Summary: Jacob had met the LORD at Bethel when he fled from Esau, his brother. Now, some twenty years later, he's on his way back to Bethel but things are much different than before.
Foreword: Full disclosure, there is a message on this site, which I prepared, called “Back to Bethel” in a series about Bethel experiences. This message here is not a rehash of the previous message, but, as both messages are based on the same text, some overlap in probably unavoidable but is definitely unintentional.
Introduction: Jacob had left his home twenty or so years before this event, and had stopped at Bethel for the night. Genesis 28:10-22 has the story. Jacob and the others had stayed at Shalem (Gen. 34) and had faced a disaster. It’s at a time like this when God spoke to Jacob and gave him some encouraging, and needful, words.
1 God’s commands to Jacob
Text: Genesis 35:1, KJV: 1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.
The previous chapter gives the sad story of how Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, decided to visit the nearby city but was kidnapped and held captive by the ruler’s son. Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s second and third brothers, led a rescue effort and got her back to her family. The reaction, if any, is never recorded in Scripture, nor was what ever happened to Dinah after she was reunited.
Something else not mentioned is this: there is no record that Jacob or any of his sons ever prayed or sought God’s will and guidance for what to do. They took matters into their own hands and could have caused more grief or problems than what they accomplished.
Now God steps in and gives Jacob a few very specific commands, “Go up to Bethel, dwell there, and make an altar to God, Who appeared to you when you fled from Esau, your brother.” We can also see how gracious God is, in that He didn’t chide or chastise Jacob in any way. Chances are, Jacob couldn’t wait to get away from Shalem and might have gone anyplace just to “leave it in his rearview mirror,” to use a recent phrase.
And Jacob took command of the situation, giving commands to his household.
2 Jacob’s commands to his household
Text, Genesis 35:2-4, KJV: 2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: 3 And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. 4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.
Now Jacob takes the lead, probably one of the few times he found himself in this kind of situation. It’s interesting that Moses records Jacob’s words not only to his household, but also “to all that were with him”.
The first command of Jacob was to “put away the strange [foreign] gods among you”. To review. Jacob’s sons had basically captured all the women and children of Shalem after the revenge raid against Hamor and Shechem (chapter 34). Had any of these people from Shalem converted to faith in the God of Jacob? Or had they kept their idols, of whatever size, in their possession? The text doesn’t say. This would be reason enough for Jacob to command everyone to once and for all get rid of these things. After all, none of these “strange gods” had been able to protect the people of Shalem! Even Laban’s images were not even able to protect themselves from being stolen (before this, Rachel had stolen her father’s “images”, see Gen. 31:31-35)!”
After this, Jacob commanded the people to “be clean”. This phrase is translated “purify yourselves” in several other versions. It’s not certain what would be involved or required to do this, but there is a hint of what they did in verse 4, where the people gave Jacob the idols and the earrings. Jacob hid all of this under the oak near Shechem.
Next, Jacob told the people to “change [their] garments”. The significance of what this really means may be lost or unknown to us but it was very real to the people back then. Some think this was for Jacob’s sons (and, perhaps, others) whose garments might be stained from the raid on the men, or perhaps the people’s garments had become soiled, stained, etc. In Deuteronomy 21, similar procedures were commanded for women taken captive in battle: she was to shave her head, and put away her original garments, while mourning her parents for 30 days. This, however, was not commanded here: the Law of Moses didn’t come into existence for many years in the future.