Genesis (Part 156)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 35: 16-20

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.


Here we have the story of Benjamin’s birth and Rachel’s death. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 35:16

And they journeyed—not in opposition to the Divine commandment (Genesis 35:1), which did not enjoin a permanent settlement at Bethel, but in accordance probably with his own desire, if not also Heaven’s counsel, to proceed to Mamre to visit Isaac—from Bethel (southwards in the direction of Hebron); and there was but a little way (literally, there was yet a space of land; probably a few furlongs (Murphy), about four English miles (Gerlach). The Vulgate translates, “in the spring-time,” and the LXX. render, ἐγένετο δὲ ἡνίκα ἤγγισεν εἰς χαβραθὰboth of which are misunderstandings of the original—to come to Ephrath:—Fruitful; the ancient name of Bethlehem (vide infra Genesis 35:19)—and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor—literally, she had hard labor in her parturition, which was perhaps all the more severe that sixteen or seventeen years had elapsed since her first son, Joseph, was born.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary adds a little more about the original name of Bethlehem:

(16) But a little way.—Heb., and there was still a “chibrath” of land to come to Ephrath. This word occurs four times in the Old Testament: here, in Genesis 48:7, in 2 Kings 5:19, and in Amos 9:9, where it is used in the sense of a sieve. Many of the Rabbins, therefore, translate “in the spring-time,” because the earth is then riddled by the plough like a sieve; and the Targum and Vulgate adopt this rendering. The real meaning of the word is lost, but probably it was a measure of distance; and the Jewish interpreters generally think that it meant a mile, because Rachel’s traditional tomb was about that distance from Bethlehem.

Ephrath (the fruitful) and Beth-lehem (the house of bread) have virtually the same meaning, but the latter name would be given to the town only when its pastures had given place to arable lands, where corn was sown for bread.

Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 35:17

And it came to pass, when she was in hard labor (literally, in her laboring hard in her parturition)that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also—literally, for also this to thee a son; meaning either that she would certainly have strength to bring forth another son, or, what is more probable, that the child was already born, and that it was a son.

Genesis 35:18

And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing,—literally, in the departing of her soul; not into annihilation, but into another (a disembodied) state of existence (vide Genesis 25:3)—for she died (a pathetic commentary on Genesis 30:1), that she called his name Ben-oni (“son of my sorrow,” as a memorial of her anguish in bearing him, and of her death because of him): but his father called him Benjamin—”son of my right hand;” either “the son of my strength” (Clericus, Rosenmüller,. Murphy), or “the son of my happiness or good fortune” (Gesenius, Keil, Kalisch), with allusion to Jacob’s now possessing twelve sons; or as expressive of Jacob’s unwillingness to see a bad omen in the birth of Rachel’s child (Candlish); or “the son of my days,” i.e. of my old age (Samaritan), an interpretation which Lunge pasaes with a mere allusion, but which Kalisch justly pronounces not so absurd as is often asserted (cf. Genesis 44:20); or “the son of my affection” (Ainsworth; cf. Genesis 50:18)

Ben-oni = בֶּן־אוֹנִי Ben-ʼÔwnîy, ben-o-nee’; from H1121 and H205; son of my sorrow; Ben-Oni, the original name of Benjamin:—Ben-oni.

Benjamin = בִּנְיָמִין Binyâmîyn, bin-yaw-mene’; from H1121 and H3225; son of (the) right hand; Binjamin, youngest son of Jacob; also the tribe descended from him, and its territory:—Benjamin.

Ellicott adds the following note on the two names:

(18) Ben-oni . . . Benjamin.—Rachel, in her dying moments, names her child the son of my sorrow; for though on has a double meaning, and is translated strength in Genesis 49:3, yet, doubtless, her feeling was that the life of her offspring was purchased by her own pain and death. Jacob’s name, “son of the right hand,” was probably given not merely that the child might-bear no ill-omened title, but to mark his sense of the value and preciousness of his last born son. Abravanel well remarks that earthly happiness is never perfect, and that the receiving of Divine revelations made no difference to Jacob’s earthly lot. God had just solemnly appeared to him, and he is on his last journey, within two days’ easy march of Hebron, when he loses the wife whom he so loved. For more than forty years he had been an exile from his home; he was now close to it, but may never welcome there the one for whom he had so deep and lasting an affection.

The note points out the emotional stakes for Jacob with the birth of his final son and the loss of his most beloved wife. In a sense, Rachel is the underlying motivation (at least initially) for his long stay with Laban. Her death, just short of a return to Jacob’s own home, must have been difficult to bear.

Finishing the section with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 35:19

And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem—or House of Bread, about seven miles south of Jerusalem. It afterwards became the birthplace of David (1 Samuel 16:18) and of Christ (Matthew 2:1). The assertion that this clause is a later interpolation (Lunge) is unfounded (Kalisch, Kurtz).

Genesis 35:20

And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave (vide on Genesis 35:14): that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day i.e. unto the times of Moses; but the site of Rachel’s sepulcher was known so late as the age of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:2); and there seems no reason to question the tradition which from the fourth century has placed it within the Turkish chapel Kubbet Rachil, about half-an-hour’s journey north of Bethlehem.

For more on Rachel’s Tomb, and its place in even modern news cycles, from Wiki:

Rachel’s Tomb (Hebrew: קבר רחל translit. Qever RaḥelArabic: قبر راحيل Qabr Rāḥīl) is the site revered as the burial place of the matriarch Rachel. The tomb is held in esteem by JewsChristians, and Muslims. The site is also referred to as the Bilal bin Rabah mosque (Arabic: مسجد بلال بن رباح).

The tomb, located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem, is built in the style of a traditional maqam. The burial place of the matriarch Rachel as mentioned in the Hebrew Bible of Judaism, the Old Testament of Christianity and in Muslim literature is contested between this site and several others to the north. Although this site is considered unlikely to be the actual site of the grave, it is by far the most recognized candidate.

The earliest extra-biblical records describing this tomb as Rachel’s burial place date to the first decades of the 4th century CE. The structure in its current form dates from the Ottoman period, and is situated in a Christian and Muslim cemetery dating from at least the Mamluk period. When Sir Moses Montefiore renovated the site in 1841 and obtained the keys for the Jewish community, he also added an antechamber, including a mihrab for Muslim prayer, to ease Muslim fears. According to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, the tomb was to be part of the internationally administered zone of Jerusalem, but the area was ruled by Jordan, which prohibited Jews from entering the area. Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, though not initially falling within Area C, the site has come under the control of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Following Montefiore’s purchase of the site it began to take special “cultic” significance amongst Jews in the area; in contemporary Israeli society it is now considered the third holiest site in Judaism and has become one of the cornerstones of Jewish-Israeli identity. According to Genesis 35:20, a mazzebah was erected at the site of Rachel’s grave in ancient Israel, leading scholars to consider the site to have been a place of worship in ancient Israel. According to Martin Gilbert, Jews have made pilgrimage to the tomb since ancient times. According to Frederick Strickert, the first historically recorded pilgrimages to the site were by early Christians, and Christian witnesses wrote of the devotion shown to the shrine “by local Muslims and then later also by Jews”; throughout history, the site was rarely considered a shrine exclusive to one religion and is described as being “held in esteem equally by Jews, Muslims, and Christians”.

Following a 1929 British memorandum, in 1949 the UN ruled that the Status Quo, an arrangement approved by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin concerning rights, privileges and practices in certain Holy Places, applies to the site. In 2005, following Israeli approval on 11 September 2002, the Israeli West Bank barrier was built around the tomb, effectively annexing it to Jerusalem; Checkpoint 300 – also known as Rachel’s Tomb Checkpoint – was built adjacent to the site. A 2005 report from OHCHR Special Rapporteur John Dugard noted that: “Although Rachel’s Tomb is a site holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, it has effectively been closed to Muslims and Christians.” On October 21, 2015, UNESCO adopted a resolution reaffirming a 2010 statement that Rachel’s Tomb was: “an integral part of Palestine.” On 22 October 2015, the tomb was separated from Bethlehem with a series of concrete barriers.

Dr. Craig Keener writes “Rachel’s death in childbirth—Genesis 35:16-20” on Rachel’s death and a narrative thread regarding her in Genesis (excerpt below):

In 35:16-20, Rachel dies in childbirth. This person who dies in childbirth is the same person who earlier demanded of her husband, “Give me children or I will die!” (30:1). Possibly whatever biological issues that made it difficult for her to have children to begin with also led to her death in childbirth, though such death in childbirth was unfortunately common back then. But the narrative connection may also show us how important having children was to Rachel; she preferred death to not having children, and she ultimately did give her life in the process.

Another possible, though less clear connection, comes in ch. 31. Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, probably meaning idols and possibly connected with inheritance rights. Jacob, unaware that Rachel has stolen them, indignantly declares that if Laban finds his teraphim with anyone, that person would not live (31:32). In this case, therefore, Jacob deems this theft a potentially deathworthy offense. Concerned to avoid being detected as the thief, Rachel seats herself on her father’s teraphim, and avoids rising before her father by appealing to the “way of women” (31:35). This undoubtedly means menstruation; given ancient Near Eastern custom, Laban would not wish to touch her in this state, nor would he assume that in this condition she would be sitting on his gods!

But the language of women’s “way” might also evoke pregnancy. In her next pregnancy, Rachel would in fact die. The connection here is less clear, however, both because the “way of women” does not specify pregnancy and also because Rachel probably had recently already surrendered the teraphim when Jacob (presumably by now knowing of the theft) buried all the foreign gods among them (35:4).

A surer connection is simply an echo of the suffering attached to childbirth from the beginning. As Jacob had slaved in the fields for Laban (31:38-41), enduring the hard labor that became humanity’s lot after their inaugural disobedience (3:17-19), so Rachel died in the pangs of childbirth that had befallen humanity at the same time (3:16). That is, although we could identify some sins committed by Rachel or other characters in Genesis, we cannot assume that Rachel was more sinful than others or being punished for her personal sin. (We don’t read in Genesis about any painful death for Esau, for example.) As Jesus pointed out with regard to some recent particularly abrupt deaths, those victims were no worse than others, and all people will face a fate no less horrible if they do not repent (Luke 13:2-5).