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Jacob Becomes a Spiritual Leader -- a study of Genesis 35

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 35

After a family tragedy makes Jacob realize that he has not led them to fear the Lord, Jacob takes his family to Bethel where he builds an altar, and God reiterates His promises to Jacob and his descendants. Jacob tells his family that things are going to be different—that they are no longer going to be like other people.

Get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. (35:2)

This was originally a printed resource for teachers. I am slowly putting older resources online for future reference.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Why We Don’t Destroy Natural Markers.

A while back, I saw a video on natural marvels that had been destroyed by some real low-life jerks. Here’s the beautiful “duckbill formation” in Oregon—knocked over by kids who still haven’t been caught. And the “tree of Tenere”, a single tree in 250 miles of the Sahara desert. It was run over by a drunk truck driver. And the one that really bugs me: Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. Some guy and his kid decided to knock over one of these found-nowhere-else-in-the-world formations (and post the video). Just sad.

Our Bible passage reminds us that the unique natural wonders around us have probably been used as markers by countless people over the generations. When we disrespect those wonders, we disrespect the memories of those people (and the God who created both the markers and the people who used them).

The World’s Oldest Trees.

One such marker in our passage is an old oak tree. You can Google “oldest trees” and find an incredible list. For example, this cypress tree is Iran is estimated to be more than 4,000 years old. Guess what? That’s the time period we’re talking about! This tree was around when Jacob walked the earth! Many of the markers/monuments described in the Bible probably survived for a long, long time. Some may still be there—their identity simply lost over the countless generations. (This is a shameless plug for how amazing trees are.)


This Week's Big Idea: Earrings and Tattoos

I’m going to use my “big idea” to chase a rabbit (don’t even bring this up unless someone asks it!). In our passage this week, Jacob’s household turns in their earrings to be destroyed. I remember that one of the times I went to Sunday School growing up that the teacher used this passage to tell us that guys shouldn’t wear earrings (this was probably 30 years ago). That immediately led to a discussion about tattoos and body piercings. Looking back to my time in seminary (about 20 years ago), I can note that very few of the guys there had any such decorations. So here are some numbers. Let’s start with the topic that’s gone mainstream:

  • 11% of 50-64 yr olds have a tattoo

  • 38% of 18-29 yr olds have a tattoo

  • 22% of all Americans have a tattoo (!)

  • 17% of those Americans regret their tattoo :)

Highlighting how quickly attitudes have changed, a recent Pew Research study noted that ten years ago, there was an association between tattoos and alcohol, drug use, violence, sexual activity, eating disorders and even suicide. But that's not the case anymore, the report said.

Earrings, on the other hand, are still in a bit of a gray area. When I was growing up, earrings were used to identify sexual orientation. If you Google the topic, you’ll find there’s still a whole lot of debate about whether it’s appropriate for a man to wear an earring in the workplace (or what exactly it means). Statistics are not reported on piercings like they are on tattoos, so these numbers are speculative:

  • 72% of US women have a piercing

  • 12% of men have a piercing

  • The second most-popular piercing for women is in the belly button (33%)

  • The second most-popular piercing for men is in the nipple (18%!)

Those numbers have exploded for men in just the past few years. So, what do we do with this?

Obviously, “everybody else is doing it” is not a measure of right or wrong. What does the Bible say? Frankly, not much. As for earrings and other body piercings, the Bible simply acknowledges that such were fairly common in those days (for men and women; see Ex 32:2). Paul tells women to be modest (1 Tim 2:9); God tells men not to dress like a woman (Deut 22:5); and children are supposed to obey their parents (!! Col 3:20). All of those directives have to do with the meaning and purpose of the body piercing, not the piercing itself.

And that’s what our passage is about this week. The rings in their ears were associated with their foreign gods. Indeed, when you study the history of earrings, you find that in antiquity they were most often either used to identify you as royalty, to identify the god you served, or as a talisman/good luck charm. Obviously, those motives are completely out of line with Judaism or Christianity. Even the motives of social deviance (or sexual orientation) from 20 years ago would be incompatible with Christianity. But that’s simply not necessarily the case anymore. Men (and women) use earrings to express themselves in the same way that I wear a paisley shirt.

But how about tattoos? There is one verse in the Bible that seems to address this: Lev 19:28, “Do not cut yourself for the dead or put tattoos on yourself.” Seems straightforward, right? Well, no. The word in Hebrew actually refers more to what we would consider branding or cutting (not ink). It was customary in some religions to brand one’s self on behalf of a certain god to indicate slavery to that god (or king). Further, like earrings, people would put tattoos on certain parts of their body as a kind of good luck charm for fertility or safe childbirth. Clearly, that’s not compatible with the worship of the One True God!

Like with body piercings, the lawfulness of a tattoo has to do with motive and purpose. Our body is not our own, but God’s (1 Cor 6:19). Any mark that disfigures ourselves would not glorify God. Is that tattoo designed to draw attention to ourselves or to God? (That’s probably the most important and hardest category.) Does the tattoo’s message direct people to God or not?

All of that to say this: If your group falls down this rabbit hole, just make sure they realize that this passage does not condemn earrings or body piercings. It is not making a judgment about them at all! If your group insists on chasing the rabbit further, simply note that earrings (and by association other body modifications like tattoos) are to be measured by the purpose for which a person has them.


Where We Are in Genesis

We skip over one of the more morally confusing passages in the Bible—Genesis 34. Jacob’s family settled in the promised land near the town of Shechem; Jacob paid the chief for the land on which he pitched his tent. The chief’s son, also named Shechem, lusted after Jacob’s daughter Dinah and forcibly took her into his bed. After hearing this, the chief offered to pay any price for Dinah and suggested that their families should join together. Dinah’s brothers, infuriated, deceitfully suggested that all of the men of the region should be circumcised. While they were in pain, two of the brothers ruthlessly slaughtered every male and then looted the city. Jacob gave a half-hearted rebuke to them to which they responded that they had to protect their sister. (This behavior points forward to how they will treat Joseph, and it also makes me think of a similar episode involving David’s children.)

As far as what we are to make of that, I put my thoughts below (in case someone asks). For our purposes this week, what matters is that God tells Jacob to move to Bethel, probably as a way of protecting Jacob’s family from the likely backlash of the surrounding tribes. See below.

Then, after our passage, we read about the death of Rachel while giving birth to Benjamin (likely why Jacob loved Benjamin so much) as well as the death of Isaac. It seems that Jacob only stayed in Bethel for so long before eventually finding Isaac near his old home of Hebron. We are not told anything about their encounter (by this point, Isaac might be very feeble), but we read that Jacob and his family stayed near Isaac until Isaac’s death. We are not told any amounts of time for any of these stops.


Part 1: Purify Yourself (Genesis 35:1-4)

God said to Jacob, “Get up! Go to Bethel and settle there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his family and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. We must get up and go to Bethel. I will build an altar there to the God who answered me in my day of distress. He has been with me everywhere I have gone.” Then they gave Jacob all their foreign gods and their earrings, and Jacob hid them under the oak near Shechem.

In my opinion, the most important part of this passage is Jacob finally taking a spiritual leadership role in his family. Elsewhere, I discuss the reasons why God sent Jacob’s family to Bethel and Jacob’s previous failures that necessitated the steps outlined in our passage. Jacob had earlier promised that he would one day build an altar at Bethel, so this was not a change of plan—just an acceleration. And you will see in a few verses that God Himself provides the protection Jacob’s family needs to get to Bethel safely. That supernatural protection will itself validate Jacob’s command to his family: the God that he is leading them to worship is preserving them from trouble, yet again.

As for the timing, here’s what I think: Jacob has observed his family’s horrible and murderous behavior and realized it is because they did not know his God. They needed to begin worshiping the God who saved them. His command is like you saying to your family, “Things aren’t right with us; it’s time we made a change.” Again—Jacob is finally taking spiritual responsibility for his family. There are lots of families in our churches who know they need to make a change, but they’re afraid it’s too late (or they have zero credibility with their kids). But let’s be honest, Jacob had zero credibility. He just got to a point where he could be silent no longer. Jacob clearly didn’t get everything right (see: Joseph), but we give him the credit for starting.

What’s the first part of this kind of a change? You have to make a symbolic break with the past. In Jacob’s family, this would be easy. They had lots of physical reminders of the false gods they had been worshiping (that’s where the earrings come in—see my “big idea”). Those had to go. But Jacob also told his family to purify themselves and change their clothes. Again, this would have been largely symbolic (all of their clothes were the same; it’s not like they had vulgar t-shirts or microskirts), but combined with the washing with water (likely what “purify” meant to them) the symbolism was clear. Just as we are told to “put on” a new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24), they knew things had to change. Ask your group what behaviors they need to purify their family from in order to better follow God.


Aside: Bethel

Bethel (“house of God”) was located on a fertile plain about 10 miles north of Jerusalem, and as such was an important crossing point for caravans and settlers. Abraham built an altar there when he first entered Canaan. For our purposes, we note that Isaac lived down near Hebron/Mamre. When Jacob left there to travel to Laban, God first spoke to Jacob while he rested in Bethel. Then, after leaving Esau (near Penuel/Mahanaim), Jacob brought his family back by way of Shechem, only to be directed by God to go further south to Bethel, where Jacob built an altar. And then Jacob continued south to see his father in Mamre. Obviously, God does not “live” in one location, but He deemed Bethel very important. It was central to the territory of Israel; Bethel was the earliest home of the ark and the place where several judges placed their headquarters (including Samuel). All of this to say that God directed Jacob back to Bethel for a purpose—to keep him separated from the pagan peoples of the region.


Part 2: Obey God (Genesis 35:5-8)

When they set out, a terror from God came over the cities around them, and they did not pursue Jacob’s sons. So Jacob and all who were with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. Jacob built an altar there and called the place El-bethel because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother. Deborah, the one who had nursed and raised Rebekah, died and was buried under the oak south of Bethel. So Jacob named it Allon-bacuth.

By calling Bethel “Luz” the author was either pointing out the past (what Bethel used to be—like what Jacob used to be), or he was simply distinguishing Bethel from other locations of the same name. It wasn’t very far from Shechem (20 miles?). Because I think the author was Moses, I believe he specifically called it “the land of Canaan” because Canaanites would be living in it for hundreds of more years before it became the Israelite’s Promised Land. Anyway, Jacob built his promised altar here, and his family watched him. His place name seems strange—”El Bethel” literally means “The God of the House of God”—but it actually makes good sense. “Bethel” is about a place. “El Bethel” is about God.

The reference to Deborah is startling. She was essentially the age of Jacob’s grandmother, and we haven’t heard a thing about her until now. What I think is actually going on here is that when Jacob built his altar, someone from a local tribe who knew of his family (who also worshiped God there) came to tell him that Deborah had previously died and was buried nearby. It must have been a spectacular tree to be so identifiable (see my icebreaker), so Jacob and his family went to pay their respects to this tie to Jacob’s beloved mother Rebekah. “Allon-bacuth” means “place of weeping”, so it must have been rather raw for Jacob. (It’s absolutely possible that Jacob sent for Deborah whenever he learned of his mother’s death, but the Bible doesn’t say.) For me, the juxtaposition is on the one hand Jacob telling his family to make a break from their past and on the other hand mourning the loss of someone from the past. The two are not incompatible.


Aside: Ancient Altars

Altars were common in ancient Near Eastern religions. Essentially, they’re a stone structure on which a sacrifice was made to a god—often animal, but also grain and oil and whatnot. The earliest were piled rocks, but they were soon shaped or carved and eventually made out of brick. Nomads (like Abraham and possibly Jacob) didn’t worry about the permanence of their structure because they soon moved to a new location. But archeologists have found carved stone altars that date back to Jacob’s day.

When we’re thinking about the altars described in Genesis, we have to remember that this is pre-Moses (i.e., there’s no established priesthood; God hasn’t given any rules for the Tabernacle, etc.). When Jacob builds his altar, he’s literally making it up as he goes. God’s approval means that an altar isn’t about rules and regulations as much as it is purpose and meaning (but once God gives rules about altars, people need to follow them). We aren’t told about any sacrifices being made on Jacob’s altar, so it is reasonable to believe that the altar was purely symbolic, designed specifically to remind his family about his God and also to point out to the local peoples that he worships a different God than they do.

It’s worth noting that we don’t have “altars” in Christian churches today because Jesus was the once-for-all sacrifice. Our sacrifices are praise and holy living, such that you could call our entire sanctuary an “altar” in the sense that Jacob used his.


Part 3: God’s Promises (Genesis 35:9-13)

God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; you will no longer be named Jacob, but your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel. God also said to him, “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation, indeed an assembly of nations, will come from you, and kings will descend from you. I will give to you the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac. And I will give the land to your future descendants.” Then God withdrew from him at the place where he had spoken to him.

This is obviously the highpoint of the lesson and the place to spend your time. But you know how the story turns out (Moses would have been thinking about the nation of Israel; we can see ahead to the kingdom of Christ). Just as God had appeared to Jacob on his way to Syria, now He appeared when Jacob returned. God reminded Jacob of his new name. Even more importantly, God gave to Jacob the promise He had made to Abraham and to Isaac (and even echoes the promises to Adam and Noah!). How does that promise apply to us today? We are its truest inheritors—those who have seen its fulfillment in Jesus. Just as God repeated His promise to Jacob, we would be well-served to continue to read the Bible to repeat the promises He has made to us.


Part 4: Treasure (Genesus 35:14-15)

Jacob set up a marker at the place where he had spoken to him—a stone marker. He poured a drink offering on it and anointed it with oil. Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

Our lesson has done a nice job of outlining the path God wants every Christian to take (in every area of our life). We start by purifying ourselves from our past; then we learn and obey how God wants us to live; then we appreciate the promises God has made us to help us make those changes; then we establish whatever marker we need to stay focused on God and our path forward.

Jacob set up an additional stone marker (not an altar; yes, God would later condemn such markers due to their pagan associations, Lev 26:1, but God hadn’t given that law yet) and he poured oil on it, just as he had done in 28:18. This time, however, Jacob knew God. If you’ve ever done a ritual before and after a rite-of-passage, you know it means so much more after. Jacob’s actions were purely symbolic, but they would have meant a whole lot to him. He would have thought about the first time he placed such a marker, then he would have thought about everything that happened to him since, then he would have thought about all of the ways God had intervened in his life to bring him to this moment. Has anything like that happened to you? Do you have some thing or place in your life you can refer to when you need to be reminded of how much God loves you? Or when you’ve strayed? Identify such a thing this week.


Closing Thoughts: Why Didn't Jacob Avenge Dinah?

Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi avenged the violation of their sister Dinah by murdering every male in that city and then looting the city. When Jacob half-heartedly confronted them, they responded with a “devil-may-care” attitude. How did we get here?

First of all, we have to believe that Jacob couldn’t have been happy with what happened to Dinah. He had to work 14 years for his favorite wife, and this man (a spoiled brat?) thought he could just take Dinah. The Bible clearly says that it was wrong for the man Shechem to do this, and Jacob kept it secret from his sons knowing how infuriated it would make them.

Why didn’t Jacob do anything about it himself? I wonder if Jacob felt obligated to learn the customs of the region. Perhaps this man didn’t think he had done anything wrong, and Jacob didn’t want to start a war over a misunderstanding. (That’s a stretch, I admit.)

I think it more likely that Jacob was afraid. They were new in the area; he did not know much about the inhabitants (how many they were, how strong they were, how trained for war they were), and now the son of the leader has caused this problem. Did Jacob try to console himself with the thought that Shechem is portrayed as genuinely caring for Dinah and Shechem’s father seems to genuinely want to have peace between their families? Maybe. He certainly didn’t want to be hasty.

Whatever Jacob’s thoughts, his sons chose the course of action. We see errors on the part of all 4 parties: Shechem for the rape, Hamor for the enabling, Jacob for the inaction, and Jacob’s sons for the murder. But I can also see how every one of those errors were made, and if I place myself in Jacob’s shoes, I can see the dilemma. Sin puts people in awful situations, and the way out is not always clear.


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