top of page
  • Writer's picturemww

Jacob Finally Comes Home -- an appreciation of Genesis 35

Updated: Apr 18

God doesn't give up on anyone.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 35:1-15

In this culmination passage, we finally see how God uses the events (and failures) in Jacob's life to guide him to a place where he and his family will commit to God and hear the covenant that God first made with Abraham and will be honored in Jacob. Considering how poorly Jacob has lived his life, this encourages us that no one is beyond God's grace.

Get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. (35:2)

When We Studied This Passage in 2018

Just in case you wondered, the way I put these posts together (in short order) is I read the passage a few times and jot down any ideas or topics that come to mind. I then combine those topics with the verse groupings suggested by Lifeway, and I start to turn thoughts into an outline. After I have that, I look at the notes from the last time we studied this passage. More often than not, the same ideas show up in both places, and I have to go back to the drawing board for the new post. But sometimes, like with this week's passage, my ideas are rather different. Let this be an encouragement to all of our teachers out there who wonder if you're stuck in a rut -- you may not be in as much of a rut as you think!

When we studied this passage in 2018,

Here are the thoughts and ideas I offered:

  • Natural markers and monuments

  • The world's oldest trees

  • Earrings and tattoos (fun section!)

  • Bethel

  • Ancient altars

  • Why didn't Jacob avenge Dinah?

There's never a problem with recycling an older idea -- just update it! That comes to mind because I just saw something on the news this week about a pair of total losers destroying a natural rock formation in Lake Mead.

Unfortunately, that suggests the topic is still relevant.

Or with respect to the section on earrings and tattoos, just update the numbers. In 2018, those numbers were

  • "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 :)"

  • 25% (!) of 50-64 yr olds have a tattoo

  • 41% of 18-29 yr olds have a tattoo

  • 32% of all Americans have a tattoo (!)

  • 24% (!) of those Americans regret their tattoo

To me, comparing the numbers from 2018 to 2023 is interesting.

By the way, why did I focus on tattoos and not earrings (which is what is actually mentioned in the passage)? Because that's what I could easily find.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Special Places for Your Family

I didn't make a post last week because we went on a vacation, so I missed my best chance for a "Masters Sunday" illustration. (For those of you who don't live in the Augusta area, there's an important golf tournament here every year.) But it still works this week! Every year after the golf tournament, I talk to church members who had friends come from out of town to go to the tournament and loved the experience. For many people, it's a magical place that they can't wait to visit again.

What's the place for you and your family?

I'll take the easy answer. We took our vacation to two of our favorite places, Disneyworld and Buccees. We had a ball.

To be sure, eventually you want to take this discussion to your favorite destinations from a spiritual perspective. This week, we learn that Bethel was such a place for Jacob -- he told his family that they would be going to Bethel to worship God (and Bethel would continue to be an important place of worship for Jews for generations).

[Incidentally, I found out that the word "mecca" is officially used to describe these kinds of places. I find that very interesting because Mecca the city is a pilgrimage site in Islam. What would be the Christian equivalent? The Southern Baptist equivalent? It's kind of a loaded question because as Christians, we are the "temple of the Holy Spirit", which means that everywhere we go, God is with us and thus that place is holy and special. But I fully realize that certain places have a "spiritual importance" for individuals.]

How Good Are You at Starting a New Habit?

If you Google "starting a new habit", you'll get approximately 3 trillion articles. It's a topic that a lot of people care about, and a lot of people are willing to pay for help with their habits.

How about you? What's a habit you recently started or stopped? And how did that process work for you?

It really is fascinating to see how other people try to manage their habits. I learned way too much about the difference between "habits" and "routines" in my rabbit hole. (My favorite line from this Harvard Business Review article chiding people who think of habits as a magic bullet to get done their weekly to-do lists.)

And that idea leads us to...

Leading Your Family through a Lifestyle Habit Change

In this week's passage, Jacob (who we have all pretty much agreed has not been a great person) tells his family that they all together need to make a massive lifestyle change -- they need to stop worshiping idols and start worshiping the One True God.

How hard must that have been, both for Jacob and for his family!

And that immediately makes me think of families I know who have said that they "need to get back in the habit of going to church". You've probably heard that, haven't you? Or maybe you've said it yourself?

In fact, a lot of people are in a position to say that! According to this Gallup poll, 57% of Americans in 2023 said they "seldom or never" go to church.

What are other habits Christians say they need to develop? (What are habits you have said you would like to develop?) I'm thinking of things like prayer, Bible reading, and the like. Well, it seems like most of us could do better with those habits!

I think it's safe to say that you (or somebody you know 😉) have a Christian habit you would like to improve upon.

(Time for a shameless plug for one of my favorite books on this topic -- Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney.)

Anyway, here's where I'm going with this: if you know how hard it is to change a personal habit, do you also know how hard it is to change a family habit? Jacob wanted his entire family to change personal habits -- including his young adult children. If you've been there, you know it's hard!

But where I give Jacob credit is that at least he started. It's so much easier to just give up or not worry about it. Let your kids develop their own habits when they're older. But that's not how God wants us to lead our families. He wants us to be proactive in helping them develop good godly habits. We all know this passage from Deuteronomy:

Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (6:7)

Let me try to land this plane -- I can't find a specific reputable survey on this topic, but it seems that only about 10-20% of Christian families practice what they call "family worship" or "family devotions". That's a lot of Christian families who don't. I know from personal and anecdotal experience that starting such a habit is awkward, and it might even be uncomfortable in families with strained relationships. But starting is better than not starting.

When Your Family Situation Changes

In Genesis 35, we learn about some significant changes in Jacob's family. On the one hand, we have the major thing of moving to a totally different home. That would be big enough! But we also learn that Deborah, who was Rebekah's nurse and had apparently gone with Jacob to Haran and been with him all these years, died. And then, Rachel, the love of Jacob's life, died while giving birth to Jacob's last son (Benjamin).

If you've been through any of those kinds of changes, what effects did they have on your habits (spiritual or not)? Many habits are related to people or places, and when those change, the entire habit changes with it.

I just bring this up to help us develop some empathy for Jacob's situation as the head of his family.


Where We Are in Genesis

I didn't make a post last week, so I haven't commented yet on some important developments in Jacob's story. God told Jacob to return to Canaan. Of course, this involves leaving behind a group of people who may want to kill him and moving toward a group of people who may want to kill him. Not a great look. He decides his best move is to try to run from Laban (with a bunch of women and children and slow-moving animals). That didn't go well. Laban catches them quickly and has a tense exchange with Jacob. Laban proves to be the bigger man and allows them to leave. But -- he's mad that somebody has stolen his household gods. It turns out that Rachel was the thief, and she lied to everybody about it. Not a great start to the homeward journey.

As they get closer, they hear that Esau is coming to "meet" them with a veritable army. Jacob decides his best approach is to appease Esau with gifts and subservience (thinking that his groups of slow-moving herds and children can escape Esau's army if they get attacked). In the process, we have this strange event with Jacob wrestling an angel in order to receive a blessing. The key to understanding it is that God renames "Jacob" as "Israel" which means "struggles with God". It's an apt (but not necessarily complimentary) name that will define Jacob's family for generations. Jacob has struggled his entire life, and God works to channel that struggle toward better ends. As we will read in this week's passage, Jacob takes this to heart and tries to make the changes in his life that he realizes God wants him to make.

But before we get to this week's passage, two very important things happen:

(1) Jacob meets Esau, who does not want to kill him after all. But Jacob is still untrusting and lies in order to get away from Esau. Esau proves to be the bigger man and allows Jacob to leave unmolested.

(2) Jacob's new neighbors (specifically a man named Shechem) took Jacob's daughter Dinah by force, which Jacob tried to negotiate a solution for. His sons are furious and lie their way into murdering Shechem's entire tribe. It's a terrible and disturbing event in which everybody manages to look awful.

In other words, on his homeward journey to God, Jacob has managed to lie, deceive, cower, and fail to show any kind of spiritual leadership to his family. In fact, at the end of chapter 34, we read that Jacob's sons actually get the last word on the murder of Shechem's tribe, not Jacob. It's a clear failure of leadership.

Not a great start.

And I think that's part of a lesson we can take from this. I have a lot of acquaintances who have tried to start a new habit or spiritual discipline, and the start hasn't gone well. In fact, they might fail so spectacularly that they completely give up! Look, I don't want to claim to know anybody's struggles, but I can't imagine that they are any worse than this stretch in Jacob's life! But as we learn in this week's passage, God still calls to him, still offers His promises to him, and still gives him hope and purpose.

If God can do this for Jacob, God will do this for any and all of us!


Part 1: A Time to Go (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.” 2 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. 3 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.” 4 Then they gave Jacob all their foreign gods and their earrings, and Jacob hid them under the oak near Shechem.

The Christian Standard Bible (CSB, which I use in these posts) translates verse 1 better than others -- there are a pair of imperatives in the Hebrew which give God's words a sense of urgency. "Get Up! Go!" It really seems like God is protecting Jacob from his continued failures. "It's time to leave, Jacob; you've already demonstrated that this isn't a good place for your family."

God possibly picked Bethel because Jacob already associated that location with God and had already promised to build this altar (28:20). To me, this reads like God helping Jacob by giving him a clear, simple task that can kick-start Jacob's journey toward spiritual maturity.

Jacob, seemingly with a sense of relief, latches on to this command, and he takes his family with him. What are the commands he gives his family?

  • Get rid of your idols.

  • Purify yourselves.

  • Change your clothes.

  • Come with me to Bethel.

(Technically, that last one is worded as a request, not a command.)

Why these specific commands? (Seriously -- this is a great question for thought and discussion.)

Remember that they don't have the book of Leviticus yet (or anything like it), so what do you think the word "purify" might have meant to them? Also, why do you think "changing clothes" would have been important?

I do like how Jacob chose to describe God -- "who answered me in my day of distress". That is a personal testimony. And as we have said time and time again, nobody can in good faith argue with your personal testimony! And guess what? Jacob's family is clearly in a day of distress, are they not? Jacob finally realizes that he has personal experience with a solution to their family troubles, and he offers that to everyone.

(Of course, if I were a family member, one of my first questions would be something like, "Why are we just now hearing about this?")

And here's the key outcome -- they go along with it. They get rid of their idols. This would include the idols Rachel stole from Laban and the idols Jacob's sons almost certainly stole from the men they killed in Shechem. Good on them for recognizing how stained those things were. (Side question: do you have anything of the like that you need to get rid of?)

Aside on earrings. This passage has long been associated with the idea that Jews or Christians should not wear earrings. But, the numbers suggest that a lot of Christians do wear earrings. So what gives? I have most often heard this verse explained to mean that the earrings were stolen from the people they killed, or the earrings were associated with idolatry, and that's why they shouldn't be worn.

But this week I read in a commentary that the Hebrew syntax is as likely to mean that the idols wore the earrings. In other words, they got rid of the "foreign gods and the earrings that were attached to the foreign gods". (And then I read the Lifeway material and saw that they made a similar comment, so this isn't as unique an observation as I originally thought.)

In other words, this passage might have absolutely nothing to do with people wearing earrings.

That said, I can imagine that many of our groups will read this and ask some sort of question about whether Christians should wear earrings. First, make it clear that the behavior of Jacob's family doesn't necessarily mean any kind of command for Christians today. But second, ask your group what they think the Bible says about things like earrings. (Personal feelings are fine and dandy, but you want to focus on biblical truths. The New Testament has some valuable guidance on this topic.)

The point of this section is that everybody in Jacob's family responded to this urgent command from God. That's a start. You have to start somewhere!


Part 2: A Time to Build (Genesis 35:5-8)

5 When they set out, a terror from God came over the cities around them, and they did not pursue Jacob’s sons. 6 So Jacob and all who were with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 7 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. 8 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.

Verse 5 makes it clear that Jacob's family was indeed in danger based on what they had done to the tribe of Shechem. Jacob was right to warn them that they had painted a target on his family (34:30). But, God got them out of there safely and without further incident.

And they go back to Bethel, a central location in The Promised Land. They had been north of it in the place called Shechem (remember -- there is debate about the exact location of some of these places). Cities in that day would be something we probably think of as a small settlement with a wall.

The exact wording of verse 5 is that "the fear of God" came upon the cities. This could mean (1) the cities were afraid of God; (2) God put a fear in them so as not to attack Jacob; (3) this is a saying which means "extreme terror".

At Bethel, Jacob finally builds his altar. He names the altar "El-Bethel" which means "God of Bethel" ("God of the house of God"). It would have been a simple mound of dirt and stone.

We are given the impression that while they were here, Rebekah's former nurse Deborah died. She had not been mentioned by name before, but we must assume that Rebekah sent Deborah with Jacob when Jacob fled to Haran. In other words, Deborah has been watching over Jacob this entire time, perhaps even as a kind of surrogate mother. I hope she took comfort in finally seeing this side of Jacob!

This must have been a dramatic moment in Jacob's life, which is why it gets its own verse in the Bible. (Aside: this would suggest that Deborah was well more than 150 when she died.) He buries Deborah under an oak and names that oak "Allon-bacuth" ("oak of weeping"), showing his love for this unsung hero.

You might remember this picture from 1912 in the "Oaks of Mamre" lesson. The people of the region thought it might be old enough to have been the oak Abraham sat under. Some of the landmarks in the region probably do date back before Jesus' day at the very least.

(And yes, if you want to go into a side discussion about unsung heroes such as the people who help take care of kids, I wholeheartedly endorse that!)

I also think this is mentioned to indicate a "turning of the page" in Jacob's life. The person who represented Jacob's entire life to that point has died; Jacob is formally entering into a covenant that will define the rest of his life.

In the deacons' meeting last night, Andrew brought a devotional thought based on Ecclesiastes 3:

3 There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; 3 a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build; 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing; 6 a time to search and a time to count as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak; 8 a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

Jacob has experienced this, and perhaps he finally appreciates it. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, Jacob has been running his entire life -- running from the "times" he didn't want to experience. But you can't run from them forever.

"Turning the page" on a season or time in your life is emotional and can be very hard. I hope this gives us a little sympathy for what Jacob wanted to do and the obstacles he faced (many self-built).

The idea of this altar is a kind of permanent reminder for Jacob and his family. When they saw it, they would think of Jacob's experiences with God. And that leads us to...


Part 3: A Time to Remember (Genesis 35:9-15)

9 God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. 10 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. 11 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. 12 I will give to you the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac. And I will give the land to your future descendants.” 13 Then God withdrew from him at the place where he had spoken to him. 14 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 poured oil on it. 15 Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

This passage is a bit of a recap. We read last week about how God changed Jacob's name to Israel and what that meant. A few weeks before that, we read about Jacob's first encounter with God at Bethel --

Consider what God said in that passage:

28:13 I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your offspring the land on which you are lying. 14 Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south. All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

And consider how Jacob responded in that passage:

28:18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that was near his head and set it up as a marker. He poured oil on top of it 19 and named the place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz.

Why the repetition?

Well, let's go back a little further:

17:4 As for me, here is my covenant with you: You will become the father of many nations. 5 Your name will no longer be Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant that is between me and you and your future offspring throughout their generations. It is a permanent covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. 8 And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as a permanent possession, and I will be their God.

See even more similarities? Why the repetition?

Hint: it's not because the "guy who made up the Bible was lazy" as some skeptics accuse. God is establishing a pattern of interaction; He is demonstrating His consistency both of promise and expectation. That will be quite critical when this becomes a covenant with the entire Jewish nation (in a few hundred years).

By the way, you can read more about the covenant with Abraham at

And you can always rewatch the Bible Project video on the topic:

Ask your group how well they can explain God's covenant with the patriarchs and why it is still important to Christians today.

Finally, I want to expand on a discussion topic in the Lifeway material -- just as Jacob had a name change, Christians have a "name change" (to "Christian") when we trust in Jesus for salvation. What should that "name change" mean to us today?


Closing Thoughts: More Goofy AI Stuff

Just when I thought the rush was over, our website provider just added an "AI Image Generator" app to our website builder. And I couldn't help it. I had to ask it to paint "Jacob wrestling the angel":

That's ... weird. Just very weird. But eye-catching!

Oh, and if you want to be disturbed, count the legs.


bottom of page