New Name, New Game
This, I believe, is Jacob’s true moment of “conversion.” When he fled from his father-in-law Laban, Rachel, Jacob’s wife, had stolen her father’s household gods (31:19), which tells us that Yahweh was not exclusively worshiped and served. Jacob appeared to be accepting of this practice even if he didn’t participate in it himself. But now, at Bethel, the picture changed.
“Then God said to Jacob, ‘Go up to Bethel and settle there and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from you brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone” (Genesis 35:1-3).
Rather than make demands of God, Jacob bends the knee to God in a way that we haven’t seen before, even in his struggle with the “man” in Genesis 32:22ff. Here, at Bethel, Jacob stops struggling. Here, at Bethel, God gives Jacob a new name, Israel (35:10) to go along with the new man, and renews the covenant that He had once made to Abraham and Isaac before Him (35:11ff)—the promise of the land and blessing.
Israel, the new man, understood that being in relationship with God meant what Paul would later say in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Was he perfect from this moment on? No, he wasn’t, as subsequent chapters in Genesis will show us. But he came to God on God’s terms, put away the old “gods” and acknowledged God as the center of all that he was and had.
Jesus came with a new covenant, one by which He purifies us because we are totally incapable of purifying ourselves. Titus 2:113, 14: “...Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
The Old Testament traces the history of a people who would learn that no matter how hard they tried, how sincere they might have been, their own efforts at purifying themselves were futile. Nonetheless, the ritual cleansing was what they were required to do because they recognized the holiness of God. Jacob did what he knew he needed to do to approach God according to the times in which he lived, even though the coming of Christ would change the equation. Even in the New Testament we are instructed to purify ourselves, not in an effort to save ourselves, but in acknowledgment of the holy God to whom we now belong. James 4 reminds believers that it is their responsibility to work, not at ritual cleansing, but at holiness, to put away whatever other “gods” rule their lives in the place of the one true God. He writes, “...purify your hearts, you double-minded...Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up...” (James 4:8, 10).
Israel (the name means “he struggles with God”) might still lapse into “Jacob-ness” after this encounter at Bethel, but here he makes his commitment before God to not be a habitual “Jacob” (meaning “deceiver) any longer. He is putting that man away.
All of us come to our “Bethels;” our moments when we bend the knee to God, put away our other “gods” and acknowledge Him as the One around whom our lives revolve. We put away our “Jacob-ness,” our tendency to rely on our own ingenuity to get what we want, and allow God to give us what we need. We stop struggling and rest in His unfailing grace and mercy to make us the kind of people that will bring glory to His name.
Bethel is a good place to hang out.