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Some people I’ve known have talked about going back to Bethel, and I really didn’t understand the whole concept at the time. There are songs that mention going back to Bethel. In fact, one of my favorite groups produced a short song called “Let Us Go Back to Bethel,” which took me some time to figure out the meaning; but when the Lord opened my spiritual eyes, it became something that has spoken to my heart ever since.
Jacob already had a Bethel experience, as recorded in Genesis 28, 20 or so years before. God had promised, years before the events recorded in Genesis 35:1-15, to return Jacob to his homeland, and God fulfilled that promise.
Let’s read: “Then God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and 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 wherever I have gone.’ So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. He built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother. Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; it was named Allon-bacuth. Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He called him Israel. God also 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 forth from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you.’ Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him. Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel” (Gen. 35:1-15).
Why did Jacob return to Bethel?
A lot had happened in Jacob’s life between the first time he was at Bethel (see Gen. 28) and this time, 20 years or more later. Genesis 29—34 give us the biography of Jacob as the Lord wanted us to see.
He had married Leah, her sister Rachel, and their servant girls Bilhah and Zilpah. By this time, he had fathered 11 sons and at least one daughter (Dinah, see Gen. 30:21). He left with little, as he himself told Laban, but now he had camels, flocks, herds and servants (Gen. 32:16). Best of all, he had God’s explicit promise that He would be with Jacob always and would bless him. There is a lesson for us, too, in the “Back to Bethel” experience that Jacob had.
Let’s take a moment to see how things had changed since the first time Jacob stopped at Bethel. When he left home, in Genesis 28, he had little except his staff. In fact, he commented on that very thing, as we’ve noticed. Now he’s coming back a very wealthy man, indeed. He left home in fear for his life (Esau wanted to kill him!), but now he’s coming back to Bethel in peace. When he left, he may not have thought he would return, but now he’s coming back with a view toward settling down. One other thing that some, including me, have missed at first glance is that Jacob is leaving a home centered around worship of one God and going into a land that was lapsing into idol worship. Laban had asked one of the most pathetic questions in the entire Bible, when he asked (demanded of) Jacob, “Why did you steal my gods?” (See Gen. 31:30.) Now, Jacob is returning to the land of promise, a land where the true and the living God was worshiped.
Most important, he was taking a definite stand for God, the God of Abraham and Isaac. We don’t really know Jacob’s spiritual condition when he left home—incredible that he may not have been a believer, given that Abraham was still alive, dying when Jacob and Esau were 15 years old. Even with the influence of Isaac, Jacob showed little indication of being a believer until sometime after he left home, and Esau made some of the biggest mistakes of his life by marrying local (Hittite, perhaps heathen) women. Nothing was said of whether Esau led either of them into faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac, or if he renounced his faith and worshipped the idols of his wives. We do know from later Scripture that the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, were idolaters, which had to come from somewhere besides the faith of Abraham and Isaac!
Notice the first thing Jacob did: He told his entire household (see v. 2) to get rid of the idols or foreign gods (“strange gods,” in the King James Version), which some of the people had brought along with them. These foreign gods could not possibly have walked all the way from Laban’s territory, north and east of Palestine unless they had assistance from those who worshipped them. Joshua may have alluded to this encounter when he gave his farewell address in chapter 24 of his book. Sadly, the descendants of Jacob would fall time and again into the worship of idols until their captivity many years later. Their lives, and the lives of people living around them, might have been much different had they renounced idols once and for all.
What happened when Jacob commanded his household to get rid of the idols? They gave them to Jacob, and Jacob got rid of them! Verse 4 says Jacob hid them under the oak tree by Shechem—where Jacob apparently had received this message from God to return to Bethel.
Why not return to your Bethel?
Every time I’ve read this passage, or heard a message based on it, the Holy Spirit speaks to me. For us living in this era, we don’t need to return to a specific site, building, location or anything else. We can have a Back-to-Bethel experience anywhere!
Remember Jacob had become a genuine believer sometime before God’s command to return to Bethel. So, this is not an appeal for anyone to become a Christian although there certainly is nothing wrong with wanting to get right with God! Rather, this message was for Jacob to get clean, to get things right, before, unless and until God would provide His blessings. We read in the balance of the text that Jacob reaffirmed his covenant with God and God with Jacob. For those of us as believers today, it’s true that we can and do sin and fall out of fellowship with God. We can come back to our own spiritual Bethel, the Cross of Calvary, and make things right between God and us. If you are in that condition, come back to Bethel. You won’t be sorry if you do. Take it from me! God bless you.