Friday, June 25, 2010

Benjamin -- Genesis 35:18

And it came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni but his father called him Benjamin.

Now it is important that we really capture this picture. The group is ‘en route’ to Ephrath or what we now call Bethlehem. Rachel is in great pain. The midwife is trying desperately to alleviate her fears and to make her rejoice in the fact that she is having a boy child. Then this text says that in the process of dying, at the time her soul was departing from her, with her last breath and as a final wish, she names her young child Ben-oni. We will return to the topic of the boy’s name momentarily.

From Genesis 1:1 up to this point, the end of life for all our Bible characters has been recorded as a simple death. The actual word ‘soul’ has been used ten times prior to this, but always in reference to life (e.g. Genesis 2:7) or with respect to staying alive (e.g. Genesis 12:13 and 19:20). But here in this current verse, the word ‘soul’ is used in conjunction with death. The text says it was her ‘soul’ that was departing. This is our biblical introduction to the idea of a soul and body being separated at death. While there is no indication here of exactly where the ‘soul’ departs to, we can at least assign its destination to the very nebulous ‘world of the spirits’. We will have to hold that thought for a long time until we get to some later scripture.

And as she was dying, Rachel names her newborn Ben-oni. The word is translated as meaning “the son of my sorrow.” Under normal circumstances, the birth of a newborn would bring rejoicing. In Rachel’s case, this should have been seen as a victory over Leah, her sister who was also married to her husband Jacob. The two had competed viciously with respect to bearing children for their husband. Is it possible that Rachel, now dying, recognizes the futility of the competition she has spent most of her life trying to win? Seeing that death lies immediately before her, she ignores the last victorious ‘battle’ (the most recent son for Jacob), and she names her son as she did, recognizing she has lost the ‘war’.

Our present verse then surprises us by telling us that Jacob changes the boy’s name to Benjamin. The original form of the Hebrew word was thought by some to mean “a son of days” or in Jacob’s case of “old age”. However, the present ending applied in Hebrew clearly defines it as “son of my right hand”, that is, someone of whom one is very fond of and considers critical to his/her well-being. The question still arises as to why Jacob shows apparent disregard for the name that his beloved Rachel gave the boy, especially when one considers that she gave her life in the process of bringing him to this world. The jury is still out on that, but some scholars suggest that the Jacob, because of his love for Rachel, could not bear to be constantly reminded (whenever he referred to the boy) of her sorrow in life that she so strongly wanted to express at the time of her death. Instead, he chose to see Benjamin as a real blessing and someone who would be his great solace in his old age.

One scholar has suggested that Jacob may have understood the special role God had for Benjamin. The reference to the “right side” as in “son of my right hand” is often associated with greater strength and honor, primarily because the majority of people are indeed right-handed. If one searches for the word ‘right’ in scriptures, one would find several references to this idea of strength, honor, and truth.

As we study this verse, we would do well to think about the memory of our life that we will leave behind. Was she primarily glad or sad? Was he at peace with others or basically angry all his life? Was she a person with hope or usually pessimistic? And so on. The choice is ours. There is still time to change if you do not like what you think you will be remembered for. And for memory’s sake, do not botch it up on your deathbed.

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