1 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. 6 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. 8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth. 9 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.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, he writes:
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
If you have ever moved away from home for a prolonged period of time you will understand that sentiment, even if you do not necessarily agree completely with it. It can be hard going home again when you have been away for a long, long time. That is true with family. It can also be true with God. Jacob experienced that after his sojourn in Shechem. His foray into this ill-advised placed had been disastrous for him and for his family. That is what Genesis 34 is about. In Genesis 35, however, the Lord calls him home.
How does one go about such a thing? How do we go back home to God when we have been away from Him? I wonder if any of you are maybe struggling with that question today? Genesis 35 shows us the way.
There is something you have got to leave behind.
In order to go back home to the God who loves you, you must be willing to leave something behind.
1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there…
3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel…
The first thing God says to Jacob is, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there.” But to go to Bethel, the house of God, means to leave where you are. For Jacob, that meant leaving Shechem. We saw last week that Shechem was a land of great opportunity for Jacob but, as it was approached outside of God’s will, it became a land of great disaster. God, you will remember, is silent throughout Genesis 34. While Jacob is indulging in his own ill-conceived plans, God is silent. When, however, Jacob finds himself standing in the ruins of that misguided adventure, God speaks. And what does God say? “Arise, go up to Bethel.” Paraphrase: “Stand up, and leave this place.”
Whether it is Jacob or you and me, these are always the first steps to going home: (1) Stand up and (2) leave where you are. Do you remember what the prodigal son says to himself when he finally comes to his senses in Luke 15:18? “I will arise and go to my father…”
First step: Arise.
Second step: Go.
Going home to God necessitates a holy discontentment with where you are outside of God. It demands a realization that Shechem is tawdry and unfulfilling and grotesque. We must want to leave where we are to go where we ought to be. This means putting certain things in the rearview mirror.
Paul, in Philippians 3, spoke of this in terms of memory and commitment:
13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul determined to forget Shechem and press on toward Bethel, to forget, that is, where and what he used to be, and press on toward Jesus Christ.
Do you want to go home? Then arise and leave.
There is something you have got to put away.
The problem is, where we are tends to affect us, to attach itself to us. We find ourselves in whatever distant land we are living looking more and more like that land. This was the case with Jacob’s family, as we can see in his call for them to put away their “foreign gods.”
2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…
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.
My goodness! Jacob’s family had taken up foreign gods, false gods. Jacob, in his movement out of Shechem, demanded that the family put these false gods away. They obeyed and Jacob “hid them under the terebinth tree.” That is, in leaving Shechem he had to leave certain things in Shechem: foreign gods and, interestingly, “the rings that were in their ears.”
Did some kinds of earrings have idolatrous connotations? John Walton notes that while “no earrings of this sort have been found in excavations,” there have been earrings found “that carry an inscription of dedication to particular deities” as well as earrings found “at Tell el Fara (Tirzah, eight miles east of Samaria) and Tell Jemmeh (ancient Yurza, about six miles south of Gaza)” which “were crescent-shaped and are believed to represent the moon and the worship that attended the moon god.”
Church, listen: you have not really put Shechem behind you if you are still carrying the false gods of Shechem with you. You have not really embraced Jesus until you have smashed the idols in your life.
Leave involves not only packing but unpacking, getting rid of that which does not need to go with us.
Many a person has tried to come to Jesus while keeping the gods of Shechem in their pockets. It never works. Why? Because Jesus stubbornly demands our complete allegiance.
Cyril of Alexandria writes of how Jacob “orders the foreign gods to be rejected like dung and filth and to change the garments.” Cyril concludes, “It is fitting for us to do likewise when we are called before God…” Yes. It is fitting.
Have you truly left where you were?
Have you truly rejected all of your false gods.
There is something that has got to change.
What all of this adds up to is substantive change and transformation. To come home to God is to be changed. Jacob recognizes this fact.
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.”
Jacob’s move back to Bethel is no mere move. Neither is it self-serving. Rather, it is life-altering. So he calls upon his family to purify themselves and “change your garments.” “Changing clothes is in religion a widespread cultic, symbolical act by which man represents himself as renewed by the divinity,” writes Gerhard von Rad.
You do not come back to God because you want to “try something new” or because you are bored. You come back to God because you realize that you are morally and spiritually bankrupt outside of God, because you need to be resurrected and transformed.
In Ephesians 5 Paul writes that this is exactly what Jesus does with us: He changes and transforms us.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
- sanctifies us (i.e., makes us holy);
- cleanses us (i.e., forgives us and gives us His righteousness; 2 Corinthians 5:21);
- prepares us for the day in which we, His bride, are presented to Him;
- removes our “spots,” “wrinkles,” and “any such thing.”
Jacob’s call for his family to change their clothes was not about clothes, it was about their hearts. They were to dress themselves in preparation for the great work that God was doing and was going to do. It was an act of purification and of expectation.
Do you expect the Lord Jesus to alter and change you? Do you desire that, to change? Do you strive for holiness and purity? This is what it means to go home to God: to be willing to be changed.
There is something you have got to value.
Part of being changed is coming to value what we previously did not. Notice a recurring theme in our text:
1 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.”
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.”
6 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.
13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.
What is the recurring theme? Worship. Over and over again we see a focus on the building of an altar and the offering of worship.
To go home to God is to praise God, to magnify God, to revel in the glory and beauty of God! In fact, one of the ways we can test whether or not we have truly come home to God is whether or not we truly value worship. I have found that when I am far from God my worship of God suffers. It is a frightening thing not wanting to praise God. It is hard to praise Him in the midst of rebelling against Him!
But when we come home to God we desire to extol and magnify His name! Genesis 35:1-15 is worship-saturated. And part of the reason for this is because we know the misery of the Shechem we left behind. Worship is fueled by a high vision of God’s glory but it is also fueled by a clear vision of the devil’s cruelty. We worship to thank God that we are no longer being slowly destroyed in Shechem, that we are no longer being sifted like wheat by the devil (Luke 22:31).
So do you desire to come home to God? Then praise His name! Sing! Worship Him as the Lord of Heaven and earth!
There is something you have got to embrace.
Finally, there is something you must embrace. Once again God reiterates the covenant promise to Jacob. Listen:
9 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.”
Remember: in Shechem God was silent. In Bethel God appears and reminds Jacob of his place in God’s great covenant plan of redemption. In other words, to go home to God is to embrace your place in God’s great work in the world. Shechem is the place of human ingenuity and scheming and it ends in ruins. Bethel is the place of the divine plan and it ends in joy and purpose. The covenant stands. Jacob returns to it and the God who gives it and takes His place in the great drama of the cosmos. Kings will come from him, God says. He will have a name and a land and a lineage that will not be able to be numbered. Yes, the covenant stands. John Walton writes of Jacob’s return to Bethel:
Two hundred years and twenty-three chapters into this covenant experience find everything still intact, though there has been no shortage of scrapes and bruises along the way. A dozen times the covenant has dangled by a single thread, but God is faithful and sovereign and his grace is sufficient.
God is faithful. And sovereign. And His grace is sufficient.
And He stands with arms wide open, welcoming His wayward children home.
Come out of Shechem.
Come to Bethel, the house of God.
Come and take your place in the great story of God’s love for humanity.
 Quoted in the article, “You Can’t Go Home Again”: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/refire-don-t-retire/201810/you-cant-go-home-again
 John H. Walton, Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p.631.
 Mark Sheridan, ed. Genesis 12-50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. ed. Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 228.
 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis. Revised Edition. The Old Testament Library. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1972), p.336.
 John H. Walton, p.636.