Monday, December 19, 2005

Deborah, Rebekah's Nurse

Genesis 35:8
And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beth-El under an oak; and the name of it was called Allon-Bachuth.

This is a very puzzling reference:

1. We are never told when or where Rebekah herself died, but her nurse is singled out for special mention without any obvious connection to what came before or after in the sequence of events.
2. Just how did Rebekah’s nurse come to be part of this company? She is mentioned once before, also a surprising incidental reference, when she leaves with Rebekah from Mesopotamia (Gen. 24:59). Possibly:
a. After the unmentioned death of Rebekah (sometime after Gen. 27:46) Deborah returned to Laban’s household, and then left again with Jacob and company?
b. Rebekah sent her to be with Jacob’s wives at some point before Rebekah's own death?

In either case, Deborah may have been looked on with affection and honor, a sort of surrogate grandmother, by Jacob’s family. This might explain the name given to the oak tree where she was buried: “oak of weeping.”

Beginning with Genesis chapter 12, only seven other individuals receive similar honor (in mention of their deaths) through all of the rest of Genesis: Sarah (23:2), Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Rachel (35:19), Isaac (35:29), Jacob (49:33), and Joseph (50:26). And Deborah?

Robert Alter comments: “Beyond the narrative etiology of a place-name, there is not enough evidence to explain what this lonely obituary notice is doing here.” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary, p. 197) However, this oak tree does not become a place-name of note, except here as the burial site of Deborah.

Genesis is a prophetic work, not simply a chronicle of events; that is to say, its stories teach us something about the God of Israel and about the values that his people hold. Perhaps the point of Deborah’s honorable mention among the great patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis is along the lines of this remarkable passage:

Psalm 113:7-8
He [the God of Israel] raises up the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to seat them with princes, with the princes of his people.

So Deborah received “an everlasting name” (Isa. 56:5) in the annals of God’s people.


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