Genesis 35: Jacob gets a new name; more genealogy
At the beginning of this chapter, God comes to Jacob and commands him to move to a place called Bethel, and build an altar to God there. Interestingly, his first action, on hearing this, is to have everyone in his household get rid of the foreign gods they have with them. They do—he buries them all under a tree—and then the family moves to Bethel. (Jacob actually renames “Bethel” to “El Bethel” which is interesting; “Bethel” means “house of God”, while “El Bethel” means “God of Bethel”. In effect, if I’m reading my footnotes right, Jacob has renamed the city to “God of the house of God”.)
In this chapter, God also gives Jacob a new name. He is no longer named Jacob (“he grasps the heel”, or, figuratively, “he deceives”), he is now named Israel, which means “he struggles with God”. Jacob was first given this name in Genesis 32, but it sounds like God is making it “official”, in this chapter.
Finally, God blesses Israel:
And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.” Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him. (verses 11–13)
A term you might have heard before: in the above quote, when it says “I am God Almighty”, the Hebrew for “God Almighty” is El-Shaddai. So if you come across the term El-Shaddai, that’s what it means; “God Almighty”.
After Israel has received his new name, Rachel begins to give birth, to another child. Unfortunately, Rachel dies in childbirth. With her parting breath, she names her son Ben-Oni, which means “son of my trouble”. However, Israel names the child Benjamin, instead, which means “son of my right hand”. Interestingly, Rachel was buried in Bethlehem.
The last piece of action, that takes place in this chapter, is that Reuban sleeps with Israel’s concubine, Bilhah, and Israel hears about it.
After this, the chapter ends with some more genealogy, listing all of Israel’s sons. It then mentions Isaac’s death, at 180.
At the beginning of the chapter, when Jacob is commanded to build an altar to God, he first has to “clean house”, so to speak, and get rid of all of his foreign gods. This is a common theme throughout the Old Testament; the people of the Old Testament simply could not get rid of their foreign gods! God likens this to adultery; His people are cheating on Him, by going after foreign gods—gods who are not gods at all! There were a couple of reasons why this was such a temptation for His people:
- Worshipping God is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be even better to worship other gods, in addition? So, if you want a good harvest, you should ask God for a good harvest, but just to be safe, you should also worship the god of the harvest, and ask that god for a good harvest.
- In that day and age, each nation typically had its own god or gods, and they worshipped those gods in various ways. If God’s people also worshipped those gods, in addition to worshipping Him, they were able to fit in better with the peoples of the other nations.
- They just didn’t see the harm. “If I’m already worshipping God, what harm does it do to worship some other god, too?” You could sort of compare this to the modern-day act of reading the horoscopes; “if I’m worshipping God properly, what harm does it do to read the horoscope?” It’s not a perfect analogy, but still one worth thinking about, I think…
It’s very tempting to be judgemental of the Old Testament people, for refusing to give up their other gods; however, if we substitute the word “money” for the words “foreign gods”, we should be humbled to realize that we do the same thing. How often do 20th Century Christians rely on their money, rather than relying on God?
Verse 5 mentions that as Jacob and his family were travelling to Bethel, “the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.” Whatever Jacob—and his sons—might have done, the people of the land recognize that it’s actually God who is to be feared, which is what He wants. We’ll see it time and time again, in the Old Testament, especially when the nation of Israel is formed: God will win battles for the Israelites, but do it in such a way that it’s obvious that the people didn’t win the battle on their own; their god did it for them. However, this doesn’t mean that the various people groups are coming to believe in God; it was a very common belief, in those days, that a nation’s “god” fought on its behalf. To them, God was simply Jacob’s family’s god, even if they did recognize that He was a very powerful god.
It seems a bit cold, to me, that Israel ignores Rachel’s dying wish, and renames her son.
With regards to Reuban sleeping with his father’s concubine: In that day and age, this was actually of more significance than just adultery; at least in the case of kings, when a prince slept with his father’s concubine, it usually meant that the song was going after the kingship. Israel wasn’t a king, but this might have meant that Reuban was looking to become the new patriarch of the family, or something along those lines.