“Life happens in its struggles.”
Jacob is commanded by God to return to Beth El, the scene of Jacob’s first prophetic vision – the stairway to Heaven and ascending and descending angels. Immediately, Jacob tells his family to get rid of any idols lying around, to purify, and wear fresh clothing. The household bustles as everyone scrambles to find their idols and then Jacob buries the idols beneath a terebinth. (For more on that, see: False Idols: Handle With Care)
This story is so odd.
First of all, why does everyone have idols in Jacob’s household? Wouldn’t they be monotheists like Isaac and Abraham? Second of all, doesn’t this sound like the harried housewife trying to clean up before the mother in law comes for a visit? Or like a stash house getting rid of the drugs before a raid. If idols are bad, then they are bad before God says to return to Beth El. If idols are not bad, then why are they purging the home of idols?
I think there is a hint in the text that unlocks the story. “Change your garments.” It’s a classic callback. When Jacob was last in Beth El, he made a promise to God. “If God will be with me, and will watch me along this road upon which I travel, and will give me bread to eat, and garments to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then Hashem will be my God.”
Three decades earlier, Jacob made a pact with God. If Jacob survived his exile and returnedstring home to his father, then, and only then, would Hashem be Jacob’s God. For three decades, the conditions of Jacob’s allegiance to God hung in the balance. Until Jacob returned to his father’s home, Jacob would not commit to the God of his father and grandfather. He was waiting to see how things would turn out.
Now that God is bringing Jacob home, by way of Beth El, Jacob is finally ready to embrace God. He tells his family, “Go change into fresh clothing, we are going home! My conditions have been met! We have our lives, we have food (perhaps symbolized by the purification through water), and we have our clothing. Now I choose God.”
Now that Jacob has chosen God, he tells his family to get rid of the idols. Until this point, Jacob has not imposed any deity on his family. Jacob trusted the God would protect him, but he wasn’t sure things would work out. So his family dabbled in other religions. Maybe this is why Rachel stole her father Laban’s idols – she was hedging her bets. But now that Jacob was going home, it was time to impose the God of Isaac and Abraham on his family. It was time to rid the home of idols. Maybe this could also explain why Jacob buried the idols instead of destroying the idols. Just in case things didn’t work out, his family would be able to retrieve their idols and serve other gods.
This is really the last chapter of Jacob as a father until the epilogue at the end of Genesis. It seems that Jacob lived with doubt for so much of his life. Even his days in the tent seem to have lacked conviction. Jacobs surprise and skepticism after his initial vision of the stairway to Heaven is very telling. Apparently, Jacob struggled with his faith throughout his life and did not impose his personal beliefs on his family when his children were still young. Yet, he is the first Patriarch to bat 1.000. All 13 of his children followed in the path of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Think about that.
Struggling isn’t a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength.