It may at first seem surprising that in order to deal with his present problem God first asks Jacob to look back. But we can easily see why God chose to use a particular event from the past, the event that occurred at Bethel. On that occasion, Jacob was alone and had nothing, his future in Canaan seemed bleak due to the threats of Esau, and his future in Paddan Aram seemed uncertain because he did not know how his relatives would react to him. The Lord caused Jacob to take a big picture view of his life with God. And we can see that Jacob got the message because he says in verse 3: ‘Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”
The second requirement for Jacob was to search for hidden sins. So he asked his household to ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments’ (v. 2). The foreign gods may have been small models that people had to remind them that there was a true God. Of course, the effect of using such worship aids was the minimising of God – he was reduced in the estimation of the worshipper. The washing was an act of ritual cleansing, a picture of them washing away the effects of sinful practices – no doubt it was accompanied by confession of sin. So Jacob and his family engaged in repentance in order to recover their walk with God.
The third requirement was for them to recognise the Lord’s care of them (v. 5). In the previous chapter, Jacob had expressed his fears about the inhabitants of the land (34:30). The problem was still there after Jacob had remembered meeting with God at Bethel and repented for failing to live in its light. Yet the danger was gone, not because of Jacob’s skill, but because of God’s abilities. Jacob was restored to experiencing what had previously been his at Penuel. Then God had changed the heart of Esau, now he controlled the behaviour of the Canaanites and they could not attack him.
So Jacob travelled safely to Bethel and there he built an altar to the Lord. Shortly after, his mother’s nurse died. Her presence with Jacob suggests that she had left the home of Isaac when Jacob returned, but we are not told why. But I suppose we can say that she would have been glad to see the one she nursed long ago now worshipping God. But the story of Jacob’s recovery is not over. It was good that he had returned to God at Bethel. Yet what happened to him at Bethel is amazing.