Jacob Returns to Bethel, Genesis 35

Then God said to Jacob, ‘Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.’” –Genesis 35:1

Once again, God tells Jacob to settle in Bethel (and build an altar). Bethel is where Jacob first encountered God and built an altar to worship Him. It’s also where Jacob is first told about God’s plan to bless him.

You may read Genesis 35 here: Bible Gateway.

Jacob gives his clan a spiritual prep talk as he seeks a fresh start with God. Purification would involve the removal of all foreign gods, and be symbolized through the changing of their clothes.

Why did the people have idols in the first place? These were sometimes viewed more as good luck charms rather than gods. Their earrings were also viewed as good luck charms to buffer evil. But Jacob didn’t want anything—not even good luck trinkets—to distract his family’s spiritual focus.

As Jacob and his people set out to Bethel (in the land of Canaan), “the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them” (vs. 5).

Small wonder after what Jacob’s sons did to the people of Shechem! But God’s protective hand is also evident as Jacob obeys and sets up an altar in Bethel.

God renews His promise to give Jacob many descendants and the land (vs. 9-12), just as He first promised Abraham and Isaac. God also affirms Jacob’s new name, Israel, which means “he struggles with God”.

Jacob sets up a second pillar in Bethel as a memorial to God’s faithfulness. Similar to 30 years earlier, he sanctifies (sets apart) the stone and pours oil over it. By using the most expensive olive oil with the finest grade in purity, Jacob demonstrates his great respect where he meets with God. He also gives God an offering and reaffirms the name Bethel, which means “house of God”.

The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac

Rachel—who had desperately wanted a child—sadly dies while giving birth to her second son (vs. 16-19). She names him Ben-Oni, which means “son of my trouble”. But Jacob renames him Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand”.

Along with a list of Jacob’s sons, Isaac’s death is also recorded at the end of chapter 35. Isaac lives for 12 years after Jacob relocates to Hebron. He also grieves Joseph’s seeming death. He dies soon after Joseph’s promotion in Egypt—at the age of 180—and is buried near Hebron in the Machpelah Cave.

Reuben’s Ruse

Reuben—Jacob and Leah’s firstborn—is now an adult. He helps himself to Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (vs. 22). (Although Bilhah held some privileges of a wife, she didn’t share in all of a wife’s benefits.)

Why would Reuben do such a foolish thing?

Layman’s Bible Commentary asserts: “Reuben’s relations with Bilhah are a power move as much as anything else. In that culture, a man who wanted to assert his superiority over another man might do so by having sexual relations with that man’s wife or concubine. It may have included a play for asserting his mother’s role as ‘first wife.’ With the death of Rachel, who had been Jacob’s favorite, Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, may have been able to move into a favored role. Reuben’s actions make Bilhah detestable to Jacob; thus Leah has a better chance for power in the household.”

Reuben may have thought he got away with his ruse. His actions, however, cost him in the end when Jacob gives his double portion to Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1-2). The use of Israel instead of Jacob in verse 22 may indicate that the patriarch responds in a correct manner, instead of how the old Jacob might have responded.


God desires and deserves our obedience. Compromise not only hinders our walk with God, but also hurts those around us.

God desires and deserves our obedience. Compromise not only hinders our walk with God, but also hurts those around us.

Sometimes—instead of a steady pace—my walk with God feels more like two steps forward and one step back. How about you?

Jacob the patriarch wasn’t perfect either. Setbacks marked his life. But I love that his new name characterized his desire to stay close to God. Despite life’s challenges and upsets, he learned to prevail with God.

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you know that being a believer doesn’t make life easier. But we have a powerful God who is always ready to help us through life’s storms. Like Israel, let’s determine to prevail with God and cast aside all idols (anything that we put before God).

Have a great week!

7 thoughts on “Jacob Returns to Bethel, Genesis 35

  1. There are so many truths in the Old Testament that are pertinent today. I love how you weave the two together. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thank you! I didn’t realize how many great truths and insights there are in the Old Testament until diving into Genesis. Thanks for your visit and encouragement!

  2. Thank you for the insight. It helped me as, in reading the account I wondered… about the impact on Bilhah since when Absolom slept with his father’s wives their lives were ruined.

    If there are any more sources or oral history on this I’d love to explore it.

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