Chapter 35

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The Genesis account does not mention how Jacob received a message from God, telling him to go to Bethel and to reside at that location. He was also instructed to erect an altar at Bethel, there where God had appeared to him when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. Before undertaking the journey to Bethel, Jacob directed everyone in his household to remove the foreign deities or idols in their possession, to purify themselves (probably by washing or bathing), and to clothe themselves with clean garments. Regarding the altar he would be erecting, Jacob said that it would be to the God who had answered him in the day of his distress and had been with him wherever he had gone. The Septuagint quotes Jacob as saying, “Let us erect an altar there to the God who heard me in a day of distress [and] who was with me and preserved [my life] on the way that I traveled.” (35:1-3)

The members of Jacob’s household, which included male and female servants, gave him all their foreign gods or idols and their earrings. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xxi, 2), Jacob then discovered Laban’s “gods” that Rachel, unbeknownst to him, had stolen. Targum Jonathan indicates that the idols and the rings were part of the spoils that Jacob’s sons had taken from the city of Shechem and that the ornaments portrayed the likeness of images. It is not unlikely that the servants of Jacob brought idols with them when leaving Haran and that many more items associated with idolatry came into Jacob’s household through his sons’ plundering. Jacob buried all the idols and the rings under a tree (a terebinth [LXX]) near Shechem. The Septuagint adds that “he destroyed [the items] to the present day.” (35:4)

On their way from the vicinity of Shechem to Bethel, none of the native inhabitants of the region initiated an attack against the household of Jacob on account of the murderous action his sons Simeon and Levi had undertaken against the men of Shechem. The reason for their safe passage through the land is attributed to the “terror of God” that had fallen upon the residents of the surrounding cities. Without anyone pursuing them, Jacob and his household arrived at Luz (Luza [LXX], the fomer name of Bethel [Baithel, LXX]), a place about 11 miles (c. 17 kilometers) from ancient Salem or Jerusalem. As he had been divinely commanded, Jacob erected an altar and called it El-bethel (the “God of Bethel”), for it had been there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. (35:5-7)

The context does not make it possible to determine when Deborah (meaning “bee”) became part of Jacob’s household. Initially, she was Rebekah’s nurse, probably acting as a substitute for Rebekah’s mother in breastfeeding her as an infant. In later years, Deborah doubtless assisted her in caring for the twins Esau and Jacob. Josephus wrote that Jacob went to Hebron, where he saw his father Isaac and thereafter stayed with him a short time. His mother Rebekah was no longer alive. (Antiquities, I, xxii, 1) If this was the case, Deborah then may have become a member of Jacob’s household. She would have been of great assistance to Jacob’s wife Leah who, after the death of her sister Rachel, likely looked after Benjamin and his brother Joseph, besides her own young sons Issachar and Zebulun and her daughter Dinah. Subsequent to the death of Rachel, Leah appears to have been regarded as the mother of her sister’s children. This seems to be evident from Jacob’s apparent reference to Leah as the mother of Joseph. (37:9, 10) The comments in Targum Jonathan indicate that Deborah was in the household of Jacob prior to the death of his mother and could indicate that Rebekah herself had sent Deborah to share in caring for Jacob’s young children. “Deborah, the nurse of Rivekah [Rebekah], died, and was buried below Bethel, in the field of the plain. And there it was told Jakob [Jacob] concerning the death of Rivekah [Rebekah] his mother; and he called the name of it, The other weeping.” The Hebrew text and the Septuagint, however, are in agreement that the reference is only to the death of Deborah. The tree underneath of which she was buried was called Allon-bacuth (“oak of mourning” or weeping [LXX]). (35:8)

When Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau and arrived near the site that was later designated as Bethel (“House of God”), he had a dream by means of which he received God’s reassuring message. Again, at the same location, God appeared to him, restating his purpose respecting him and his descendants. After reconfirming the name change from Jacob to Israel, God said to Jacob, “I am God Almighty [I am your God (LXX)]. Be fruitful and increase. A nation, even a company of nations, will come from you, and kings will issue from your loins. To you and your seed after you, I will give the land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac.” In the centuries that passed, the offspring of the sons of Jacob became distinct tribes, and this may be how the reference to a “company of nations” is to be understood. It is also possible that the reference is to the two separate kingdoms that came into being (the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah). The land of Canaan had been given to Abraham and Isaac in the sense that their descendants were certain to inherit it. (35:9-12)

In the place where he had spoken with Jacob, God is represented as going up from him. This could denote that YHWH’s representative angel appeared to Jacob and then ascended, disappearing from his sight. To memorialize the noteworthy event, Jacob set up a pillar and poured out a libation and poured out oil (olive oil) upon it. According to Targum Jonathan, he poured out a libation of wine and a libation of water. As at the time of his fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob again called the place Bethel (“House of God”), for God had communicated with him there. (28:11-19; 35:13-15)

On the way from Bethel to Ephrath (Bethlehem), Rachel died giving birth to a baby boy. As she was dying (literally, “her soul” or life was departing), Rachel called the name of her son Ben-oni (“son of my sorrow” or “my mourning”), but Jacob named the boy Benjamin (“son of the right hand” or “son of the south”). The designation “son of the right hand” could be an indication that Benjamin would be a supporter and helper of his father. At the place where Rachel died, Jacob set up a pillar over the plot where he had buried her. To the very day or time that the Genesis account came to be in its final written form, this pillar marked Rachel’s grave. (35:16-20)

With his household, Israel (Jacob) continued the journey and then pitched his tent at a site beyond Migdal-eder (tower of Eder), somewhere between Bethlehem and Hebron. While he and his household resided in the area, Reuben violated his father’s concubine Bilhah who had been Rachel’s maid and was the mother of his half brothers Dan and Naphtali. At the time, Reuben may have been in his late teens or around 20 years of age. He rashly may have engaged in this incestuous act to prevent Bilhah from replacing deceased Rachel in his father’s affection. Israel (Jacob) heard what had happened but appears not to have taken any punitive action. He, however, did not forget Reuben’s serious sin, recalling it shortly before his death and expressing the resultant judgment. Regarding what Reuben did, the Septuagint does add the following comment about Jacob, “it appeared evil before him [or in his sight].” (35:21, 22; 49:3, 4)

Leah gave birth to six sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun) and one daughter (Dinah) in seven years. (29:32-35, 30:18-21) It is known that breastfeeding women can become pregnant in six weeks after the birth of a baby. So it would have been possible for Leah to have had four sons in 41 months. Through her maid Bilhah, Rachel had two sons (Dan and Naphtali), perhaps in nineteen months and two weeks. While Bilhah was pregnant with her second son and a significant amount of time before his birth, Leah’s maid Zilpah may have been pregnant with Gad and about ten and a half months after he was born may have given birth to Asher. Leah herself, after about a year following the birth of her fourth son Judah, could have become pregnant before the birth of Asher and become the mother of Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah in 30 months. The last baby boy to be born in Paddan-aram was Joseph, the son of Rachel. Although Benjamin was born in the land of Canaan, he is numbered among the sons born in Paddan-aram. This may be because Benjamin was simply grouped with the other sons of Jacob, all of whom were born in upper Mesopotamia. (35:23-26)

Sometime after the entire household had departed from Bethel, Jacob and his family came to his father Isaac, who was then living at Mamre or Kiriath-arba (Hebron). At that location both Abraham and Isaac had lived, and it was in that vicinity where Abraham and Sarah were buried. Isaac lived about 23 years after Jacob returned with his household to the land of Canaan and died when he was 180 years old. Although not mentioned in the Genesis account, Jacob may have visited his father at other times prior to his arrival from Bethel, for it does not seem reasonable that he let years pass before arranging to see his father. When Isaac “was gathered to his people” or joined his relatives in the realm of the dead, Jacob and Esau were present and buried their father. This indicates that communication between the two brothers continued after Jacob’s departure from Paddan-aram and his return to the land of Canaan. (35:27-29)