodline is mentioned, as is Isaac’s death.