The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 19: The Return to Canaan
Was it by the arbitrary election of God that Jacob appreciated the spiritual blessings of the birthright while Esau valued only the wealth of his father?
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Crossing the Jordan, "Jacob came in peace to the city of
Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan." Genesis 33:18,
R.V. Thus the patriarch's prayer at Bethel, that God would bring
him again in peace to his own land, had been granted. For a time
he dwelt in the vale of Shechem. It was here that Abraham, more
than a hundred years before, had made his first encampment and
erected his first altar in the Land of Promise. Here Jacob "bought
the parcel of ground where he had spread his tent, at the hand of
the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for a hundred pieces of
money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel"
(verses 19, 20)—God, the God of Israel." Like Abraham,
Jacob set up beside his tent an altar unto the Lord, calling
the members of his household to the morning and the evening
sacrifice. It was here also that he dug the well to which,
seventeen centuries later, came Jacob's Son and Saviour, and beside
which, resting during the noontide heat, He told His wondering
hearers of that "well of water springing up into everlasting life."
The tarry of Jacob and his sons at Shechem ended in violence
and bloodshed. The one daughter of the household had been
brought to shame and sorrow, two brothers were involved in the
guilt of murder, a whole city had been given to ruin and slaughter,
in retaliation for the lawless deed of one rash youth. The
beginning that led to results so terrible was the act of Jacob's
daughter, who "went out to see the daughters of the land," thus
venturing into association with the ungodly. He who seeks pleasure
among those that fear not God is placing himself on Satan's
ground and inviting his temptations.
The treacherous cruelty of Simeon and Levi was not unprovoked;
yet in their course toward the Shechemites they committed
a grievous sin. They had carefully concealed from Jacob their [p. 205] intentions, and the tidings of their revenge filled him with horror.
Heartsick at the deceit and violence of his sons, he only said, "Ye
have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of
the land: . . . and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves
together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed,
I and my house." But the grief and abhorrence with which he
regarded their bloody deed is shown by the words in which, nearly
fifty years later, he referred to it, as he lay upon his deathbed in
Egypt: Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty
are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their
secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united. . . .
Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it
was cruel." Genesis 49:5-7.
Jacob felt that there was cause for deep humiliation. Cruelty
and falsehood were manifest in the character of his sons. There
were false gods in the camp, and idolatry had to some extent
gained a foothold even in his household. Should the Lord deal
with them according to their deserts, would He not leave them to
the vengeance of the surrounding nations?
While Jacob was thus bowed down with trouble, the Lord
directed him to journey southward to Bethel. The thought of this
place reminded the patriarch not only of his vision of the angels
and of God's promises of mercy, but also of the vow which he
had made there, that the Lord should be his God. He determined
that before going to this sacred spot his household should be freed
from the defilement of idolatry. He therefore gave direction to
all in the encampment, "Put away the strange gods that are among
you, and be clean, and change your garments: and let us arise,
and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God,
who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me
in the way which I went."
With deep emotion Jacob repeated the story of his first visit to
Bethel, when he left his father's tent a lonely wanderer, fleeing
for his life, and how the Lord had appeared to him in the night
vision. As he reviewed the wonderful dealings of God with him,
his own heart was softened, his children also were touched by a
subduing power; he had taken the most effectual way to prepare
them to join in the worship of God when they should arrive at
Bethel. "And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which [p. 206] were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their
ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem."
God caused a fear to rest upon the inhabitants of the land, so
that they made no attempt to avenge the slaughter at Shechem.
The travelers reached Bethel unmolested. Here the Lord again
appeared to Jacob and renewed to him the covenant promise.
"And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him,
even a pillar of stone."
At Bethel, Jacob was called to mourn the loss of one who had
long been an honored member of his father's family—Rebekah's
nurse, Deborah, who had accompanied her mistress from Mesopotamia
to the land of Canaan. The presence of this aged woman
had been to Jacob a precious tie that bound him to his early life,
and especially to the mother whose love for him had been so
strong and tender. Deborah was buried with expressions of so
great sorrow that the oak under which her grave was made, was
called "the oak of weeping." It should not be passed unnoticed
that the memory of her life of faithful service and of the mourning
over this household friend has been accounted worthy to be
preserved in the word of God.
From Bethel it was only a two days' journey to Hebron, but
it brought to Jacob a heavy grief in the death of Rachel. Twice
seven years' service he had rendered for her sake, and his love
had made the toil but light. How deep and abiding that love had
been, was shown when long afterward, as Jacob in Egypt lay near
his death, Joseph came to visit his father, and the aged patriarch,
glancing back upon his own life, said, "As for me, when I came
from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way,
when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath: and I
buried her there in the way of Ephrath." Genesis 48:7. In the
family history of his long and troubled life the loss of Rachel was
Before her death Rachel gave birth to a second son. With her
parting breath she named the child Benoni, "son of my sorrow."
But his father called him Benjamin, "son of my right hand," or
"my strength." Rachel was buried where she died, and a pillar
was raised upon the spot to perpetuate her memory.
On the way to Ephrath another dark crime stained the family
of Jacob, causing Reuben, the first-born son, to be denied the
privileges and honors of the birthright. [p. 207]
At last Jacob came to his journey's end, "unto Isaac his father
unto Mamre, . . . which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac
sojourned." Here he remained during the closing years of his father's
life. To Isaac, infirm and blind, the kind attentions of this
long-absent son were a comfort during years of loneliness and
Jacob and Esau met at the deathbed of their father. Once the
elder brother had looked forward to this event as an opportunity
for revenge, but his feelings had since greatly changed. And
Jacob, well content with the spiritual blessings of the birthright,
resigned to the elder brother the inheritance of their father's
wealth—the only inheritance that Esau sought or valued. They
were no longer estranged by jealousy or hatred, yet they parted,
Esau removing to Mount Seir. God, who is rich in blessing, had
granted to Jacob worldly wealth, in addition to the higher good
that he had sought. The possessions of the two brothers "were
more than that they might dwell together; and the land wherein
they were strangers could not bear them because of their cattle."
This separation was in accordance with the divine purpose concerning
Jacob. Since the brothers differed so greatly in regard to
religious faith, it was better for them to dwell apart.
Esau and Jacob had alike been instructed in the knowledge of
God, and both were free to walk in His commandments and to
receive His favor; but they had not both chosen to do this. The
two brothers had walked in different ways, and their paths would
continue to diverge more and more widely.
There was no arbitrary choice on the part of God by which
Esau was shut out from the blessings of salvation. The gifts of
His grace through Christ are free to all. There is no election but
one's own by which any may perish. God has set forth in His
word the conditions upon which every soul will be elected to
eternal life—obedience to His commandments, through faith in
Christ. God has elected a character in harmony with His law,
and anyone who shall reach the standard of His requirement
will have an entrance into the kingdom of glory. Christ Himself
said, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he
that believeth not the Son shall not see life." John 3:36. "Not
everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom
of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is
in heaven." Matthew 7:21. And in the Revelation He declares, [p. 208]
"Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have
right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into
the city." Revelation 22:14. As regards man's final salvation, this
is the only election brought to view in the word of God.
Every soul is elected who will work out his own salvation
with fear and trembling. He is elected who will put on the armor
and fight the good fight of faith. He is elected who will watch
unto prayer, who will search the Scriptures, and flee from temptation
He is elected who will have faith continually, and who
will be obedient to every word that proceedeth out of the mouth
of God. The provisions of redemption are free to all; the results
of redemption will be enjoyed by those who have complied with
Esau had despised the blessings of the covenant. He had valued
temporal above spiritual good, and he had received that
which he desired. It was by his own deliberate choice that he was
separated from the people of God. Jacob had chosen the inheritance
of faith. He had endeavored to obtain it by craft, treachery,
and falsehood; but God had permitted his sin to work out its
correction. Yet through all the bitter experience of his later years,
Jacob had never swerved from his purpose or renounced his choice.
He had learned that in resorting to human skill and craft to secure
the blessing, he had been warring against God. From that night
of wrestling beside the Jabbok, Jacob had come forth a different
man. Self-confidence had been uprooted. Henceforth the early
cunning was no longer seen. In place of craft and deception, his
life was marked by simplicity and truth. He had learned the
lesson of simple reliance upon the Almighty Arm, and amid trial
and affliction he bowed in humble submission to the will of God.
The baser elements of character were consumed in the furnace
fire, the true gold was refined, until the faith of Abraham and
Isaac appeared undimmed in Jacob.
The sin of Jacob, and the train of events to which it led, had
not failed to exert an influence for evil—an influence that revealed
its bitter fruit in the character and life of his sons. As these sons
arrived at manhood they developed serious faults. The results of
polygamy were manifest in the household. This terrible evil tends
to dry up the very springs of love, and its influence weakens
the most sacred ties. The jealousy of the several mothers had [p. 209] embittered the family relation, the children had grown up
contentious and impatient of control, and the father's life was
darkened with anxiety and grief.
There was one, however, of a widely different character—the
elder son of Rachel, Joseph, whose rare personal beauty seemed
but to reflect an inward beauty of mind and heart. Pure, active,
and joyous, the lad gave evidence also of moral earnestness and
firmness. He listened to his father's instructions, and loved to
obey God. The qualities that afterward distinguished him in
Egypt—gentleness, fidelity, and truthfulness—were already
manifest in his daily life. His mother being dead, his affections clung
the more closely to the father, and Jacob's heart was bound up in
this child of his old age. He "loved Joseph more than all his
But even this affection was to become a cause of trouble and
sorrow. Jacob unwisely manifested his preference for Joseph, and
this excited the jealousy of his other sons. As Joseph witnessed
the evil conduct of his brothers, he was greatly troubled; he
ventured gently to remonstrate with them, but only aroused still
further their hatred and resentment. He could not endure to see
them sinning against God, and he laid the matter before his father,
hoping that his authority might lead them to reform.
Jacob carefully avoided exciting their anger by harshness or
severity. With deep emotion he expressed his solicitude for his
children, and implored them to have respect for his gray hairs,
and not to bring reproach upon his name, and above all not to
dishonor God by such disregard of His precepts. Ashamed that
their wickedness was known, the young men seemed to be
repentant, but they only concealed their real feelings, which were
rendered more bitter by this exposure.
The father's injudicious gift to Joseph of a costly coat, or tunic,
such as was usually worn by persons of distinction, seemed to
them another evidence of his partiality, and excited a suspicion
that he intended to pass by his elder children, to bestow the
birthright upon the son of Rachel. Their malice was still further
increased as the boy one day told them of a dream that he had
had. "Behold," he said, "we were binding sheaves in the field,
and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your
sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf." [p. 210]
"Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have
dominion over us?" exclaimed his brothers in envious anger.
Soon he had another dream, of similar import, which he also
related: "Behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made
obeisance to me." This dream was interpreted as readily as the
first. The father, who was present, spoke reprovingly—"What is
this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and
thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the
earth?" Notwithstanding the apparent severity of his words,
Jacob believed that the Lord was revealing the future to Joseph.
As the lad stood before his brothers, his beautiful countenance
lighted up with the Spirit of inspiration, they could not
withhold their admiration; but they did not choose to renounce
their evil ways, and they hated the purity that reproved their
sins. The same spirit that actuated Cain was kindling in their
The brothers were obliged to move from place to place to secure
pasturage for their flocks, and frequently they were absent
from home for months together. After the circumstances just
related, they went to the place which their father had bought at
Shechem. Some time passed, bringing no tidings from them, and
the father began to fear for their safety, on account of their
former cruelty toward the Shechemites. He therefore sent Joseph to
find them, and bring him words as to their welfare. Had Jacob
known the real feeling of his sons toward Joseph, he would not
have trusted him alone with them; but this they had carefully
With a joyful heart, Joseph parted from his father, neither the
aged man nor the youth dreaming of what would happen before
they should meet again. When, after his long and solitary journey,
Joseph arrived at Shechem, his brothers and their flocks were
not to be found. Upon inquiring for them, he was directed to
Dothan. He had already traveled more than fifty miles, and now
an additional distance of fifteen lay before him, but he hastened
on, forgetting his weariness in the thought of relieving the anxiety
of his father, and meeting the brothers, whom, despite their
unkindness, he still loved.
His brothers saw him approaching; but no thought of the
long journey he had made to meet them, of his weariness and
hunger, of his claims upon their hospitality and brotherly love, [p. 211] softened the bitterness of their hatred. The sight of the coat, the
token of their father's love, filled them with frenzy. "Behold, this
dreamer cometh," they cried in mockery. Envy and revenge, long
secretly cherished, now controlled them. "Let us slay him," they
said, "and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil
beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of
They would have executed their purpose but for Reuben. He
shrank from participating in the murder of his brother, and proposed
that Joseph be cast alive into a pit, and left there to perish;
secretly intending, however, to rescue him and return him to his
father. Having persuaded all to consent to this plan, Reuben left
the company, fearing that he might fail to control his feelings,
and that his real intentions would be discovered.
Joseph came on, unsuspicious of danger, and glad that the
object of his long search was accomplished; but instead of the
expected greeting, he was terrified by the angry and revengeful
glances which he met. He was seized and his coat stripped from
him. Taunts and threats revealed a deadly purpose. His entreaties
were unheeded. He was wholly in the power of those maddened
men. Rudely dragging him to a deep pit, they thrust him in,
and having made sure that there was no possibility of his escape,
they left him there to perish from hunger, while they "sat down
to eat bread."
But some of them were ill at ease; they did not feel the
satisfaction they had anticipated from their revenge. Soon a company
of travelers was seen approaching. It was a caravan of Ishmaelites
from beyond Jordan, on their way to Egypt with spices and
other merchandise. Judah now proposed to sell their brother to
these heathen traders instead of leaving him to die. While he
would be effectually put out of their way, they would remain
clear of his blood; "for," he urged, "he is our brother and our
flesh." To this proposition all agreed, and Joseph was quickly
drawn out of the pit.
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As he saw the merchants the dreadful truth flashed upon him.
To become a slave was a fate more to be feared than death. In
an agony of terror he appealed to one and another of his brothers,
but in vain. Some were moved with pity, but fear of derision kept
them silent; all felt that they had now gone too far to retreat. If
Joseph were spared, he would doubtless report them to the father, [p. 212] who would not overlook their cruelty toward his favorite son.
Steeling their hearts against his entreaties, they delivered him
into the hands of the heathen traders. The caravan moved on,
and was soon lost to view.
Reuben returned to the pit, but Joseph was not there. In alarm
and self-reproach he rent his garments, and sought his brothers,
exclaiming, "The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?" Upon
learning the fate of Joseph, and that it would now be impossible
to recover him, Reuben was induced to unite with the rest in the
attempt to conceal their guilt. Having killed a kid, they dipped
Joseph's coat in its blood, and took it to their father, telling him
that they had found it in the fields, and that they feared it was
their brother's. "Know now," they said, "whether it be thy son's
coat or no." They had looked forward to this scene with dread,
but they were not prepared for the heart-rending anguish, the
utter abandonment of grief, which they were compelled to witness.
"It is my son's coat," said Jacob; "an evil beast hath devoured
him. Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces." Vainly his sons and
daughters attempted to comfort him. He "rent his clothes, and
put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days."
Time seemed to bring no alleviation of his grief. "I will go down
into the grave unto my son mourning," was his despairing cry.
The young men, terrified at what they had done, yet dreading
their father's reproaches, still hid in their own hearts the knowledge
of their guilt, which even to themselves seemed very great.
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"Joseph in Egypt"