- Locate the passage
Death is a natural part of life and marks genuine transitions. This pericope records the deaths of Rachel and Isaac. In addition to the death of Deborah which was recorded earlier in Genesis 35, the mention of these deaths demonstrate their significance in the Jacob chronicles. While Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife, it is significant that she is not buried with him in the cave of Machpelah (though the text later reveals that Leah is buried there). However, the other burial recorded in this chapter describes the effort undertaken to bury Isaac in the cave of Machpelah.
The passage is narrative. The only conversation recorded is from the midwife to Rachel as Benjamin is being born.
- Determine the structure of the passage
35:16-22a – Jacob travels to Bethlehem
35:22b-26 – Jacob’s family tree
35:27-29 – Jacob travels to see his father before Isaac dies
- Exegete the passage
Why Jacob left Bethel, after being instructed by the Lord in 35:1 to “dwell” there, is unclear in the text. Moreover, why he would travel when Rachel was that close to giving birth is equally obscure and peculiar. His travels in this pericope appear random and wandering. Despite being told by the Lord to stay in Bethel, he travels to Bethlehem (Ephrath), while his wife is certainly “great with child.” When she dies, he does not carry her body to his family’s burial plot, despite the fact that he could certainly have transported her body there (as he later instructs his children to do with his body – Gen. 49:29-30). Then, 35:22 notes that while he “dwelt in that land” another sad misadventure in his family occurs. Next, Jacob travels to the land where his father, Isaac, dwelt and presumably was there until Isaac passed away. It’s certainly admirable that he was able to be there with his father, but the movement of Jacob appears to be the journeys of a man not yet “settled” in the land the Lord instructed him to occupy.
With the birth of Benjamin in this passage, the twelve tribes are complete.
35:16 – On their way to Bethlehem, Rachel gave birth
- The text twice emphasizes that this took place on the way to Ephrath (35:16, 19), with 35:16 emphasizing that they were but “a little distance” from there.
- The phrase, “a little distance” is literally, “a distance of the land.” This does not specify an exact distance from Bethlehem.
- It is a child not born in Bethlehem, but born on the way there.
- Though this birth need not be seen as a foreshadowing of Christ, by analogy, there is another child in Jacob’s line born in Bethlehem.
- Moreover, the birth of Benjamin is God’s answer to the request of Rachel for “another son” (30:24).
- This location is referenced in 1 Sam. 10:2 and is described as “Zelzah” (whose exact location is also uncertain). The reference in Jer. 31:15 refers to “Rachel weeping for her children” in Ramah, which is 5 miles north of Jerusalem, whereas Bethlehem is 2 miles south. However, that passage depicts the Israelites returning from captivity from the north (Cf. Jer. 31:8; Matt 2:18) and does not necessitate locating Rachel’s tomb that far north of Bethlehem.
- Thus, while the exact location cannot be certain, a location a short distance north of Bethlehem seems warranted. See Barry J. Beitzel, The New Moody Atlas of the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 104.
35:16 – Rachel had “hard labor”
- The word “qashah” is used in Ex. 1:11, 14; Deut. 26:6 for the hard labor of the children of Israel in Egypt.
35:17 – “Do not fear”
- This is the same phrase used in similar circumstances in 1 Sam. 4:20 at the birth of Ichabod (Phinehas’ son). This birth also led to the death of Phinehas’ wife.
- The midwife’s assurance (you will have this son also) seems to be that the child will be ok.
- Rachel’s name (Ben-Oni means, “son of my sorrow”) for the child depicts her pain; while Jacob’s name for him (Benjamin means, “son of my right hand”) depicts his prominence.
35:19 – The exact location of Rachel’s tomb is uncertain. See discussion above.
35:20 – Jacob sets up a pillar in Rachel’s honor, but curiously does not transport her to his family’s burial site. Jacob had established pillar’s before at prominent sites (28:18; 31:45; 31:51; 35:14).
35:21 – The exact location of the tower of Eder is uncertain.
35:22 – Reuben’s sleeping with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, was an act of defiance against his father. Jacob “heard about” Reuben’s act, but no action towards him is recorded here. However, when Jacob was pronouncing his final words for his children in Gen. 49:3-4, he recalls this event and announces what amounts to a curse on Reuben (“you shall not excel”) because he defiled his father’s bed.
- This is also likely contributed to Jacob lack of trust in Reuben in Gen. 42:37-38.
- Jacob’s lack of action in this episode recalls his previous lack of action in the Dinah episode.
35:22-26 – The versification in 35:22 is a curious break in the text. The words beginning in 22b would seem to more naturally fit with verse 23.
- Here the sons of Jacob are listed, but not in chronological order. Moreover, the order is curious (Leah-Rachel-Bilhah-Zilpah).
- Dinah is not listed here as this list only includes Jacob’s sons.
- The list of Jacob’s sons here are juxtaposed with the genealogy of Esau’s family in Genesis 36.
- Likely, this passage is a foreshadowing of the 12 tribes of Israel and also introduces the Joseph narratives.
35:27 – Jacob came to his father
- The verse suggests the possibility of a reconciliation of Jacob with his father.
- It also presents Jacob as seeing his father, and presumably living in the area of his father until his father’s death.
- Isaac dies at 180 years. He lived 5 years longer than his father (25:7) and 33 years longer than his son (47:28).
- Jacob and Esau together bury their father in the same way that Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham. Death, sometimes, brings together family members who were previously at odds.
- Let the structure of the text drive the sermon
- Unsettled in the Promised Land
Exp. It’s hard to find spiritual direction in life, or even enjoy God’s blessings, when we are not where the Lord wants us to be.
- Death and new life
Exp. This passage reveals both death and new life. Both are part of life. Here the joy of the birth of his son, Benjamin, is tempered by the death of his beloved wife, Rachel.
Exp. Jacob’s response at Rachel’s death is curious and unexplained in the text. It’s noticeable that though Rachel was his favorite wife, he is not mentioned as mourning for her and does not carry her body to the family burial site. Instead, Jacob was buried alongside Leah.
- The need for family role models
Exp. Reuben displays a disrespect for his father and for the sanctity of marriage. One wonders if Jacob’s tenuous support of marriage contributed to Reuben’s lack of respect for his father’s commitment to Bilhah. These are traits that his father, grandfather, and great grandfather all also displayed. Jacob married four women (one involuntarily and two for the wrong reasons); Isaac offered his wife to another man; Abraham offered his wife to two different men.
Exp. Jacob has a habit of not addressing sensitive issues with his children (Dinah, Simeon, Levi, Reuben) – a habit he learned from his father, Isaac. However, he wanted to hold them accountable for those actions later (Gen. 49)
Exp. It is nice that Jacob was able to see his father, Isaac, before he died. It is also a positive sign that both Jacob and Esau are described as burying their father. The text stops short of describing any further interaction with either Jacob and Isaac or Jacob and Esau.
App. Our family’s today need positive family role models. Jacob was not a good role model as a son, brother, husband, or father.
- God’s promise is secure
Exp. It is not a coincidence that the text includes the death of Isaac upon the discussion of the completion of the twelve
Exp. Despite Jacob’s inconsistent faith and family unrest, the Lord’s promise is secure. He has blessed Jacob with 12 sons and the stage is set for a nation to arise from the man who wrestled (“Israel”) with God.
|↑1||See Barry J. Beitzel, The New Moody Atlas of the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 104.|