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 your brother Esau.”
Genesis 35:1 (NIV)
One of the things I’ve discovered along my spiritual journey is that the return is often as important as the destination. In some cases, they turn out to be one and the same.
In today’s chapter, God calls Jacob to return to Bethel which is the place where God first revealed Himself to Jacob. Jacob has been on a journey of exile for over twenty years, and now he has returned to his home and family. At Bethel, God renews the promises made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God makes Jacob’s name change to Israel official.
The timing of this is important. Isaac is about to die. Having the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God is leading Jacob through a rite of passage. He’s returned from exile to lead the family, and head the family business. Things are about to change in a big way.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back. My spiritual journey has led me on paths of exile and return. I found it to be the path of both wisdom and maturity. In exile, I face trials and struggles that grow me up as I learn essential lessons in faith, patience, perseverance, joy, and hope. The return is the place where those lessons bear fruit. The landscape looks different upon my return. Time may have changed things, but most importantly I have changed. I see old things with new eyes. In exile, I have been refined, honed, broken down, and rebuilt for a purpose. The return is where that purpose eventually comes into focus.
I also found myself meditating on God’s name change for this patriarch-to-be. In exile, Jacob (meaning the deceiver) is transformed into Israel (he wrestled with God). When Jacob left Bethel, everything he had and came from his (and his mother’s) own deceptive cunning and initiative. In exile, he struggled with his Uncle, himself, and with God. He discovers in exile that his blessings come from God and not his, and his family’s, penchant for deception. Jacob left Bethel and went into exile. It was Israel who returned to Bethel ready for the next stage of the journey.
I have found that there are certain spiritual truths that do not change. Among those truths is the necessity of both exile and return.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.