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Jacob Returns to Bethel


God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes; 3then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.

5 As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them. 6Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. 8And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth.

9 God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. 10God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. 11God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. 12The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13Then God went up from him at the place where he had spoken with him. 14Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it. 15So Jacob called the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. 17When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.” 18As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali. 26The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

The Death of Isaac

27 Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had resided as aliens. 28Now the days of Isaac were one hundred eighty years. 29And Isaac breathed his last; he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

1. And God said unto Jacob. Moses relates that when Jacob had been reduced to the last extremity, God came to his help in the right time, and as at the critical juncture. 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. We must, however, observe the order of his procedure; for God did not immediately appear to his servant, but suffered him first to be tormented by grief and excessive cares, that he might learn patience, deferring his consolation to the time of extreme necessity. Certainly the condition of Jacob was then most miserable. For all, on every side, might be so incensed against him that he would be surrounded with as many deaths as there were neighboring nations: and he was not so stupid as to be insensible of his danger. God suffered the holy man to be thus tossed with cares and tormented with troubles, until, by a kind of resurrection, he restored him, as one half-dead. Whenever we read this and similar passages, let us reflect that the providence of God watches for our salvation, even when it most seems to sleep. Moses does not say how long Jacob was kept in anxiety, but we may infer from the context, that he had been very greatly perplexed, when the Lord thus revived him. Moreover, we must observe that the principal medicine by which he was restored, was contained in the expression, The Lord spoke. Why did not God by a miracle translate him to some other place, and thus immediately remove him from all danger? Why did he not even, without a word, stretch out the hand over him, and repress the ferocity of all, so that no one should attempt to hurt him? But Moses does not insist upon this point in vain. For hereby we are taught whence our greatest consolation in our afflictions is to be sought; and also, that it is the principal business of our life, to depend upon the word of God, as those who are certainly persuaded that, when he has promised salvation, he will deal well with us, so that we need not hesitate to walk through the midst of deaths. Another reason for the vision was, that Jacob might not only truly perceive that God was his deliverer; but, being forewarned by his word, might learn to ascribe to God whatever afterwards followed. For seeing that we are slow and dull, bare experience by no means suffices to attest the favor of God towards us, unless faith arising from the word be added.

Go up to Beth-el. Though it is God’s design to raise his servant from death to life, he may yet have appeared to hold him up to derision; for the objection was ready, Thou indeed, O Lord, commandest me to go up, but all the ways are closed; for my sons have raised such a flame against me, that I cannot remain safe in any hiding-place. I dare scarcely move a finger: what therefore will become of me, if with a great multitude, I now begin to move my camp? shall I not provoke new enmities against me by my movements? But by this mode the faith of Jacob was most fully proved; because, knowing God to be the leader and guardian of his journey, he girded himself to it, relying on the divine favor. Moreover, the Lord does not simply command what it is his will to have done, but he encourages his servant, by adding the promise. For, in reminding him that he is the same God who had before appeared unto him as he was fleeing in alarm from his brother, a promise is included in these words. The altar also refers to the same point; for since it is the divinely appointed token of thanksgiving, it follows that Jacob would come thither in safety, in order that he might duly celebrate the grace of God. God chooses and assigns Bethel, rather than any other place, for his sanctuary; because the very sight of it would greatly avail to take away terror, when he should remember that there the glory of the Lord had been seen by him. Further, since God exhorts his servant to gratitude, he shows that he is kind to the faithful, in order that they, in return, may own themselves to be indebted for everything to his grace, and may exercise themselves in the celebration of it.

2. Then Jacob said unto his household. The prompt obedience of Jacob is here described. For when he heard the voice of God, he neither doubted nor disputed with himself respecting what was necessary to be done: but, as he was commanded, he quickly prepared himself for his journey. But to show that he obeyed God, he not only collected his goods, but also purified his house from idols. For if we desire that God should be propitious to us, all hindrances are to be removed, which in any way separate him from us. Hence also we perceive to what point the theft of Rachel tended. For, (as we have said,) she neither wished to draw her father away from superstition, but rather followed him in his fault; nor did she keep this poison to herself, but spread it through the whole family. Thus was that sacred house infected with the worst contagion. Whence also it appears, how great is the propensity of mankind to impious and vicious worship; since the domestics of Jacob, to whom the pure religion had been handed down, thus eagerly laid hold on the idols offered to them. And Jacob was not entirely ignorant of the evil: but it is probable that he was so far under the influence of his wife, that, by connivance, he silently cherished this plague of his family. And truly, in one word, he convicts and condemns both himself and the rest, by calling idols “strange gods.” For whence arose the distinction here made, unless from his knowing that he ought to be devoted to one God only? For there is a tacit comparison between the God of Abraham and all other gods which the world had wickedly invented for itself: not because it was in the power of Abraham to determine who should be the true God: but because God had manifested himself to Abraham, he also wished to assume His name. Jacob therefore confesses his own negligence, in having admitted to his house idols, against which the door had been closed by God. For wherever the knowledge of the true God shines, it is necessary to drive far away whatever men fabricate to themselves which is contrary to the true knowledge of him. But whereas Jacob had been lulled to sleep either by the blandishments of his wife, or had neglected to do his duty, through the carelessness of the flesh, he is now aroused by the fear of danger, to become more earnest in the pure worship of God. If this happened to the holy patriarch, how much more ought carnal security to be dreaded by us, in the season of prosperity? If, however, at any time such torpor and neglect shall have stolen upon us, may the paternal chastisement of God excite and stimulate us diligently to purge ourselves from whatever faults we, by our negligence, may have contracted. The infinite goodness of God is here conspicuous; seeing that he still deigned to regard the house of Jacob, though polluted with idols, as his sanctuary. For although Jacob mingled with idolaters, and even his wife, — a patroness of idolatry, — slept in his bosom, his sacrifices were always acceptable to God. Yet this great benignity of God in granting pardon, neither lessens the fault of the holy man, nor ought to be used by us as an occasion for negligence. For though Jacob did not approve of these superstitions, yet it was not owing to him that the pure worship of God was not gradually subverted. For the corruption which originated with Rachel was now beginning to spread more widely. And the example of all ages teaches the same thing. For scarcely ever does the truth of God so prevail among men, however strenuously pious teachers may labor in maintaining it, but that some superstitions will remain among the common people. If dissimulation be added to them, the mischief soon creeps onward, until it takes possession of the whole body. By being thus cherished, the mass of superstitions which at this day pervades the Papacy, has gained its influence. Wherefore we must boldly resist those beginnings of evil, lest the true religion should be injured by the sloth and silence of the pastors.

And be clean, and change your garments. This is an exhortation to the external profession of penitence. For Jacob wishes that his domestics, who before had polluted themselves, should testify their renewed purification by a change of garments. With the same design and end, the people, after they had made the golden calves, were commanded by Moses to put off their ornaments. Only in that instance a different method was observed; namely, that the people having laid aside their ornaments, simply confessed their guilt by mournful and mean apparel: but in the house of Jacob the garments were changed, in order that they who had been defiled might come forth as new men: yet the end (as I have said) was the same, that by this external rite, idolaters might learn how great was the atrocity of their wickedness. For although, repentance is an inward virtue, and has its seat in the heart, yet this ceremony was by no means superfluous; for we know how little disposed men are to be displeased with themselves on account of their sins, unless they are pierced with many goads. Again, the glory of God is also concerned in this, that men should not only inwardly reflect upon their guilt, but at the same time openly declare it. This then is the sum; although God had given no express command concerning the purifying of his house, yet because he had commanded an altar to be raised, Jacob, in order that he might yield pure obedience to God, took care that all impediments should be removed; and he did this when necessity compelled him to seek help from God.

4. And they gave unto Jacob. Though the holy man had his house in suitable subordination; yet as all yielded such prompt obedience to his command by casting away their idols, I doubt not that they were influenced by the fear of danger. Whence also we infer how important it is for us to be aroused from slumber by suffering. For we know how pertinacious and rebellious is superstition. If, in a peaceful and joyous state of affairs, Jacob had given any such command, the greater part of his family would have fraudulently concealed their idols: some, perhaps, would have obstinately refused to surrender them; but now the hand of God urges them, and with ready minds they quickly repent. It is also probable, that, according to the circumstances of the time, Jacob preached to them concerning the righteous judgment of God, to inspire them with fear. When he commands them to cleanse themselves, it is as if he had said, Hitherto ye have been defiled before the Lord; now, seeing that he has regarded us so mercifully, wash out this filth, lest he should again avert his face from us. It seems, however, absurd, that Jacob should have buried the idols under an oak, and not rather have broken them in pieces and consumed them in the fire, as we read that Moses did with the golden calves, (Exodus 32:20,) and Hezekiah with the brazen serpent, (2 Kings 18:4.) The fact is not thus related without reason: but the infirmity of Jacob is touched upon, because he had not been sufficiently provident against the future. And perhaps the Lord punished his previous excessive connivance and want of firmness, by depriving him of prudence or courage. Yet God accepted his obedience, although it had some remainder of defect, knowing that it was the design of the holy man to remove idols from his family, and, in token of his detestation, to bury them in the earth. The earrings were doubtless badges of superstition; as at this day innumerable trifles are seen in the Papacy, by which impiety displays itself.

5. And the terror of God was upon the cities. It now manifestly appears that deliverance was not in vain promised to the holy man by God; since, amidst so many hostile swords, he goes forth not only in safety but undisturbed. By the destruction of the Shechemites all the neighboring people were inflamed with enmity against a single family; yet no one moves to take vengeance. The reason is explained by Moses, that the terror of God had fallen upon them, which repressed their violent assaults. Hence we may learn that the hearts of men are in the hands of God; that he can inspire those with fortitude who in themselves are weak; and, on the other hand, soften their iron-hardness whenever he pleases. Sometimes, indeed, he suffers many to cast up the foam of their pride, against whom he afterwards opposes his power: but he often weakens those with fear who were naturally bold as lions: thus we find these giants, who were able to devour Jacob a hundred times, so struck with terror that they faint away. Wherefore, whenever we see the wicked furiously bent on our destruction, lest our hearts should fail with fear and be broken by desperation, let us call to mind this terror of God, by which the rage, however furious, of the whole world may be easily subdued.

7. And he built there an altar. It has been already stated why it behaved the holy fathers, wherever they came, to have an altar of their own, distinct from those of other nations; namely, to make it manifest that they did not worship gods of various kinds, a practice to which the world was then everywhere addicted, but that they had a God peculiar to themselves. For although God is worshipped with the mind, yet an external confession is the inseparable companion of faith. Besides, all acknowledge how very useful it is to us to be stirred up by outward helps to the worship of God. If any one object that these altars differed nothing from other altars in appearance; I answer, that whereas others rashly, and with inconsiderate zeal, built altars to unknown gods, Jacob always adhered to the word of God. And there is no lawful altar but that which is consecrated by the word; nor indeed did the worship of Jacob excel by any other mark than this, that he attempted nothing beyond the command of God. In calling the name of the place “The God of Beth-el,”122122     As the word Beth-el means the House of God, the farther addition of El, the name of God, seems to be a tautology; and this is made by Calvin the basis of an objection which he proceeds to answer. — Ed. he is thought to be too familiar; and yet this very title commends the faith of the holy man, and that rightly, since he confines himself within the divinely prescribed bounds. The Papists act foolishly in affecting the praise of humility by a modesty which is most degrading. But the humility of faith is praiseworthy, seeing it does not desire to know more than God permits. And as when God descends to us, he, in a certain sense, abases himself, and stammers with us, so he allows us to stammer with him. And this is to be truly wise, when we embrace God in the manner in which he accommodates himself to our capacity. For in this way, Jacob does not keenly dispute concerning the essence of God, but renders God familiar to himself by the oracle which he has received. And because he applies his senses to the revelation, this stammering and simplicity (as I have said) is acceptable to God. Now, though at this day, the knowledge of God has shined more clearly, yet since God, in the gospel, takes upon him the character of a nursing father, let us learn to subject our minds to him; only let us remember that he descends to us in order to raise us up to himself. 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. Meanwhile this rule must be observed, that since the name of the altar was given by a celestial oracle, the building of it was a proof of faith. For where the living voice of God does not sound, whatever pomps may be introduced will be like shadowy spectres; as in the Papacy nothing can be seen except bladders filled with wind. It may be added that Jacob shows the constant tenor of his faith, from the time that God began to manifest himself to him; because he keeps in view the fact, that the angels had appeared unto him.123123     Quia apparuerunt ei Angeli dum fugeret a facie fratris sui In the English translation the name of God is put instead of angels, and no doubt rightly. The reason given for Calvin’s translation of the word אלהים (Elohim,) by angels is, that, contrary to the usual custom, when the word means God, it is accompanied by a verb in the plural number. But this is not conclusive. See note 2, vol. 1., p. 531, on chap. 20, ver. 13.
   Yet there is some difficulty in the passage, arising from the apparent harshness of the repetition of El, the name of God, in this title. Bush thinks that the first EL does not belong to the name of the place. Rivetus reads the first El as the genitive, supposing the word place to be understood. “And he called the place, ‘the place of the God of Beth-el.’ This Dathe thinks harsh, and he follows Michaelis in connecting למקום with the first אל And he called the place of God, Beth-el.” — Ed
For since the word is in the plural number, I willingly interpret it of angels; and this is not contrary to the former doctrine; for although the majesty of God was then conspicuous, so far as he could comprehend it, yet Moses does not without reason mention the angels whom Jacob saw ascending and descending on the steps of the ladder. For he then beheld the glory of God in the angels, as we see the splendor of the sun flowing to us through his rays.

8. But Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died. Here is inserted a short narration of the death of Deborah, whom we may conclude to have been a holy matron, and whom the family of Jacob venerated as a mother; for the name given in perpetuity to the place, testifies that she was buried with peculiar honor, and with no common mourning. Shortly afterwards the death and burial of Rachel are to be recorded: yet Moses does not say that any sign of mourning for Deborah was transmitted to posterity;124124     The meaning, perhaps, is, that no monumental pillar was raised to Deborah, as was done to Rachel; the probable reason given for the fact, namely, that she was regarded as a grandmother, does not seem very intelligible. — Ed. therefore it is probable that she was held by all in the place of a grandmother: But it may be asked, how she then happened to be in Jacob’s company, seeing that he had not yet come to his father; and the age of a decrepit old woman rendered her unfit for so long a journey.125125     It appears, from a calculation of the ages of Rebekah, of Jacob, and of Rachel, that Deborah must, at this time, have lived far beyond the common term of human life. “Jacob was then about one hundred and seven years of age. Isaac had been sixty years old when Jacob was born; he married Rebekah when he was at the age of forty, and she could not be less than twenty at the time of her marriage; it will follow that she bore twins in, or after, the fortieth year of her age. If these forty years be added to the one hundred and seven of Jacob’s life, this will make one hundred and forty-seven. Supposing Deborah to have been twenty-five when she was given as a nurse to Rebekah, she could not now be less than one hundred and seventy years old” — See Rivetus, p. 701. — Ed. Some interpreters imagine that she had been sent by Rebecca to meet her son Jacob; but I do not see what probability there is in the conjecture; nor yet have I anything certain to affirm, except that, perhaps, she had loved Jacob from a boy, because she had nursed him; and when she knew the cause of his exile, she followed him from her regard for religion. Certainly Moses does not in vain celebrate her death with an eulogy so remarkable.

9. And God appeared unto Jacob. Moses, having introduced a few words on the death of Deborah, recites a second vision, by which Jacob was confirmed, after his return to Bethel. Once, in this place, God had appeared unto him, when he was on his way into Mesopotamia. In the meantime God had testified in various methods, as need required, that he would be present with him everywhere through his whole journey; but now he is brought back again to that very place where a more illustrious and memorable oracle had been given him, in order that he may receive again a new confirmation of his faith. The blessing of God here means nothing else than his promise; for though men pray for blessings on each other; God declares himself to be the sole Dispenser of perfect happiness. Now Jacob heard at this time nothing new; but the same promise is repeated to him, that he, as one who had returned from captivity to his own country, and had gathered new strength to his faith, might accomplish with greater courage the remaining course of his life.

10. Thy name shall not be called any more Jacob. We have before given the meaning of these words. The former name is not abolished, but the dignity of the other, which was afterwards put upon him, is preferred: for he was called Jacob from the womb, because he had strongly wrestled with his brother; but he was afterwards called Israel, because he entered into contest with God, and obtained the victory; not that he had prevailed by his own power, (for he had borrowed courage and strength and arms from God alone,) but because it was the Lord’s will freely to confer upon him this honor. He therefore speaks comparatively, showing that the name Jacob is obscure and ignoble when compared with the name Israel. Some understand it thus, “Not only shalt thou be called Jacob, but the surname of Israel shall be added;” yet the former exposition seems to me the more simple; namely, that the old name, having in it less of splendor, should give place to the second. What Augustine adduces is specious rather than solid; namely, that he was called Jacob in reference to his present life, but Israel in reference to his future life. Let this, however, be regarded as settled, that a double name was given to the holy man, of which one was by far the most excellent; for we see that the prophets often combine them both, thus marking the constancy of God’s grace from the beginning to the end.

11. I am God Almighty. God here, as elsewhere, proclaims his own might, in order that Jacob may the more certainly rely on his faithfulness. He then promises that he will cause Jacob to increase and multiply, not only into one nation, but into a multitude of nations. When he speaks of “a nation,” he no doubt means that the offspring of Jacob should become sufficiently numerous to acquire the body and the name of one great people. But that follows concerning “nations” may appear absurd; for if we wish it to refer to the nations which, by gratuitous adoption, are inserted into the race of Abraham, the form of expression is improper: but if it be understood of sons by naturals descent, then it would be a curse rather shall a blessing, that the Church, the safety of which depends on its unity, should be divided into many distinct nations. But to me it appears that the Lord, in these words, comprehended both these benefits; for when, under Joshua, the people was apportioned into tribes, as if the seed of Abraham was propagated into so many distinct nations; yet the body was not thereby divided; it is called an assembly of nations, for this reason, because in connection with that distinction a sacred unity yet flourished. The language also is not improperly extended to the Gentiles, who, having been before dispersed, are collected into one congregation by the bond of faith; and although they were not born of Jacob according to the flesh; yet, because faith was to them the commencement of a new birth, and the covenant of salvation, which is the seed of spiritual birth, flowed from Jacob, all believers are rightly reckoned among his sons, according to the declaration, I have constituted thee a father of many nations.

And kings shall come out of thy loins. This, in my judgment, ought properly to be referred to David and his posterity; for God did not approve of the kingdom of Saul, and therefore it was not established; and the kingdom of Israel was but a corruption of the legitimate kingdom. I acknowledge truly that, sometimes, those things which have sprung from evil sources are numbered among God’s benefits; but because here the simple and pure benediction of God is spoken of, I willingly understand it of David’s successors only. Finally; Jacob is constituted the lord of the land, as the sole heir of his grandfather Abraham, and of his father Isaac; for the Lord manifestly excludes Esau from the holy family, when he transfers the dominion of the land, by hereditary right, to the posterity of Jacob alone.

13. And God went up from him. This ascent of God is analogous to his descent; for God, who fills heaven and earth, is yet said to descend to us, though he changes not his place, whenever he gives us any token of his presence; a mode of expression adopted in accommodation to our littleness. He went up, therefore, from Jacob, when he disappeared from his sight, or when the vision ended. By the use of such language, God shows us the value of his word, because, indeed, he is near to us in the testimony of his grace; for, seeing that there is a great distance between us and his heavenly glory, he descends to us by his word. This, at length, was fully accomplished in the person of Christ; who while, by his own ascension to heaven, he raised our faith thither; nevertheless dwells always with us by the power of his Spirit.

14. And Jacob set up a pillar. Though it is possible that he may again have erected a sacred monument, in memory of the second vision; yet I readily subscribe to the opinion of those who think that reference is made to what had been done before; as if Moses should say, that was the ancient temple of God, in which Jacob had poured forth his libation: for he had not been commanded to come thither for the sake of dwelling there; but in order that a fresh view of the place might renew his faith in the ancient oracle, and more fully confirm it. We read elsewhere that altars were built by the holy fathers, where they intended to remain longer; but their reason for doing so was different: for whereas Jacob had made a solemn vow in Beth-el, on condition that he should be brought back by the Lord in safety; thanksgiving is now required of him, after he has become bound by his vow,126126     Nune gratiarum actio ab eo exigitur, postquam reus voti factus est, ut confirmatus alio transeat. The French translation of “postquam reus voti factus est” is, “apres qu’il a eu jouissance de son souhait,” “after he had obtained the enjoyment of his wish;” and this would read more smoothly than the translation given above; but is “reus voti” capable of such a version? — Vide Lexicon Facciolati, sub voce reus. — Ed. that, being strengthened, he may pass onward on his journey.

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