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In the "chapter of three deaths" (Deborah, Rachel, and Isaac), there is this brief and enigmatic verse: "But Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth." (Gen 35:8) This raises a host of questions. How did Deborah get there? Why would the death of Rebekah's nurse be mentioned, and not Rebekah herself? Why bury her under a terebinth (KJV has "oak"), and why is it called the "Tree of Weeping"?

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    When I first saw the title, I thought this was talking about Judge Deborah. I had forgotten there was a nurse with the same name. Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 17:26

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There is no clear answer to any of these puzzling questions; we are left to speculate.

First, how did Deborah get there? There are two possibilities. One is that she accompanied Jacob all the way from Beer-sheba to Haran, and then back to Canaan—and this is not an implausible idea, as Rebekah might have sent her back to her homeland to help her son. Another is that Deborah connected with the returned prodigal. It seems highly unlikely that Jacob would spend ten years in Canaan without seeing his aged father and his clan; thus he might have been back in touch with Deborah, and her services as nurse might have been again employed by the family.

Now, it might look like a disgrace that the death of the beautiful Rebekah, mother of Israel, is not mentioned, while that of her nurse is mentioned. But perhaps it is not; it depends on the explanation, and there are a few possible explanations.

(1) Rebekah died at some time before Jacob’s return. She was, after all, rather old herself. In that case, the death of Jacob’s beloved mother might have been so painful that the death of her nurse goes proxy for it. This might seem less likely, considering that the deaths of Sarah and Rachel are reported; but the deaths of Leah and many other important women are not reported, though both Rebekah and Leah are said to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah (see Gen 49:31) so perhaps it is not an indication of disgrace after all.

But this does leave open the question why a minor servant like Deborah (mentioned only once before, in passing and without being named, at Gen 24:59) is so honored in a way her deeply important mistress is not. This problem seems to be handled by the fact that the story is told from Jacob’s point of view, and he did not witness his mother’s death.

(2) The other possibility is that the Lord, and Moses, have deliberately omitted the burial of this mother who, whatever her merits, suborned lying in a most holy and important matter. That could explain why Rebekah appears to be disgraced by being passed over in silence. As sad as this would be, it strikes me as a plausible explanation. It also helps explain why Deborah’s death is mentioned: though only a nurse, she is not in disgrace and thus honored above her mistress. This is, however, highly speculative, and as a reading it is certainly not forced by the text.

We can take a further clue from the fact that Deborah was buried beneath the "Tree of Weeping." Why? This would perhaps be a merely colorful detail if not for that fact that Jacob also buried the “strange gods” and earrings under an “oak” (more likely a terebinth tree) just four verses prior. Is this a meaningless coincidence? Probably not, considering that all three items—the strange gods, the earrings, and the nurse—all or mostly originated in Haran. Probably, all partook of a pagan culture which was being symbolically buried beneath a tree with some religious significance, before the Lord gave one of his most extensive blessings, at Beth-el. I do not mean to say that Deborah was in disgrace: the terebinth at which she was laid to rest was called the “Tree of Weeping,” after all. She must have been a beloved servant, and in weeping for her, Jacob might also have been weeping for his mother.

Nevertheless, Deborah represented Haran, which Jacob was led by the Lord to put firmly and permanently behind him. And that probably explains why her death was mentioned: the things of Haran, however much they were valued, are to be buried before the Lord reiterates his promise to give Jacob the land of Canaan (35:9-13).

Thus in view of more relevant evidence, it does seem that (1) is the better explanation: Rebekah, buried in the family tomb, the Cave of Machpelah, passed on before Jacob arrived home, and that is why her burial is not mentioned here.

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    Good answer. Another possible contributing fact was her apparent great age - at least 160 years old! This was much older than Rebekah.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 9:54
  • OK! I still haven’t bothered to look up/calculate her age but figured she would be quite old. Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 14:14
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Perhaps Deborah's death is recorded and Rebekah's isn't because the primary purpose of the scriptures is not to convey history, but history in the context of theological teaching. Deborah was a death that meant something to the story arc that the author is trying to communicate. Maybe the question should be, what theological teaching is the author trying to convey by including Deborah's death in this story?

Maybe one could argue that Genesis 35 is a symbolic shedding of "Jacob". His idols are buried under a tree and left behind. His mother-figure, Deborah is buried under a tree and left behind, and Rachel, who stole and hid her father's idols, was buried on the side of the road and left behind.

It's interesting that large green trees are mentioned in the OT as places where idolatry occurred. Deut. 12:2, 1 kings 14:23, Is. 57:5, Jer. 2:20, Eze. 6:13, just to name a few. It is also where Deborah the prophetess sat to judge Israel in Judges 4:5 "She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment." Interestingly this is near the place that Deborah, Rebekah's nurse was burried. Jer. 10:5 mentions a Scarcrow that is in reference to idolatry. It is the same word as Palm tree in Judges 4:5. It seems plausible that trees had spiritual significance and were used as worship sites to local deities and therefore could have been used as burial sites as well. They were Idola-trees.

So purhaps that is why they are significant in this story. They represent the idolatry that Jacob is leaving behind.

As Jacob incrementally sheds his connections to other gods, repents and gives his loyalty to Yahweh, the burials are juxtaposed to coming to Bethel, building an alter, and God appearing to him again to reiterate his name change and the Abrahamic promise.

Interestingly in 35:11 Yahweh also repeats the Edenic command: be fruitful and multiply! The last time Yahweh gave this command was to Noah after he got off the Ark.

Could chapter 35 be a recreation moment? Maybe this chapter is a picture of baptism, dying to your sin and the old man and reemerging a new creation? Hence why after Rachel's death the narrator calls him Israel for the first time?

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  • You have made some interesting insights. Commented May 19, 2023 at 15:30
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In the Book of Jubilees, Rebekah lived to 155 years old and died 5 years before Isaac. It does record the death of Rebekah.

Some texts say she lived 2 years longer than Isaac

I guess it all comes down to which accounting one wants to believe.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – agarza
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 14:49
  • @ KEITH - Thank you for your input. It must be kept in mind that the Book of Jubilees is not considered part of the accepted canon of scripture, neither by Jews nor by most Christian denominations. In answering this question it would be best to stick to the scripture referenced by the Questioner., and try to find an acceptable answer there. Keep reading the Bible; it's great for the soul!
    – ray grant
    Commented Jan 3 at 22:08

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