BACK TO THE FUTURE (GENESIS 35:1-7)
In the movie "Back to the Future," Marty McFly, the character played by Michael J. Fox, paid a visit to his mad scientist friend Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown, who revealed to him that he had built a car powered by plutonium that could act as a time-machine upon reaching 88 miles per hour. Unfortunately, Marty also witnessed his friend's shooting death at the hands of Libyan terrorists angry at him for stealing plutonium from them. Fleeing the terrorists in Doc's car, Marty unwittingly sped to 88 miles per hour, transporting him back to his father's era.
To save Doc was not Marty's only concern in past time; his own future existence was also jeopardized when his mother had a crush on him instead of his wimpy father. Just when his mother finally fell in love with the right person -- Marty's dad, Marty left in the same car powered this time by a bolt of lightning, but not before leaving Marty a note to warn him of his death, but the idealistic Doc ripped apart the letter, refusing to interfere into history and change the future. On his return to 1985, Marty watched helplessly the same scene as the terrorists shot Doc to death. But to Marty's relief, Doc was wearing a bulletproof vest, confessing sheepishly he had read the letter after taping it back together.
Jacob had some unfinished business to do. He had to revisit the past to realize the future. So far, God's relationship with Jacob is terribly one-sided. Jacob was the grabber and never the giver, the beneficiary and never the blessing, the receiver and never the reverse. For Jacob to become Israel, he had to confront his past, trace his path and do his part.
What is the right way to view the past? How should Christians regard what has happened to them before -- be it good, bad or ugly? Why is the past not a potent foe but a potential friend?
Be Thou My Vision
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." (Gen 35:1)
How have you changed twenty years or more later? How are you different (question obviously not meant for teens)?
I have certainly changed after two decades in the United States. Education, work and marriage, in particular and in chronological order, changed me. Off and on, it took me eight years altogether to complete a Masters of Theology degree and a Doctor of Ministry degree. On the pastoral front, I was at two churches - starting an English worship in one and being a solo senior pastor in another. I taught in seminary the last nine years there and was married for more than ten years. Literature and internet ministry (preachchrist.com) also changed me. Becoming a citizen, buying a house, and speaking the language meant I was more integrated and more mainstream than most immigrants.
Like me, Jacob spent twenty long years away from home - in Haran (Gen 31:38), and he seemed to have forgotten a vow he made to God when his mother sent him away to escape his angry brother intent on killing him (Gen 27:42-45). His vow is worth examining once again because Jacob never vowed to reside in Bethel; he only vowed to acknowledge the Lord as his God in word and deed, the latter to be fulfilled in Bethel. Back to Genesis 28:20-22: "Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."
We are not sure if Jacob had forgotten his vow, but he sure delayed fulfilling it and postponed his return, settling instead in Succoth and then Shechem (Gen 33:17-18). Scholars like Allen Ross believed that "his indifference to those vows provided the occasion for Dinah's defilement by Shechem," which occurred in the previous chapter. (Bible Knowledge Commentary "Genesis 35:1") After more than 20 years outside of Bethel, worshipping the Lord in Bethel was an afterthought, out of sight, ought of mind. Jacob had made peace with his father-in-law Laban and with his brother Esau, but he did not make right with God. The difference between the altars of Jacob and his forefathers Abraham (Gen 12:7-8, 13:4, 18, 22:9) and Isaac (Gen 26:25) was that they voluntarily built an altar to the Lord, while Jacob had to be ordered to do so. Sure, he previously built one in Shechem (Gen 33:20) but it was one of convenience, without cost or commitment; it was in his own backyard.