Obedience and Tragedy

A sermon on Genesis 35 and 36 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 9/26/04

Does obedience lead to reward?

Last week we saw the dangers of putting off obedience. When Jacob returned to the land of Canaan after 20 years away, he should have returned to Bethel, the place where God had first met him. And he should have returned to his father. He does neither, spending ten years in Succoth and near Canaanite city of Shechem. In consequence of this delayed obedience, the ugly events of Chapter 34 take place: Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped, and the city of Shechem is then raped by Jacob’s revengeful sons, Simeon and Levi.

So we concluded:

In today’s text, Jacob at long last obeys God. He returns to Bethel, and afterwards returns to his father.And having obeyed, what happens?

·        Does Jacob now live in peace, without the stresses and strains seen in the last few chapters?

Not at all. As we shall see, the story of Jacob’s obedience is followed directly by the stories of two tragedies, and bracketed by the deaths two elderly people.

Why does God do this? Doesn’t He want to encourage us to obedience?

If you want to teach obedience, don’t you tell stories in which disobedience is punished and obedience is rewarded? Did your parents tell you stories like that when you were young? So why doesn’t God tell us stories like that?

My friends, God’s goal is not to bribe us into obedience. If that were His goal, He could accomplish it easily. After all, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The whole earth is His.

And those of you who are parents know that bribing children into obedience works temporarily, but utterly fails in the long run, for it does nothing to change the child’s character, to change the child’s inner desires.

God doesn’t generally tell us such stories in the Bible because God is working out something different in the lives of his wayward patriarchs. Let’s see how He accomplishes that in part during these two chapters, which we’ll consider under five headings:

Jacob in Charge

God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. 5 And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. Genesis 35:1-5

God commands Jacob to do what he should have done ten years earlier – at long last to return to Bethel, where God had appeared to him 30 years before. He is to “dwell there” for a time – not at Shechem or Succoth, where he has spent the last decade.

Jacob has learned his lesson. Unlike in the previous chapter where he is indecisive and passive in the face of the rape of his daughter, here he prepares himself and his household.

Jacob prepares his household in part by telling them to put away their forieign gods. Where did these idols come from? Remember that Rachel had stolen Laban’s gods when the family fled from him (Genesis 31). Perhaps they had collected more during the plundering of Shechem (Genesis 34). In any event, the immoral lives and religion of the Shechemites had begun to influence Jacob’s family during their long stay near that city. Perhaps they considered these idols as just pretty, valuable statues, or interesting cultural artifacts. But even if they were not worshiping these gods, the idols presented a temptation, and a reminder of the pagan religion that influenced them at Shechem. So Jacob rightly discerns that all of these must go.

He also commands his household to purify themselves – to prepare to meet God. One aspect of purifying themselves is to changer their garments. Remember, at this time and in this culture, people did not routinely own 30 different sets of clothes. A rich person might have four or five; a poor person, only what he wears. So changing clothes – even for a rich person – is a relatively rare event. So changing clothes is a picture of a change in the inner self. So this action is an outward picture of the inner purifying that Jacob commanded.

Jacob realizes that God has been with him every step of the way, and that he must honor Him at Bethel. So his household obeys him, and they go.

Chapter 34 ends with the indecisive Jacob fearing the revenge of the Canaanites after the rape of Shechem. Here, decisive Jacob steps forward by faith, and the sovereign God puts fear in the hearts of the Canaanites so that they do not pursue him.

So here at the beginning of chapter 35 we see Jacob at his best:

Jacob obeys God. His household follows him. He returns to Bethel:

The Return to Bethel

And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. Genesis 35:6-7

Finally, Jacob arrives at Bethel. Finally, he builds an altar there and worships God, who met him and encouraged him so many years before when he was in great fear of Esau.

And he renames the place. Bethel means house of God. Remember, we criticized Jacob for delighting in the PLACE more than in the GOD who met him at this place. Jacob now realizes that earlier error, so renames the place El Bethel – “The God of Bethel”, or “the God of the house of God”. He now sees that God is the one who should be exalted - not the place! Jacob is learning what it means to be God-centered.

So Jacob is learning his lessons. Will his life now settle down into an easy, joyful retirement? We get an initial hint that this will not be the case. Right here at Bethel, a death occurs:

And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. Genesis 35:8

Rebekah is Jacob and Esau’s mother. We are told in Genesis 24:61 that Rebekah brought servants with her when Abraham’s servant brought her to Isaac. Deborah must have been one of those young women – now, about 150 years later, an old, faithful, beloved servant. We’re not told when she left Rebekah and Isaac and came to Jacob – presumably after Rebekah died.

But that is the curious point. Why does the author of Genesis include the death of Deborah – but say nothing about the death of Rebekah herself? The death of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is recorded. The death of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, is recorded. But not the death of Rebekah.

We can’t know for sure why her death is left out. But recording Deborah’s death seems to underline the gap. The author seems to be drawing attention to his intentionally leaving out Rebekah’s death.

Perhaps this explanation is that Rebekah sinned grievously in conspiring with Jacob to deceive Isaac. Now, the author of Genesis records sins of both Sarah and Rachel – yet they both clearly repent. There’s no record of Rebekah’s repentance – and perhaps that indicates that she didn’t repent.

In any event, Deborah’s death gives a note of sadness to this time of rejoicing – and that turns out to be a foretaste of the tragedies to come.

Nevertheless, after Deborah’s death, God speaks to Jacob for the last time in his life:

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." So he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you." Genesis 35:9-12

It is more than ten years since God spoke to Jacob at Penuel. These ten years have been characterized by Jacob’s disobedience rather than his obedience. He has hardly lived up to his new name, Israel, ‘God prevails”. But in this appearance, God makes clear that the new name holds, despite the lost years. He reiterates that Israel is indeed Jacob’s new name, calling him by that name. Then God emphasizes His sovereign might – His power over all foes, all opponents, all sinfulness, all pride. He will show clearly that He is God Almighty in the last 15 chapters of Genesis.

God then reiterates his promise of offspring. Jacob can see his many sons, but God promises more: They will become nations, and kings of nations.

Then God reiterates the promise of this land of Canaan, given to Jacob and to his offspring.

In effect, in this revelation God says, “Despite your disobedience, Jacob, My promises hold. You have returned. You indeed are MINE. I am your God. And despite your past disobedience, I will fulfill every promise made to you.”

Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. Genesis 35:13

God’s ascending from this place not only ends this encounter but ALL direct encounters between God and the patriarchs. In the rest of Genesis, God is very much in control, but He does not again appear and speak to men. Instead, he reveals Himself through dreams and circumstances. Indeed, in the biblical narrative, God will not again speak to a man directly until the incident with Moses at burning bush (Exodus 3) – more than 400 years later.

So God gives Jacob the privilege of a final meeting, a final underlining of all the promises He has given him during his lifetime.

Jacob returns to Bethel, where he first encountered God, and God graciously meets him one final time here. Jacob is obedient. God meets him.

Two Tragedies

But immediately upon their departure, the narrative relates a deep tragedy:

When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, "Do not fear, for you have another son." 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. Genesis 35:16-20

When Joseph was born, Rachel had prayed for another son. Now, about 16 years later, she finally has that son – but she dies in childbirth. She calls him “Son of my sorrow,” but Jacob, for the first time, uses his authority to name a son: He instead calls him “Son of my right hand.”

Rachel is the woman he always wanted to marry. Rachel is his favorite, his delight.

God takes Rachel from him. Obedience – then tragedy.

And then they stop for a while, perhaps to mourn for Rachel before continuing to Isaac’s dwelling. And during this pause, another tragedy occurs: this one involving the sin of his oldest son.

Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine. And Israel heard of it. Genesis 35:22

As the firstborn, Reuben should have the birthright – just like Esau. But, like Esau, Reuben forfeits that birthright because of sin.

Why did he do this? Why would he have sexual relations with the mother of two of his brothers?

We can’t rule out simple lust. But Reuben at this point is in his mid-twenties and Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, must be at least 40. If lust were the only issue, there probably were younger, more attractive women around. Thus, it seems likely that something more is going on.

Reuben may be trying to wrest control of the family from his aging father. As Absalom later will have sexual relations with David’s concubines to show the people that he is taking over the kingdom, Reuben may be doing something similar here.

Or perhaps he’s staining Bilhah in Jacob’s eyes, so that she, the maidservant of the deceased favorite wife, cannot become the new favorite wife instead of his mother, Leah.

But whatever the reason, for Jacob this must be a hard blow, coming right after the death of Rachel. He effectively loses one of his wives and his oldest son – the son who, most of all, should have been a support and aid in his old age.

So Jacob obeys God and goes to Bethel – but then loses one wife to death, and loses a wife and a son to adultery.

Obedience – yet tragedy

The Return to Isaac

Yet Jacob continues to obey, at long last fulfilling his obligation to return to his father and seek forgiveness for all that happened 30 years previously:

And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. Genesis 35:27-29

The author tells us nothing of what went on between Jacob and Isaac. But given how God has worked with Jacob, I believe that reconciliation did indeed take place.

Yet even here, even in the midst of this reconciliation, the author tells us of Isaac’s death, effectively bracketing the stories of Jacob’s obedience in going to Bethel and Isaac with the deaths of Deborah and Isaac.

Deborah dead. Isaac dead. Rachel dead. Reuben and Bilhah disgraced.

All this happens after Jacob gets his life in order and obeys God. Does obedience pay?

The Success of Disobedient Esau

That question is highlighted even more by Chapter 36, which concludes the story of Esau. Esau has been disobedient to God. What happens to him?

Esau has been a central figure in Genesis since his birth in chapter 25. His actions and threats have had a major influence on Jacob’s life. The name “Esau” is mentioned 68 times in chapters 25-36. But he will not be mentioned again in the remainder of Genesis.

This chapter elaborates on what we have already seen: Esau went to the land of Seir (which became known as the land of Edom, named after him) and founded a kingdom. His descendants became wealthy and powerful. This nation was stronger than the descendants of Israel for many centuries. Indeed, as verse 31 tells us:

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.

God has promised that kings will come from the offspring of Jacob – but Esau produces kings much more quickly. Indeed, at this point it sure looks like Esau is more successful than Jacob. Both have large flocks, both have many children, but Esau has established his presence in a land with strong natural defenses. In just a few years his descendants become kings, ruling over a powerful kingdom. At the same time Jacob’s descendants flee a drought and end up as slaves in Egypt.

So for several hundred years, the descendants of the son who rejected his birthright are more powerful, have more wealth, and have more influence than the descendants of the son chosen by God. The brother who never gives a thought to God establishes a kingdom, while the brother who repents and turns to God, and obeys him, doesn’t.

What’s wrong with this picture?


Does obedience “pay”?

It sure doesn’t seem to pay in the life of Jacob, particularly when compared to Esau.

But the Bible gives two answers to this question.  

First: God’s perspective is not limited to only a few hundred years. God’s perspective is of all time.

So about 800 years after these events, the descendants of Jacob, led by David, will conquer the descendants of Esau. And about 200 years after that, the kingdom of Edom will be completely destroyed, as prophesied by Obadiah. God sees that. He knows that. And He ensures that it will come about.

Friends, we must not look at the results of obedience in our own lifetimes. Indeed, our perspective must be an eternal one. All wrongs will NOT be righted in this world. But God promises that in the end, every sin will be paid for. Those who reject God will indeed suffer eternal punishment, while those who seek His face and lean not on their own obedience but on the blood of Jesus to cover their sins will spend eternity with Him, delighting in Him and coming to know more and more of His infinite goodness day by day by day, without end.

As Peter tells us, we have an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

As John Piper’s seminary professor, Dan Fuller, used to say, “I want to do today what I won’t regret in 800 years.”

We need God’s perspective on time. We need an eternal perspective on the results of turning to God. As we quoted Paul last week, in this life, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But in the life to come, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. . . .  Behold, I am making all things new!"

So, my friends, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” – and not on rewards in this life.

Second: Consider these words of Jesus Christ:

7 "Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'?  8 Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'?  9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'" Luke 17:7-10 

What is Jesus saying here?

Obedience is its own reward. When we obey, we are taking on the character of Jesus. We are becoming like Him. We don’t take on the character of Christ SO THAT we can have something else. To the extent that we take on the character of Christ, we HAVE ATTAINED our reward. We HAVE FULFILLED the purpose of our creation – to glorify Him. Indeed, to enjoy Him. As we are more and more like Him, we enjoy Him more and more.          Our greatest joy comes in trust and obedience to God.

So are you trying to obey God so that you won’t face tragedies in this life?

Are you:

·        Coming to church,

·        reading the Bible,

·        praying,

·        trying to love your neighbor as yourself,

·        giving money away

all the time thinking: “If I do all this,

My friends, do you know how much God owes you for all your obedience?

Exactly nothing.

God owes you nothing.

You owe Him everything.

He is the gracious One! He is the giver! Your responsibility is to receive - and, most of all, to receive the character of Christ thru the indwelling Holy Spirit.

May He fill you with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

May He restore in You the image of God.

May He make you like Jesus Christ Himself - and that, my friends is the reward.

Then troubles may come, tragedies may come – as they did for Jacob, when he obeyed.

But you will be able to say with Habakkuk,

17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. 19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he makes me to go on my high places.  Habakkuk 3:17-19

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 9/26/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon. Waltke suggests the first reason above for Reuben’s adultery, Boice the second.

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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