Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Journey to Bethel. - Jacob had allowed ten years to pass since his return from Mesopotamia, without performing the vow which he made at Bethel when fleeing from Esau (Gen 28:20.), although he had recalled it to mind when resolving to return (Gen 31:13), and had also erected an altar in Shechem to the "God of Israel" (Gen 33:20). He was now directed by God (Gen 35:1) to go to Bethel, and there build an altar to the God who had appeared to him on his flight from Esau. This command stirred him up to perform what had been neglected, viz., to put away from his house the strange gods, which he had tolerated in weak consideration for his wives, and which had no doubt occasioned the long neglect, and to pay to God the vow that he had made in the day of his trouble. He therefore commanded his house (Gen 35:2, Gen 35:3), i.e., his wives and children, and "all that were with him," i.e., his men and maid-servants, to put away the strange gods, to purify themselves, and wash their clothes. He also buried "all the strange gods," i.e., Rachel's teraphim (Gen 31:19), and whatever other idols there were, with the earrings which were worn as amulets and charms, "under the terebinth at Shechem," probably the very tree under which Abraham once pitched his tent (Gen 12:6), and which was regarded as a sacred place in Joshua's time (vid., Jos 24:26, though the pointing is אלּה there). The burial of the idols was followed by purification through the washing of the body, as a sign of the purification of the heart from the defilement of idolatry, and by the putting on of clean and festal clothes, as a symbol of the sanctification and elevation of the heart to the Lord (Jos 24:23). This decided turning to the Lord was immediately followed by the blessing of God. When they left Shechem a "terror of God," i.e., a supernatural terror, "came upon the cities round about," so that they did not venture to pursue the sons of Jacob on account of the cruelty of Simeon and Levi (Gen 35:5). Having safely arrived in Bethel, Jacob built an altar, which he called El Bethel (God of Bethel) in remembrance of the manifestation of God on His flight from Esau.
There Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and was buried below Bethel under an oak, which was henceforth called the "oak of weeping," a mourning oak, from the grief of Jacob's house on account of her death. Deborah had either been sent by Rebekah to take care of her daughters-in-law and grandsons, or had gone of her own accord into Jacob's household after the death of her mistress. The mourning at her death, and the perpetuation of her memory, are proofs that she must have been a faithful and highly esteemed servant in Jacob's house.
The Fresh Revelation at Bethel. - After Jacob had performed his vow by erecting the altar at Bethel, God appeared to him again there ("again," referring to Gen 28), "on his coming out of Padan-Aram," as He had appeared to him 30 years before on his journey thither, - though it was then in a dream, now by daylight in a visible form (cf. Gen 35:13, "God went up from him"). The gloom of that day of fear had now brightened into the clear daylight of salvation. This appearance was the answer, which God gave to Jacob on his acknowledgement of Him; and its reality is thereby established, in opposition to the conjecture that it is merely a legendary repetition of the previous vision.
(Note: This conjecture derives no support from the fact that the manifestations of God are ascribed to Elohim in Gen 35:1 and Gen 35:9., although the whole chapter treats of the display of mercy by the covenant God, i.e., Jehovah. For the occurrence of Elohim instead of Jehovah in Gen 35:1 may be explained, partly from the antithesis of God and man (because Jacob, the man, had neglected to redeem his vow, it was necessary that he should be reminded of it by God), and partly from the fact that there is no allusion to any appearance of God, but the words "God said" are to be understood, no doubt, as relating to an inward communication. The use of Elohim in Gen 35:9. follows naturally from the injunction of Elohim in Gen 35:1; and there was the less necessity for an express designation of the God appearing as Jehovah, because, on the one hand, the object of this appearance was simply to renew and confirm the former appearance of Jehovah (Gen 28:12.), and on the other hand, the title assumed in Gen 35:11, El Shaddai, refers to Gen 27:1, where Jehovah announces Himself to Abram as El Shaddai.)
The former theophany had promised to Jacob divine protection in a foreign land and restoration to his home, on the ground of his call to be the bearer of the blessings of salvation. This promise God had fulfilled, and Jacob therefore performed his vow. On the strength of this, God now confirmed to him the name of Israel, which He had already given him in Gen 32:28, and with it the promised of a numerous seed and the possession of Canaan, which, so far as the form and substance are concerned, points back rather to Gen 17:6 and Gen 17:8 than to Gen 28:13-14, and for the fulfilment of which, commencing with the birth of his sons and his return to Canaan, and stretching forward to the most remote future, the name of Israel was to furnish him with a pledge. - Jacob alluded to this second manifestation of God at Bethel towards the close of his life (Gen 48:3-4); and Hosea (Hos 12:4) represents it as the result of his wrestling with God. The remembrance of this appearance Jacob transmitted to his descendants by erecting a memorial stone, which he not only anointed with oil like the former one in Gen 28:17, but consecrated by a drink-offering and by the renewal of the name Bethel.
Birth of Benjamin and Death of Rachel. - Jacob's departure from Bethel was not in opposition to the divine command, "dwell there" (Gen 35:1). For the word שׁב does not enjoin a permanent abode; but, when taken in connection with what follows, "make there an altar," it merely directs him to stay there and perform his vow. As they were travelling forward, Rachel was taken in labour not far from Ephratah. הארץ כּברת is a space, answering probably to the Persian parassang, though the real meaning of כּברה is unknown. The birth was a difficult one. בּלדתּהּ תּקשׁ: she had difficulty in her labour (instead of Piel we find Hiphil in Gen 35:17 with the same signification). The midwife comforted her by saying: "Fear not, for this also is to thee a son," - a wish expressed by her when Joseph was born (Gen 30:24). But she expired; and as she was dying, she called him Been-oni, "son of my pain." Jacob, however, called him Ben-jamin, probably son of good fortune, according to the meaning of the word jamin sustained by the Arabic, to indicate that his pain at the loss of his favourite wife was compensated by the birth of this son, who now completed the number twelve. Other explanations are less simple. He buried Rachel on the road to Ephratah, or Ephrath (probably the fertile, from פּרה), i.e., Bethlehem (bread-house), by which name it is better known, though the origin of it is obscure. He also erected a monument over her grave (מצּבה, στήλη), on which the historian observes, "This is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day:" a remark which does not necessarily point to a post-Mosaic period, but which could easily have been made even 10 or 20 years after its erection. For the fact that a grave-stone had been preserved upon the high road in a foreign land, the inhabitants of which had no interest whatever in it, might appear worthy of notice even though only a single decennary had passed away.
(Note: But even if this Mazzebah was really preserved till the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, i.e., more than 450 years, and the remark referred to that time, it might be an interpolation by a later hand. The grave was certainly a well-known spot in Samuel's time (Sa1 10:2); but a monumentum ubi Rachel posita est uxor Jacob is first mentioned again by the Bordeaux pilgrims of a.d. 333 and Jerome. The Kubbet Rahil (Rachel's grave), which is now shown about half an hour's journey to the north of Bethlehem, to the right of the road from Jerusalem to Hebron, is merely "an ordinary Muslim wely, or tomb of a holy person, a small square building of stone with a dome, and within it a tomb in the ordinary Mohammedan form" (Rob. Pal. 1, p. 322). It has been recently enlarged by a square court with high walls and arches on the eastern side (Rob. Bibl. Researches. p. 357). Now although this grave is not ancient, the correctness of the tradition, which fixes upon this as the site of Rachel's grave, cannot on the whole be disputed. At any rate, the reasons assigned to the contrary by Thenius, Kurtz, and others are not conclusive.)
Reuben's Incest. - As they travelled onward, Jacob pitched his tent on the other side of Migdal Eder, where Reuben committed incest with Bilhah, his father's concubine. It is merely alluded to her in the passing remark that Israel heard it, by way of preparation for Gen 49:4. Migdal Eder (flock-tower) was a watch-tower built for the protection of flocks against robbers (cf. Kg2 18:8; Ch2 26:10; Ch2 27:4) on the other side of Bethlehem, but hardly within 1000 paces of the town, where it has been placed by tradition since the time of Jerome. The piska in the middle of Gen 35:22 does not indicate a gap in the text, but the conclusion of a parashah, a division of the text of greater antiquity and greater correctness than the Masoretic division.
Jacob's Return to His Father's House, and Death of Isaac. - Jacob had left his father's house with no other possession than a staff, and now he returned with 12 sons. Thus had he been blessed by the faithful covenant God. To show this, the account of his arrival in his father's tent at Hebron is preceded by a list of his 12 sons, arranged according to their respective mothers; and this list is closed with the remark, "These are the sons of Jacob, which were born to him in Padan-Aram" (ילּד for ילּדוּ; Ges. 143, 1), although Benjamin, the twelfth, was not born in Padan-Aram, but on the journey back.
Jacob's arrival in "Mamre Kirjath-Arbah," i.e., in the terebinth-grove of Mamre (Gen 13:18) by Kirjath-Arbah or Hebron (vid., Gen 23:2), constituted his entrance into his father's house, to remain there as Isaac's heir. He had probably visited his father during the ten years that had elapsed since his return from Mesopotamia, though no allusion is made to this, since such visits would have no importance, either in themselves or their consequences, in connection with the sacred history. This was not the case, however, with his return to enter upon the family inheritance. With this, therefore, the history of Isaac's life is brought to a close. Isaac died at the age of 180, and was buried by his two sons in the cave of Machpelah (Gen 49:31), Abraham's family grave, Esau having come from Seir to Hebron to attend the funeral of his father. But Isaac's death did not actually take place for 12 years after Jacob's return to Hebron. For as Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold by his brethren (Gen 37:2), and Jacob was then living at Hebron (Gen 37:14), it cannot have been more than 31 years after his flight from Esau when Jacob returned home (cf. Gen 34:1). Now since, according to our calculation at Gen 27:1, he was 77 years old when he fled, he must have been 108 when he returned home; and Isaac would only have reached his 168th year, as he was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Gen 25:26). Consequently Isaac lived to witness the grief of Jacob at the loss of Joseph, and died but a short time before his promotion in Egypt, which occurred 13 years after he was sold (Gen 41:46), and only 10 years before Jacob's removal with his family to Egypt, as Jacob was 130 years old when he was presented to Pharaoh (Gen 47:9). But the historical significance of his life was at an end, when Jacob returned home with his twelve sons.