The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
One of my favorite movies is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is a 1966 spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as "the Good", Lee Van Cleef as "the Bad", and Eli Wallach as "the Ugly". The plot revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a fortune in buried Confederate gold amid the violent chaos of the American Civil War. Clint Eastwood, plays Blondie, who is a good, but nowhere near perfect, humane bounty hunter. Lee Van Cleef, plays “Angel Eyes”, who is a ruthless, borderline-sadistic mercenary, who takes pleasure in killing and always finishes a job for which he is paid. Eli Wallach plays Tuco or the “Rat”, who is a fast-talking, cunning, cagey, resilient, and resourceful Mexican bandit, who is wanted by the authorities for a long list of crimes. Throughout the movie, Blondie and Tuco, run a scam on the sheriffs in the country. Blondie turns Tuco in, collects the bounty, and then saves him right before he is about to be hanged. After a number of these rescues, Tuco complains about being the one sticking his neck out and Blondie leaves him for dead in the desert. Tuco survives and captures Blondie and force-marches him across the desert until he is near death with dehydration.
A chance encounter with a civil war soldier who has buried the confederate gold leaves Tuco with the name of the cemetery and Blondie with the name of the grave where the gold is buried. Tuco needing Blondie’s help, nurses him back to life. They then find themselves in a Union prison camp where Angel Eyes is also trying to discover the location of the cemetery the gold is buried in. All three embark on the quest to find the gold, and in the final scene, there is a three way duel to decide who gets the gold. In the end, Blondie wins the duel with Angel Eyes and gets the gold and splits it with Tuco, but not before making him dig up the gold and sparing his life once again. Blondie’s character is considered the “good” one but he has many flaws and doesn’t always do the right thing. He also goes through many ups and downs throughout the movie but in the end he gets the reward.
This story of a “good” but flawed and nowhere near perfect person, going through many ups and downs, but getting the reward in the end, reminds me of the story of Jacob. He is the “good” one in that he will be the next covenant carrier of God’s chosen people. He has been a liar and deceiver and has been deceived himself. His life has been full of good, bad and ugly, some of which is his own doing, but he has been rewarded with a new name and later his descendants will possess the Promised Land and he will have children like the dust of the earth. In our passage this morning Jacob’s good, bad and ugly will continue. Jacob gets a new son, but loses a favored wife. He also has a new sorrow because of the actions of his firstborn and another death in the family. But in the end Jacob is given a new standing as he takes over the patriarchal role from his father. God’s blessing continues to be poured out and God’s plan continues to move forward no matter what happens, be it birth or death or heinous crime. Which brings us to our big idea this morning that the good, the bad and the ugly of life can’t stop God’s promises, blessing, and plan for his people. According to God’s will, His promises, blessing, and plan can’t be stopped in the world, in the church or in our lives because of what we do or because of what happens to us.
Let’s pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we come before you this morning humbly asking for your Holy Spirit to speak to us as we open your Word. May we be attentive to your Spirit as we open our hearts and minds to what you want us to know and learn today. Thank you for this opportunity to be gathered together in your house with your people for this purpose. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
There are three points this morning. The first is A New Son and is found in Genesis 35:16-20. This is what God’s Word says, “Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t despair, for you have another son.” As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.”
After God meets Jacob at Bethel and reaffirms the promises to him, Jacob and his family leave Bethel, going in the direction of Ephrath. While they were still some distance away, Rachel goes into labor. We are told that she is having great difficulty in giving birth. Rachel must have been really pregnant when they left Bethel and we may wonder why they didn’t just stay there if she was ready to give birth. It doesn’t say God commanded them to leave Bethel like he did to leave Shechem. In fact, back in verse 1, God told Jacob to settle in Bethel. We are not told why they moved on from Bethel but it may have had something to do with returning home to reunite with his father, Isaac. This would have been in keeping with his vow in Genesis 28:21 that if God would protect Jacob so he would “return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.”
In the middle of her difficult childbirth, her midwife tells her not to despair because she is having a son. This seems to be a weird thing to say to Rachel knowing that she is dying. But in that day and age it would have been a most comforting thought for a woman who knew she was going to die giving birth. We know that the birthing of a boy was very important as it meant that the lineage and family name would be carried on. So the midwife, knowing Rachel was going to die, comforted her with the fact that she was having a baby boy. Rachel knowing she was dying named her son, Ben-Oni which means, “son of my trouble or sorrow.” It seems that Rachel refused the comfort that her midwife tried to give her. Interestingly, this is the only child born to Jacob that the author of Genesis does not give the meaning of their name.
Then we see something happen that is rare in the Bible. Jacob changes his newborn son’s name to Benjamin, which means, “son of my right hand.” The right hand was the side of honor, power and favor and brought to mind skill and wisdom. Psalm 110:1 says, “The Lord says to my lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” And Ecclesiastes 10:2 says, “The heart of the wise inclines to the right but the heart of the fool to the left.” Saul, the first king of Israel and Paul the Apostle both came from the tribe of Benjamin. Why did Jacob change his name? A lot of times children whose mothers died in childbirth were blamed and Jacob didn’t want his son to be saddled with guilt every time his name was used. He probably also wanted the memory of his beloved wife to be a pleasant one whenever he called his son’s name. Because he was the son of the favored wife, Jacob gave Benjamin a special place, at his right hand.
This episode would have reminded the first hearers of a couple of things. First, Rachel named her firstborn son, Joseph which means “may God add.” Rachel’s prayer to the Lord, when she had Joseph, was that he would give her another son. This birth was the fulfillment of that prayer. Second, it would have also reminded them of Rachel’s words to Jacob in Genesis 30:1, “give me children or I will die.” Ironically, having this child would cause Rachel’s death. Third, they would have been reminded of Jacob’s judgment of death on the one who stole Laban’s household gods. It may be significant that her death comes after Jacob orders his family to get rid of their false gods. But we shouldn’t believe that Rachel’s death was a judgment from God. Weirsbe says, “Life is full of good and bad, joys and sorrows and the same baby that brought joy also brought tears.” This reminds us of our big idea: the good, the bad and the ugly of life can’t stop God’s promises, blessing, and plan for his people.
Finally, we are told that Rachel dies and she’s buried on the way to Ephrath probably on or near the site that Benjamin was born. Jacob honored his beloved wife’s memory by putting a pillar over her burial tomb and the author tells us the pillar was still there when Genesis was written. This is the third time he has erected a pillar to commemorate some event or person. In Genesis 28:18 he commemorates God meeting him at Bethel the first time. In Genesis 35:14 he commemorates God meeting him at Bethel a second time and here he commemorates Rachel’s death. Mathews says, “The location of Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s tomb are important to the narrative providing a reference point for future generations, indicating that the last son was born in the Promised Land. Even Rachel’s burial demonstrated God’s word was truthful. Although she lived outside Canaan her final resting place was permanently in the land of promise as the matriarch of Israel’s tribes, Ephraim & Manasseh (Joseph’s sons) and Benjamin.”
Our second point is A New Sorrow found in chapter 35 verses 21-22a. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.”
Jacob or Israel and his family move again. And again, we may believe he is wanting to return to his father’s house but we see him “pitching his tent” beyond Migdal Eder. Jacob just doesn’t pass through on his way to his father, he “pitches his tent” there meaning he settles down there. We don’t know why he does this but knowing his history we can surmise nothing good will come from it. In Genesis 33:18-19, we see Jacob arriving and camping within the sight of Shechem. Jacob buys a plot of land from the father of Shechem and “pitches his tent” there. We know what happens next in chapter 34 to Dinah and to all the males living in Shechem. So we don’t know why he settled there but it sets the stage for Jacob’s next sorrow. We are told that Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, sleeps with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. Notice that Bilhah who has always been mentioned in relation to Rachel is now identified in relation to Jacob making this a crime against his father.
We may wonder what is going on here but if we think about who Bilhah is it may shed some light on it. She was the maidservant given by Laban to Rachel upon marrying Jacob. She had two sons to Jacob, Dan and Naphtali. Now that Rachel was dead it is possible that Bilhah would take over the favored place that Rachel held with Jacob and in his household. Also, we remember that Reuben was Leah’s firstborn son so this may have been a way to disgrace Bilhah so his mother could take over the favored place. Also, Reuben as the firstborn would have received his father’s concubines, servants, etc. upon Jacob’s death, but he was not yet dead. This is the equivalent to the Prodigal Son wanting his inheritance before his father had actually died. This just wasn’t how it was done in that culture.
All the commentators pretty much agree that Reuben wanted to steal Jacob’s authority within the family. For a son to sleep with his father’s wife was a declaration that he was now the head of the family. Did Reuben think he could run the family better than his father? Is Jacob losing control of his family? In the last chapter his daughter, Dinah, is defiled and he hears about it but what does he do? He waits till her brothers get home instead of taking care of it himself as the father and head of the household. What does he do here when Reuben sleeps with Bilhah? It says he heard about it but our scripture doesn’t say he does anything about it. His authority seems to be eroding more and more with each episode. Wenham says, “Posing these questions before the Joseph story begins gives us a sense of tension between Jacob and his sons descended from Leah and between the sons of Bilhah and Rachel on the one hand and the sons of Leah on the other.” This short isolated episode gives us the indication that the good, the bad and the ugly in the next generation will again concern birthright, inheritance and favoritism.
What Reuben did would have been considered a heinous crime and the penalty would have been death and God’s curse. The name “Israel” is mentioned three times in verses 21-22 which emphasizes the tribal implications of Reuben’s crime against his father. This coming on the heels of God’s blessing of Jacob and reminding him of his new name, Israel, shows that this crime was committed against not only Jacob but God. By trying to take Jacob’s place within the family he is also trying to take Jacob’s place as the next covenant carrier that God had bestowed on him. We will have to wait another fourteen chapters to see how Jacob finally handles this situation but for now this episode is gone as quickly as it came which speaks to the author’s horror at what transpired. In Genesis so far we have seen that scripture doesn’t gloss over sin and wickedness but it doesn’t sensationalize it either.
Our third point this morning is A New Standing found in chapter 35 verses 22a-29. This is what God’s Word says, “Jacob had twelve sons: The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Rachel’s servant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Leah’s servant Zilpah: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram. Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”
What we see first is this list of the twelve sons of Jacob. With the birth of Benjamin, the family of Jacob is complete and these sons will be the ancestors of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. The list starts with Leah and her children with Reuben specifically mentioned as the firstborn. Next, comes Rachel and her two sons. These are followed by the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah. This listing of the sons by their mothers focuses us on the rivalry between the brothers that we will see in the Joseph story. This list also emphasizes the faithfulness of God in keeping his promise that Jacob would have offspring like the dust of the earth. And the fact that they reside in Canaan fulfills the promise of land to Jacob.
The list of names is followed by the caveat that these sons of Jacob were born to him in Paddan Aram. But, we know that Benjamin was born in Canaan, in the Promised Land, so what is the author trying to tell us? There are times when the Bible is more interested in making a point than being factual. The point is that just like the first hearers, eleven of Jacob’s sons, who would be the ancestors of the twelve tribes, were also born outside the Land of Promise. They had to make a pilgrimage to the Promised Land just like the first hearers are going to have to do later on. The first hearers are better able to relate to the twelve sons of Jacob who would become their ancestors. The fact that Benjamin was born in the Promised Land would impact the nation of Israel as well later on. Being born in the land meant that he had clear title to it. And later on the place where he was born and where Rachel was buried will be part of the land that the tribe of Benjamin occupied when they came out of slavery and entered into Promised Land. This list of Jacob’s sons is a witness to God’s blessing that these sons were only the beginning of the chosen nation to come. This list is also evidence that God’s promises, blessing and plan will continue in spite of sin and death. Big Idea
Lastly, we see the reuniting of Isaac and Jacob and the obituary of Isaac as his toledot comes to a close. We notice the lack of emotion in their meeting unlike the emotion that we saw when Jacob and Esau reunited. It is significant that Isaac is now living in Mamre or Hebron. The last we saw he was living in Beersheba. It may be that Isaac moved to Mamre when Rebekah died so she could be buried in the Cave of Macpelah. We know from Genesis 49:31 that she was buried in the family tomb that Abraham had purchased from Ephron in Genesis 23:17. This move also makes sense in that Isaac would be buried in the same tomb when he passed away. The identification of Hebron associates Jacob with his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac.
Next, we see Isaac’s obituary. He lived one hundred and eighty years which was eighty years after he thought he was dying when Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. Chronologically, this means that he lived to see the day that Joseph was sold into slavery. It says Isaac breathed his last and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. “Gathered to his people” meant he was part of an ongoing family beyond the grave. He was also “old and full of years” meaning he lived to a ripe old age and was satisfied with the good long life he had. He was ready to be reunited with his family who had gone before. This parallels the obituary of Abraham which connects Isaac and subsequently Jacob to the chosen patriarchs. Isaac was admittedly the least talked about of the patriarchs but he lived longer than his father and his son. He was a most important bridge between Abraham and Jacob even though less is recorded about his life than about his father, sons and grandson, Joseph. Isaac was essential to the survival of the chosen family and the perpetuation of the promises of God. Genesis 21:12b says, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”
Finally, we see that his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. The death of Isaac brought his sons together just as the death of Abraham brought together Ishmael and Isaac. The mention of Esau sets us up for his genealogy seen in the next chapter. Wenham says, “Isaac is buried in the only real estate acquired by Abraham in Canaan, at Mamre, a place where the promises had been fully revealed. So the death and burial of Isaac in ripe old age in Mamre is a pledge of Israel’s ultimate possession of the land.” Isaac’s death changed Jacob’s standing. He was now the head of the covenant family and heir to the family blessings and promises. He not only acquired Isaac’s great wealth but also inherited all that was involved in the Abrahamic covenant. His God would now be known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As I conclude today, I want to talk about two things we can notice in chapter 35. The first is spiritual renewal. Last week, Pastor Stuart talked about Jacob needing to be spiritually renewed. Why? First, because human memory is faulty. Jacob needed to be reminded of the things he promised the Lord. Second, because human commitment is fickle. Think about why he had to order his family to get rid of their foreign gods? It’s because they had foreign gods. He knew all along that his family had these gods but chose not to do anything about it until confronted by God. Third, because human fortunes change. Jacob made these promises before he had a family and was responsible for anything other than himself. Fourth, because human life is fleeting. Deborah, Rachel and Isaac all die in this chapter. Our lives become so full of work, family, play, etc. that our spiritual life gets left behind and when death happens our sense of being gets turned upside down. We need to be spiritually renewed to meet life’s tragedies in proper, godly way.
So, how is spiritual renewal experienced? First, Jacob needed to get back to basics. The Lord called him back to Bethel where he reminded him of his new name and the earlier promises to him. And Jacob responded by setting up a pillar and pouring a drink offering on it. Second, Jacob needed to get rid of barriers. He needed to rid himself of the foreign gods he had accumulated. He needed to get rid of those things that were producing conflict in his spiritual walk with the Lord. Without doing this there would be no lasting spiritual renewal. Which leads us to our first next step. What are the things in our lives that are producing conflict in our spiritual walk with the Lord? Think about that for a second. Maybe this first next step is for you: to search my life and get rid of the foreign gods that are producing conflict in my spiritual walk with the Lord.
The next step in our spiritual renewal after getting rid of the foreign gods in our lives is daily devotion to our God. This means daily being in God’s Word and hiding God’s Word in our hearts. This means regular participation in public worship and consistent fellowship with God’s people where sharing and caring for one another happens frequently. One of the things we have at Idaville Church to help with our spiritual renewal is the Spiritual Life Journal. The 2023 SLJ with our theme for the year, “More Like Jesus”, just came out and is on the slat wall in the foyer. Inside, are questions that you can ask yourself about your relationship with God. The memory verses that we are learning as a congregation are in there. The Daily Bible Reading Plan is in there. The Spiritual Life Journal can be a guide to help you be spiritually renewed in 2023. That brings us to our second next step which is to use the Spiritual Life Journal as a guide for my spiritual renewal this year.
Now the second thing we can notice in chapter 35 is that despite his spiritual renewal Jacob’s troubles were not over. Spiritual renewal doesn’t exempt the people of God from the ups and downs of life. There are still consequences of our own actions and the actions of those around us. But spiritual renewal does equip God’s people to be strong enough to handle anything that comes their way in a world where sin, death and heinous crime abounds. Wiersbe says, “It means walking with God by faith, knowing that he is with us and trusting him to help us for our good and his glory no matter what difficulties he permits to come our way.
As the ushers prepare to take up the tithes and offerings and the praise team comes forward to lead us, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, as we leave this place this morning, speak to our hearts and minds about our own personal spiritual renewal. Help us to search ourselves and get rid of the foreign gods in our lives that keep us away from a productive personal relationship with you. Guide us through times of ups and downs and never let us forget that they can’t stop your promises, blessing and plan from being fulfilled. In Jesus’s name. Amen.