Jacob, the wily one, after ten or fifteen years, finally returns to Bethel. God has been at work in his life, drawing the wayward patriarch to himself. It has been a difficult journey. It invariably is so when our wills are set at variance against the Lord’s. From the perspective of hindsight, Jacob could now speak to his family of a God “who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3). Jacob had been sheltered within the orbit of God’s covenant faithfulness. Despite half-hearted commitment and questionable decisions made more out of fear than trust, Jacob had known the Lord’s providential goodness. Even now, as he returns, a path is opened up for him to return in safety to the place where God had first met with him. The promise God had made to him, then, must have haunted him through the years. He was to inherit the land and his offspring were to be as ”the dust of the earth” (Gen. 28:13–15), but he had left with nothing but the clothes he had been wearing! Now, as he returns to Bethel, he brings with him his twelve sons (his twelfth yet unborn in his mother’s womb) and considerable wealth. And Jacob does the only thing possible under such circumstances — the only right thing: he worships! He pours out his heart in gratitude to the Lord for all that he now knew of God’s grace.
As Jacob worships, wonderful things happen: God renews the covenant that he had made (Gen. 35:9–15), reminding Jacob of the significance of the new name he had received at Peniel. Others may call him Jacob, but God has named him “Israel.” Some of the things God says to him must have reminded him of similar words used by his father Isaac so many years before, especially when he heard God say, “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 35:11; see 28:3). But a new promise is made, “kings shall come from your own body” (35:11). Imagine! Jacob’s pitiful attempt to buy a piece of the Promised Land at Shechem (33:19) is answered by God, saying, “I’ll give you and your descendents the whole of it!” Covenant mercies! Covenant grace! Covenant faithfulness!
But, in the wake of such glad tidings comes sorrows and reminders to Jacob that Eden’s curse has not yet been removed. As Jacob arrives in Bethel, his mother’s nurse, Deborah, dies (35:8). As he leaves the city, he will bury his wife, Rachel (35:19). The way to glory is paved with sorrows. It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Losses and crosses are strewn across life’s path to remind us, and Jacob, that we must lean upon the Lord every step of the way. Two gravestones of women dear to Jacob’s heart were pillars designed to wean him from the self-confidence that would otherwise characterize his life.
Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Jacob named him “son of my right hand” rather than the name Rachel had suggested, “son of my sorrow” (Benoni). The moment must have been particularly difficult for Jacob. She was his beloved, bearing him two sons. Future generations rose up and called her blessed. She was a mother of the twelve tribes, the Israel of God. Along with Sarah, Leah, Jochebed, Deborah, Ruth, Elizabeth and Mary, Rachel is one of the Bible’s honored women and mothers. She is a testimony to the noble calling of childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15).
How often is the dark line of grief and sorrow drawn around our experiences of blessing! In the wake of covenant renewal comes the sting of death. A grave cast a long shadow over the events. But, it is a sign of just how much Jacob has learned of God’s goodness to him that he changes the name of his twelfth son from Benoni to Benjamin. The “son of my right hand” may sound to our ears somewhat self-advancing, but it is not. The right hand is often used in Scripture as a symbol of blessing and favor. God had been good to him, and this was what Jacob wanted to set as a legacy in remembrance of his wife.
Believers express grief at the loss of a spouse in different ways. To suggest that because Christians know death to be for believers the gate of glory, they will therefore not grieve at times of bereavement is inhuman nonsense. Christians grieve, too. Some, like C.S. Lewis, become almost unhinged by the sorrow. Others, like Richard Baxter, are much more sanguine, writing a Breviate in which he records significant aspects of his wife’s life and passing (a personal memoir with a spiritual focus) in the hope of helping others approach bereavement biblically and spiritually. Jacob had waited seven years to marry Rachel.
Now, decades later, she is gone. The pillar he erected over her tomb in her memory (Gen. 35:20) was a witness to the sadness and hope that surrounded his life. Sadness in the loss; hope in the covenant promises that now assured him of a love that will not let him go.