Jacob had waited seven years to marry Rachel. Now, decades later, she is gone. The pillar he erected over her tomb in her memory (Gen. 35:20) was a witness to the sadness and hope that surrounded his life. Sadness in the loss; hope in the covenant promises that now assured him of a love that will not let him go.
Jacob, the wily one, after ten or fifteen years, finally returns to Bethel. God has been at work in his life, drawing the wayward patriarch to himself. It has been a difficult journey. It invariably is so when our wills are set at variance against the Lord’s. From the perspective of hindsight, Jacob could now speak to his family of a God “who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3). Jacob had been sheltered within the orbit of God’s covenant faithfulness. Despite half-hearted commitment and questionable decisions made more out of fear than trust, Jacob had known the Lord’s providential goodness. Even now, as he returns, a path is opened up for him to return in safety to the place where God had first met with him. The promise God had made to him, then, must have haunted him through the years. He was to inherit the land and his offspring were to be as ”the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:13–15), but he had left with nothing but the clothes he had been wearing! Now, as he returns to Bethel, he brings with him his twelve sons (his twelfth yet unborn in his mother’s womb) and considerable wealth. And Jacob does the only thing possible under such circumstances — the only right thing: he worships! He pours out his heart in gratitude to the Lord for all that he now knew of God’s grace.
As Jacob worships, wonderful things happen: God renews the covenant that he had made (Gen. 35:9–15), reminding Jacob of the significance of the new name he had received at Peniel. Others may call him Jacob, but God has named him “Israel.” Some of the things God says to him must have reminded him of similar words used by his father Isaac so many years before, especially when he heard God say, “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 35:11; see 28:3). But a new promise is made, “kings shall come from your own body” (35:11). Imagine! Jacob’s pitiful attempt to buy a piece of the Promised Land at Shechem (33:19) is answered by God, saying, “I’ll give you and your descendents the whole of it!” Covenant mercies! Covenant grace! Covenant faithfulness!