In Genesis 35, a boy with two names is born. He is a boy we don’t often talk about. His brother Joseph gets most of the attention, with his coat of many colours and the saga that is his story. Well, you know.
But what of this other boy? In the account beginning in Genesis 35:16, we read that Rachel, second and favourite wife of Jacob, goes into painful, dangerous labour and gives birth to her final child, a son. We hear in verse 18,
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin.Genesis 35:18
Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, whom he sought to marry for 12 years, doesn’t survive childbirth. But at this point of death, we encounter new life. In the birth of Benjamin, God whispers of the coming birth of our Savior. Ben-Oni, son of sorrows. Benjamin, the son of the right hand.
There’s more. In verse 19 of the story we learn the place of Rachel’s burial: on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). This is worth considering! (especially in light of Ruth’s marriage in Ephrath, to a son of Naomi, before she is widowed and moves to Bethlehem to marry Boaz. Grief to joy.)
Indeed, at this moment of sadness, at the death of Jacob’s great love, we find the beginning of a rich trail, which takes us to some very special places indeed. But I’m going to leave that for now and turn to another kind of birth, another boy with two names. Here is our story now, in full, below.
16 Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor.
17 When she was in severe labor the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.”
18 It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).
20 Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.
21 Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.
Genesis 35: 16-21
There are just a few verses here, but don’t miss the detail. Jacob has already wrestled with the angel in Chapter 32 and received a new name. Yet here we encounter the man Jacob again. It is when Jacob buries Rachel and erects a pillar over her grave that Jacob becomes Israel.
This is a point that in my experience seems often overlooked.
The Gospels open our eyes to some of the meaningfulness of this subtle shift, where Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, saying,
A voice is heard in Ramah,Matthew 2:18
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Matthew is here relaying Herod the antiChrist’s bloody butchering of Jewish babies, in the hopes he can kill the Savior. In the passage in Jeremiah, the prophet grieves with his people, using the image of their mother Rachel, who wept over her own son of sorrows. In fact, the place of her death was where Nebuchadnezzar assembled the people of Judah for their long trek into captivity in Babylon.
And yet, Nebuchadnezzar, tool of Satan, could not defeat the Man of Sorrows. Nor could Herod prevent the Messiah from conquering His enemy and taking His place at the right hand of God.
In this tiny story in Genesis, in a moment of grief, we catch sight of a glimmer of hope.
Even as Rachel dies,
as her son of sorrows is born,
as her husband Jacob grieves,
so Father Israel journeys on with his Right Hand Boy,
beyond the place of grief to the tower of Eder, Migdal Eder, “tower of the flock,” field of shepherds.