Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rachel’s Death & Tomb - Genesis 35:19-20


So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.

Jacob’s beloved has died. There are some that would argue her death was in fulfillment of the curse Jacob himself had put on the one who stole the idols of Laban as we read in Genesis 31:32. I believe there is no connection. Others see her death as fulfillment of her own vow in Genesis 30:1, “Give me children, or else I die.” Again, I do not see the connection. She had children so the vow to die does not make sense. The physical cause of her death was indeed simply a complicated or difficult birth for that period of time. The Divine’s rationale for allowing her to die at this time is known only Him.

And the text tells us she was buried ‘en route’ to Bethlehem. There was no reason to take her back to Haran, her family’s land, even though strained relationships with Laban had been addressed. And certainly, Jacob had not yet established a home for his family where he was heading. It made sense to bury her on the way to Ephram.

This exact spot still exists today. This Jewish sacred site is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. However, the site also has great Christian and Muslim historical and religious significance. For the Jews, this is the third holiest site after the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. It has become a key stop on Jewish pilgrimages, especially females unable to give birth.

The structure on the site, a cube with a dome on top, was built around 1620 by the Turks under Ottoman. The famous British Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife, increased it in size in 1860. Israel gained control of the tomb in 1967 after the Six Day War. The actual tomb lays 460 metres from the city limits of Jerusalem, but Israel and the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, agreed to leave the tomb under Israeli “control” with a constant Jewish presence.

On December 1, 1995, the Palestinian Authority was granted full control of Bethlehem with the exception of the tomb enclave. To reach Rachel’s tomb, Jews had to do so in bulletproof vehicles under military supervision. In 1996, Israel built a wall around the site. The Palestinians retaliated by saying the tomb was on Islamic land and the domed structure was a mosque.

The tomb was attacked at the end of September, 1996 by Arabs who set structures on fire and for several years that followed, made the site a battle-spot between Israelis and Palestinians. This culminated at the end of the year 2000 when the tomb was under gunfire for forty-one days. In May 2001, fifty Jews were trapped inside the tomb when a firefight broke out between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinians. The IDF left the scene in March 2002. A few months later, September 2002, the Israeli government decided the tomb would be enclosed on the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier. Bulletproof buses now take tourists and Jews to the site daily. In February 2010, Israel announced that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs would become part of the National Jewish Heritage sites rehabilitation plan against much protest from several countries, including the Turkish Prime Minister was said the tomb was “not and never will be a Jewish site, but an Islamic site.” The saga continues to this day.

But what else can we reap from this verse? First, if indeed the soul departs from the body at death, does it really matter where one is buried? I think not. People make special efforts to return the bodies of their loved ones ‘home’ for burial. There is something to be said for that. It often helps bring closure to the loss. But as long as we realize that it does nothing for the loved one.

Secondly, there is no mention of any public mourning for Rachel. We can assume that it took place in private. Certainly Jacob mourned for her in his own way. Mourning is indeed best undertaken as a personal private emotion. My father died over three and a half years ago and I still mourn his loss. I often wish he could see his family now, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom he had known before he died, enjoying his fruit trees and his property as we rebuilt and settled on it. I often wish that I could sit in the front yard on a special bench we put there and enjoy a game of backgammon with him, his favorite pastime, as we used to do. That is personal mourning. I cannot help but feel that exhibitions of loud and extended wailings at funerals do nothing to honor either the dead or those that remain, let alone God who is the giver and the taker of life.

You will remember that earlier we mentioned that Jacob was on a spiritual high (having met with God) just before his wife Rachel died during childbirth. God has a way of allowing that to happen even to those that enjoy his blessings; we cannot escape the downs that life often has to serve us. Again, it is where we go from that point on that matters. Earlier in this chapter, verse 14, Jacob set up a pillar in memory and thanks to God for his blessings and joys in life. Here he sets up a pillar of his sorrows. We need to remember both in our lives and to pass both on to our children.

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