Genesis 35: The Death of Rachel

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Following the massacre at Shechem, Jacob fears that the neighboring tribes will seek retribution. So it is that when God instructs him to go back to Bethel, he doesn’t hesitate. Bethel is the site of God’s revelation to him when he was fleeing from Esau. God tells him to stay there and to build an altar.

Prior to their departure, Jacob tells everyone to “throw out all the alien gods which you have, wash yourselves, and change your clothes.” Some of these gods might have been pilfered from Shechem, but others might have been with them from the beginning of the journey. We know that Rachel leaves with her father’s teraphim; it is not a stretch to presume others take idols too. It appears that such religious practices were tolerated. Additionally, the people might have been influenced by the cultic behaviors of the neighboring tribes. But now Jacob is looking to change all that.

In addition to throwing out the alien gods, Jacob tells them to purify themselves. After the polluting desecration of Shechem, Jacob feels the need for purification. The people cooperate fully by giving him everything, including earrings. Scholars debate whether these are rings from their own ears or rings worn by the gods. Either way, the people hand them over. Jacob, however, does not destroy them; he buries them – under a large oak tree! The more typical method of destroying idols was to incinerate or pulverize them. Scholars don’t really know why he chooses to bury them. Some have suggested he is hedging his bet by knowing he can always retrieve them later. Others suggest that burying them neutralizes their significance. Regardless, the idols are left behind. Also, changing clothes has the connotation of leaving the old life behind. All of this is intended to illustrate a clean break from the past. And while the people are getting ready to set out, the Lord sends a paralyzing fear upon the neighboring tribes. After that no one wants to go after them.

As soon as they arrive in Bethel, Jacob builds an altar and names it El-Bethel (God of Bethel). The text interrupts the story by noting that Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, dies. This has puzzled scholars for a long time primarily because this is the first indication of her existence. The fact that she is named upon her death is also unusual considering there is no comparable statement regarding Rebekah’s death. All of this raises questions as to her presence with Jacob’s entourage. How did she get there? Rebekah had said that she would send for Jacob when things died down with Esau. As far as scholars know, that never happened. Jacob is very wary of Esau prior to meeting him. Somehow though, Deborah ends up with Jacob, and scholars estimate her age to be well over 100. That has led some of them to suggest a typo in that she is really Rachel’s nurse. Needless to say, there is plenty of speculation, but no definitive answer about this. Some scholars have noted that since she is also buried under a tree, perhaps the connection relates back to the idols. In a sense she could represent the final connection to Jacob’s old life, thereby making his rededication/renewal to God complete.

After this, God reveals himself to Jacob once again. He reiterates Jacob’s new name and the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. God states that Jacob will have land and many descendants. While none of this is new information, the fact that God repeats his promises at this point is highly significant. This time it is God that says, “From now on your name is Israel.” The angel had told him that as dawn was breaking after a night of wrestling. But then, Jacob is still on the other side of the Jordan. Now he has crossed over into the Promised Land, and God repeats it again.

Scholars have also noted that the route Jacob follows mimics the one Abraham took as he entered into the Promised Land. Early on, Abraham built an altar at Bethel. After the famine when he comes back from Egypt, he returns to Bethel and once again calls on the Lord. When Jacob is running away from Esau, he stops at Bethel and builds an altar. Now, after the tragedy at Shechem, he returns to Bethel and builds another altar. Both Abraham and Jacob encounter God at Bethel. The promises made to Abraham have been successfully transferred to Jacob. Then God leaves.

Despite God’s admonition to remain at Bethel, a few verses later, Jacob and his entourage are on the move. While still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel goes into labor. This is the first indication that she is pregnant. The text states that the labor is hard; the birth is difficult. The midwife comforts and encourages her by saying she is having a son. The child is born, and with her dying breath, Rachel names him Benoni, which means “son of my misfortune” or “son of my sorrow.” This is the woman who once had said she would die if she didn’t have sons. Now she is dying because she is giving birth to a son. The irony hurts. She lives only long enough to give him a name.

Benoni is the only one of Jacob’s children who is born in the land of Canaan and the only instance in which Jacob is involved in the naming of a child. He changes Benoni’s name to Benjamin, meaning “son of my good fortune,” or “son of my right hand.” Some scholars think the reference to “my right hand” is a metaphor for strength. Others think it means “south,” referring either to the place of his birth or the future location of the Tribe of Benjamin as one of the southern tribes. Nonetheless, Jacob has changed the unfavorable nature of the name to one that is more favorable. With the birth of Benjamin, Jacob is now the proud father of twelve sons (and one daughter).

But his beloved Rachel dies, and Jacob must bury her. Unfortunately, they are in the middle of nowhere. He buries her by the side of the road, raising a pillar over her grave. In this way he commemorates her importance. The text states that the pillar is there “to this day.” Interestingly on his own deathbed, Jacob will speak of his beloved Rachel. He tells her son, Joseph, that to “his sorrow she died on the journey and that he had to bury her alongside the road.” They could not be united even in death. Centuries later, the prophet, Jeremiah, will immortalize Rachel’s grave in his famous passage from 31:15, “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.”

Rachel will come to represent a dispersed people. Generations later when her descendants will be sent off into exile, they will pass her grave. She will ask for mercy for them for it is written, “Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears, for there is a reward for your labor. They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future – declares the Lord: your children shall return to their country” (Jer. 31:16). At that lonely border, her yearning for her children will provide a redemptive force. God will respond to her tears. Through her sheer longing for children that “were gone,” she will bring all of Israel’s children back into being.

For now, however, Jacob keeps going on his way only to set up camp at Migdal Eder. While they are in that region, Reuben goes in and sleeps with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden and his father’s concubine. Though scholars differ as to why Reuben did this, most agree that he didn’t take Bilhah because he was interested in her. True, they might have been very close in age, since Reuben was the firstborn and she was a servant girl. Nevertheless, such an action is replete with symbolism. Perhaps it is Reuben’s intent to solidify his mother’s position as chief wife. With Rachel gone, he wants to make sure Bilhah’s status is in no way upgraded.

Another option is even more likely. Reuben is the firstborn. He is ready to exert his authority. Ever since Jacob’s night of wrestling, he’s had some sort of limp; maybe he appears weakened to his sons. He surely isn’t the man he used to be. He’s probably in his mid-nineties by now. Reuben could easily be in his early thirties or forties; he’s a strong man and ready to take over. Sleeping with his father’s concubines is one way of signaling that. When one of David’s sons sleeps with his father’s concubines, he does it on the rooftop – in view of the entire city. He wants everyone to know he is taking over the reigns from his father. And in a very small way, that could be what Reuben is trying to do, too. He is the firstborn son, the legitimate heir. He is saying that the time has come. However, nothing ever comes of it. Nothing happens as a result, even though Jacob “hears about it.” Neither Jacob nor Reuben ever mention it again, – until Jacob speaks of it on his deathbed. At that time he tells Reuben that he will not be the preeminent one because he has defiled his father’s bed.

The last section of the chapter lists the names of Jacob’s sons and ends with his visit to Isaac. Isaac dies at the age of 180, and both Jacob and Esau unite to bury him. Scholars can’t help but point out that fifty to eighty years earlier (depending on the timeframe), this same Isaac is so frail and infirmed that Jacob is able to steal the blessing intended for Esau, thereby setting all these events into motion. It is true that Isaac says, “I am old; I do not know the day of my death,” but the reality is that he lives for a very long time afterwards.