So we come to the end of Jacob’s story. Since coming to the fore by stealing Esau’s blessing back in chapter 28 he’s been the main character in the Genesis story, just as Abraham, Noah and Adam were before him. He hangs around almost to the end of Genesis, but from now on always as a peripheral character while his favourite son Joseph takes centre-stage. This is where his perspective ends, and it’s a good chance to take stock.
What a journey it’s been for him! Since the day he stole his brother’s blessing, nothing has been straightforward for him. Perhaps deservedly so for such a wily trickster. He had to flee for his life to escape his brother’s wrath, he was fooled into marrying the wrong woman and as a result was coerced into working fully 14 years for his duplicitous uncle Laban. He fled in fear of his life from a relative a second time, busted his hip wrestling with God, managed to win over Esau in an emotional fraternal showdown and then watched his sons commit genocide among his neighbours.
Not exactly a model career path for a man of God. But, in a way, that’s the whole point. Throughout Genesis God dealt graciously with flawed, often foolish people. It’s precisely because they weren’t perfect that we can relate to them, identify with them, and learn from them. Always we should return to the central Biblical message of grace: God gives His blessings as free gifts on the undeserving. And we saw in Abraham’s story that God can recalculate our route and account for any number of detours and wrong turns to bring us back on track.
But now, in spite of everything, God brings Jacob to exactly where he’s meant to be: Bethel, the House of God. The very same place where Jacob first met God for himself. In Jacob’s case it wasn’t a permanent settling down – he would be Egypt-bound before too long – but as a general rule of thumb in life we can do a lot worse than returning to the house of God (Psalm 84:10).
I’d like to draw three brief points out of this chapter. First, God renews His promises. He reminds Jacob that what He promised before (in ch. 28) is still good, the plan hasn’t changed. This land will be his land. He will be fruitful and have many descendants. Those promises didn’t have a sell-by date, and they weren’t forfeited by Jacob’s mistakes. After the storms of life, God brings a time of respite when He renews His promises. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). His promises will always be fulfilled.
Second, notice how easily we accumulate baggage in life. At the beginning of the chapter Jacob has to tell his followers to get rid of their foreign gods, doubtless picked up in the polytheistic environment of Laban’s settlement. Even his favourite wife Rachel was guilty of this idolatry (Genesis 31:19).
For us the idols in our lives might not be so easy to identify (Tim Keller’s book Counterfeit gods helps though), but we pick them up no less easily than Jacob’s followers. And it doesn’t have to be idols. We can unwittingly pick up all sorts of unhelpful baggage: hurts, regrets, unhelpful thoughts, anxiety – the list goes on and on. The point is that we all have this baggage, and we all need to get rid of it. As Max Lucado brilliantly points out in Travelling Light, we were never meant to carry any of it. And only when we get rid of it are we able to fully receive what God has for us.
Third, milestones are really important in Genesis. Abram started it off by building altars to the Lord in significant places, memorials to remind him of God’s goodness and important lessons (Genesis 12:7-8 & 13:18). Jacob does the same on his first visit to Bethel (Genesis 28:18), and now again in this chapter. The first reminded him of the start of his own walk with God, and the second commemorates another encounter with God, His provision and renewed promises. The Israelites were really good at this sort of thing, always harking back to the Passover, the Exodus and many past deliverances from God. Even today we can be reminded of God’s forbearance in every rainbow we see (Genesis 9:12-16).
Today Christians recognise the cross as the major milestone in God’s relationship with us – the point in history when everything changed – but there are other important things to look back on too. The Reformation, the translation of the Bible into English, and successive revivals where God has moved in special ways.
As well as being thankful for these big events in the history of the Church, we should mark the personal milestones in our own lives. When we came to faith, experiences of the Holy Spirit, instances of God’s provision and difficult lessons we’ve learned. Encounters with the living God are precious, and worthy of special remembrance. All these are markers on the map of faith, showing us how far we’ve come. They can encourage us, keep us thankful, and spur us on. If we forget them, it would be so easy to become blasé, indifferent, or even estranged from God.
So what can we learn from this chapter? That God renews His promises and that we can’t forfeit them with mess-ups or wrong turns. That we need to recognise and discard the unhelpful burdens we’ve somehow acquired along the journey of life. And that there are milestones in our spiritual lives which should be marked and commemorated. These lessons all speak of a God of grace, a generous God who is patient with us, wants to play a big part in our lives and who has so much for us. I say, let Him.