Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.”
I have recently devoted my study time to re-reading the Bible again, beginning in Genesis, with the goal to get to really know my God. I don't want to skip over the difficult names or skim through the familiar stories before being convinced that I have gleaned the character and the attributes of God from what I'm reading. I confess that my view of God could use some expanding. He is so much more than my casual Scripture reading has informed me.
Such is the case with this portion of Scripture that I have chosen today. It is but a small verse in the dynamic and interesting story of the patriarch Jacob. By the time we get to Chapter 35, Jacob has been born, literally on the heels of his brother Esau. He has taken advantage of not only being his mother's favorite son, but of his brother's carelessness in giving away his birthright. Jacob has received his father, Isaac's blessing; and fearing an angry Esau, he sojourns to the land of his mother.
On the way there, God visits Jacob in a dream and very plainly tells him that He will bless Jacob and his seed with the land, always be with him, and protect him until He had accomplished His purpose. Jacob awakes from the dream and knows the Lord was there. I can imagine him waking, and exclaiming, "The Lord really exists!" He also recognizes the awesomeness of that visit, thereby constructing an altar, calling it Bethel (House of God).
Now you would think after such a visit that one would never question the will of God in your life again. But like us, Jacob loses his view of who God is. He continues on his journey, labors for many years for his uncle in order to earn his wives Leah and Rachel. He also manages to trick his father-in-law, and secures for himself a large herd of livestock and many servants before Jehovah instructs him to return to the land of his fathers. His relationship with his brother will be restored, he will have many sons and life looks good for Jacob. But even though God has His hand upon Jacob, the sins of Jacob are present. Which goes a long way towards making me feel that I am not hopeless in the eyes of my God.
Through every twist and turn of his life's events, we see signs of dishonesty and distrust in Jacob. I think he believed God when He appeared to him and told him He would always be with him, and that a nation and kings would come from his loins. I think he even believed God's promise that the land would be given to him and his posterity. Yet, Jacob always seems to hedge his bet, controlling situations just in case God needs some help in delivering His promises.
Although Jacob is told that God will be with him when he returns to confront Esau, he separates his wives and possessions, to protect them in case God doesn't come through. He exhibits a trust issue that I, too, am guilty of. He even wrestles with the angel of the Lord, which I think exhibits his (and our) reluctance to turn over control of everything in our lives to God. But through all the backsliding, God is faithful in His covenant with Jacob, now called Israel. And I believe that as Jacob lived out his life, he became more aware of how precious this covenant was and how much he must have grieved the Lord each time he strayed from righteousness.
That was most evident when his sons Simeon and Levi took it upon themselves to avenge their sister Dinah's reputation, after she was violated by Shechem, the son of the Hivite prince. Although Dinah may have played a part in her own circumstances by "going out to see the daughters of the land" (Verse 34:1) instead of avoiding association with pagans, her brothers never-the-less decided to take judgment and vengeance into their own hands. Their scheme was clever: they would allow Shechem to marry Dinah if the men of the town agreed to be circumcised. And while the Hivite men were recuperating, the sons of Jacob slew them all and plundered the town.
Jacob feared that this use of God's "sign" as a treacherous means of revenge, instead of the holy signature of God's chosen people, would offend the God of Israel and their covenant could be removed. This is a long round-about way to get to the significance of our verse today. Jacob must have fallen to his knees in sorrow and confessed that he knew his sons had abused and squandered the holy meaning of circumcision. I'm sure he begged God not to remove His covenant with His people.
And what does God do? He tells Jacob in Chapter 35, verse 1 to get up and go back to Bethel, the place where God had first appeared to him in a dream. He reminds Jacob that it was here that he first recognized that God was real and God confirmed His presence. And it was here that Jacob erected his first altar to God, honoring their relationship. In this verse, God is reconfirming His presence and His purpose in Jacob's life; He is reconfirming that He is a faithful God who will never rescind His covenant. And He tells Jacob to build another altar; to rededicate his relationship with Him.
How many times do I need to go back and revisit those times that God made His presence known in my life? Like Jacob, I wrestle with God and try to control my own circumstances .... just in case. And how gracious and faithful has God been each time, after I have offended Him with my choices? This verse is a great comfort to me. It is God telling me (us) that anytime we make a wrong turn, we should return to those places in our memories when we felt His presence and there was evidence of His existence. He's still there! We can pick ourselves up and recommit to Him. He will not abandon us or negate His personal covenant with us. And like Jacob, we can declare our God "answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went." Thank you, God, for who You are!