December 6, 2015

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe




Topic #E:  JACOB'S RESIDENCE AT SHECHEM, BETH-EL AND HEBRON. (Gen. 33:18-36:43.)                



Lesson III.E.5: The Death of Rachel and the Sin of Reuben. (Genesis 35:16-22)




Genesis 35:16-22 (KJV)


16 And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.

17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.

18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.

19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.

20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.

21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar.

22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve:





Jacob moved away from Bethel even though God had told him to go there and dwell.  Backsliding could no longer be tolerated in his life, so his disobedience was quickly punished.  Jacob was now a sanctified man, and the mistakes of his kindergarten years in the school of God could no longer be condoned.  Two deaths are now recorded.  In the Bible, they appear to have happened within a short period of time—when in reality, the time between was much longer— in order to enable us to see the cumulative effect they must have had on the maturing pilgrim.  They were part of God’s plan to loosen earthly ties and make this world a dreary place and the world to come more and more real and desirable. God’s presence did not eliminate sorrow or pain from Jacob’s life, but it did prepare him and sustain him during the time of sorrow.  His disposition now was one of gentleness and compassion, showing a remarkable capacity to bear heartache.


When a man wants to ascend in a balloon, he must throw out ballast.  The higher he would like to go the more ballast he must throw out.  That is what was happening to Jacob.  The things that weighed him down, that bound him to the earth, those things were being taken from him in the same way God would wean us from the things which are harmful to us and opposed to His will.






16 And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath{3]: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.


First we see Jacob grieving for his favorite wife—there is a record given of the events that led up to that tragic event.  After that, Jacob would have no more interest in the world; it would be effectively crucified to him by the death of his beloved.  We notice Jacob’s strange mistake.  “and they journeyed from Bethel . . .” But why?  Who can tell why we so quickly grow tired of the place where God has met with us and where He has put His name?  Abraham had moved away “from Bethel” because of a famine and, perhaps Jacob moved away because of a funeral (35:8).  Material considerations moved Abraham, emotional considerations perhaps moved Jacob.  Neither reason is good enough.  Abraham may well have lost Sarah as a consequence of his backsliding. Did Jacob lose v

 for the same reason?



17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.


When Jacob’s beloved Rachael learned that she was pregnant, it must have given both of them great joy.  She had born Jacob only one “son,” Joseph; and in naming him, she had expressed her desire for another “son”“And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach: And she called his name Joseph; and said, The Lord shall add to me another son” (30:22-24).  God answered her prayers and gave her a boy.  Jacob now had 12 sons, the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel.


The tragic move (v. 16) seems to have had a direct bearing on what followed.  Rachel was about to have her second child, and her condition was far advanced.  That should have been reason enough for Jacob to remain at Bethel; at the very least, he should have stayed there until after the baby was born. Travel was rough in those days.  For Rachel to be jostled and jolted on the back of a camel was more than her fading strength could bear.  They had almost come to Ephrath (the original name for Bethlehem) when the tragedy took place.



18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.


Poor Jacob; sorrow was now to be the means of training, and after Deborah’s death (35:8) came the loss of his beloved Rachael. “Benjamin” was born and Rachel lived just long enough to see him, to know that she had born Jacob a second son, and to “call his name” “Benoni.” “Call him Benoni,” she whispered with her dying breath.  Poor Jacob!  He could never deny Rachel anything upon which she had set her heart.  How could he deny her now?  But he did.  Tenderly but firmly he substituted a “name” of his own, “Benjamin!” “Call him ‘son of my sorrow,’” (Some translate it “Son of my trouble.”) wept Rachel. Neither “name” would be very good for a man to carry through life, for it would always remind him that his birth had helped cause his mother’s death.  Sorrow would overshadow every birthday.  “I’ll call him the “son” of my right hand!” said Jacob.  Since, for the Semitic (Jewish) people, the right hand was a place of honor and strength, some commentators have assumed that this new “name” signified “Son of Good Fortune.”


Jacob’s love for Rachel was perhaps the only fine thing in his life during those years in Padan-Aram when there was so much evidence of the flesh and of self-seeking.  He loved Rachel—there is no question about that.  He was totally devoted to her.  He was willing to do almost anything for her, such as permitting her to keep the images she had taken from her “father.” I don’t think that Leah would have gotten by with it—or anyone else for that matter.  But he was indulgent with Rachel. Rachel had given Jacob his son Joseph, and now she gives birth to “Benjamin.” And it was at the birth of her second son that “she died.” His life meant her death.  It was a great heartbreak to Jacob.


The other 10 boys were no joy to old Jacob at all.  God reminded him, I think, every day for twenty-four hours of the day that it was sinful to have more than one wife.  He didn’t need all of them.  However, God will overrule, of course.  (And he overrules in your life and mine.  We can thank Him for that!) But the facts reveal that God did not approve of this plural marriage.  This is especially obvious in the treatment which Joseph received from his half-brothers.


The tribe of “Benjamin” was to play its distinguished part in history, since from it came Saul, the first king (1 Samuel 9:1-2), and that greater Saul of Tarsus, who was to be the apostle Paul (Philippians 3:5).



19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.


“Rachel” had passionately said, “Give me the children, or else I die”; and now that she had children, she “died!” We shouldn’t interpret Rachel’s death as a judgment from God either because of her rash statement or because she stole her father’s idols{2].


“Rachel died” and was “buried”; her tomb must have been somewhere south of Bethel, on the road to Hebron.  Bethel was 10 miles north of Jerusalem, and “Bethlehem” was about 6 miles south of Jerusalem.  It is usually concluded that “Rachel” was buried in the immediate vicinity of “Bethlehem.” Today, there is a memorial marking the traditional site of the grave (probably not the authentic site).  “Rachel” was the only one of the principal characters in Abraham’s family of promise who was not “buried” at the cave of Machpelah (23:19, 20).  “Rachel died” and Jacob’s heart “died” with her, along with all its worldly ambitions.  It was Jacob who “buried” “Rachel.” It was Israel who moved on.  He had now become a pilgrim to be sure; his feet felt like lead, his heart had been torn into pieces; but, his hopes and affections were now all fixed on things above, where Christ sets at the right hand of God.



20 And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.


Again “Jacob” set up “a pillar” in memory of his love and sorrow.  Were it not for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the town would be remembered primarily for the death of “Rachel.” Moses wrote, “Rachel's grave” is there “unto this day.” That is, it was there at the time Moses wrote this, but it is also there to this very day.


21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar.


“The tower of Edar,” means “tower of the flock,” and doubtless refers to a watchtower built to discourage thieves from stealing sheep and other animals (2 Chronicles 26:10).  It is located between Bethlehem and Hebron, and it has come down in history only as a place where a gross sin was committed.  Otherwise its location is unknown.  The incident that happened there, compounded Jacob’s sorrow.



22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve:


Verse 22 mentions Reuben, who is now an adult.  He was Jacob’s first born and therefore the oldest of his sons (29:31-32); he was most likely in his twenties.  He was the son that brought the mandrakes{1]to Rachel, hence playing some small part in the all too brief restoration of his mother’s marital rights— “And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah . . .” (Genesis 30:14). On the other hand, it was Reuben, whose sin brought even more sorrow to his father—but he met it in the strength of God. Reuben was so lost to decency and self-control, so utterly shameless, he could further dampen the spirits of Rachel’s mourners by defiling one of his father’s wives.  It was a hideous act in itself.  But when compounded, as it was, by the period when it was done and by the place where it was done and by the person to whom it was done, the act was unforgivable.


A concubine, which is how Bilhah is described in verse 22, was sometimes a slave with whom her owner had sexual relations.  She enjoyed some of the privileges of a wife, and people sometimes called her a wife in patriarchal times, but she was not a wife in the full sense of the term. Reuben’s relations with Bilhah are a power move as much as anything else.  In that culture, a man who wanted to assert his superiority over another man might do so by having sexual relations with that man’s wife or concubine.  It may have included a ploy for affirming his mother’s role as “first wife.” With the death of Rachel, who had been Jacob’s favorite, Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, may have been able to move into a favorite role.  Instead, Reuben’s actions make Bilhah detestable to Jacob; thus Leah has a better chance for power in the household. While Reuben’s actions may have been on behalf of his mother, they are an affront to his father as the head of the family.  Reuben’s act was not only a flagrant sin against the sanctity of marriage; it was also a contemptuous challenge of his father’s tribal authority.  Like the younger son in our Lord’s parable, Reuben couldn’t wait to get his inheritance (Luke 15:11-24).  He had to have it now. In the end though, according to 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, Reuben’s actions cost him, for he lost his inheritance.


The Holy Spirit continues to use the writing hand of Moses to record this shameful despicable act.  We have been told of the loss of Rachel and the lust of Reuben.  How could Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, act in such a despicable way?  What he did would have been distressing enough at any time, but to do it when his father is grieving over the death of his beloved, exposes him as a vile and contemptable man, indeed.  Reuben, we are told, defiled Bilhah, his father’s wife.  Now Bilhah had been Rachel’s maid, and Rachel had given her to Jacob.  If there was one person in all the camp that dark day who could have brought a measure of comfort to Jacob surely it must have been Bilhah.  But Reuben was so unprincipled, so lacking in common decency, humanity, and morality, that, the sinfulness of his act aside, he could commit incest with such a person at such a time.  Who knows what flirting and philandering had gone on before.  Since the text doesn’t indicate that Reuben raped his father’s wife, we assume she cooperated in the deed.


Sleeping with one’s father’s wife was considered a great offense in biblical law (Lev 18:8; 20:11); perhaps that is why Bilhah is called his secondary wife (pilegesh) in this one text—to diminish the gravity of the act. Jacob heard about what Reuben did—he heard about it with the utmost grief and shame, horror and displeasure—and does nothing about it at the time. But apparently he considered it a major offense, for in his deathbed speech, he removes Reuben from his extra inheritance as firstborn and alludes to Reuben’s dreadful deed (Gen 49:4).


Notice that it says, “And Israel heard it.” “Israel,” not Jacob.  If the Jacob nature had been in control, Reuben would have been a dead man.  But it was the Israel nature that took the blow, and because Israel ruled the Pilgrim’s broken heart, nothing was said.  This is reminiscent of his silence when he heard of the rape of his daughter Dinah (34:5).  Doubtless Reuben breathed a sigh of relief.  But, from that moment on, an ax was poised over his head, unseen and unsuspected by him, ever hanging there awaiting the appropriate moment to fall.  For God always punishes sexual immorality; sooner or later the ax always falls.  Moral, social, spiritual, physical, and psychological whips are all available to God with which to chastise those who transgress.


Those who teach that our dedication to the Lord automatically protects us from troubles and tears need to read this chapter carefully.  Certainly God had forgiven Jacob, and certainly Jacob was walking with the Lord in faith and obedience.  Nevertheless, he still had his share of trials.  If we obey the Lord only for what we get out of it, and not because he is worthy of our love and obedience, then our hearts and motives are wrong.  We become the kind of people Satan accuses Job of being (Job 1:6-2:10).


In a way the story of Jacob ends here; he lived for many more years, but he is no longer the center of interest after this chapter; the focus of attention moves to his sons, especially Joseph.






General Notes


{1] mandrakes. Sometimes called “love apples,” the roots of the mandrake plant were considered an aphrodisiac by the ancients, and used to promote sexual activity and conception (cf. Song 7:13).

{2]Some translate “Benoni” to mean “son of my sins,” that is, stealing Laban’s idols.  The name has also been translated “son of the south” since Benjamin was the only son of Jacob not born in Padan-Aram. He was also the only son named by his father.

{3] Ephrath (fruitfulness), is the older name for Bethlehem and the region around Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; also Ruth 4:11; 1 Chronicles 2:50-51)— “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2; KJV). Bethlehem is given two more names; "House of bread" (Genesis 35:19; 1 Samuel 17:12; Ruth 1:2); also “Bethlehem Judah” (Judges 17:7) due to its being situated in the tribal region assigned to Judah, about five miles south of Jerusalem,


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