Why was it important to inform us of Devorah’s death? She has no obvious contextual significance, yet the text feels we must know that she died, when she died and her method of interment?
The death of Devorah is so obviously aberrant that it demands explanation. However, understanding its importance is only possible within the greater context of the book of Genesis. As I have detailed elsewhere (see below), the book is a catalog of the internal conflicts of the descendants of Avraham as they quarrel over the blessings promised to him. Yishmael and Yitzchak, Yaacov and Esav and now the children of Leah against the children of Rachel. This final conflict not only destroys the brothers’ relationship but ultimately convinces Yosef that his own father sought his destruction. The individual stories of Yaacov and his sons are provided for the reader to logically reconstruct the complex motivations that resulted in this tragic tale.
Understanding Devorah’s death within this larger story of familial discord begins with recognizing its juxtaposition to the death of Rachel. Devorah is an unknown character of trivial importance to the reader because that is exactly how she is to be understood in comparison to Rachel, one the most important characters in the entire book. Devorah dies along the way back to Canaan and is buried respectfully beneath an oak tree where her loss is lamented, earning that site the memorialization alon bachut, the ‘oak of crying’ (Bereshit 35:8). This seemingly insignificant character is buried as would be expected of someone who was not crucial to the family. As the family travels, the inconsequential dead are buried along the way. Granting them the honor of a respectful burial but not the importance of burial in a family plot intended to be close to loved ones for memorialization. Without this insight into the social reality of burial for unimportant characters to the family, we could not appreciate the insult that was the burial of Rachel (35:20).
The traumatic events of Rachel’s ill fated labor with Binyamin and her subsequent death occur only eight verses following Devorah’s death. The love of Yaacov’s life. A woman he worked 14 years to marry was buried along the road with little more than a humble plaque to mark the site. There is no mention of a mourning period. The location of her interment is unceremoniously documented as the ‘burial site of Rachel.’ The death and interment of these women share an uncanny similarity that is conspicuously obvious. Rachel’s death is arguably even less emotional than Devorah’s. Further exaggerating this seeming insult to Rachel, Yaacov contradicts her very last decision. Right before passing, Rachel named her newborn son ben oni, ‘son of my suffering.’ The text immediately corrects the record noting that Yaacov vetoed her choice, having changed his name to Binyamin.
One could make the argument, as most readers reflexively do, to justify Rachel’s undignified burial as a mere consequence of necessity. After all, the family was still traveling towards their destination. It would have been disrespectful as per modern Jewish tradition to keep a dead body from burial. Yet, we find no similar consideration with the subsequent deaths of Yaacov or Yosef, both of whom were buried long after their deaths. Furthermore, immediately after Rachel’s death Yaacov encamps at an insignificant location, migdal eder, despite being close enough to later visit his father in Hebron (35:27). Rachel’s death occurred many hundreds of miles closer to the familial burial plot in Hebron, maarat hamachpela, than either Yaacov or Yosef were when they died and had to be transported to their final resting places. If Rachel were important to Yaacov he wouldn’t have stopped so close to Hebron. He could have easily made it to Hebron to properly bury his beloved wife. Even more conspicuously, we are informed later that when Leah ultimately dies Yaacov makes sure to honor her with burial within maarat hamachpela alongside the other honored matriarchs and patriarchs (49:31).
If this was not enough the text provides more details to highlight the theme of contempt against the family of Rachel. After Rachel dies, Reuven promptly violates Bilha (35:22), the maidservant of Rachel, in such a way that invalidates her to Yaacov as emphasized later when rebuking Reuven (49:4). Effectively distancing the entire female component of the family of Rachel out of Yaacov’s life. Ending any potential for even the maidservant of Rachel to further expand the family of Rachel via surrogacy. A precedent which was already provided by Sara’s intent to have Hagar produce a surrogate son for her. Despite this shameful and cruel event, the text immediately declares Yaacov’s family complete with Reuven undisturbed at its lead as first born (35:23). Having suffered no consequence for this abhorrent act.
The text is illustrating a clear picture to the reader of how these events would have been interpreted at the time. Yaacov had disrespected Rachel. Providing her with a burial that was barely befitting a servant. If this is obvious to the reader, then it was certainly obvious to Yosef who ultimately interpreted his subsequent kidnapping and sale into slavery as just another step in his father and brothers’ desire to erase the house of Rachel as they sought to keep the blessings of Abraham for themselves. Ultimately, the text confirms the severity and conspicuity of this insult to Yosef as Yaakov attempts to reconcile with Yosef specifically for this affront before he dies (48:7).
To learn more about the intricate events detailing the lives of Yosef, Yaacov and his brothers as they strive for supremacy, check out these related articles:
Why didn’t Joseph contact his father from Egypt?
The Conspicuous Superfluity of Yaacov’s Blindness
Why Hide the Cup in Binyamin’s Bag?