In an earlier session, we examined a story from the life of Jacob when he fled from his brother Esau. He stayed over-night in a barren spot where he dreamed of a ladder that went from earth to heaven. We studied that dream because it pictures for us the Lord Jesus who himself spoke of that occasion from the life of Jacob.
After Jacob fled from his brother, he went to live with his mother’s people who lived in a place called Haran, located in modern day Iraq. During the several years of his time there, he accumulated two wives and numerous slaves as well as many flocks and herds. Jacob became an extremely successful man.
During that time, God spoke to him. You can read about it in Genesis chapter 31 verses 11 to 13. God said, “Jacob, I want you to go back. I am the God who spoke to you at Bethel. Remember how I spoke to you? I am that God. I want you to go back home.”
It isn’t easy to go back home anymore, is it? Things change. We change. Old friends change. But, God called Jacob to go back home to the land of his fathers.
In obedience to God Jacob gathered his family and all of his possessions and headed back to Canaan. His return marked a dramatic time in his life, with numerous noteworthy events. Most significantly he wrestled with God. On that occasion, God changed his name.
At this time, too, Jacob’s sons shamed him by committing heinous crimes. Then, God spoke to Jacob again. This marks the third time that God spoke directly to Jacob. We find it recorded in Genesis 35, verses one to 15:
“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.’
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.’
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. 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.
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. And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth. God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blesssed him.
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. 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.’
Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 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. So, Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.”
God called to Jacob saying, “I want you to go Bethel. Remember Bethel? That is the place where I spoke to you. That is the place where you had that dream, I appeared to you, and I gave you both promises and a blessing. I promised I would not leave you. I said would go with you wherever you went and I would bring you again back to his land. Go to Bethel.” God instructed him to build an altar and worship him in Bethel.
Jacob gathered his clan about him and said, “We are going to Bethel. Give me your idols.”
Jacob knew about the idols. His family carried them around for years. Did Jacob know that his favorite wife Rachel had, in fact, stolen them from her father? Did he know that his sons not only slaughtered all of the men in Secham, but took possession of all that they owned, including their household god's? Obviously, he knew of the existence of these idols, but he did not act on that knowledge and banish them.
When God spoke to him and said, “I want you to go back to Bethel and worship me there. I am the God who spoke to you there,” Jacob remembered. His conscience smote him and he thought, “I better get rid of those idols.
So he gathered all of the idols as well as the gold earrings, souvenirs of their harsh experiences in Egypt. It was common in that day that people gold earrings in honor of gods of various kinds. Jacob said, “Give them all to me. I will destroy them.”
Because of who God is, we need to get rid of everything that comes between us and him. Whatever it is, we need to get rid of it. You notice he said, “Clean yourself. Get dressed for meeting God. God is worthy of it.” God is worthy of our purity and of our obedience.
So, just as he said, he gathered all of the gods together, the idols, the rings, and the earrings. He buried them; destroyed them. Then the family progressed on to Bethel.
We read that when he got to Bethel he built an altar. Bethel was famous for its altars. We know that when Abraham first came into the Promised Land, he built an altar at Bethel. Bethel was a place where God met his people, where he had revealed himself to Abraham. He had revealed himself to Jacob on a previous occasion. Now he was about to reveal himself again to Jacob.
As Jacob gathered the idols and the earrings from his clan, we see a picture of the true condition of mankind. It is almost as if when we, like Jacob’s family, can’t see the God we love we love the God that is near. We carelessly feel that it is “O.K.” with God; that he understands.
No, God doesn’t understand. God is a very exclusive God. He taught that to Jacob on his first visit to Bethel. God said to Jacob, “When you go there, I will go with you.” It was starkly contrary to all of the beliefs of that day. In that day, people believed that each god ruled only a given designated territory or a certain kind of activity of life, like farming, crops, or fertility. They worshipped thousands of god's.
We demonstrate like philosophy today. Our society is pleased to be a pluralistic society. Mankind has always been pluralistic. He has always wanted other gods than God, starting in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. It seemed that God was not enough.
Now God brings Jacob back to Bethel, and, in bringing him back to Bethel, he reminds Jacob of who he is. He is a God who is sovereign over all things. He is a faithful God. He kept his promises to Jacob. “I will be with you while you are there.”
When Jacob took his family and left Laban, he said, “I was there and Laban tried to cheat me hundreds of times and God protected me.” He knew God’s presence and intervention in his life even in that distant land. God proved faithful to him. He was sovereign. God was gracious to Jacob.
Jacob had fled to Haran. He was there because of his lies and his deceits to his father, and mistreatment of his brother, stealing his birthright from him. He had fled for his life.
Oh, God is a God of grace and a God of mercy. He cared for Jacob. Even though he had sinned grievously against God, God was with him, drawing him back, speaking to him, correcting him, reminding him of who he was. “I am that God who met you at Bethel the first time, remember? And it says that Jacob remembered.
“We are going to go back to Bethel and we are going to build an altar there. We are going to worship the God who met me there and who was with me wherever I went.”
What a vivid description of humanity, of mankind as well as a description of God by contrast.