The Pilgrim Way Genesis 35:1-15


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Genesis 35:1-15

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We said last time that Jacob had dilly-dallied in returning to Bethel, the site of God’s first appearance to him, where he had made his vow of loyalty to God, and the place to which he had promised to return. So after the disaster at Shechem the Lord ordered him on his way.

Text Comments

v.2       “All who were with him” would have included the captives from Shechem, the women and children. His was already a large entourage and now made larger still.

v.3       Jacob was thinking clearly again and realized there were things he must turn away from – that’s repentance – and then make his way in obedience to Bethel. He also reminded himself and his family why Bethel was so important and why worshipping God there is something they must do. It was where God had promised to be his God.

v.4       These rings were not ordinary jewelry but pagan religious objects; instruments of their religious practice. The tree under which they were buried was a place of pagan worship. Burying the sacred rings there in a public and so dramatic way would serve to repudiate both the place and the principles of paganism. [Sarna, 240; cf. Waltke, 472-473]

v.5        In other words, they didn’t pursue them as they might otherwise have, given what they had done to the sons of Shechem.

v.8       Allon-bacuth means “Oak of Weeping.” v.8. We will return to this notice of Deborah’s death next Lord’s Day morning.

v.11     These, of course, were the promises God had first made to Abraham, had repeated to Isaac, and of which Jacob was now the heir. The distinction between “come from you” and “come from your own body” is significant. As Paul says in Romans 4:12, the patriarchs were the fathers of all who have faith in Christ, including the gentiles. The entire Christian world, in that sense, descends from Jacob. But, of course, he was also the direct physical ancestor of David and of Jesus Christ. They, as it were, came from his body.

v.13     This was a real theophany, an appearance of God to Jacob. It ended in the same way God’s appearance to Abraham had ended in 17:22.

As we have had cause to say many times in our review of the patriarchal history, the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the story of the life of these men is obviously intended to be understood as a pattern or paradigm of the life of all believers. It is wonderful confirmation of the divine authorship of the Bible that a book written over a millennium and a half by many different authors contains so obviously and beautifully the same message from beginning to end. As the Paul would write, these things were written as examples for us. Not only the same theology that we find in the New Testament do we find here in the book of Genesis, but the same spiritual life and the same instructions in that spiritual life. We are not only taught in the example of the patriarchs what believers ought to do and ought not to do, but what believers will do, what their lives will be like. How many times, for example, have we learned in this history that even a faithful life will be a mixture of good and evil, faith and unbelief! And, of course, we learn from their stories what sort of consequences will ensue because of that fact.

Here, in 35:1-15, Jacob serves as an example of what we ought to be and ought to do, just as he served as an example of what we ought not to be or do in the previous chapter. Here we find Jacob again a pilgrim on the move in obedience to God and thinking the sort of thoughts that a faithful man should think. More important still is where he goes and how he goes there. In this he is a model for every believer in Jesus Christ. What we have here is the pattern of repentance leading to a renewal of worship. And that is a most important way to think of the Christian life, yours and mine. This is what your life and mine ought to be: the practice of repentance leading again and again to the renewal of our worship of God. This is one of the principle motifs of the Bible’s description of the Christian life.

Again and again, you remember, the pilgrimage of the patriarchs was marked by worship. They would move to this place and then to that and in each place they would build an altar and worship God. Abraham did that, Isaac did that, and so did Jacob. No doubt they worshipped in their tents day by day, but these formal altar-building, sacrifice-making moments are principal turning points, or highlights, in the story of their lives. When we encounter something repeatedly in biblical narrative we are to pay attention; we are being taught something important! Often, as here, the Lord responded to their worship with particular blessings. You remember in Genesis 22, the account of the Lord sending Abraham to Mt. Moriah to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. That terrible test! And it was then and there, after God intervened to supply a ram in the place of Isaac, that God appeared to Abraham and confirmed the promise to make of him a great nation and to bless all the peoples of the earth through him. So, here. It was in response to Jacob’s worship at Bethel that God confirmed his promises to him. And so it will be throughout the Bible. It will be at worship, over and again, that God visits his people, blesses them, renews their faith, and repeats his promises to them. “Bethel” means, as you know, “the house of God.” And it is there, in God’s house – whether that “house” is Solomon’s temple, a converted home in 2nd century Dura Europa in what is today Syria, in a stone cathedral in 17th century Europe, in a wooden church in colonial New England, or in the 19th or 20th century under a tree in the African savannah, that God’s people have so regularly met the Lord and seen the Lord and heard the Lord’s voice reciting his promises to them.

No wonder then that in Holy Scripture it becomes the blessing of all blessings to be in the house of God, even to dwell in the house of God, that is, in the place of the worship of God. What does David say? “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord – in Bethel – all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” [Ps. 27:4] One of the most famous texts in all the Bible ends with this same thought: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord – in Bethel – forever.”  Our Savior placed a similar emphasis on this worship of God as the be all and end all of the Christian life when he told the woman at the well in John 4 that the Father is seeking those who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth. That is, the great goal and end of divine grace is to make rebels against God into worshippers of God.

And remember, we are not talking about worship as some price to pay, a box to check, a square to fill, as if the Almighty needed our worship or as if he were vain or depended on our praises in order to feel good about himself. Worship is simply admiration, appreciation, gratitude, and love. And love is the greatest blessing in life. God wants our love in largest part because he wants for us the pleasure and blessing of love and the greatest pleasure and the greatest blessing will of course come from love felt for and given to the worthiest possible object of our love, God himself. That thought is carried right through to the end of the Bible, where in Revelation we see the church finally gathered for worship in the Bethel, capital B, heaven itself. Heaven is such a happy place because so much pure worship happens there; love and gratitude fill every heart!

The Bible, perhaps more than you realize, is a book about worship – huge sections of the book are devoted to this subject about God’s house, and about men and women making their way to God’s house. You remember C. S. Lewis saying, “I was not made to be free; I was made to adore and obey.” Now, of course, every human being is a worshipper which is why the entire meaning of his life is determined not by whether or not he worships, but by what and who he or she worships. Human beings are more homo adorans than homo sapiens; worshipping man says more about him than thinking man. Man in sin, the Bible says, is a worshipper of the wrong things, primarily of himself; of the creation rather than the creator and so on. So, when any person becomes a Christian, he or she exchanges his or her former objects of worship for a far higher one; he or she enters Bethel, the house of God, and becomes a worshipper of God. And from that point every Christian life is a recurring round of worship; again and again Christians find themselves in the house of God. That worship sustains his faith, it animates her love for God and man. Acts of worship are the milestones of a Christian’s life until at last he or she is carried forever up into the eternal house of God, there to delight to worship God forever. So it is that Peter can say that Christians are living stones built together into a temple, in which they offer sacrifices of worship to God. Have you thought of your life in this way, as a worshipping life on its way to perfect and eternal worship? That is the way God teaches us to think about our lives.

Perhaps that disappoints you. Perhaps you think that worship isn’t so grand an activity. Perhaps in your experience you have found worship boring and struggle to believe it is actually all that important. Really? Think for a moment. The happiest moments of your life have been moments of worship, when you have been carried away with the beauty of something, have found your heart full of praise for someone or something. Consider the teen girl, tears streaming down her face, as she sees for the first time in flesh and blood the rock band she has adored from afar. Or the boy who holds in his hand the foul ball that came his way at the ballpark. All through the evening he stares at it, and touches it and looks at it, smiles over it. That is the power of worship over the human heart! Or call to mind the painted faces of the fans roaring their approval – giving their worship – to their favorite football team. Or think of the person who thinks non-stop about that promotion or earning more money. Or think of finding yourself at a standstill before an exquisite seascape or mountain sunset, or for the first time having stepped into a Gothic cathedral, your eyes drawn upward and finding that you can’t believe that there’s anything more beautiful in the world, or staring into that face more beautiful, more captivating than any you have ever seen before, a face that imprints its image forever on your mind. And think about how your heart warms and how tears well up when something very precious to you is lost or when a precious memory steals into your heart. You can hardly explain the power of such things, but they are all worship! That is the power, the beauty, and the glory of worship. That is why we are so inevitably and naturally worshippers; we’ve been made for it. And then think about who it is we worship as Christians and what we worship him for, and how our hearts will nearly burst when we open our eyes for the first time on the heavenly country and the eternal city. Consider the God who made the sea and the mountains, every beautiful face, and gave to men the wisdom and power to build something as beautiful as a Gothic cathedral. Now tell me that you cannot understand why anyone would say, as did the author of the 122nd Psalm: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Why are unbelievers, by nature and inclination, so little interested in the gospel and in God and Christ? It is because they are happy to worship other things. They believe, as Somerset Maugham put it, that “perfection is apt to be dull.” Perhaps they really imagine heaven in terms of sitting on a cloud and playing a harp. Was it Leo Durocher who once said, “Baseball is like church; many attend, few understand”? But more than that, As John Henry Newman wrote,

            “Heaven is not for everyone: it is an acquired taste, and hard to acquire while our taste buds still resemble a crocodile’s back. An unholy person would be restless and unhappy in heaven.”

And that’s right. If you can’t imagine the joy of knowing God or having a pure heart or finding yourself in fellowship with others who love God as you do and having hearts as pure as snow, then obviously you’re going to have a hard time understanding why Christians spend so much time in worship and why they look forward to an eternal life of worship. You have to get rid of your idols. They have to finally disappoint you and you have to turn and come to know the true God before you’ll understand human life as a life meant for the worship of God. And that is what most people eventually discover, if often too late – the things they have worshipped prove to be unworthy of their adoration or their devotion. People cannot imagine the joy of knowing God or of being pure in heart until they tire of their false gods and come to know the true God. But, remember, they too are worshippers. The Shechemites certainly were, hence their rings and their sacred trees. But what most people worship is hardly worth their gratitude or adoration. The objects of their worship come and go. Powerful as an object of worship may seem at one moment, over time or even almost immediately its influence over the heart dissipates and then disappears. The teenage girl grows up. She stops listening to that band. A fan’s team beings to lose more than it wins and soon, in disgust, he finds something else to do with his Sunday afternoons or, worse, his infatuation becomes more than faintly pathetic. Or the man gets the new job and remains as dissatisfied as ever. But believers, whose eyes have been opened to a new majesty, a new wonder, a new love, to new reasons for endless gratitude, know that nothing will be more perfectly wonderful than the sight of God and nothing more delightful than to bask in his presence, to be drunk up into the divine love, and to praise him from the heart together with all the saints. This is worship that will never end, and a joy in worship that will never fade. When Almighty God is known as the one who loved us and gave himself for us, his worship and the prospect of still more powerful worship become the ultimate pleasure of our lives.

There will be many developments as the history of salvation and of God’s revelation progress from Jacob’s day into the following centuries. The simple stone pillar at Bethel will become under Solomon the most glorious building in the world of that day. And, following Pentecost, that great temple will become the ten thousand times ten thousand houses of worship that overspread the world, from the early Christian basilica to the thatched hut with a cross atop. But the idea of life defined by the worship of God is already plainly taught here at the headwaters of the history of the church of Jesus Christ. I’m told that in China they don’t say that a person has died; they say instead that he no longer eats rice. Well, I wonder if, instead of saying that some Christian has died, we should say that our brother or our sister no longer worships with us. And perhaps we should characteristically say not that I lived in this city or that, but that I worshipped God in this city or that. That would be a way of bearing witness to the emphasis the Bible places on the Christian life as this unique life of worship. That is the first lesson of Jacob’s example. Now the second.

How do we with taste buds like a crocodile’s back come to aspire to a life of worship and come to love the very thought of such a life? The answer of our text is this: one becomes a worshipper of God rather than a worshipper of other things – remember the question is never whether one will be a worshipper, but what or whom he or she will worship – I say, one becomes a worshipper of God through repentance.

The Lord did not simply tell Jacob to go to Bethel, pay his vow, and worship Him there. Jacob understood that before he left for Bethel he had to leave some things behind, and those things were the very things that he had gathered to himself in the days, months and years before. This is all the more impressive, I think, because Jacob realized that himself. He didn’t have to be told. He was enough of a man of faith to realize that if he were going to go to Bethel when he left Shechem he had to leave some things behind. He said first, as we read in v. 3, “get rid of the foreign gods, purify yourselves, and change your clothes.” Then and only then was Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar. And so collected all the idols his large family had in their possession and the ring charms and unceremoniously dumped them in a hole. Then he set out for Bethel!

Such acts on Jacob’s part and on the part of his family are familiar to the readers of the Bible. When Joshua called upon Israel to renew her devotion to the Lord (Joshua 24:14, 23), he also called on her to get rid of her foreign gods, that is the idols she still had in her possession. She had, no doubt, accumulated many of these idols from the Egyptians the night of the exodus and many more during her conquest of the Promised Land. Whether or not one used them in worship, they were valuable artifacts either because of the materials from which they were made or because they were works of art. Samuel would later say a similar thing to Israel at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7:3-4). “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heartsthat is to say “if you are really repentingthen rid yourselves of all the idols you have…”

And still today this happens. After all, we too have idols. Greed is idolatry, Paul says, and many of the things we accumulate are, therefore, idols to us. We love them. We arae so grateful to have them. They are things that we were thinking about when we should have been thinking about other things, higher things. A young man becomes a Christian and, under an impulse both pure and powerful, he burns or otherwise destroys the CDs he used to listen to. Or Etta Linnemann, the liberal German theology professor, the first woman to reach that rank in the German university, upon her conversion to Christ repudiated the books about the Bible that had made her famous, that she had written as an unbeliever and urged others to forget them as well. Bury them in a hole in the ground, turn around and walk away! I have in my possession an old slide taken by my father during the Korean War. It captures some Korean peasants who had recently become Christians, burning the books or scrolls that contained the incantations they had formerly used in prayer to the spirits they once worshipped.

And so the changing of clothes. Before meeting the Lord at Sinai, the people of Israel were ordered to wash their clothes. Here Jacob was told to change what amounted to the outer garment that people typically wore in those days. Later, in the Law of Moses washing the body and washing clothes was a means to effect the ceremonial purification that enabled a person to enter God’s presence in worship. All of this, of course, was a form of outward purification that was meant to embody inward purity. Always in the Bible the two go together: the outward not only a witness to the inward, but a means of fostering a state of inward purity.

In our culture today, we often change clothes to signify, to express the significance of certain events or important changes in our lives. Brides and grooms wear special dress. So do graduates. In the military, when you graduate from boot camp, when you are promoted, when you are given particular assignments, you change your clothing or what goes on your clothing. In early Christianity this same outward sign of purity was widely employed. Catechumens, once baptized, were dressed in white robes and entered the church to take their place among the saints wearing those robes.

It is always this same thing in one way or another in the Bible. The outward and the inward together. God has made us both outward and inward and our faith must be expressed in the totality of our humanity, and supremely that is true of repentance. Repentance in the Bible, for that reason, must always have both its outward and inward form, both the outward act and the inward state of heart, both the burying the rings in the ground and the desire to get to Bethel to worship God. The repentance that leads to worship must be an act of the totality of the person, as it was in the dumping of the rings. The earrings were included in what had to be given up precisely because they were used in pagan worship. True enough, the gold could easily be melted down and used to make things that were entirely innocent. But they represented a temptation, double-sided temptation, a temptation both to love money and a temptation to idolatry. Israel, remember, would later made a golden calf, out of earrings while they were camped at the bottom of Mt. Sinai. In other words, Jacob and his household were not only getting rid of idols, but anything from which an idol might easily be made. This is purification with a vengeance! This is gouging out the right eye and cutting off the right arm. This is ensuring a repentance that is total and complete. As an outward act it functioned as radical symbolization, the public renunciation of that culture’s gods. How better to do that than to dump items of intrinsic value in a hole in the ground and walk away. “That’s what we think of pagan gods and pagan worship!” Gold earrings, you see, were a form of wealth. Jacob was burying a boatload of money! Since in this case they were also the spoils of the crimes the sons of Jacob had committed in Shechem to bury the rings was also to repudiate and to repent of those sins! No one can repent of a sin who carefully preserves for himself the products of those sins! So repentance was turning away from one worship to practice another!

In other words, the commandment to rid themselves of their idols, to purify themselves, and only then go to Bethel, was not simply a specific summons in this particular case; it was a pattern for all of us to emulate, to repudiate the gods of this world and our own particular gods. The significance of all of this is that it illustrates in a memorable way what the Bible everywhere teaches us is the pattern of believing life: repentance from sinful loves, both general and particular, as preparation for the worship of the true God. This is not simply another instance of Jacob building an altar. What he did is what we are always to do. This is the pilgrim way: repentance from sin preparing for acts of worship, purification leading to the giving of love and gratitude to God with a full heart.

Jacob and his sons had sinned, as we all do. He was long since a believer in God and far into his pilgrimage, but he still sinned and still needed to repent of his sins. Repentance is not something believers do once at the beginning of their Christian life and never again, because we are always tempted to give our worship to other things. Remember, the very first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the document that ignited the Protestant Reformation, reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

In the face of their most recent sins Jacob and his family needed the renewal that worship alone could bring him. He needed to be restored to fellowship with God, to a clean heart, and a sturdy faith. And that is what you and I need every day and every week and every month and every year of our lives. But, for worship to have that holy effect in his life, it had to be offered from real repentance. And what is a repentance but an acknowledgement of false worship, one’s sin, a mourning of them, and, finally and most importantly – because one can too easily acknowledge and regret one’s sins and do nothing more – a repudiation of those same sins.

Real repentance is a comparatively rare thing. We are well used to unbelievers lacking repentance. A recent mayor of Las Vegas, a former mob lawyer, was quoted as saying, “I love my past. I don’t apologize for one day in my life.” [World, June 19, 1999, 18] There is man who has “Bound for Hell” written on his forehead. May God have mercy upon him! But, even Christians are often not the students and lovers and earnest practitioners of repentance we ought to be. So fundamental to our lives, repentance should be something we are doing all the time and studying to do better and better. How well, how furiously, with what vengeance have we repented of our false loves this past week? With what repentance did you come today to the house of God? Humble acknowledgement of sin and prayer for forgiveness is always a part of true repentance, but not the best part. The best part is not confession, not acknowledgement – it’s not even sorrow for the sins we have committed – it is the actual repudiation of our sins, our false worship, dumping the valuable gold rings in a hole in the ground and leaving them behind! That is repentance in the Bible. The OT word for repentance is the word “turning.” A turning away from sin to God and a turning to the will of God. That is what Jacob did; he left the earrings behind, valuable as they were, treating them as the impure things they were and giving them not another thought.

Those Korean peasants standing around the fire in which those possessions previously so important to them were being consumed. That is repentance.

If there is a commentary on Genesis 35:1-15, it is Psalm 24.

            “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? [That is, who may come to Bethel and worship in the house of God?] He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior.”

The only way to be that kind of person is to be practicing repentance all the time. We were born to worship God. We were given all our remarkable powers so that they might be employed and enjoyed supremely in the love and the worship of that personthree persons – that infinitely worthy God, whose worship will fulfill all the deepest longings of the human heart, for joy, for satisfaction, for truth, for purity, for love, and for peace. We may have only hints of the glory of that worship in our experience in this life, but every now and then it should not be so difficult for us to realize – especially if we stop and think about these things – that given that we have all been made to worship and that every human being is worshipping all the time, given that so much of what we worship utterly and completely disappoints us, given that God is an object of worship that will satisfy us infinitely and forever, given the place that worship occupies in the human life – our need for it, our capacity for it, the fulfillment that we find in it – how right it is that we should think of our lives as lives summoned to the worship of God, invited to the worship of God. Who are we? If someone were to ask you who you are – Who are you? What are you? – tell them you’re a worshipper of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are worshippers of God. Remember that; that is who we are. And what a privilege to be someone who worships a person who will repay our worship a thousand fold as no other object of our worship can begin to do.

But since we are also sinners and will be as long as we are in this world, we must practice repentance in order to worship God, and the better the repentance, the more furious the repentance, the more heart-felt and determined, the better our worship will be and, because this is what we were made for, the better our lives will be. That is what we are taught here by Jacob’s repentance and his pilgrimage to Bethel.