Returning to Bethel

And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.

GENESIS 35:1

Shechem was a revelation to Jacob showing to him the actual spiritual state of his family. At Penuel God had taught him the danger of relying upon his own sinful flesh, but he had still retained considerable respect for the discretion of his maturing children. To their insistence he had yielded and moved from Succoth to Shechem. At Shechem he had left his children free to mingle with the inhabitants of the city, confident that their spiritual discretion would keep them from evil. But the worst had taken place, for Dinah was defiled by the prince of the city. Relying still, however, upon the spiritual strength of his sons, he had left it to them to deal with Shechem concerning this folly which had been wrought in Israel. Overwhelmed with bitter anger, they threw aside all restraint and destroyed the city completely with all of its inhabitants through the means of deceit and treachery. Suddenly Jacob began to realize the evil way into which his children were falling. By this deed of coldblooded revenge, they had put the name of Israel to shame before all of the nations of the earth, and it troubled Jacob no end. He began to understand that not only his own carnal nature but also his children had to be subjected to spiritual control. Slowly Jacob was being led by God in the way of sanctification. 

It was at that point that the Lord appeared to Jacob and told him to arise and go up to Bethel. It was a shame that that command had to be given. Many years before while fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, he had spent the first night of his journey there at Bethel. That night God appeared to him in a vision, standing at the top of a stairway filled with ascending and descending angels. Beautiful words of covenant promise were spoken to him and he was assured of a safe return to possess the land of Canaan. Arising in the morning he had been filled with joy of thanksgiving and had anointed the spot with oil. In solemn oath Jacob had made a vow that morning. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” It was over thirty years before that he had sworn that vow, and over ten years since he had returned to the land of Canaan, but still he had not paid that vow. It was a shame that God had to appear and command Jacob to return to Bethel. 

Why Jacob hesitated to return to Bethel, we cannot tell for certain. However, it seems to be implied in the command which Jacob gave to his household, to put away their strange gods. It comes somewhat as a surprise to find that idolatry was practiced in the household of Jacob. Evidently Rachel still carried with her the images of her father, and perhaps some of the servants had still others. Jacob had not maintained enough control over his household to have these removed. Undoubtedly Jacob refused to serve these idols himself and perhaps even warned the others against them. But at the same time he did not exert enough authority to have them removed from the camp. And as long as they were in the camp Jacob did not dare to return to pay his vow at Bethel, lest coming with idols in his possession he should make it more of an occasion of mockery than of worship. 

When, however, Jacob saw at Shechem the results of the evil way in which his family was going, and when he received the direct command from God to pay his vows at Bethel, there could remain no more doubt with Jacob as to what ought to be done. With an unusual ring of authority in his voice, he commanded them to put away the strange gods, to clean themselves, and to put on new garments. All of the charms and jewelry which had been carried with them for many a year were given to Jacob and buried together under the oak which was by Shechem. It was a ceremonial cleansing of the household of Israel and a sign of renewed consecration to the Lord. 

The journey from Shechem to Bethel was for Jacob and his family a difficult journey indeed. The massacre of the Shechemites by Jacob’s children had made them, just as Jacob had anticipated, “to stink among the inhabitants of the land.” The Canaanites felt that the men of Shechem had been their kinsmen and the fact that they were so deceitfully slaughtered by the sons of Jacob made them angry. As Jacob traveled toward Bethel he had to pass through the territories of many of these now hostile nations. Cold stares and looks of hatred could be seen by them on every side. Only one thing prevented them from being pursued and slain in revenge by the Canaanites, “the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.” Although the Lord too found no pleasure in their destruction of Shechem, still He would not allow his chosen people to be destroyed by their enemies in the land. 

The arrival back at Bethel must have caused a deep stirring of old memories for Jacob. Over thirty years had passed since he had stopped at that spot on his journey to Padanaram. Then he had nothing more than the staff that was in his hand. Now he was the father of a large family and the lord over great amounts of wealth. The promises which God had given him in his dream there at Bethel had come very literally and very fully to pass. Overwhelming waves of thanksgiving must have filled the heart of Jacob as he gathered the altar stones so that he might fulfill the vows promised by him to God so many years before. Only then, when he had paid his vows upon the altar and gave due thanksgiving to the God who had blessed him, was he truly returned from Padanaram. Actually he had been back in the land of Canaan for well over ten years. But Padanaram was more than just a locality or place where Jacob lived for a while. From a spiritual point of view, it was a banishment from the promised land of Canaan because of the presumptuous sins of his youth. Even when he had returned to dwell in the land of Canaan, this sense of banishment persisted, he felt distant and cut-off from the promised inheritance of his fathers. Only after he had expressed his vows of thanksgiving to God, acknowledging Him as the source of all of his blessings, did Jacob receive a real feeling of belonging to the inheritance promised to his fathers. 

We might give expression to this same thought a little differently by saying that at Penuel Jacob left behind the sin of self-reliance, while at Bethel he learned to give full acknowledgment for all of his blessings to God. At Penuel Jacob repented from the sins of his youth; at Bethel he entered full spiritual maturity by giving full and complete thanksgiving to God. The two together mark the important changing points in Jacob’s full entry into the promise of the covenant. There at Bethel he built an altar and offered a sacrifice of dedication unto God. Henceforth the tenth of his possessions was to be consecrated unto the Lord. This time he called the place Elbethel because he had experienced the strength of the God who had appeared to him in this same place before. 

After Jacob had offered this sacrifice to God, the Lord appeared again to him, this time not in a vision but directly, perhaps in the form of an angel. Once again He spoke to Jacob the covenant promise. “Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of, thy loins; and the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land.” In essence this was the same promise that had been given to him thirty years before in Bethel including both the multiplication of his seed and the possession of the promised land. However, there is a new element also included, kings were to come forth from him. His seed was to be a seed of royalty. The reason for the introduction of this new element into the promise was the fact that he was no longer Jacob but Israel, no longer the supplanter but a prince who had power with God and with man, and had prevailed. 

Once again before leaving this sacred spot, Jacob erected a pillar of stone as a memorial unto that which had transpired. Upon the newly erected pillar he poured forth wine as a thank offering and oil of consecration. This was truly “Bethel,” the place where God dwelt with his people. Almost parenthetically in the account of Jacob’s stay at Bethel is interjected a notation concerning the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse. At first it seems hardly worthy of note, and yet, because it is recorded in Scripture, proves worthy of special note. A mere servant, her position was far from imposing. Nonetheless, she had filled it faithfully and well. Upon her knees Jacob had been raised, and from her lips he had received many words of instruction and comfort. Some time after the death of her mistress, she had been taken into the household of Jacob. Thus she spent the closing years of her life continuing to encourage the child who had become her master. Only a servant, she proved herself to be a sister in the Lord. Her final death was a cause of sorrow for all for her resting place was called Allonbachuth “the oak of weeping.”


As Jacob was traveling from Bethel toward Ephrath, once again God answered the prayers of Rachel. For many years she had been barren and through her lack learned to appreciate the privilege of bringing forth covenant children. It was on this journey that God answered her for a second time and she brought forth a son. The birth, however, was very difficult, and in, it her own life began to expire. In fact, so great was the pain as to convince her that neither would the child be able to survive. The attempts of the midwife to comfort her were of no avail, and with her dying breath she named the child Benoni, “Son of my sorrow.” 

This anticipated an event which was to take place many hundreds of years later at the very spot. At that time the last band of Israelites was gathered together in Rama by the Chaldeans so as to be sent away into Babylon. Concerning that event Jeremiah wrote (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” To all appearances Israel was being taken into captivity from which they would never return. With bitter tears like those of Rachel, Israel would not be comforted because of the conviction that they would never return to life; life in the promised land. 

Rachel’s child; however, did not die; and Jacob, though deeply grieving for the death of his dearest wife, refused to look upon the child as a son of sorrow. With this child he had received twelve children from the Lord; the number of the covenant was made complete in his own family. He would not call the child Benoni, but he named him Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand.” It was as though he heard the words of the prophet in his ears, “Refrain thy voice from weeping and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded.” 

Jeremiah 31:16

B.W.