Honor, Prophecy, and “Mother Earth”

Vayehi By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 12, 2013 / 5774

One of the unsolved mysteries of Tanakh relates directly to Parashat Va-yehi. At the opening of this narrative, Jacob is on his death bed when Joseph and his sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, enter. Jacob extracts an oath from Joseph regarding his burial; and blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh, assuring them a rightful portion among the other Tribes of Israel. As Jacob opens his soliloquy, he recounts the death of his beloved Rachel. Clearly, it is the presence of Rachel’s son, Joseph, along with their grandchildren that reminds him of this painful moment in his life. Echoing words found earlier in the Torah (Gen. 35:19), Jacob remarks, “When I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died . . . when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath’—now Bethlehem” (Gen. 48:7). Although these two texts agree, other verses in Tanakh suggest an alternative location for Rachel’s tomb (see especially I Sam. 10:2). What is our most accurate guess based on these conflicting accounts?

Joseph B’khor Shor argues that Rachel was not buried in Bethlehem since this territory was assigned to Judah. He writes,

Jacob buried Rachel on the way to Ephrath, for he knew that this place would be apportioned to her sons and this would be an honor to her to be buried in her sons’ territory. And so it was in the area of the tribe of Benjamin. For if she would be buried in Machpelah, this would be in the territory of Judah, and this would not be an honor to her . . . and it is written concerning Saul that Samuel said to him, “When you leave me today, you will meet two men near the tomb of Rachel in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah.” (I Sam. 10:2)

This is a proof text that she was buried on the border of Benjamin. Citing Samuel’s instructions to Saul in I Samuel 10:2, “you will meet two men near the tomb of Rachel . . . ,” Bkhor Shor convincingly advocates for an alternative site—not the tomb that we know of today, which is indeed on the outskirts of Bethlehem. For B’khor Shor, it is an issue of honor that she be buried in the land apportioned to one of her sons.

Modern bible scholarship supports this thesis. The identification of Ephrath with Bethlehem is a gloss that was appended later. Rather, “there is a tradition that identifies Ephrath with Kiriath-jearim, which lay on the border between Judah and Benjamin . . . close to present-day Abu Ghosh” (Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 408). During an earlier period of Israelite history, the area of Ephrath referred to an “area occupied by the clan of Ephrath” (ibid), which was on the border with Benjamin. Later, when the Ephratites extended their rule to Bethlehem, it also became known as Ephrath, which accounts for the gloss appearing in both verses (Gen. 35:19; 48:7) “now Bethlehem.” Whether it be an issue of honor or prophecy, it appears that Rachel is fittingly buried in the land of her progeny.

One final note: one cannot help but be moved by Jeremiah’s prophetic words that have been realized in our own day, “a cry is heard from a height . . . Rachel weeping bitterly for her [exiled] children . . . .Thus says the Lord: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping!’ . . . ‘Your children will return to their country’” (Jer. 31:14). Jeremiah envisions Rachel welcoming her children back to their land—so may this vision continue to be realized in our days.


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