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.