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“To Be Continued”

Genesis 35:1-29
Bob DeGray
November 18, 2007

Key Sentence

Even as God calls you to fulfill your vows, he is faithfully at work to fulfill his promises.


I. God calls you to fulfill your vows. (Genesis 35:1-8)
II. God always renews his promises (Genesis 35:9-15)
III. God prepares for further fulfillments (Genesis 35:16-29)


Books and movies are often divided into chapters, acts and scenes, that both stand alone and set up the next chapter, act or scene. Not until the end are all the plot elements resolved. One of my favorite movies does this well; it’s Mr Holland’s Opus. In 1965 a musician named Glen Holland begins to teach high school music to make ends meet, hoping it won’t distract too much from his composing. But it turns into a thirty year side trip, and Mr. Holland never quite gets back to his masterwork.

But he becomes a fine teacher, in part due to a challenge by the principal, Mrs. Jacobs:


One of the first students Mr. Holland inspires is a struggling clarinet player, Miss Lang:


When a good author resolves a plot element like this, it still has implications later in the story. The author of Genesis, Moses, or God, is a very good author, He knows how to tie things together and yet keep things going.

In today’s text, Genesis 35, we’ll see some major plot elements resolved as Jacob is finally faithful to his vows, and as God show his faithfulness. But some plot elements are preparation for later chapters about Joseph and his brothers. This story is to be continued’. And God still works that way: even as he calls you to fulfill your vows, he is faithfully at work to fulfill his promises. Your story is also ‘to be continued’.

I. God calls you to fulfill your vows. (Genesis 35:1-8)

At the start of chapter 35 Jacob is called to fulfill his vows. Verses 1 to 8: 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."

2So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. 3Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone." 4So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.

5Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them. 6Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. 7There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing his brother. 8Now Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth.

Last week we saw a disaster at Shechem. Jacob had returned to the promised land, but not to Bethel. He camped too close to the wrong city, tried to buy a place to settle down, and sufferedall kinds of consequences, including violation of his daughter and violence by his sons. Now God has to say to Jacob: go to Bethel, settle there, build an altar to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing.

Jacob has to go to Bethel, because the vow he made there 30 years early has not yet been fulfilled. He’d said "If God will be with me and keep me on this journey I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21and I return to my father's house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22This stone, which I have set as a pillar, will be God's house, and of all You give me I will surely give a tenth to You."

It’s a three part vow: to make the Lord his God, which happened at the ford of Jabbok, to make Bethel his place of worship, which hasn’t happened yet, and to give the Lord a tenth of all he receives. Some would say that never happens, but I think when Jacob sends the huge flock of animals to Esau in chapter 32, he’s giving at least a tenth, and giving it to God. He says to Esau: “if now I have found favor in your sight, take my present from my hand, for I see your face as one sees the face of God.” Giving to Esau is a way of fulfilling that part of the vow.

So the missing part is worship at Bethel, and God has to initiate it. When he does, Jacob says to his wives, sons and servants: get rid of your foreign gods, purify your selves, change your clothes. This is the first time these commands for purity appear in Scripture. But it’s also about the first time we’ve seen in detail how interaction with ungodly culture can impact God’s people: purification is needed. Rachel needs to get rid of the idols she stole from her father. The sons, I think, need to repent of their revenge against Shechem. They all need new clothes, a symbol of purity.

Having taken all the impure things and buried them under an oak tree, the clans set out for Bethel. The text says “the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.” Until the massacre at Shechem no one would have thought to pursue them. But due to the sinful vengeance taken by Jacob’s sons, the whole clan now needs Gods special protection to travel safely.

Now they come to Bethel, Canaanite Luz, and Jacob keeps his vow. He builds an altar and calls the place not just Bethel, house of God, but El Bethel, God of the house of God, because his focus is rightly not on the place, but on the God who had met him there when he was fleeing Esau,

Verse 8 is about plot resolution: Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under an oak below Bethel, the “Oak of Weeping”. When Jacob fled from Esau his mother Rebekah said he should stay in Haran until she called him back. This mention of the death of her elderly nurse, but not hers, draws dramatic attention to the fact that she’s never mentioned again. Why? Maybe because Rebekah never learned to depend on God, clung to her deceptiveness and manipulation. We don’t know.

But the point is that God calls Jacob to keep his vows, and we too are called to faithfulness and commitment. Now the only explicit vows you may every have made may have been wedding vows. But I think you’ve made many implicit vows; to faithful parenting before God, to righteousness, to wholehearted service. Haven’t you ever told God you want to be his, serve him, represent him well? I think God calls you to keep those Biblical commitments, in marriage, in parenting, in serving him.

One of the hard things in Glen Holland’s life is the recognition that his son, Cole, is deaf. Cole eventually learns to communicate with sign language, but his father, busy and disappointed, never really catches on. It becomes a major conflict between Holland and his wife. She sees misplaced priorities: always something at school more important than his son. It comes to a head when John Lennon dies in 1980. Cole asks what’s wrong and his father says ‘you’d never understand’. Cole confronts him: you must think I’m dense not to know about Lennon or the Beatles: you’re my father; I care what’s important to you. I could learn more if you’d help me. And so Glen Holland is faced with a call to fulfill the implicit vows we all make as parents: will I love and care for my children? Here’s part of his response:


Each of us needs to ask ourselves if were being faithful to the commitments we’ve made. Maybe you need to show live out your commitment to your spouse or your kids, or to serving God and following hard after him, putting aside everything that distracts and pollutes. God calls us to fulfill our vows.

II. God always renews his promises (Genesis 35:9-15)

The second point is that God is faithful to his promises. Verses 9 to 15: After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. 10God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel." So he named him Israel. 11And God said to him, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. 12The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you." 13Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him. 14Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. 15Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.

Despite ten yearsl spent at Succoth and Shecem, the author says Jacob was returning from Paddan Aram, because he’s now where he should have gone. And God appears to him again, in the same place Jacob had dreamed of the ladder and the angels.

God first renews the blessing that was given at the fords of Jabbok: he reinforces the name change that was first pronounced there: “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob, your name will be Israel.” Jacob had been Jacob in Shechem: self interested and prayerless if not deceptive. So God changes his name again to Israel and says ‘you’re not going to be called Jacob any longer.’ He’s actually still at times called Jacob, but often Israel.

The first part of this vision reinstates what God did at Jabbok. The second part restates the covenant promises God made at Bethel. This is now the sixth or seventh time in 24 chapters God has made these promises. They always include numerous descendants, possession of the land, and other promises like ‘nations and kings will come from you’. God repeats himself, because it’s important, and we need to keep hearing it over and over. Even as we try to walk in faithfulness, we need to have our ears tuned for the gracious, unconditional promises of God. He’s not done with Jacob yet: his story comes with promises and is ‘to be continued.’ In the same way God is not finished with us yet; no matter what, our story is also ‘to be continued’.

In response to this renewed appearance of God, Jacob renews the place of worship; he rededicates the pillar he had set up, and he names the place again, Bethel. Some critics have said ‘oh, this is too much like the episode in chapter 28 - they must be one event.’ But it’s been thirty years. It makes sense for Jacob to re-memorialize this place as ‘the house of God’ when God appears there a second time.

So now we’ve seen that even as we are called to fulfill our vows to God, implied or explicit. At the same time God will renew his promises to us, and stamp our story ‘to be continued.’ In Mr. Holland’s opus, Principal Jacobs had challenged him to provide a compass to his students. Years later, at her retirement, she commends him. But she also, essentially, stamps his story ‘to be continued’.


III. God prepares for further fulfillments (Genesis 35:16-29)

God calls us to faithfulness, and by his faithfulness he stamps our story ‘to be continued’. But individual chapters, while setting the stage for what is to come, still have to come to a close. In the last verses of chapter 35 we see the authors of Genesis setting the stage for the next big story, of Joseph and his brothers.

Verses 16 to 29: Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. 17And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, "Don't be afraid, for you have another son." 18As she breathed her last--for she was dying--she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. 19So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb. 21Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. 22While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father's concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

Jacob had twelve sons: 23The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. 24The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25The sons of Rachel's maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. 26The sons of Leah's maidservant Zilpah: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram. 27Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. 28Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. 29Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Jacob’s clan remained at Bethel for some time, but like his father and grand-father, he soon began to move around the Promised Land. But on the way to Ephratha, or Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor. Jacob’s other children, including Joseph, were born in Haran at least ten years before. Now, in her second pregnancy, Rachel is older, and the labor and delivery is very difficult. She gives birth to a healthy boy, but with her dying breath names him Ben-oni, son of my sorrow. Jacob, after her death, honors her by renaming the boy Benjamin - son of my right hand.

Jacob buried Rachel and raised a pillar. The author says that when he wrote the pillar was still there. It may still be: near Bethlehem today an ancient pillar of eleven stones stands under a dome, and has since antiquity been known as Rachel’s tomb.

Verses 21-22 sound like last week: “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. 22While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father's concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.” Jacob is familiarly passive in spite of gross sin, but the verses also serve the plot of Genesis. Reuben, the first born of Jacob, would normally be the heir of the line of promise. But in the end he isn’t and this verse explains why: he lost it as a consequence of sin.

In Genesis 49 Jacob says of Reuben “you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. 4Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father's bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” You lost it, Reuben. So did Simeon and Levi, setting the stage for Judah to be the head of the line of promise, of David, and of Christ.

Verses 22 to 26 are a list of the twelve sons, including Benjamin, the complete number of Jacob’s descendants, the original twelve tribes of Israel.

Finally, in verse 27, Jacob comes full circle. This scene, this chapter, this act ends where it began so long ago: “Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. 28Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. 29Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”

We’re never told how it went with Isaac’s faith during his long years of decline. In fact he’s almost as neglected as Rebekah. All he gets is this simple notice of his long life and eventual death. And just as Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham, despite their differences, so also Jacob and Esau bury their father Isaac together.

So what have we seen? God is wrapping up the details of Jacob’s full circle journey while setting the stage for the next chapters. Jacob left as the deceiver, he returns as the perseverer, the one who fulfills his vows and experiences God’s presence and God’s promises. Not everything is perfect or complete, but there is a sense of resolution, a sense of mission accomplished. God himself had a hard task in Jacob, but he saw it through, did the work, and out of a very muddled beginning Jacob ends up as the clear focus of God’s blessing and covenant. And when God calls us to faithfulness, he himself is faithfully at work in and through us to fulfill his promises.

In the same way Mr. Holland’s Opus ends with a sense of fulfillment and faithfulness. Throughout the movie one of the chief foils has been Gene Wolters, first as vice principal and then as principal of the high school. After thirty years he informs Mr. Holland that the whole music program is being shut down. Mr. Holland packs up in discouragement and defeat. But the story celebrates faithfulness and fulfillment.


Maybe we go through life not really sure we’re accomplishing anything. But if we’re faithful to our commitments, God is faithful to his promises and he does fulfill in and through our lives.