What does Genesis chapter 35 mean?As Jacob was fleeing Canaan (Genesis 27:42) to go live with his uncle Laban, God appeared to him (Genesis 28:10–13). After that meeting, Jacob vowed to make the Lord his God and to recognize that location as "Bethel:" the house of God. After growing a family and leaving Laban, Jacob's family has an ugly incident where his daughter is raped (Genesis 34:1). In revenge, her brothers annihilate the entire town, leading Jacob to fear retaliation (Genesis 34:25–30).
Now God tells Jacob it is time to fulfill his vows by building an altar at Bethel (Genesis 35:1).
Jacob begins by directing his large company to gather all their foreign gods or idols (Genesis 31:19) and to purify themselves, including putting on new, clean garments. Jacob acknowledges that God had been faithful to him all along the way. Rather than destroy the idols or repurpose their metal, Jacob buries them. This symbolizes a complete and total rejection of those objects. With the idols buried under a tree and the purification complete, the entire household caravans from Shechem to Bethel, the place of Jacob's first encounter with the Lord (Genesis 35:4).
Jacob had been afraid of how other tribes would react to his sons' violent revenge. God sees to it that the local people respond with fear, instead, so that no one chases the family as they leave. Once they arrive at Bethel, Jacob obediently builds an altar to the Lord. He calls the place El-Bethel, meaning "God in Bethel." A passing reference is made to Deborah, the nurse of Jacob's mother, and her burial in this area. It's not clear if she has just died, or if this refers to some earlier event (Genesis 35:5–8).
Once Jacob has completed his former vows to the Lord, God appears to him at Bethel again. This time, God affirms several things He has previously declared. He says again that Jacob's new name is Israel (Genesis 32:28). He reminds Israel that nations will come from him. Land promised to his ancestors Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 17:1–8; 26:3–5) will belong to him and his descendants. Jacob, now also called Israel, once again responds to God with an act of worship. He builds a stone pillar and pours over it both a drink offering and oil. He states one more time that the name of this very special place is Bethel (Genesis 35:9–15).
As the company begins to travel toward Bethlehem in the region of Ephrath, tragedy strikes. Before they can reach their destination, Jacob's most loved wife Rachel (Genesis 29:30–31) dies giving birth to her second son Benjamin. This answer to her earlier prayer (Genesis 30:22–24) results in her death. Jacob buries her and builds another stone pillar over her tomb. The spot becomes a landmark for future generations of Israelites. Israel's family comes to a place which is either a literal tower, or a high place used to guard over flocks of sheep (Genesis 35:16–21).
For reasons unknown, Jacob's oldest son, Reuben, defiles the family by sleeping with Rachel's servant and Jacob's servant-wife, Bilhah. Scripture gives no details on why this happened, or how, or to what extent Bilhah was cooperative. In that culture, taking the wives or concubines of a leader was a sign of conquest. Many scholars feel Reuben's act is a clumsily attempted coup. Or, it could be an act of revenge against the father who failed to love Reuben's mother Leah. Jacob, not called Israel, strangely seems to do nothing at first. Many years later, however (Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1), this will cost Reuben the family birthright (Genesis 35:22).
Genesis then repeats the names of the sons born to Jacob. The daughters are not mentioned, as the emphasis is on the future patriarchs of the tribes of Israel. These sons are grouped by their birth mothers. Leah and Rachel were married to Jacob, though Leah's involvement was only due to deception by her father (Genesis 29:25). This created a rift between Jacob and Leah (Genesis 29:30–31), and a rivalry between the two sisters. As part of that rivalry, both brought their servants, Zilpah and Bilhah, into the marriage to give them surrogate children. With the birth of Benjamin, Jacob has twelve sons (Genesis 35:23–26).
Finally, this section of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob's father, Isaac. Isaac is 180 years old. He is buried by both Jacob and Esau at the family burial cave in Mamre (Genesis 35:27–29).
The remaining chapters of Genesis will describe the fate of Jacob's sons, as they are drawn into Egypt. Much of this story will focus on Rachel's son, Joseph.