The passage today marks something of a close to the Jacob cycle of the book of Genesis. It deals with matters of distress, dedication, defilement, defiance, division, and death. Beyond these it points us to hope.
Distress or Delight?
In v. 16, we read that Israel and His people journeyed from Bethel (heading south) and that on the way “Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor.” If you do not know the story, this comes as something of a shock. We had not previously been told that she was even pregnant. Now, out of nowhere, we find out that the baby is coming. Not only that but the labor is so hard that Rachel is dying as a result.
Rachel had anticipated and longed for this baby boy. Years before, when she had given birth to her first son “she called his name Joseph, saying, ‘May the LORD add to me another son,” (30:24). The midwife must have known Rachel’s longing. Sensing Rachel’s distress as her soul was passing away, the woman comforted her, saying, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” Before she died, Rachel named her son Ben-oni. The meaning of the name is ambiguous. It could mean “son of my sorrow” or it could mean “son of my strength,” as in her virility. Was Rachel distressed at dying and memorializing her sorrow in her son’s name? Was she actually delighted that she had given birth to a second son and was saying as much by calling him Ben-oni?
Division and Defiance
Jacob’s marriage to Leah was based on Laban’s deception and his relationships with Bilhah and Zilpah (his wive’s maidservants) were certainly not based in the Biblical concept of marriage. Suffice it to say, Rachel was his favorite. As we have seen previously, Laban’s deception, Jacob’s favoritism, and all of the dysfunction that flowed from them made for loads of division within the house of Israel. That division was likely exacerbated when Jacob renamed Ben-oni, Benjamin, which means “son of my right hand.” The right hand was a place of honor. The person who sits at the right hand of a leader is of the highest position beneath that person. Israel’s name choice for his twelfth son made overtly obvious what at least ten other sons already knew – Jacob loved Rachel more and subsequently had a greater affection for her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin’s name said as much.
Reuben’s sin with Bilhah (v. 22) must be viewed in light of this divided household of Israel. His act was likely not just an occasion of getting caught up in the heat of the moment. It was not chiefly about lust at all. Rather, Reuben’s sin with Bilhah was an act of defiance against his father. Rachel had died and now Reuben had defiled her maidservant. In doing so he not only committed incest but he laid claim to headship of the family (see Deuteronomy 22:30; 2 Samuel 16:20-23). Perhaps he was covetous of Jacob’s affections? Perhaps he felt entitled to his rights as firstborn son? Maybe he mistrusted Jacob and feared he might pass on those rights to Joseph and/or Benjamin? Whatever his motivation(s) Reuben grasped at that which was not his to take. In doing so he sinned not only against Jacob, Bilhah, and his family but he sinned also against the LORD. He did not trust in God to work all things for good. He was discontent and impatient, so he sought to take control. Israel heard of Reuben’s sin (v. 22). He did not respond in the moment but near his own death, Jacob would eventually judge Reuben for his defiance by denying him the rights of firstborn (49:3-4). Reuben sought to gain control but in the end he forfeited his seat at the right hand of Israel.
What good did it do Reuben to gain Bilhah and to dishonor his father if he forfeited his firstborn privileges? Oh, how much he stood to gain had he put to death his lust, mortified his longing for vengeance, and killed his desire for power and dominance. The devil tempted Christ Jesus to dishonor his Father by wrongly and prematurely claiming dominion over the earth. Instead of giving in, Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross. He denied Himself, but in giving His life He gained the Kingdom of God, a greater Kingdom than Satan could offer (see Philippians 2:6-11). One is reminded of the occasion (see Mark 8:34-36) when Jesus called those who would follow after Him to deny themselves and to take up their own crosses. For what good is it for any of us to gain the whole world through sinful grasping, only to forfeit our souls?
Death… and Hope
Rachel died on the way to Mamre. Soon after, Isaac died. This seems a drab way to end the Jacob cycle of Genesis, yet, there are signs of hope in both of these funeral scenes. Benjamin, the progenitor of a tribe of Israel, was born before Rachel’s death. The stone that marked her grave was still standing in the day that Moses wrote of it (v. 20). Isaac’s funeral was overseen by his reconciled twin sons. Hallelujah! What’s more, he was buried on the first piece of property that the patriarchs owned in Canaan. It served as the firstfruits of their eventual occupation of all the land. Life in the here and now is still characterized in part by disappointment, distress, defilement, division, dysfunction, defiance, and death. For the Christian, all of that darkness is outshined by the light of hope that is Christ Jesus. He died. His body was laid in a tomb. A stone was placed at the site. But, it is not there to this day! That stone was rolled away! Our firstfruits of the Kingdom of God is not an occupied grave but a resurrected Savior and Lord! This is good news of hope, Christian! Praise be to God.
Discuss & Pray
1. Reuben’s sin may seem extreme, but how many times and ways have you sought to gain attention, vengeance, or power through sinful means?
2. What hope does Christ’s self-denial to the point of death and His resurrection from the grave give to you in overcoming distress, dysfunction, defilement, division, and death in your own life?
3. In what ways can you share this good news of hope with your family, friends, and neighbors?