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 when the car reaches 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 for the car 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)
It's hard to leave a place after 20 years of residence. I should know after deciding to leave United State for Asia after living 21 years abroad. It was not my idea in the first place. A year before we left, my wife implored me to go with her to her native Hong Kong. She was homesick, missing her sisters terribly and desiring to teach Chinese for a change after teaching in an American university for seven years. I had gained much experience over two decades there, from starting an English worship to leading a bilingual English-Mandarin congregation and teaching in a local seminary, and from internet ministry (preachchrist.com) to literature ministry, so it was time for her to spread her wings..
Informing my church was the harder part after 10 years there, but I did not want the church to be in the dark while I was applying for ministries elsewhere. When I told the vice-chair (the pastor was the chair) I was resigning, he was shocked and answered, "I don't know what to say."
Much as my wife wanted to return to Hong Kong, she prayed for me to find a ministry before she got a job, but finding a ministry in Hong Kong was harder than I thought because serving as a pastor in a local church was not an option since I was not native. Less than six months before we left I received an offer to teach in a seminary. My wife's confirmation of a job was more tenuous. Less than a month before our departure my wife finally received a solid offer.
Jacob spent twenty long years away from home - in Haran (Gen 31:38), 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.