Okay, quite a lot happens in this chapter, but I’m still aiming to rein in my verbosity, so let’s try to get through my thoughts quickly.
First, Jacob leaves Shechem and goes to Bethel. God reminds him of his promise back when he fled from his brother, and also provides the means for him to do so, giving a “a terror from God” on the locals, who were, if you recall, really angry about his sons slaughtering their leader and enslaving his household.
Before they go, though, Jacob asks everyone to dump their “foreign gods,” ritually purify themselves, and take out their earrings. I can understand the first two, but why take out earrings? Am I missing something symbolic?
This is maybe the first step towards actually exclusive monotheism in Abraham’s family, as he’s asked everyone in his family and followers to only have artifacts related to the LORD, or the God of Bethel, as Jacob prefers to call him. Were Laban’s teraphim part of what was left behind? It doesn’t come across as a new dogma so much as a shaking the dust off his feet. They’re making a fresh start at Bethel, where he had a very direct encounter with God, so from now on it’s none of these other gods who haven’t had his back.
Then Rachel dies, in labor, while traveling. What makes the short scene a tearjerker is the little touch of realism that the comforting words of the midwife provide, trying to keep Rachel hanging in there as she goes through her difficult labor (bear in mind that Rachel has to be about 50 by now, given the chronology we’ve got). As she’s dying, she names her new son Ben-Oni, “son of my sorrow,” but after she’s dead, Jacob decides to call him Ben-Jamin, “son of the right hand.” (v 18) The Japanese decides to bridge the confusion of that name by translating it as “son of good fortune.” Handism is still very much a thing in Japan (my students were stunned when I told them Obama was left-handed), but it doesn’t go as far as the language treating “right-hand” as a synonym for “good.”
I have ambiguous feelings about Rachel, partly because of how little she appears as a character with her own voice. We mostly know her through Jacob’s eyes, and he loves her. While at first his feelings might have been infatuation based on her looks, he still cared for her enough 20 years later to place her in the safest position on his approach to Esau, so something must have developed between them. He’s clearly frustrated with her desire to have children (Gen 30:1-2) – isn’t his unconditional love enough for her? But Rachel clearly feels the social pressure put on women who can’t have children; she calls her childlessness a “reproach” or a “disgrace.” (30:23) Like Sarah before her, she unfairly gets one of her slaves involved in the process, though unlike Sarah she apparently never gets jealous of her or abuses her. So I guess, again, I can’t really relate to Rachel, because I don’t want to have children, but I think she serves as a pretty valuable reminder: guys, you cannot be everything for the woman you love; ladies, the love of a good man will not solve all your problems. Whatever issues you have, whatever insecurities, they’re still there. Hopefully, like Jacob and Rachel, you can stay together and work through them together.
And lastly, Isaac dies, and we get his age at the time of his death. You know what this means: time for more obsessing over math!! So, Isaac is 180 when he dies. He was 60 when Jacob was born, meaning that Jacob is 120 when he dies. Moreover, Jacob’s oldest child (Reuben) was born when he was 47 or so, and while it’s not clear exactly how long afterwards Benjamin was born, Joseph was born when he was about 60. Which means Reuben is already in his 70s and Joseph is 60 by the time Isaac dies, and Benjamin is maybe in his 40s.
Bear that in mind when we start looking at the story of Joseph – you know, the one from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical? Because these ages make no damn sense. Again, it’s not just the issue of “people didn’t live that long,” it’s that the narrative seems to act like they’re much younger. Which again returns to my idea that the ages were added in later, maybe to represent the relative virtuousness of the characters or something, over a narrative that assumed more realistic ages for its characters.
Otherwise, you have to start contemplating Tolkien-style aging of characters, where Aragorn was 87 but looked like a man around 30. If you assume that Abraham’s family had a mix of elvish and Maiar blood, this actually all works much better.The Japanese: umeru “to bury” (v 4), uba “nurse,” shimote “under” (v 8; that last in particular is important because the only reading I’d previously known for those characters was heta or “bad at”), sanke “labor,” nanzan “difficuly delivery” (v 16), josanbu “midwife” (v 17), kourei “old age” (v 29).