How Disappointing! Genesis 35:6-29


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Genesis 35:6-29

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What makes the last half of our chapter 35remember the chapter divisions were introduced into the Bible a thousand years after the Lord Jesus Christ particularly important is that it is the final paragraph of this section of Genesis, the toledot or family history of Isaac; that is, it concludes the personal history of Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s sons, and especially Jacob. If you’re counting, we are completing this morning the eighth chapter or book of Genesis. Remember these toledots are the original divisions of Genesis as Moses wrote it. Verse 1 of our chapter 36 begins “These are the generations of Esau…” indicating the beginning of a new chapter of Genesis. We begin our reading at v. 6, though we read vv. 6-15 last time. To read these verses again is necessary for our purposes this morning.

Text Comment

v.17     Rachel, remember, had prayed for another son, as we learned in 30:24. The midwife comforted her with the knowledge that her prayer had been answered.

v.18     “Ben-Oni” means “son of my trouble” but “Benjamin” means “son of my right hand.” The right was the favored side – the Lord puts his sheep on his right hand, the goats on his left, in Matthew 25, for example. The Lord Christ sits at the right hand of the Majesty in Heaven. And so on. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife; Benjamin was her son; and so the name. Benjamin was the only one of Jacob’s twelve sons to have been born in the Promised Land.

v.20     We know that in the time of Samuel Rachel’s tomb was still a famous landmark.

v.22     The Bible never glosses over sin. It is as candid about the squalor of human behavior as any Hollywood producer who hopes to make money off that squalor by selling its titillating effect. But the Bible never panders to prurient desire by going into detail. You get the crime, but no salacious detail. You get the lesson but are not harmed by it; but helped by it. That is the approach Hollywood should follow.

Jacob is strangely silent once again; as he had been in the case of Dinah. But we learn later, in 49:3-4, what Reuben’s act meant to him and what consequences he attached to it. He will offer as his parting shot to his firstborn Reuben, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor….you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed…and defiled it.”

v.26     The statement is a generalization. The reader knows that Benjamin was not born in Paddan Aram.

v.29     The reconciliation of the two brothers is reaffirmed in this joint act of filial piety. Isaac’s death is mentioned here because it gives the narrator the opportunity to reintroduce Esau, providing a natural connection to the next chapter. [Sarna, 246]

I can often wish that the Bible were not so candid, not so realistic in its description of human life and especially Christian life in this world. But, when I wish that, I am always reminded how necessary, even how consoling hard truth always proves to be. The paragraph that completes Jacob’s life story ends it with a sigh or a thud rather than a bang. To be sure, we are not finished with Jacob, we will hear more about him, but from this point only as an accessory to the personal history of his sons, especially Joseph and Judah.

We read in that immortal text that brings to an end the triumphant 40th chapter of Isaiah: “…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” [40:31] Well Jacob did not soar to the end; nor did he run. At most he walked back, and even then his was more a stroll than a deliberate pace. And, because we know by the Bible’s own testimony and from this very history that Jacob was a man of true faith, the fact that his life ended with a thud is a lesson for every serious, thoughtful believer. We don’t talk about this very much, it’s too depressing, but in Holy Scripture and in Christian history it is an important fact of life.

Indeed, what is so striking and impressive about the discouraging and demoralizing aspects of this final scene of Jacob’s personal history, is that they follow so close upon Jacob’s obedience in recovering himself and his family from the sins of chapter 34, the Lord’s reward of Jacob’s obedience by causing a great fear of him to fall upon the peoples of that area, and the Lord’s response to Jacob’s worship at Bethel – reaffirming in the most impressive way the promises of the covenant God had made with him. Indeed, even this final depressing paragraph ends with the reminder of Jacob’s reconciliation with his brother Esau, another gift the Lord had given to his servant. All the elements of personal triumph, God’s blessing, and Jacob’s own faithfulness are here. Jacob’s honored place in the history of salvation remains intact. But there is also much which leaves us shaking our heads; that tarnishes the witness of his life. It comes in three scenes especially.

The first of these scenes is the death of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah. Remember Rebekah was Jacob’s mother. We’ve heard nothing of her for some time. She’s not been part of the story now for upwards of thirty years.  What is noteworthy about v. 8 of chapter 35 is the way it draws attention to what is not there. The only other mention of Rebekah’s nurse is found in 24:59. There we learned that many years before, when Rebekah left Paddan Aram to return with Abraham’s servant to Canaan to marry Isaac, her nurse accompanied her. That is all. Her name is not even mentioned. She is never again mentioned in the history until this notice of her death, where we learn that her name had been Deborah. We know nothing otherwise about this woman; nothing important is said to have been done by her.

Now what makes this notice so striking is that Rebekah’s own death is never mentioned. Her nurse’s death is mentioned, but nothing is said anywhere of the death or burial of the matriarch, the far more important woman. Having been living these past months in these chapters of Genesis, seeing week after week the narrator’s art on display, seeing how so much is conveyed with so little, it is impossible to believe that the narrator is not sending us a message in this short note concerning the death of Rebekah’s nurse.

Rebekah is being “gapped” as the scholars say. Attention is drawn to Rebekah in this mention of her nurse’s death, a woman otherwise unnamed and unnoticed in the history, attention is drawn to Rebekah but precisely in such a way as to emphasize that she is being ignored. The notice of her nurse’s death immediately sets us to wondering what we have heard of Rebekah herself, and the answer is, of course, we have heard nothing; not a word since her conspiracy with her favorite twin son, Jacob, to steal the blessing from Esau by deceiving her husband Isaac. We don’t know when Rebekah died or where she died. We learn, in an incidental reference to her in 49:31, that she was buried in the same tomb where Abraham and Sarah and her husband Jacob were buried, but we are not told when. There is no mention of anyone mourning for her, as Abraham mourned for Sarah, or of anyone performing acts of loving piety on her behalf, as Jacob here did for Rachel. Even when we learn here that Isaac was still living, Rebekah is not so much as mentioned.

In other words, here, at the end of Jacob’s journey, we are forced to remember once more his and his mother’s deceit and we are left to worry about what God thought about Rebekah’s participation in that evil deed many years before. God had not forgotten what was done. We have not escaped, even after all of these years, the reach of the wicked things that were done long before. Jacob has not entirely escaped his past!

The second scene is that of Rachel’s death. Alas she shows little faith at the point of death where you hope most to see it. You remember (30:1) that Rachel had once cried out to Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” She had not turned to the Lord, she had turned in anger to her husband and her solution to the problem was not prayer and humble submission to the will of God, but the way of the world around her: a surrogate pregnancy, with Bilhah, her maidservant doing the honors. After God later gave her a son of her own, Joseph, she had said, “May the Lord add to me another son,” but when she conceived again and when the child was to be born, dying as she was, she wanted to call him “the Son of my troubles.” She was thinking of herself to the end.

Rachel was no Hannah. She was no Mary. She never did anything that convincingly demonstrated her to be a woman of real faith. We wonder about her: from her bitter contest with Leah, her reliance on magic in the matter of the mandrakes, her stealing her father’s household gods and then lying about it afterward, to this final scene. And here, at her death, she still gave no glory to God. Jacob at least knew better and with the perspective of faith changed the name of his infant son. Jacob loved Rachel and since he was a believing man that gives us some hope for her; we want to believe that he wouldn’t have loved her so had she not shared his faith in God. But even at her death there is nothing that impresses us about his woman. Jacob’s marriage to his favorite wife also ends with a moan, a sigh. It is an important moment, of course, because Benjamin makes 12 and so the nation of Israel is now present in its original form, but we would have hoped for more from Rachel.

The third scene is the most depressing of all: Reuben’s effort to supplant his father in the leadership of the family. It is clear that Reuben’s act of sleeping with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and, for a time, Jacob’s concubine, was not primarily lustful. Reuben wanted to ensure that he, Jacob’s eldest son, would assume the leadership of the family upon the death of Rachel. He knew that his father preferred Rachel to Leah, Reuben’s mother. Now that Rachel was dead he did not want Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s sometime concubine, to succeed Rachel as his father’s favorite wife; so his act was calculated to remove Bilhah from the picture. But his act also virtually amounted to an effort to replace his own father in the leadership of the family while Jacob was still living. It was what we would nowadays call a “power play.” Reuben was making his bid for inheritance and authority now, while his father was still alive, just as Absalom would later do by sleeping with his father David’s concubines. Jacob wasn’t a king, but Reuben’s act still amounted to a coup d’etat! It was without question a deeply evil act: an outrage against filial piety, against sexual purity, and against the law of God. Later in the Law of Moses it would be an act only the death penalty could avenge. [Sarna, 244-245]

In Reuben’s case it was also an act of defiant hypocrisy. You remember that Reuben was among the sons of Jacob who protested that the rape of Dinah by Shechem was “a disgrace in Israel.” Shechem and Hamor had disgraced Israel and revenge must be sought. But, here, Jacob’s eldest son did a still more disgraceful thing against Israel, his own father, and the self-righteous Reuben is exposed as himself a disgrace. Whatever his motive in avenging Dinah, it wasn’t an interest in the honor of his father or the family’s good name, as he had claimed.

But do you see what all of this says about the profound dysfunction of Jacob’s family? How profoundly unfaithful to God’s gracious covenant this family still was! Jacob had fostered among his sons a bitter rivalry. By his favoritism for Rachel and Rachel’s children he had inculcated hatred and suspicion among his own children, reducing the sons of Leah and her servant Zilpah to second class citizens in their own home. This act of Reuben, for someone who knows how the history proceeds from this point, is an ominous portent of troubles, grave troubles to come. The sons were eaten up with jealousy, a jealousy created by Jacob’s ineffectual government of his home. Jacob had lost control of his family, and, even at this late date, even after Peniel, even after his return to Bethel, had clearly still failed to instill the character of faith and godliness into his sons.

What is more, as a further illustration of Jacob’s impotence and ineptitude as a father, he seems to have done nothing in response to Reuben’s direct assault on his parental authority, the sanctity of his home, and what must have been, for all intents and purposes, the rape of one of his wives by his own son! Jacob was a wimp. He seems simply incapable of effective action when it came to his own family. This is the Jacob who had wrestled the Lord himself to a standstill all through the night at Peniel!

Here was the patriarch, the heir of the covenant of grace, back in the Promised Land, and what happened? His eldest son committed an outrage against everything pure and right. And what is painfully obvious is that Jacob had no one to blame for this but himself. He was a man who had his moments of sterling faith – a faith such as that he showed at Peniel – a faith we rightly envy, but whose life was, at the same time, marked by miserable failure. C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend, “It is terrible to find how little progress one’s philosophy and charity have made when they are brought to the test of domestic life.” [Letters to Arthur Greeves, 362-363]

Lewis himself, if you remember, after his father’s death lived with deep regret over how he had treated his father. He had considered him unsophisticated, laughed at him behind his back, and allowed himself to be annoyed by the same eccentricities he found amusing, if not charming, in other older men. After his father’s death Lewis became ashamed about this. He realized that his father had lived a lonely life and that he was in some large part to blame for that. He father had reached out to his sons for companionship and they had spurned him. He wrote to a friend that no sin in his life was worse than his insensitive treatment of his father. [Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 143-144] Great men and great Christians remain great sinners. The Bible makes no bones about that! And Jacob, of all men, would have been the first to admit that he had more than enough reason to be thoroughly disgusted with himself as a child of God.

So, what have we here? We have Jacob having returned to the Promised Land much more a man of faith than he had been when he left it twenty years before. But the sins of his past were not forgotten – they still cast their shadow over his life and the life of his family –, the years of fatherly indifference and neglect had taken their toll – his sons were in no shape whatsoever to take over custody of God’s covenant from their father; at the end of the story Jacob presided utterly ineffectually over a home racked by jealousy, resentment, and suspicion. And this is the family that will bring the world its Savior, this is the family through which all the nations of the world will be blessed, this is the family that is to become a nation greater than any other, more numerous than the sands of the sea or the stars of the sky, and this the family that is the hope of the world! This family, this miserable excuse for a family.

All through this material in Genesis we have been taught the complexity of life, the mystery of human affairs, even in the world of divine grace. There is here in this material exactly what we find everywhere in the world and everywhere in the church of God, viz. a tragic sense of life. There is in the lives of even the truest saints that which is deeply disappointing. And it doesn’t end with the patriarchs. Think of Eli and Samuel and David and Solomon and Hezekiah and Manasseh and Peter and, even Paul. For what, after all, did Paul mean when he said of himself, as an apostle thirty years into his apostleship, that he was a “bond-slave of sin?” We aren’t given a record of Paul’s missteps, of the words and deeds he went to his death deeply, shamefully regretting, as we are given to see them in Jacob’s life. But Paul tells us that they were there in his life as surely as in the life of any other follower of Jesus Christ. And think of the church in Corinth and the church in Laodicea among many others. And then cast your eye over the long course of Christian history, and, when you have finished with all of that often discouraging recollection, think of the Christians you yourself know or know about, and then, at last, and most of all, think about yourself  and how much you wish were different. How differently you wish you had behaved in so many different situations.

A hero of mine is John Charles Ryle, the famous Bishop J.C. Ryle of the 19th century Anglican church, the man Spurgeon said was the English church’s best man. Ryle wrote a number of books and a large number of little pamphlets he called “papers” by which he brought to great numbers of English Christians biblical doctrine and its application to the heart and life in plain and graceful English. Many of his books are still in print today and deservedly so. The reprinting in 1952, at the insistence of the great London preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, of one of his books, Ryle’s masterpiece entitled Holiness, can be fairly said to be the event that sparked the renewal of interest in Reformed theology in English speaking Christianity after World War II.

Ryle was a man at odds with his time. He was an outspoken evangelical and defender of the Bible in a day of theological drift and widespread unbelief within the Anglican Church. He was a Calvinist when Calvinism was out of fashion and held in contempt even among the evangelicals in his own church. And he was a firm Protestant during the days of Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic reawakening in the English church. At special services in the great cathedrals of England, Westminster and Canterbury, when numerous bishops would be present and he among them, at that moment in the service, he would lean forward in his stall so that people could see that he, at least, was not turning to the East during the recital of the Creed. For his biblical fortitude his earnest interest in the salvation of souls, his faithful work as a pastor and later a bishop, for his helpful writings, most all of which were addressed to ordinary folk, he was much beloved of the earnest followers of the Lord Jesus Christ both inside and outside the Church of England. He was a man who did a very great deal of good!

But alas Bishop Ryle was also a man of his time and of his class. Though Ryle’s father was a Christian man, or would have said he was, he was also, as a prosperous merchant and landowner, very much a member of the English middle class. Some of his values, sad to say, were more the values of the English Middle Class than those of the kingdom of God. One of John Ryle Sr.’s other sons made the mistake of marrying a woman “of inferior rank” that’s what they called her, “of inferior rank” and he was ostracized from the family for his sin against their “class.” [Toon and Smout, John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop, 11] Ryle senior divided his family as Jacob had done.

And, sad to say, J.C. Ryle grew up not only a faithful Christian, but too much a faithful Englishman. Prosperous families in those days sent their sons to the established boarding schools of storied name: Eton, Harrow, and the like. Ryle sent his sons to Eton, to be educated in a school that had nothing but contempt for the doctrine and for the staunch evangelical faith of the Ryle family. His sons never recovered. The one dark shadow that lay across the life of this good and faithful man and churchman, and his greatest personal sadness, was that not one of his three sons continued to share his gospel convictions, his confidence in the authority of the Bible, or his plainspoken loyalty to the faith once delivered to the saints.

Indeed, his eldest and favorite son, Herbert, became a professor of divinity at Cambridge and later a bishop himself in the Church of England. Not to put too fine a point on it, Herbert, an advocate of liberal skepticism about the Bible, pretty much undid what his father had done. Do you recognize the terrible irony here? Many of you have read with profit J.C. Ryle’s paper entitled “The Duties of Parents.” We have distributed it for years. It is very good and very helpful as a simple statement of how children ought to be raised in a Christian home. It bears all the marks of Ryle’s spiritual writing: clarity, forcefulness, tenderness, and loyalty to the Bible. So we give folk a pamphlet on the raising of Christian children written by a man who himself failed to raise his sons to follow Christ. How much like Jacob. A man of sometimes great faith but whose life was marked by such notable failure. And we can multiply such stories by the hundreds, all of which, in one way or another illustrate the mystery and the deeply disappointing character of life in this world, even for the sons and daughters of the Kingdom of God, even for the church’s patriarchs. The world doesn’t think that Christians believe this; that we are only too well aware of our terrible shortcomings and spiritual failures. The world doesn’t know that our greatest sadness is our own continuing sin. But it is and always has been.

We began this “toledot” of Isaac, which is, again, the history of Isaac’s sons, not of Isaac himself, the history of Jacob and Esau, but, of course, primarily of Jacob. I say, we began this toledot of Isaac by observing Isaac’s failures. Like Rebekah, he was “gapped” because his life, though the life of a faithful man at bottom, was in too many respects a disgrace to the covenant and unworthy to record. And we drew from that the point that would be reinforced countless times in the chapters that followed, that the covenant of God and the promise of salvation and the hope of mankind depended absolutely not on the faithfulness of men, not even the faithfulness of those men with whom God made his covenant, those men upon whom God lavished the favor of fellowship with Himself. Salvation the hope of eternal life – not only the world’s, but yours and mine – depends wholly on God’s own faithfulness to his promise, to his Word, and to the relationship he himself established with his chosen people. The chapters that follow will ring the changes still more on that greatest of all truths. So we end this toledot as we began it, emphasizing the same great lesson of this history.

            Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm 115:1) Our liveslike Jacob’s life, like every Christian life are the living proof that “salvation is of the Lord” from the beginning to the end. [Jonah 2:9] It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast!