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Rachel's death in childbirth, recounted in Genesis 35:16-19, follows her theft of her father Laban's "gods" (teraphim, Gen 31:19), which Jacob, years later, finally buried under an "oak" (Gen 35:4) before proceeding to make an important sacrifice to God at Beth-el.

Given that idolatry was later to be proscribed as such a grave sin, and that this might be thought to be the first instance of it, is it possible that Rachel was actually punished in childbirth by God for stealing her father's teraphim? An early death - during such a pivotal moment as childbirth - may have been seen as a divine sign of some sort.

Did the author intend to communicate that Rachel's death was for stealing or worshipping her father’s teraphim? Or for any other reason? Or was it quite simply a sad happenstance of life?

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    For this question to be valid, one must show that Rachel's death was a punishment which is not stated anywhere. There this question is speculation.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 9:07
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    See as related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/49299/…
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 9:56
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    In order for a yes-no question to be valid, the answer must be “yes”? Surely not—surely all that is required is that there be significant textual evidence of a “yes” answer. And surely hermeneutical evidence for a statement X does not have to take the form of the text explicitly stating X. The Bible is full of important details of narrative that are speculative in the same way, and must be inferred. E.g., the text nowhere states that the three sister-wife stories are versions of the same story, but it’s a legit question to ask whether they are, even if the balance of evidence says “no.” Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 12:44
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    You have not proved that Rachel did not take away her father's idols to deny him the ability to worship them. You have condemned ("idolatry") without a proper investigation. Without 'due process'. No Court of Law would accept your allegation. This is opinion based. Children often take stuff from parents (alcohol, for example) to stop them harming themselves.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 13:43
  • I didn’t discuss that because it really concerns a distinct (and admittedly prior) hermeneutical question, concerning why Rachel stole the teraphim. Your own approach is equally speculative. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 14:42

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In case this has escaped the notice of men, women have been dying in childbirth for centuries. It is far less likely in wealthy nations these days, yet in poor countries, many poor women continue to die because of childbirth. Which men today consider such deaths to be caused by God, as a punishment for some sin the women commit? Which men today have noticed that many women who have no fear of God have successful childbirths? Which men today have forgotten that Rahab the prostitute was saved from death by God, as well as her household? Which men today still think (as the ancients did) that death frequently came as a punishment from the gods on those they were displeased with?

Christian people know the reason for Rachel's death. She was a mortal human being, and all mortals have to die, sooner or later. The Bible states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and we all commit many sins in our lives. Rachel was no different. The episode about stealing her father's idols only went into that one, particular sin. But she would have had a whole catalogue of sins accumulated by the time of giving birth (which happened some ten years later on). You could take your pick, if you knew of them all. Or, being reasonable, would it not be fairer to say that we all face death, as she did, because we are all sinners, and we must receive our wage for the sins we have committed?

This means that the answer to your question is, "She died for the other reason, that of being a mortal who sinned all her life, and she received her wage for her many sins, as we all have to do." If her death through childbirth was, indeed, a direct punishment from God due to that episode of stealing her father's teraphim, the Bible record would have shown that. It does not. Mere speculation is being indulged in by those who have no interest in the awful reality of billions of women having died through childbirth over the centuries.

EDIT The question has now been changed. The intent of the author of Genesis is sought, which is highly speculative. It would be more fitting to ask if the account in Genesis actually states that Rachel died in childbirth (10 years after stealing the idols) as punishment. The answer to that is “No, it does not” and here’s why:

Other answerers have jumped to conclusions the text does not warrant. Claims have been made that (1) Genesis 3:16 invokes God’s decree of pains in childbirth. That’s got nothing to do with dying as a direct result. Childbirth pains have never killed anybody. (2) Genesis 30:1 is assumed to be Rachel linking death with her giving birth. "What translation says that?" I ask in astonishment. That is Rachel saying she will die if she does NOT give birth! Quite the opposite! (3) 31:32 is used to say Rachel attributed her death to stealing the idols. No. That’s Jacob (10 years earlier) saying whoever stole them should die, when he did not know it was Rachel. Had he known she was the thief, he would not have said that, but even given what he said, that text does not have Rachel linking her death with what Jacob had said all those years previously.

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  • (-1) Although the general cultural commentary here is fair and helpful, the answer seems to assume Genesis has nothing to say on the matter. This is the very book where God says that he made the pains of childbirth a consequence of Eve's sin (3:16), and where Rachel herself linked death with her giving birth (30:1) and the idols she took (31:32). In the 21st century we accept that people just die early sometimes - but I would suggest that wasn't the worldview of Genesis, especially in an early death of a patriarch/matriarch, where God's hand was always at work.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 10:54
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    @Steve Taylor Your refs: Gen.3:16 the pain of childbirth does not kill anybody. Hemorrhaging after birth can kill. And if a woman relaxes during childbirth, the pain is greatly lessened. (I speak from experience.) 30:1 Rachel said she would die if she did NOT bear a child! 31:32 Jacob wished death on whoever stole the images, but 10 years passed before Rachel conceived then died after giving birth (likely due to hemorrhage.) I don't find Genesis saying she died as judgment for stealing. Conversely, Isa.57:1 "The righteous are taken away to be spared from evil." We must agree to differ!
    – Anne
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 14:36
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    Sure, appreciate the different perspective. It's definitely not called out as a judgement explicitly - your conclusion may very well be right, I'm just wary of taking a modern Western bias to the text and potentially missing any subtext that would be more apparent to the original audience.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 11:45
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Teraphim

For idolatry, no, for stealing and incurring the curse of her husband (Gn 31:32), probably. Yet another case where transgressions exact a price.

Gn 31:32

But as for your gods, you find them with anybody, and he shall not live! Jacob did not know that Rachel had appropriated them.

This is ominous.

It can be argued that the teraphim were property deeds.

E. A. Speiser, Anchor Commentary on Genesis, p. 250.

According to the Nuzi documents, which have been found to reflect time and again the social customs of Haran, possession of the house gods could signify legal title to a given estate, particularly in cases out of the ordinary, involving daughters, sons-in-law, or adopted son (see Anne E. Draffkorn, Ilani/Elohi, JBL 76 [1957], 219ff).

This peculiar practice of Rachel’s homeland supplies at last the motive, sought so long but in vain, for her seemingly incomprehensible conduct. Rachel was in a position to know, or at least to suspect, that in conformance with local law her husband was entitled to a specified share in Laban’s estate. But she also had ample reason to doubt that her father would voluntarily transfer the images as formal proof of property release; … In other words, tradition remembered Rachel as a resolute woman who did not shrink from taking the law — or what she believed to be the law — into her own hands.

Support for this line of thinking can be found in Gn 31:14-16

14 Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ”Have we still an heir’s portion in our father’s estate? 15 Are we not considered by him as outsiders? Not only did he sell us, but he as used up the money he got for us! 16 All this wealth that god has reclaimed from our father is really ours and our children’s. Do just as God has told you.”

I think it is safe to conclude that she was not stealing teraphim in order to worship them (idolatry) but in order to get the "deeds", "titles" to her father's estate, that Jacob had a legal right to. Might not be the best way to go about it, but for that, she paid (Gn 31:32)

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Rachel’s sad death in childbirth is the first such death recorded in the Bible. Apart from this interesting feature, there are two significant reasons to think it might have been something like a punishment: (1) it might be thought that Rachel did something quite seriously sinful in stealing her father’s “gods” (“images,” idols, teraphim: Gen 31:19): and (2) Jacob threatened the thief with death: “With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live” (31:32). But the other side may be argued as well.

On the one side, one might point out that the second commandment (Ex 20:4-6) forbids making or serving graven images such as those Rachel had, and that the Ten Commandments devotes more time to this commandment than to any other. This sin was the issue that incensed the Lord against Israel more than any other sin, according to the major and minor prophets. Moreover, Genesis contains archetypes and examples of issues found in the law. And so Rachel’s theft and (some ten years later) death could well serve as an early example to the Israelites. Indeed, we can infer from the narrative’s time markers that Rachel would have kept the teraphim for perhaps about ten years without destroying them, because they were buried only once the family arrived in Beth-el (35:4), after the slaughter of Shechem (Gen 34).

It seems possible that Rachel would have kept her father’s teraphim hidden for all this time, considering that Jacob did threaten the thief with death (31:32). Perhaps they were produced only in response to Jacob’s demand that all idols be buried. While we are never specifically told that Rachel's idols were buried, the text is clear enough: “And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand” (35:4). Hence Jacob might have learned of the theft only at this time. It is, at the very least, a remarkable and sad coincidence if she should die after soon being caught, as if the doom Jacob had spoken was carried out soon after her crime was revealed publicly.

A problem with the latter argument is that Jacob’s threat would have seen Rachel punished for theft, not idolatry; another is that God does not, of course, do man’s bidding. But God might well use the occasion of Jacob’s threat and the subsequent discovery of the culprit to impress upon Jacob and the family that threatened sentence was correct—albeit for the wrong reason.

On the other side, there are also reasons to think Rachel’s death in childbirth was not a punishment from God, after all. Let us examine them. It is a remarkable fact that the Lord has not yet even once told any of the patriarchs that they must worship no other gods, let alone that they must eschew images of any other gods. One might—hastily—conclude the Lord tolerated paganism. And after all, when the sins of the pharaoh in Abram’s time, of Sodom, of Abimelech, or of the pharaoh in Joseph’s time are described, the sins do not include paganism itself or idolatry. So how would it be just for the Lord to make Rachel an example when no law had been explicitly promulgated?

There are two problems with this otherwise persuasive argument. First, the curse upon paganism has already been adumbrated. Abram was told (see Gen 15:13-21) that Egypt would be punished, as would Canaan; the commandment of circumcision had led the patriarchs to keep themselves separate from the pagan Canaanites; and something, to be sure, led Jacob to bury the teraphim under the “oak” (35:4), adding to an already clean symbolic break that was made with the imperfectly faithful Arameans. So while a law against idolatry had not been articulated, the groundwork had been laid, and was already evident to Jacob.

Second, one might point to the old principle of jurisprudence, nullum crimen sine lege, which means “no crime without a law”; in other words, a thing cannot be called a crime if no law has been made against it. Would it be just for God to punish Rachel if no law against idolatry had been articulated?

The answer is yes: nullum crimen is not a Biblical principle when it comes to the Lord himself. The Lord repeatedly punishes people without first articulating a law. The first such instance is God’s punishment of the serpent for misleading Eve (3:14), without a law against deception; the second is God’s punishment of Cain for killing Abel (4:11-12), before a law against murder had been promulgated. Many other examples can be found.

Now, another reason to think Rachel might not have been punished is that she did not actually take the teraphim in order to worship them. This is possible indeed; but we have no reason to think so, and in the absence of positive reasons to think so, I believe we should conclude that she treated them, and intended to use them, as her father Laban did.

Is it true, then, that Rachel was punished for idolatry? If so, then in what way was her treatment a punishment?

The text is not conclusive; it can be used to support both views. Still, I think it is more likely that her death was a kind of punishment. A kind, I say: as far as we have been told, it is not her willfulness in resisting the explicitly declared command of the Lord for which she was punished, but rather the fact that she placed other gods before the Lord, worshiping them.

Many other “first sins” in the Bible are specifically punished, in a certain way, by the Lord, like deception and murder; it comports well with this fact that the Lord might have punished Rachel specifically for her idolatry. That is, there is a pattern in the Bible that the first instance of many demonstrated sins is punished by the Lord particularly harshly. As in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the Lord is reminding the Israelites, and us, of his sovereignty and his holiness, even if it means destroying the beautiful, beloved Rachel, mother of Jacob’s favorite son Joseph. The seriousness of the sin, as so much of later scripture makes all too clear, no doubt adequately justifies such a sad outcome.

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  • Could you please incorporate Gn 31:32 (Jacob's more or less curse on the one who stole the teraphim)? Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 7:27
  • Of course, and I intended to include this when writing about the latter passage when I got here! Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 12:49
  • I clarified my question with my answer to this question of yours, where I argue that she did not worship idols, she had another motivation to steal them. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 13:29
  • OK, understood. I find this argument unpersuasive because the reason teraphim were symbols of tribal ownership was probably that they were important objects of tribal worship. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 14:39
  • That is fine, if you have some evidence for that. Ancient near east history and culture is a bit out of my comfort zone. I just follow that who are experts on it. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 15:05
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Just as in Gen 30 v 15, Rachel put her trust in the mandrakes to help her to conceive, it is possible that she had decided to put her trust in her father's false gods, also, to help her to conceive a second time, and so thst is why she stole them. Perhaps, if she had lived she would have given the idols the glory for helping her to give birth (if not publicly then privately) and not the Living and True God. Regarding the mandrakes - maybe God inspired Reuben to give Leah the mandrakes but they were intended for Leah, not Rachel. Obviously, mandrakes have some fertility ingedient but it was God who, both, shut and opened Rachel's womb not the mandrakes or the idols. Notice, Leah's constant faith and referencing of God, as the giver of children to her. Whereas, Rachel,who is not a God fearing person, regards Jacob, her husband, as the only one preventing her from having children! Had she cried out to the Giver of Life for help she might have given birth to half of the Sons of Jacob/Israel, instead of just two.

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    – agarza
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 13:19
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believe it goes a little deeper than the question. With that said let me say this: The LORD suffers long and is patient. To be sure, there are many that have transgressed into idolatry much worse than poor Rachel did. Notwithstanding, it is concurrent throughout the Word of God that God holds those that are recipients of his promise to a higher degree of accountability. The poor soul that touched the cart upon which the Ark of the Covenant resided died the instant he touched it. Moreover, the Philistines who had acquisition the Ark and brought it into the house of Dagon, the false Fish-Headed god, began to have emerods until finally God tore down the false idol in his own house. Though many died, God's judgment was actually merciful. In fear, which is more than I can say for God's own people sometimes(fear is the beginning of wisdom, RIGHT?), but in fear the priest of the Philistines said, "the ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our God. They decided to take it to Gath.

Consider Uzza: 2Sa_6:6  And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. 2Sa_6:7  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.

Need to cut this short... Perhaps, considering the full scope of Rachel's actions, the spirit of her motivation was more in tune to with Lot's wife. Both were married into God's inheritance and were given the mercy and promises of God. Yet, when the time came that they had to leave there old lives both were caught looking back. Both women's heart was on that which would be left behind. Lot's wife perhaps had many friends and a wonderful house she was leaving behind. Nothing would be the same anymore. She had to give it all up. Just thin about it; where the rubber meets the road. Considering our own lives, how many times have we looked back when we knew God was carrying us elsewhere. Then there was Rachel. She had grown up in her father's house and had many times prayed with her father, together with the images she had stolen. They were a piece of her fond memories. How many times had she believed that the images might have answered their prayer. No doubt that Rachel adored her father and loved him very much. And more, when she left to go with Jacob to his father's house she would probably never see her own family again. Perhaps in her grieving spirit she irrationally reached out to keep take a little of what was familiar to her; to take a few memories with her. She might have thought that she was giving up everything else and she deserved something of her life she was giving up. For sure Rachel hadn't yet formed a bond with Jehovah, the LORD God of Jacob her husband. Again notwithstanding, she had found favor in the eyes of God and he had opened her womb and bore

Gen_30:14  And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes. Gen_30:15  And she said unto her, Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son's mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with thee to night for thy son's mandrakes. Gen_30:22  And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb and she bore two children of promise; Joseph, and Benjamin. Her heart perhaps was in still in Padanaram. Consider Abram when he began his walk with the God of Heaven. Get you up out of this land and I will give you a land that is flowing with milk and honey. So up, out of the Ur of the Chaldeans hew went. Jesus' diciples Mat_4:19  And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Mat_8:22  But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. Mar_8:34  And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Luk_14:26  If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

It probably wasn't the worship of the images. It never said she worshiped them after she stole them. No, it was her heart all along. That would have broken the LORD's heart most of all. How many people has the LORD given so much, yet for so little their hearts drifted from him for something trivial to which its worth was miniscule. God who loves us with all of his heart wants the same from us. It causes me to ponder. What if my wife chose something above having me. It would faberglast me. Hurt me and possibly destroy me. Oh well, top be sure, God has a big ol'e heart that loves, and it's not to much to ask that we recipricate our love back to him. After all, to Him we owe it all and if he requires something of us, he is quite in His right to do so after all...

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    – agarza
    Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 14:02

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