Rachel’s death in childbirth, as recorded in Genesis 35:16-20, has perplexed and troubled many readers of the Bible. As we dig into the Scriptural account, we can gain some insight into God’s providence and purposes in this difficult event.
- Rachel’s death was part of God’s sovereign plan, though painful and hard to understand.
- God was working to build the house of Israel through Rachel’s children.
- Rachel’s love for children led to her untimely death.
- The Biblical narrative shows God’s care for Rachel even in her death.
- We can trust God’s goodness and wisdom even when we face the death of loved ones.
Examining the Biblical Account
The account of Rachel’s death is brief but poignant:
Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel labored in childbirth, and she had hard labor. Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear; you will have this son also.” And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. (Genesis 35:16-20 NKJV)
This passage gives us key details about the tragic event:
- It occurred near Ephrath, which was later called Bethlehem, as Jacob’s family journeyed from Bethel.
- Rachel went into hard labor and died in the process of giving birth.
- Before dying, Rachel named her newborn son “Ben-Oni,” meaning “son of my sorrow.”
- Jacob renamed the boy “Benjamin,” meaning “son of my right hand.”
- Jacob buried Rachel there and set a pillar on her grave.
From this account, we know when, where, how, and why Rachel died. But making sense of this event requires understanding it in its full Biblical and historical context.
Rachel’s Significance in Scripture
Rachel was one of the most beloved wives of Jacob, the patriarch of the 12 tribes of Israel. Though Jacob’s first love was Rachel’s older sister Leah, he was forced to marry Leah first before being allowed to also marry Rachel (Genesis 29:15-30). Jacob loved Rachel deeply, and she bore him two of the most prominent sons in the eventual 12 tribes: Joseph and Benjamin (Genesis 30:22-24, 35:16-18).
God clearly intended to build the house of Israel through Rachel’s offspring. The dying Rachel named her last born “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob renamed him “son of my right hand”—a phrase denoting favor and significance.
The prophetic blessing Jacob gave over Rachel’s firstborn son Joseph demonstrates Rachel’s key role in God’s plan for Israel:
The blessings of your father Have excelled the blessings of my ancestors, Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. They shall be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers. (Genesis 49:26 NKJV)
Indeed, Joseph went on to save Israel from famine and unite the tribes in Egypt.
Rachel’s Tragic Death
Yet in the prime of her life, as Rachel was delivering another of Jacob’s sons, she died in agonizing childbirth. This tragedy must have pierced Jacob’s heart, as he loved Rachel deeply. It also creates a sobering backdrop to the birth of Benjamin.
What factors may have contributed to Rachel’s untimely death? First, giving birth was a dangerous endeavor in that era, with a much higher maternal mortality rate than today. Very little could be done to help mothers with delivery complications.
Second, the Scriptural account highlights Rachel’s hard labor and her midwife’s exhortation not to fear (Genesis 35:17). This suggests the birth process was not going smoothly. Difficult deliveries could more easily end in tragedy.
Third, Rachel’s desire for children may have played a role. She cried out in anguish when she was initially barren: “Give me children, or else I die!” (Genesis 30:1). After God finally opened her womb, she named her first son Joseph, meaning “He shall add to me another son.” Rachel’s longing for a full house of children pushed her into the dangers of multiple pregnancies. Tragically, her last labor took her life even as it produced her beloved Benjamin.
God’s Care for Rachel
This sad account highlights an imponderable mystery in God’s providence. Yet we also see God’s care and concern for Rachel in the details given.
Jacob buried Rachel near Bethlehem and memorialized her with a pillar on her grave (Genesis 35:19-20). He undoubtedly grieved the untimely death of his beloved wife. But in God’s redemptive plan, Bethlehem would later become the birthplace of Jesus the Messiah (Micah 5:2). The Lord never forgot Rachel or her burial place.
The prophetic picture of Israel’s future restoration also includes tender words for Rachel:
Thus says the Lord: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.” Thus says the Lord: “Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded,” says the Lord, “And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.” (Jeremiah 31:15-16 NKJV)
Rachel weeps for her “children”—the generations of Israelites exiled in Babylon. But God tenderly comforts weeping Rachel, promising her children will return. In this prophetic picture, Rachel represents the mourning mother Israel. God intimately knows and cares for Rachel even centuries after her death.
Trusting God in Loss
The account of Rachel’s death brings up universal themes of God’s sovereignty, human sorrow, and trusting in the darkness. When someone beloved dies, especially in tragic circumstances, overwhelming grief inevitably follows. We cannot fully grasp God’s purposes, as his ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Yet Scripture urges us to trust God’s wisdom and goodness, even when his ways are past finding out. His sovereign plan will ultimately be fulfilled. The God who numbered Rachel’s tears and buried her with tender care keeps all our tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8). He offers eternal hope and comfort to all who grieve. As we mourn our beloved dead, we can still say through tears: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 NKJV).
Rachel’s untimely death in childbirth was a sobering tragedy. Yet through it, God built the house of Israel and brought generations of descendants, including Jesus the Messiah. Though impossible to fully grasp, we can trust God’s goodness and care even when loss pierces our hearts. The Lord hears the weeping Rachel and gently wipes her tears. May the tragic account of Rachel strengthen our faith that the Judge of all the earth will do right, no matter how dark our valley. The Lord remains sovereign and good.