These verses relate 2 deaths in the family of Jacob -- Rachel's and Isaac's. What can we learn from here?
(A) Difficult reality: Sin leaves its felt mark on a fallen world (Gen 35:16-22)
In verse 16, Jacob and his family leave Bethel in the direction of Mamre where Isaac was. The goal was to return home, to see Isaac. By this point, he had already made peace with his brother, and it was probably time to go back home, and reunite with his parents after all the years of separation.
However, he stops by Ephrath en route to Mamre. Rachel goes into labour, and it was a hard labour (Gen 35:17-18). She ultimately dies in childbirth. Kent Hughes says this of her death and it's effect on Jacob:
"Jacob’s sorrow was deep. When he lay dying in old age he said, “As for me, when I came to Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way” (Gen 48:7). Jacob lived in tears to his dying day."
It is no surprise that Jacob grieved, but when we recall the extent of his love for her (c.f. Gen 29), we can only imagine the devastation that Jacob felt when he lost the love of his life.
Benjamin was born, and Rachel named him "Ben-Oni" before her death, meaning "son of my strength" or "son of my sorrow" (Gen 35:18a). The latter is a more likely meaning, given the context of this passage, and it is not difficult to see why. Following the birth of Joseph (c.f. Gen 30:22-24), Rachel did want more children. Ironically, in Gen 35, she dies in the labor of this next son that she longed for. However, Jacob renames him Benjamin, meaning "son of my right hand", highlighting his importance in the family (Gen 35:18b). Benjamin, Rachel's last son becomes his most precious son!
For many of us, it is so easy to skim through these verses in favor of other more exciting ones. But these verses remind us that the Bible is not about characters who have their feelings and emotions under wraps. These are not perfect people who lived perfect lives. These are people with real struggles and real aspirations, that were sometimes crushed. They had real relationships with God. What about you? Real people with real struggles, point to a real faith in a real God.
Something else happens at Ephrath. Reuben slept with Bilhah, one of his father's concubines (Gen 35:22), probably in an attempt to assert his status as the next heir to Jacob's inheritance. This piece of information seems rather random, and very awkward. What do we do we these strange texts and unsanitised parts of the Bible? And, why are we uncomfortable with these parts? Through this passages, we see the sin of man (more later!). But also through these passages, we realise that God cannot be tamed and domesticated, and He works differently from our logic and common sense.
These verses also highlight the themes from Genesis 3 that we've been unravelling throughout Genesis.
- Gen 3:16 -- The woman was cursed with pain in childbearing. God intended for life to go on, but now this purpose will be fulfilled in pain. We see this in the life of Rachel. We also see the desire for children, the emotional and psychological pain involved in it, and her struggle in life.
- Gen 3:16 -- We also see the brokenness of human relationships. The beginning of the fall contained the kernel for the fracture of all human relationships after that. We saw it, not only between Jacob and his wives, but also Reuben and Bilhah.
- Gen 3:19 -- Death entered the world because of sin. Now, Jacob was separated from the love of his life because of sin.
(B) Difficult hope: Death is not the final word for God’s children (Gen 35:23-28)
The chapter ends with the closing of Isaac’s life, parallel to Rachel’s earlier in this chapter. Death is a constant reminder of life in a fallen world. It is the final farewell, and separation where the living is unable to go to where the dead has moved on to.
What does the Bible have to say about death? In 1 Thess 4:13-15, from the way Paul writes, we learn that he wanted the people to pay attention to his words. He calls Christians who have died, "asleep". He acknowledges that grieving in death is acceptable, but we are to grieve with hope (1 Thess 4:13b). What is the basis for this hopeful grieving? Jesus' death and resurrection. In these verses, Paul describes an order, when those who are asleep will go first, followed by those who are alive. Jesus was baptized into our sins, and lived a perfect life, but died for us, and was raised from the dead. It is because of this that Christians, when they die, will not be dead forever, and have a hope of future resurrection. Therefore, we are to look at death through these lenses.
In 1 Cor 15:12-18, Paul argues that our hope of life after death, is tied to whether Jesus really came back from the dead. If he did not actually really live, we are still dead in sins. If he did not eat the fish he cooked on coals for the disciples, or if he did not show the scars to the disciples, and if everything was a mass hallucination as some people today would argue, there is no hope for us at all! And we who believe and place our hope in it, we who gather every week to study this and sing songs about it, deserve to be pitied. Do you realise how marvelous it is that Jesus' resurrection was not a theory, but reality?
Death was a result of sin. But, the gospel, the good news of what God has done in Jesus, helps us to see that death has been overcome. For the Christian, it is not the end, but only the beginning. What does this mean for us today? This quote by Ravi Zacharias might help:
Have you ever wondered what you would do to frighten Lazarus after he’d been raised from the dead? What would you do to threaten him? ... How do you frighten somebody who has already been there and knows the one who’s going to let him out? …
We follow a resurrected Savior, who does not lie in a tomb in Israel today. If this is our hope and certainty, why are we worried about the various things in life that we struggle with -- work, school, relationships etc? Genesis 35 reminds us that sin leaves an obvious mark on a fallen world, but for the children of God, death is not the final word, and we have a hope that lifts our eyes beyond the beckoning grave, to the day when we behold His face.