IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 34, October 18 to October 24, 1999

A Sermon on Genesis 35:1-21

by Dr. Richard Gamble

The Bible exhibits an overall unity as a book. That unity, from Genesis to Revelation, results from the fact that God is its ultimate author. Like the Bible as a whole, the book of Genesis has a fundamental unity. As one demonstration of that unity, chapter 35 parallels chapter 17 in several ways:

  1. God revealed Himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (Gen. 17:1); and to Jacob as El Shaddai (Gen. 35:11).
  2. Abram's name became Abraham (Gen. 17:5); Jacob's name became Israel (Gen. 35:10).
  3. Both chapters refer to kings among the patriarch's abundant seed (Gen. 17:6; 35:11).
  4. They have the same conclusion: God went up from Abraham (Gen. 17:22); God went up from Jacob (Gen. 35:13).1

The command and promise from God to have many children in these chapters of Genesis is also found in other places. Adam and Eve and the sons of Noah heard such an order. Promises were given to Abraham as he awaited a son, even baby Ishmael (21:13,18). Isaac commanded his unmarried son Jacob, "Increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples" (Gen. 28:3). In Genesis 35:11, God tells Jacob, "Be abundantly fruitful — a nation shall stem from you," referring back to Isaac's words in Genesis 28:3.

In the commands to be fruitful preceding Genesis 35, the patriarchs were either married with no children, or unmarried. However, in Genesis 35 Jacob had four wives/concubines and thirteen children. How much more fruitful could he have been? God obviously had another message in mind. The true meaning is found in the last half of Genesis 35:11. God did not command just more sons or daughters. Rather, he had in view a nation, a great collection of families.2 Kings would also come from these families. There is a reference here to the great King of Kings. Jesus, the center and key of the entire Scriptures, is set before the eyes of God's people from the very beginning. Isn't it beautiful!

As God moved the Church of the Old Testament forward toward the full realization of his plans in Christ, he did not leave his church as abandoned children. God was their Father just as he is our Father. He gave to Israel, in the person of the patriarch Jacob, a pattern for their lives. And Jacob's example, even though he is an Old Testament figure, is approved by God to teach us how to live.

Jacob is a model to us in at least four ways:

  1. God was merciful to Jacob and saved him by grace. Just the same, God is merciful to us and saves us by grace.
  2. Jacob faced death and great adversity in his sad walk on this earth. We too face death and adversity.
  3. Jacob needed to repent of his sins, to rule his house well, and to put away his idols. We also need to repent and to put away our idols.
  4. He needed to worship God aright, just as we need to worship God aright.

I. Jacob was like us: he received God's blessing and publicly confessed God's graciousness. Jacob received God's blessing: "God appeared to him and blessed him" (v. 9); "I now give to you and your descendants this land" (v. 12). He also confessed God's graciousness: "Who answered me in my moment [day] of dire need [my distress], and who has been with me wherever I have gone" (v. 3).

II. Jacob was like us: he was infected with the poison of idolatry. Rachel had brought idols into her home and spread the sin to the entire household. This was wrong. But dealing with the sin was Jacob's responsibility. Jacob was culpable or guilty. He was culpable because he knew that they were "strange gods." Wrongly, he admitted idols into his house, against which the door had been closed by God." 3

III. Jacob was like us: we need to clean house too -- to purge ourselves from whatever faults we, by our negligence, may have contracted."4

  1. Jacob's idols were culturally acceptable. Apart from those used by devout Catholics, idols are strange in western culture.
  2. Do we have contemporary idols? Even good things can become evil idols. Our nation, our children, our spouse, our job. Our perfect house, perfect yard, perfect kids. Brothers and sisters: purge. Men: Eve caused trouble; Adam didn't stand against it. Rachel did too.
  3. Can we bring old idols into our home, especially if we have "walked in the world" for a while? Cleaning house is not fun. Neither is confronting sin. Fortunately, God's next lesson for us is a happy one.

IV. Jacob was like us: God did not desert Jacob and God will never desert us.5 Through his struggles, Jacob knew that God never left him. In Jacob's case, the Lord did not simply command his will to be done, but encouraged him by adding the promise of heirs and kingdoms.6 To fulfill his promises, God sometimes even uses supernatural intervention. We read in 35:5 that a "terror from God fell upon the cities round about them, so that they did not pursue Jacob's son."7 The powerful presence of God in the middle of his people, with the resulting paralysis of the enemy nations, also appears in Moses' song of praise by the sea in Exodus 15:14-16:
"The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the rulers of Canaan will melt away; terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone- until your people pass by, O Lord, until the people you bought pass by."8

Are we not the people bought by the Lord? Did God not save us by supernatural intervention? Will He not stay with us to the very end? Jesus promised that He would never leave us nor desert us. He promised the Holy Spirit to abide with His church until we are ushered into the presence of the Triune God!

Jacob's example reminds us that it is our principal business to depend upon the word of God. We must be persuaded that when God has promised salvation to us, He will be faithful to His own word. We need not hesitate to walk through the midst of deaths. That truth is beautifully expressed in Psalm 23: "Yea though I walk in death's dark vale, yet will I fear no ill; for thou art with me, and they rod and staff me comfort still."

V. Jacob responded to God's faithfulness. We should live like Jacob.

A. There was Repentance in Jacob's life. Before God asks for repentance there must be true guilt. We all make mistakes, like kids in math. We make wrong or foolish choices, like buying a car that we cannot afford. Then there are sins. We repent of our sin, not of mistakes. This gives us freedom from fear of false condemnation before God and our brothers and sisters in church. Jacob's sin was real and his repentance had a ceremony. Now, true repentance is always from the inside, from the heart, yet this ceremony (changing clothes) was not superfluous before God.9 Their acts speak of what we call a "moral transformation,"10 similar to Moses breaking the golden calves and making them drink (Exod 32:20). It is true that evangelicals rightfully oppose Roman Catholic penance. However, the Bible teaches that inward repentance may include open declaration of our guilt and repentance.11 One of the most spiritually powerful men I have ever met was Jack Miller of Philadelphia. In his last years of life especially, the more the Lord blessed Jack's every effort, the more would Jack confess his sins and failures. At times I found Jack's confessions aggravating and embarrassing. But Jack was right.

B. There was Celebration in Jacob's life. We read in the first verse that God spoke to Jacob. What an honor! Yet Jacob's house was full of idols! God knew that they were there, and Jacob knew that they were there, yet God still regarded that house as his sanctuary.12 What a cause for joy! Despite our sin, God still regards us as his sanctuary. It should produce celebration!

C. There was Worship in Jacob's life. God commanded Jacob to worship him (35: 7). He commands us to worship him too. But Jacob worshipped by building an altar (v. 7) and stone pillar (v. 14). Are we to build altars of sacrifice and stone pillars to worship God today? No, we are not. Even though Jacob is in the Old Testament, there is still a lesson for us concerning worship.13 Jacob's worship was excellent and approved by God because "he attempted nothing beyond the command of God." In other words, Jacob "confined himself within the divinely prescribed bounds." Old Testament worship was earthly, with blood on the hands of the worshiper and dead animals on the ground. However, God used this type of worship slowly to point Israel, the Old Testament church, toward the coming reality of Jesus Christ.14

Jacob is a good model of repentance, celebration and worship. But just like us, the lessons he had to learn were hard.

VI. Jacob learned from Adversity. He learned to look to God. Through adversity God wants us to look up toward heaven.

A. Jacob confronted death. Jacob's first experience after coming back home and building the altar was confronting death, The place where Deborah was buried was called "the oak of weeping." Not a happy place.15 Right after God talked with him and he built the stone pillar (V. 16), Rachel died. God did not deal with Jacob or write this message to us by accident. God wanted Jacob to be in training, to look forward to a better life than the one he had on earth.16 God wants us to look toward that life too.

B. Rachel's death. The few details we have surrounding Rachel's death are more than a purely interesting story. Facing death, she was not able to be consoled even when she heard that her male baby would live. She died in agony, thinking of nothing but her own deep sorrows. >From that bed of suffering she gave a disastrous name to her son,17 Ben-oni (son of trouble, affliction, or mourning). Jacob rightly changed his name to Benjamin, "son of my right hand" or "son of good fortune."

C. Rachel culpable. Rachel is presented as a bad example to us and Jacob as a good one. Rachel was so downhearted that she could not consider the kindness of God at all. In Rachel's actions, God demonstrated that she was guilty. She should have repented. Even so, how could Jacob call this son Benjamin, "son of good fortune," with his wife lying cold beside him? Because even in the midst of the greatest adversity, God's kindness should "exhilarate" our minds. If it does not do that, it should at least "infuse some portion of sweetness to lessen our grief."18


Beloved, God wants us to be like Jacob, and remember the "son of our good fortune" Jesus Christ in the very midst of death.

Jacob's earthly sufferings helped him see that "his help is in the name of the Lord." Our sufferings have the same purpose. As Jacob had to repent of the idols in his life, so we all need to turn from the idols in our lives.

Let me ask: who needs to repent of sin and idolatry in their lives? Jesus Christ is calling us to his fountain of forgiveness. "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden; for I will give you rest." Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (John 11:28ff.).

May we be a community of people who repent daily, and who are not ashamed of the fact that they call upon the Rock who will never fail them.

May our churches be places where our worship, like our lives, demonstrates a deep joy.

May our churches be places where heaven is visible.

May our churches be places where members live like Jacob, where each is quick to confess that Jesus Christ "has answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone."

1.Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 382.
2.Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 381.
3.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis "He silently cherished this plague of his family." Because he was "under the influence of his wife." Perhaps not so culpable here. LXX. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis.
4.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 234.
5.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis. "And thus he shows, in the person of one man, that God never deserts his church which he has once embraced, but will procure its salvation," p. 232.
6.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 233.
7.Earlier parallel: the same fear overcame Abram "when he received the covenant promise" (15:12).
8.Hamilton, The Book of Genesis 377.
9.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 235.
10.Hamilton, The Book of Genesis. 376.
11.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 236, "but at the same time openly declare it."
12.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, p. 235. God exhorted to be grateful that we may confess that all we have is by grace, "and may exercise themselves in the celebration of it," 233.
13.I'll admit, "how very useful it is to us to be stirred up by outward helps to the worship of God." Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 237. "For although God is worshipped with the mind, yet an external confession is the inseparable companion of faith."
14.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, p. 238. "The humility of faith is praiseworthy, seeing it does not desire to know more than God permits." "For he does not speak to us in this earthly manner, to keep us at a distance from heaven, but rather by this vehicle, to draw us up thither." V. 9. God appeared. Vos. V. 10. No longer Jacob. V. 14. Set up a pillar.
15.Hamilton, The Book of Genesis. 378.
16.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 244. "We see, therefore, by what a severe conflict, and by what a continued succession of evils, he was trained to the hope of a better life." "The Lord intended to correct the exorbitance of his affection for her." "And the Lord often deprives the faithful of his own gifts, to correct their perverse abuse of them." "Whoever desires the continued use of God's gifts, let him learn not to abuse them, but to enjoy them with purity and sobriety."
17.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 244. Jacob had them buried and not destroyed. "Because he had not been sufficiently provident against the future." 236.
18.Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, 245.