God Answers in Our Time of Crisis
The book of Genesis is structured by ten genealogies. Eleven times we find some form of the phrase “these were the generations of . . .” (two are here in chapter 36 for Esau).
The first is Genesis 2:4, during the creation story: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth . . .”Then Genesis 5:1: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Then Genesis 6:9: “These are the generations of Noah.” Genesis 10:1: the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Genesis 11:10: Shem. Genesis 11:27: Terah (Abraham’s father).Genesis 25:12: Ishmael (Abraham’s first son). Genesis 25:19: Isaac (Abraham’s promised son).Then Genesis 36:1, 9: Esau. And finally, in Genesis 37:2: Jacob.
And the way these genealogies often work is that they lead the way for focusing on the person’s children. This is especially the case with the Jacob story. Where do we turn for the beginning of the Jacob story? Genesis 25:19, which reads, “These are the generations of Isaac.” And how will Joseph’s story begin next week? Genesis 37:2: “These are the generations of Jacob.” In other words, the lives of the children play a significant part in writing the stories of their fathers.
So today, as we come to end of the Jacob sequence, how does it end? With the death of Isaac, not Jacob (35:29). And even though Jacob leaves center stage after this chapter, when will his death come? At the end of Joseph’s story (49:33 and 50:1–19). It is not Isaac alone who makes his own legacy. Jacob plays just as much a part, if not more, than his father. And it is not Jacob who makes his own legacy but his children, and especially Joseph.
Which has something important to say to us as a young church. Our greatest legacy will be the lives of our children. Once we become parents, the most important work we have to is not our own grades and achievements and awards but the investment we make in our children. In a profound sense, our lives have been writing our parents’ stories, and now our children’s lives will write ours.
With Many Wrestlings
In Genesis 35, we come to the end of Jacob having center stage in the book of Genesis. The story began back in chapter 25 with the birth of Esau and Jacob who struggled together in the womb (25:22), and God said to their mother, Rebecca, that the older would serve the younger (25:23). Once born, the twins struggled against each other. Jacob wrestled Esau for his birthright (25:29–34), then wrestled his father, Isaac, for the blessing of Abraham (chapter 27). Esau was so furious Jacob had to go into exile. There he wrestled his uncle Laban (chapters 29–31), who tricked Jacob into marrying both of his daughters (29:25), who then wrestled against each other for their husband’s affection (29:31–30:24, especially 30:8).
Finally, once Jacob got free from Laban (after twenty years!), he faced the daunting prospect of encountering Esau. As he prepared to do so, he was met at night by a man who wrestled him until day break (32:24). When the man tried to get away, Jacob held to him and the man injured Jacob’s hip and said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (32:28). All Jacob’s striving and wrestling — with his brother, with his father, with his uncle, with his wives — all that striving had ultimately been a wrestling with God, the kind of wrestling God wants. He wants us to wrestle with him by faith, not apart from him in unbelief.
Jacob then encountered Esau (chapter 33). God gave him favor, and it was a sweet reunion. Then we saw last week in chapter 34, how Jacob’s sons Levi and Simeon had deceived and slaughtered the village of Shechem as revenge for the defiling of their sister Dinah. So as we come here to chapter 35, the last chapter where Jacob is still center stage (from Genesis 25 to 35), Jacob senses himself and his household to be in a very precarious place with the surrounding Canaanites. Jacob’s nomadic household is not native to the land, and now Levi and Simeon “have brought trouble on me,” Jacob says, “by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land” (34:30).
Chapter 35 is a journey. You’ll see that key word “journeyed” in verses 5, 16, and 21. Jacob and his household journey south from Shechem to Bethel (v. 5), then from Bethel to Bethlehem (v. 16), and finally from Bethlehem to Hebron, where his father Isaac lived.
This morning, I want to highlight for us three truths about God here in chapters 35 and 36. You can think of these as the God of Jacob (25:1–7), the God after Jacob (25:8–39), and the God Beyond Jacob (chapter 36), and with each we’ll find a specific truth.
1) Our God answers in the time of crisis (35:1–7)
When God says in verse 1, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there,” he is calling Jacob to fulfill a vow Jacob made back in chapter 28. There he had come to Bethel on his way from leaving his father’s house to go into exile at his uncle Laban’s. God had appeared to him at Bethel and personalized the blessing of Abraham to him:
“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go[note that phrase], and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
Jacob then had responded by vowing,
“If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” (Genesis 28:20–22)
God was with Jacob and kept him wherever he went, and yet Jacob had returned to the land and found safety (33:18) and settled in Shechem, and had not yet returned to Bethel. Even though it had been decades, God had not forgotten the vow. And now, decades later, when Jacob feels precarious in the land, and putting his whole household on the road could expose them to attack from the surrounding tribes, God calls Jacob out in faith. Verse 1: “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.”
“When you fled from your brother Esau.” Jacob had known danger before. His life had been in jeopardy previously. And God had been with him. Verse 7 mentions the past danger again: Jacob “built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother.” And just as God had rescued Jacob from Esau’s pursuit, and from Laban’s (31:22ff.), he does so again. Verse 5: “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.”
Jacob trusts that God will protect him, tenuous as things are, and so he obeys. The key statement is in verse 3: “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.”
The God of Jacob is not like the false gods of the surrounding nations. He is not like Laban’s household gods. And not like the Canaanite gods Jacob’s sons would have found as they plundered Shechem (34:29). Those gods do not answer in the day of distress — literally, the time of crisis. They are simply made by human hands and imagination. They are baby toys. They don’t answer. And they are not able to go “wherever I have gone.” Which is what God had promised Jacob back in 28:15: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Jacob has had his moments of crisis and God has been with him. God has shown himself to be the God who hears and answers in the time of crisis. Just as God saw Leah in her crisis (29:31). And he remembered Rachel in hers (30:22). He sees. He hears. He remembers. He cares. He is the living God who wants us to turn to him, to wrestle with him, in our time of crisis. Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”Psalm 20:1: “May the Lordanswer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!”
So, first, the God ofJacob is the one true God, who answers in our time of crisis.
2) Our God outlives all our heroes (35:8–29)
The rest of the chapter gives us a succession of four major losses for Jacob. The first, while in Bethel, is the death of Deborah, his mother Rebecca’s nurse (verse 8). We don’t know when Rebecca died; perhaps she passed while Jacob was in exile. Now her nurse, whom Jacob has known as a family member his whole life has died as well. This would be like losing his mother, and it is the woman who has stood in for his mother in many ways over the years. The generation before him is dying off, transitioning Jacob into his elder years.
The next two losses are the hardest. First, his beloved wife Rachel dies giving birth to another son, Benjamin, as the family journeyed south from Bethel. Rachel was the daughter of Laban that Jacob had been so smitten over and worked not just seven years but, in the end, fourteen, to have as his wife. She had struggled to bear children and said to him, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (30:1). Then, when God had remembered her in his painful (but perfect) timing, and she bore her first son, “she called his name Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” (30:24). Now, God answers her prayer for another son, even as she dies giving him life. The narrator has already said enough about Jacob’s love for Rachel (29:18, 20, 30) that we know what a blow this must have been to him.
And then, seemingly on the heels of losing Rachel, Jacob is dealt the blow of learning that his oldest son has slept with his concubine, Rachel’s servant Bilhah, who had borne him Dan and Naphtali (30:3–8). The narrator says very little here. That this would be devasting for Jacob is plain enough. And at the end of the Joseph story, when Jacob blesses his sons, he says to Reuben, his firstborn, “You shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!” (Genesis 49:4). Whether Reuben, son of Leah, did this, in part, because of the household power struggle (Bilhah was Rachel’s servant), we don’t know. But verses 22–25 lists the sons by mother, which may reflect the fault lines in the family conflict.
Then, the final loss — and this one, like Deborah, would have been expected — we get the report, to end chapter 35, of the death of Jacob’s father, Isaac. Just as peace was restored between Isaac and Ishmael, and together they buried Abraham (25:9), so Jacob and Esau, so far as we know, remain at peace, and together bury Isaac (35:29). This completes the southward journey of this chapter from Shechem in the north, down to Bethel, then Rachel dies on the way to Bethlehem, then down to Hebron.
God’s Promises Live On
However, in the midst of this section in which Jacob loses three significant people in his life, and is betrayed by his firstborn son, we do have one last revisiting, and extending, of God’s promises (which have driven the story since Genesis 12). First, we get a quick summary of Genesis 32 and the man wrestling with Jacob at night, the climactic moment of Jacob’s story:
God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram [where Laban lived], and blessed him. 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 (verses 9–10).
Then we get the final and cumulative word of promise from God to Jacob, which affirms and extends what God has promised him so far:
“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. 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.” (11–12)
God had told Adam to be fruitful and multiply (1:22, 28) and Noah (8:17; 9:1, 7) and Abraham (17:20). When Jacob went into exile, his father had blessed him, “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (28:3–4).
The original commission to humanity and the promises of Abraham are here clearly applied and renewed to Jacob. And now there’s one new element: “kings shall come from your own body” (verse 11; as God had promised Abraham in 17:6).
Even as Jacob’s heroes die — his mother, her nurse, his beloved wife, and his own father die — God lives on and his promises do not die. God will live on once Jacob has died, and God will extend his promises, even as death comes for Jacob. Jacob’s time is coming, and it will not throw God for a loop; he will be just fine without Jacob. And God will live on when our heroes in the faith die.
So, secondly, the God after Jacob outlives our heroes.
3) Our God rules beyond his own people (36:1–43)
Chapter 36 may seem oddly out of place. Isn’t Jacob the chosen son? Why bother with Esau’s genealogy? Just like the genealogy of Ishmael in Genesis 25:12–18. Why bother with the unchosen sons?
One remarkable truth this demonstrates for us is God’s concern (and rule) beyond the boundaries of his covenant sons. God has promised his favor to his people, but his power is not limited to them. He is the God of the nations, and he is not done with all the families of the earth. He promised Abraham he would bless them through him. And he’s not yet done with Esau’s tribe, called Edom — which is good news for us Gentiles. Today we may think of ourselves as sons of Jacob by faith, but by nature we are more with Esau than Jacob.
In fact, this is not the end of the story for Jacob’s and Esau’s descendants, the Israelites and the Edomites. When God defeats the Egyptians and brings Israel safely through the Red Sea, Edom is listed as one of the nations that hears, and trembles (Exodus 15:15).
And when the people of Israel march from the desert to the promised land, “Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory” (Numbers 20:14–21). This is the first of two painful episodes for Israel in dealing with Edom, and one they would not soon forget (Judges 11:17–18). But instead of making war, God instructed Israel “to go around the land of Edom” (Numbers 21:4).
But even then, Deuteronomy 2 will tell Israel to treat “the people of Esau” as “brothers” — not to take their land or disturb Esau’s descendants (Deuteronomy 2:4–8; 23:7). As Israel settled into the promised land, Edom was to be a border, not a foe to cleanse from the land (Number 33:37; 34:3; Joshua 15:1, 21).
After the period of the judges, once Israel finally had a king, named Saul, he fought against all the surrounding nations, including Edom (1 Samuel 14:47). Under Saul’s successor, David, Israel finally subdued Edom and took spoil from them and stationed garrisons there (2 Samuel 8:12, 14; 1 Chronicles 18:11–13). (This fulfilled what Balaam had prophesied in Numbers 24:18, that some day “one from Jacob shall exercise dominion” over Edom.)
But it wouldn’t last long. Already under David’s son, Solomon, according to 1 Kings 11:14, “the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite. He was of the royal house in Edom.” Why? “The Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord” (1 Kings 11:9). About a century after Solomon, Edom was still under Israel during Jehoshaphat’s reign (1 Kings 22:47; 2 Chronicles 20:2 then 2 Kings 3:8–26). But during his son Jehoram’s reign, Edom revolted successfully from Israel (2 Kings 8:20–22; 2 Chronicles 21:8–10).
More than 200 years later, when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and carried off her leaders to exile, Edom not only stayed aloof and did not help his brother, Israel, but conspired against him and gloated over his destruction. This was the second painful episode in the national histories of the two brothers. Psalm 137, one of the most shocking imprecatory psalms, was written after this betrayal:
“Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” (Psalm 137:7).
The prophets Jeremiah (49:7–22) and Obadiah (whole book!) and Ezekiel (25:12–14; all of chapter 35) and Joel (3:19) and Amos (1:6–2:1) prophesied that it was just a matter of time until destruction would come to Edom as well (also Lamentations 4:21–22). It didn’t take long for Babylon to return to wipe out the Edomites. Edom was never restored like Israel, though some did migrate into an area of Judah that became known as Idumea. There were Idumeans in Jesus’s time, the most famous being King Herod.
For Israel’s life as a nation, Edom served as a kind of control, or point of comparison, to show the electing love of God. Jacob and Esau were twins. God gave Edom a land, not in the promised land, but a neighboring territory to the southeast, and he preserved the nation for centuries. Edom shows what Israel might have been apart from God’s covenant.
In the book of Romans, when the apostle Paul is teaching God’s divine prerogative in choosing whom he will for his blessing and favor, he turns to Jacob and Esau. This is Romans 9:10–13:
“When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.””
That last line is a quote from Malachi 1:2–5, where we get what may be the clearest statement of Edom’s role as a nation, relative to Israel:
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!””
What lesson does Edom teach God’s people? “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” That’s one reason for this genealogy in chapter 36. God keeps his people’s eyes on Edom to both show his power beyond them, but also demonstrate his special covenant love for them.
But there’s one more piece to the story of Israel and Edom. Even though, in the end, the nation of Edom would not be restored like Israel, there was a ray of hope for Edomites. The prophet Amos held out a veiled hope for Edom, not in what they would possess, but in who would possess them. Amos 9:12:
“I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name.”
So Genesis 36 does have something vital to say to us about our God. His sovereignty and his saving concerns extend beyond Israel. And he is the kind of God who welcome foreigners to join in the covenant love of his Table.
How God Answered Jesus
We have seen that our God’s rule extends beyond Jacob, and that our God’s promises outlive our heroes, and that our God answers in our time of crisis. But there’s one more thing we need to say about what it means for God to answer in our time of crisis.
When Jacob honored “the God who answers me in the day of my distress” (25:3), and when we remember our God as the one who answers us in our time of crisis, don’t think that Jacob meant, or that we mean, that God always answers how we want and when we want. Jacob spent twenty years under the tyranny of Laban, and as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, Joseph spent thirteen years going down, down, down, before God raised him up.
The New Testament, the book of Hebrews encourages us “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16), then just a few verses later says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (5:8). God answered Jesus in his time of crisis. But he didn’t let the cup pass. He didn’t spare his death. God answering his own Son didn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go to the cross, but it did mean God raised him from the dead.
The God of Jacob, and after Jacob, and beyond Jacob who we celebrate here at the Table is a God too real and too big and too glorious to work according to human expectations and timetables. He almost certainly will not do just what you want when you want. But he will see you. He will hear you. And in Christ, he will answer, not necessarily when and how you want, but he will provide all you need. He will be with you, and keep you, and not leave you, wherever you go.