The Pentateuch: Jacob becomes Israel, Genesis 33-36
After Jacob wrestles with God, he is given his new name – Israel. He submitted to God, and God blessed him but also God convicted him with this new name. He went from Jacob the heal grabbed, the manipulator, the trickster to Israel the one who struggles with God, who faces God, who strives with God. God renamed him in a way that would remind him who would prevail in his life – not himself, but God.
After being renamed and having his focus corrected toward the Lord, Israel, previously Jacob, was faced with an uncertain situation – his brother was on his way to meet him. Last Israel had known, Esau wanted to kill him for deceiving their father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. Newly-named-Israel now had a choice to put his new identity into action, to trust God, to let God prevail, or to continue on being the heal grabbed and liar.
Israel split his family up creating a grand procession, and when Esau arrived Israel fell at his feet bowing down to him in humility. I can only imagine what would have been going through his mind. It had been 20 years since his brother vowed to kill him. 20 years Esau had been able to prosper without his “little brother” there to grab at his heels. 20 years of finding his own way. But it had also been 20 years where Esau could have taken control of Israel’s inheritance and laid claim to it all for himself. All was surely painfully uncertain in this moment. Yet when Israel bowed down to the ground, Esau came and embraced him, showed favor to his brother, welcomed his large family, and invited him home.
Esau went on home to Seir and Israel went and made a home in Succoth. Seir is southeast of Judah, and outside of Canaan, the land which Israel would inherit through the covenant. Seir became known as the land of Edom, which was another name for Esau. His people would become the Edomites, who would ally with the Ammonites and Moabites against the King of Judah later on. At this juncture, though, the brothers were at peace.
16 So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir.
Israel determined not to go with his brother. He instead eventually landed himself in Shechem where he bought property and set up his home. He also built an altar and named it Elohim, or El Elohe Israel, which is a name for God that means the God of Israel and speaks of God as Ruler and Judge (H430 – ‘ĕlōhîm). Israel was declaring his faith in the Lord and identity in Him.
18 Then Jacob came c]”>[c]safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram; and he pitched his tent before the city. 19 And he bought the parcel of d]”>[d]land, where he had pitched his tent, from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. 20 Then he erected an altar there and called it Ele]”>[e] Elohe Israel.
Unfortunately, this new home and prospering relationship with the sons of Hamor did not last. Shechem, the eldest son of the patriarch of this place was obsessed with Israel’s daughter, Dinah, and committed a heinous act. Her brothers were rightfully enraged by this man defiling their sister, but in their rage they too chose the path of sin. These brothers took up the deceptive mantle their father had laid down and tricked all the men and boys of Shechem to be circumcised, and then they slaughter every male of the region and plundered the wealth and women.
25 Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males. 26 And they killed Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went out. 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. 28 They took their sheep, their oxen, and their donkeys, what was in the city and what was in the field, 29 and all their wealth. All their little ones and their wives they took captive; and they plundered even all that was in the houses.
30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.”
This is one of those stories that is difficult to swallow, and even more difficult to understand. It gets so often glossed over and ignored because it is so difficult, or it gets obsessed over and picked apart. In this moment there are several things we can all take away, though. First, God did not command or condone this, and nor did Israel. Second, anger in itself is not the wrong response to the horrible crime against Dinah, but when anger brings people to act as judge and jury, it is sin and leads to destruction and death. Vengeance belongs to the Lord, not to us. Third, the brothers took what was a holy symbol of their faith and weaponized it. A sign of a holy covenant was defiled in response to the defiling of an innocent woman. Rather than seeking God, they took a precious thing between them and God, and used it to manipulate and weaken not even jus the one guilty man, but every single male, and slaughtered them all, using what is holy for evil purposes with the excuse that something evil had already been done.
What happened as a response to this horrible crime was another horrible crime. We are commanded not to shed the blood of another human life. This is not justice. This is not godly. This is not worship. This is not okay. Sin as a response to sin is not the way of the Lord. However, the Lord can (and does) use all things, even these kinds of horrible circumstances, for His purposes, and for the good of those who love Him. The mass slaughter of the men of Shechem was a form of judgment against them for their wickedness, defiling of Dinah, and greed. What happened was not good, but God is still good, still in control, still on the throne, and still Elohim – Ruler and Judge. We won’t understand all things, but we can trust in who God is no matter what we face.
Another lesson, is that these same men who committed this mass murder are then given an opportunity to repent – the Lord commanded Israel to leave where they thought they were making a home, and find the place Jacob had once had a vision from the Lord and blessed. God still had a plan, and the men still had a choice. Would they repent and obey, or would they continue in their sin and rage?
These same men would also become a majority of the tribal leaders of the nation of Israel. They would form God’s holy land, and their offspring were His chosen people. This is a sign for all of us. His people are not perfect. Every one of us is sinful. Every one of us has a past, has baggage, carried a heavy burden. Yet, all of us are given this choice – to repent and obey, to choose faith, or to continue on in sin and reject the free gift of salvation.
The Lord was with them, even then
As the men fled the scene, God was with them. Jacob commanded his sons to be rid of any inkling of idolatry, to repent, and to obey God and head to Bethel. On they went! There were several altars Israel made to the Lord, and one was here in Bethel where he had once fled from his brother, and now fled again from a different enemy. He declared his faith in the Lord and recommitted himself once again, and the Lord reaffirmed not only His covenant with Israel but his new name from Jacob to Israel. God reaffirmed that He is faithful, even when His people are not.
Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.”
2 And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone.” 4 So they gave Jacob all the foreign [a]gods which were in their hands, and the earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree which was by Shechem.
5 And they journeyed, and the terror of God was upon the cities that were all around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. 6 So 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 he built an altar there and called the place [b]El Bethel, because there God appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother.
Death of Rachel and Isaac
Later, Rachel, Israel’s beloved wife, died in child birth with her second son. Then Israel came back to his father, and then his father Isaac also passed away. Rachel’s second son was named Benjamin by his father Israel, which means “son of the right hand”. His name represents the special place he would have at his father’s right hand as the youngest son, and that of his more beloved wife.
Reuben fails to assert his authority
Reuben, the oldest of all Israel’s sons, took it upon himself to lay with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. This would have been taken as Reuben asserting his position as first heir of his father, possibly in defiance to his father’s favoritism of the youngest sons. This action that would have been to assert his right to succeed their father would later actually cost him this inheritance he sought to solidify.
Descendants of Esau
Esau himself also had several wives, and from them many children. They would become the nation of Edom, east of the Jordan River in the mountain of Seir. His wives were Adah the Hethite, Oholibamah a Hivite, and his cousin Basemath, the daughter of Ishmael (brother of Isaac, Esau’s father).
- Adah – H5711 – ornament
- Eliphaz – H464 – my God is (fine) gold
- Oholibamah – H173 – tent of the high place
- Basemath – H1315 – spice