Commentary on Genesis 35

Last updated: October 26, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.

5And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. 8And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.

9God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. 11And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

16Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

22While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. 26The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

27And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Notes

1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

This verse recalls earlier episodes in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 27-28). Jacob is the first patriarch to be commanded by God to build an altar.

2-3 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”

“Jacob vowed at Bethel that if he returned from his exile safe and sound, ‘the LORD shall be my God.’ Hence, before embarking on the pilgrimage to that city, he makes formal renunciation of ‘alien gods.’ For the first time in the Bible, there now appears a recognition of tension between the religion of Israel and that of its neighbors.”1 Jacob’s family purifies themselves both inwardly and outwardly.

4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.

The family members respond as requested, putting away their foreign gods and also their earrings. The significance of this last point is elusive. On two later occasions, earrings were used to make objects of idolatrous worship, the golden calf and an ephod (Exod 32:2-4; Judg 8:24-27). It could be that burying the earrings along with the foreign gods expressed their complete determination to dispose of the idols and also any material that could be used to replace them. A comparison with Num 31:48-54 suggests a quite different possibility. After the battle with the Midianites, the Israelites had to purify themselves (Num 31:19-20). Part of their purification process included donating to the sanctuary booty consisting of “articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD” (Num 31:50). This suggests that the rings removed by Jacob’s sons may well have been part of the booty captured by them from the Shechemites; indeed it is possible that the outer garments and the foreign gods (gold-plated idols?) were part of the spoil (cf. Num 31:20; Josh 7:21; Deut 7:25).2

5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.

Recall that, after the massacre at Shechem, Jacob feared he would be attacked by his neighbors (34:30).

6-7 And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother.

Based on the fact that Jacob is blessed in verse 9, we are probably to assume that Jacob fulfilled the vow he made in 28:20-22. Presumably Jacob’s altar would be used for sacrifices that constitute the tithe of possessions that he promised to give to God. The “House of El” (Bethel) now becomes “El of the House of El” (El-Bethel).

8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.

It is strange that the death of Rebekah’s nurse is mentioned while the death of Rebekah herself is not mentioned. Perhaps we are to understand that Rebekah died while Jacob was in Paddan-aram. If so, she never saw her favorite son again (27:45). We are also left to wonder how Rebekah’s nurse came to be in Jacob’s company. Allon-bacuth means “oak of weeping.” “With the purging of idolatry and the arrival at Bethel, the contacts with Mesopotamia, maintained by each of the patriarchs, are finally and decisively severed.”3

9 God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him.

The word “again” alludes to the theophany during Jacob’s first visit to Bethel (28:10-22). The mention of Paddan-aram emphasizes the successful return to the promised land.

10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel.

Jacob’s name change is reaffirmed. That no explanation of the name Israel is given here means the narrator assumes the reader is familiar with 32:29[28] and that this is not an independent account of Jacob’s name change. “Jacob is reminded that he returns to Canaan not as Jacob but as Israel. He is not only to bury the foreign gods, but he is to bury what has become for all practical purposes a foreign nature – a Jacob nature. He who earlier instructed the people to change their garments must live up to his own change of name.”4 “The significance of the new name emerges from the succeeding blessing, which is national in scope and consists of the promise of fertility, nationhood, kingship, and territory. Jacob, by becoming also Israel, is the true heir to the Abrahamic promises, the one through whom the nation of Israel is to come into being.”5

11-12 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”

The promises here echo previous promises to the patriarchs (17:1-8; 25:23; 28:3-4, 13-15).

14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.

This act of worship also fulfills Jacob’s vow.

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor.

The location of Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s tomb are important to the narrative (vv. 16b, 19). The site provided a reference point for future generations (“to this day,” v. 20), indicating that the last son born to the patriarch occurred in the land. Even Rachel’s burial in the land demonstrated that God’s word had been truthful. Although Rachel had lived outside Canaan, her final place was permanently in the land of promise as the matriarch of Israel’s tribes, Joseph and Benjamin. “Still some distance from Ephrath” gives a vague description of the locality. The identification of Ephrath(ah) with the town of Bethlehem in Judah (v. 19; 48:7) places the tomb south of Jerusalem and north of Bethlehem (see also Ruth 4:11; 1 Chr 4:4; Mic 5:2[1]; cf. Ruth 1:2; 1 Sam 17:12; Matt 2:18). How far the tomb was from Bethel toward Bethlehem in relation to the trek by Jacob must be derived from elsewhere. The traditional site today is one mile north of Bethlehem, but we will see that this is unlikely the correct burial site. Another clue to its location is 1 Sam 10:2, placing it “at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin”; but this implies that the tomb was north of Jerusalem in Benjamin’s territory. One explanation is that “Bethlehem” is an incorrect gloss (v. 19); the Samuel passage reflects the accurate location in Benjamin, which accords with Jer 31:15 that links Rachel’s weeping with Ramah (= er-Ram [?], fives miles north of Jerusalem, Josh 18:25). Some scholars find further confirmation that the location is north of Jerusalem in Ps 132:6 that parallels “Ephrathah” and “Jaar”; this latter site is probably the town Kiriath-jearim (cf. 1 Chr 2:50), which is eight miles northwest of Jerusalem on the border of Benjamin and Judah (Josh 18:15). But Sarna explains that 1 Chr 2:50-51 shows that the two towns Bethlehem and Kiriath-jearim were connected with the common ancestor Ephrath, suggesting that the original Judahite clan Ephrath extended its influence to both locations. Since Zilzah is thought necessary by the author of 1 Sam 10:2 to locate the tomb’s vicinity, we may agree with B.K. Waltke’s suggestion that “near Rachel’s tomb” was not intended to be a precise designation. This unspecific description permits the location to be on the Benjamin-Judah border, just south of Jerusalem. Moreover, the connection scholars make between Rachel’s tomb and Ramah is taken for granted, but Jeremiah does not make this connection (31:15). Ramah is along the route taken by the exiles of Benjamin and Judah, whose deportation by the Babylonians evokes the wailing of Rachel’s children (Gen. Rab. 82.10).6

17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.”

In her dying moments Rachel sees the fulfillment of her earlier prayer for another son (30:24).

18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.

Death in childbirth was, till recently, tragically common, so doubtless Rachel’s death did not have quite the same pathos for the ancient reader as it does for us. Yet it was undoubtedly tragic, for it was Rachel who had cried in desperation to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (30:1). It was ultimately the gift of children that killed her. And her choice of name, Ben-Oni, “son of sorrow” (cf. Ichabod in 1 Sam 4:21-22), reflects this. “Sorrow” is used of mourning for the dead in Deut 26:14; Hos 9:4. But for Jacob, the child was the son of his favorite wife, so he “called him Benjamin,” son of the right, the right-hand side being the favored lucky side (e.g., Deut 27:12-13; Matt 25:33).7

21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

The “tower of Eder” literally means “tower of the flock.” It was somewhere between Bethlehem and Hebron.

22a While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it.

It seems likely that Reuben’s motives were more than sensual. By his act, he hoped to prevent Rachel’s maid succeeding Rachel as his father’s favorite wife. Reuben resented that Jacob did not honor his mother Leah. Also, it was a claim to authority over his father (cf. Abner lying with Saul’s concubine, 2 Sam 3:7-8); as firstborn he was asserting a claim to his father’s estate. But these motives do not mitigate Scripture’s condemnation. This kind of incest is categorically condemned in Lev 18:8, and according to Lev 20:11, it warrants the death penalty and God’s curse, according to Deut 27:20. Within Genesis, it evokes the sins of Ham (9:22-27) and Lot’s daughters (19:33-38), and outside Genesis it foreshadows the ultimate act of hubris in Absalom’s rebellion, when he went into his father’s concubines (2 Sam 16:21-22). This act was a turning point in the rebellion; thereafter everything started to go wrong for Absalom. Similarly, the legal texts show that such an act, which is an offense against both filial piety and sexual propriety, cannot go unpunished. Yet here, as in chap. 34, Jacob is strangely silent. He just “heard about it” (cf. 34:5).

What does he think? By failing to report any reaction on Jacob’s part, the narrator has left a gap that no one can miss. Is Jacob as indifferent to Bilhah’s abuse as he was to Dinah’s, despite her being his dearest Rachel’s maid? Or does he care but is now incapable of exerting authority over his oldest son? These great questions are posed just before the Joseph story begins, and they are doubtless intended to color our reading of chaps. 37-50. This episode suggests that there is tension not only between Jacob and his sons descended from Leah but also between the sons of Bilhah and Rachel on the one hand and the sons of Leah on the other. Furthermore, though Reuben appears throughout the Joseph story in quite a humane light, trying to rescue Joseph and so on, this episode shows the dark side of his character. But not until 49:2-3 does Jacob show his deep anger at Reuben’s behavior, when the firstborn’s blessing turns into a curse.8

22b-26 Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

The sons of Jacob are mentioned here, arranged by mother, to prepare the way for the Joseph story with its sibling rivalries. Yet they also show that the promise of a multitude of descendants is being fulfilled (28:14; 32:12). As verses 16-19 make clear, Benjamin was not born in Paddan-aram.

27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.

Isaac has apparently moved from Beersheba (28:10) to Hebron. Jacob has successfully returned to his father’s house (28:15, 21).

28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years.

Chronologically, Isaac lived twelve years beyond the sale of Joseph.

29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Jacob and Esau, like Isaac and Ishmael before them (25:9), come together to bury their father. Isaac is buried in the ancestral grave at Machpelah, with his wife Rebekah (49:29-32).

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 239.

2Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 324.

3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 241.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 381.

5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 242.

6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 624-625.

7Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 326-327.

8Ibid., 327-328.

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