16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. 22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. 23 The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. 26 The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram. 27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
1 These are the generations of Esau (that is, Edom). 2 Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite, 3 and Basemath, Ishmael’s daughter, the sister of Nebaioth. 4 And Adah bore to Esau, Eliphaz; Basemath bore Reuel; 5 and Oholibamah bore Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These are the sons of Esau who were born to him in the land of Canaan.
6 Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his livestock, all his beasts, and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan. He went into a land away from his brother Jacob. 7 For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together. The land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. 8 So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir. (Esau is Edom.) 9 These are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in the hill country of Seir. 10 These are the names of Esau’s sons: Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau, Reuel the son of Basemath the wife of Esau. 11 The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. 12 (Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.) These are the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife. 13 These are the sons of Reuel: Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife. 14 These are the sons of Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon, Esau’s wife: she bore to Esau Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. 15 These are the chiefs of the sons of Esau. The sons of Eliphaz the firstborn of Esau: the chiefs Teman, Omar, Zepho, Kenaz,16 Korah, Gatam, and Amalek; these are the chiefs of Eliphaz in the land of Edom; these are the sons of Adah. 17 These are the sons of Reuel, Esau’s son: the chiefs Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah; these are the chiefs of Reuel in the land of Edom; these are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife. 18 These are the sons of Oholibamah, Esau’s wife: the chiefs Jeush, Jalam, and Korah; these are the chiefs born of Oholibamah the daughter of Anah, Esau’s wife. 19 These are the sons of Esau (that is, Edom), and these are their chiefs. 20 These are the sons of Seir the Horite, the inhabitants of the land: Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, 21 Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan; these are the chiefs of the Horites, the sons of Seir in the land of Edom. 22 The sons of Lotan were Hori and Hemam; and Lotan’s sister was Timna. 23 These are the sons of Shobal: Alvan, Manahath, Ebal, Shepho, and Onam. 24 These are the sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah; he is the Anah who found the hot springs in the wilderness, as he pastured the donkeys of Zibeon his father.25 These are the children of Anah: Dishon and Oholibamah the daughter of Anah. 26 These are the sons of Dishon: Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. 27 These are the sons of Ezer: Bilhan, Zaavan, and Akan. 28 These are the sons of Dishan: Uz and Aran.29 These are the chiefs of the Horites: the chiefs Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, 30 Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan; these are the chiefs of the Horites, chief by chief in the land of Seir. 31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites. 32 Bela the son of Beor reigned in Edom, the name of his city being Dinhabah. 33 Bela died, and Jobab the son of Zerah of Bozrah reigned in his place.34 Jobab died, and Husham of the land of the Temanites reigned in his place. 35 Husham died, and Hadad the son of Bedad, who defeated Midian in the country of Moab, reigned in his place, the name of his city being Avith. 36 Hadad died, and Samlah of Masrekah reigned in his place. 37 Samlah died, and Shaul of Rehoboth on the Euphrates reigned in his place. 38 Shaul died, and Baal-hanan the son of Achbor reigned in his place. 39 Baal-hanan the son of Achbor died, and Hadar reigned in his place, the name of his city being Pau; his wife’s name was Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab. 40 These are the names of the chiefs of Esau, according to their clans and their dwelling places, by their names: the chiefs Timna, Alvah, Jetheth, 41 Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, 42 Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, 43 Magdiel, and Iram; these are the chiefs of Edom (that is, Esau, the father of Edom), according to their dwelling places in the land of their possession.
In 2013 Dennis Prager, writing for Jewish Journal, published an article entitled “Family Problem? Turn to Genesis.” In the article, Prager gives an overview of all the many depictions of family dysfunction in the book of Genesis. He concludes his article like this:
Why does Genesis portray every one of its families as dysfunctional?
First, because they were. The Hebrew Bible is painfully honest about the Jews generally and about the heroes of the Jewish people specifically — the patriarchs, the matriarchs and later about Moses, Aaron, King David, etc. (This self-critical honesty — unique among the world’s religious texts — is a primary reason I believe in the veracity of the Torah.)
Second, to show us that even great men and women have family problems.
And third, to make it clear that family pain and tragedy are the human norm, not the exception.
I think Prager has a point. However, the first time I read his three reasons I immediately wanted to add a fourth: To give us hope! Paradoxically, all of these stories of family dysfunction give dysfunctional families in our own day hope for one simple reason: the family of God still exists and the promises of God still stand!
I would like for us to consider these dynamics in our consideration of the last half of Genesis 35 and all of 36. I would like to point out two realities at play in these chapters. The first reality is the reality of the dark clouds of misfortune that hung over Jacob’s family. And the second reality is the ray of hope we find in the midst of this darkness that gives us hope and keeps us from despair.
Dark Clouds over the Family
Yes, dark clouds of dysfunction and sadness do indeed hang over this family. Consider some of the evidences of these.
The wickedness of Reuben.
One of the most ominous dark clouds to hang over this family was the cloud of sexual sin and strife. The whole situation is captured in one verse.
22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.
This does not appear to be a rape, as the case involving Dinah seems to have been, but it is highly inappropriate and immoral. Who are the principle characters involved? Within four verses of Genesis 29 we see them identified.
29 (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.)
32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”
Bilhah was Rachel’s (the favored wife’s) servant or slave. Reuben was the oldest son and, tellingly, the son of Leah, Rachel’s rival. As we will see a little later, this act happened immediately after Rachel died. So what is going on here? Robert Alter nicely lays out the two dynamics at play.
The Talmud saw in the story an intention on the part of Reuben to defile the slavegirl of his mother’s dead rival, Rachel, and so to make her sexually taboo to Jacob. More recent commentators have observed with justice that in the biblical world cohabitation with the consort of a ruler is a way of making claim to his authority (as when the usurper Absalom cohabits with his father David’s concubines), and so Reuben would be attempting to seize in his father’s lifetime his firstborn’s right to be head of the clan.
This makes sense. So Reuben was (1) trying to hurt Jacob by striking out at the only woman left who had a connection to Rachel, the wife who was favored over his own mother, Leah and (2) making a power-grab for leadership of the family. This is, to put it mildly, disturbing in the extreme. Victor Hamilton gives testimony to how shocking and obscene all of this is when he interestingly observes that “[l]ater rabbinical tradition considered the story of Reuben’s sleeping with his father’s concubine offensive enough to fall into the category of biblical material that during the synagogal Torah reading may be read but no translated.” That is understandable.
Reuben has committed a gross act of immorality that was technically incestuous. One cannot help but wonder, however, what role Jacob himself played in this by his favoring of Rachel and the many ways that he communicated to Leah and her offspring that she was not favored. One wonders, in other words, whether or not anger and bitterness at a thousand slights, either real or perceived, perpetrated by Jacob, finally reached their boiling point in Reuben. None of this is to excuse Reuben, of course. He sinned! But deep hurt and favoritism and family dysfunction play their parts here.
The passivity of Jacob.
There is a connection to the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, however, and it can be found in Jacob’s seeming passivity before this act of immorality. In the middle of that sad verse, verse 22, we read:
22c And Israel heard of it.
Here Jacob is called Israel. He “heard of it,” but, again, he appears to have done nothing! “Israel heard of it” points us to the similar wording of Genesis 34:5a, “Now Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah,” and to Jacob’s lack of righteous indignation in that instance as well.
Some have suggested also that the use of the word “Israel” in “And Israel heard of it” points to Genesis 34:7, “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.”
In other words, there seem to be two linguistic anchors in Genesis 35 grounded in Genesis 34 and they appear to be pointing to the two commonalities in the chapters: (1) sexual immorality and (2) Jacob’s passivity in the face of this.
It is a tragic thing and a dark cloud indeed when the head of a household loses his moral compass. I am not saying that Jacob did not care at all. I am saying that it is telling that we have no record of Jacob reacting in righteous rage. He seems in these situations to be a weak man, a compromised man, a man who perhaps had so much guilt on his own conscious that he could not bring himself to condemn wickedness when he saw it and even when he saw it perpetrated against or by members of his own family.
Beware moral and ethical passivity, beware the temptation to vacate leadership in your family in the area of what is right and wrong!
The passing of Isaac.
We also see the dark cloud of loss and grief in this passage.
27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, or Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. 29 And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
Isaac dies. He lived 180 years. This is not a bitter thing but, for a family, it is a sad thing. The inevitable march of time is nowhere more bluntly demonstrated than at the graveside of our parents. Time has marched on. The sons, Jacob and Esau, come together and bury Isaac.
Life has had its blessings for this family but it has also offered its share of pain. Crimes have been committed. Divisions have formed. Old wounds have flared up again in acts of sin and shame. Leadership has faltered. And now the great patriarch is buried.
The clouds have gathered. One wonders once again: as the boys stood at the tomb of their father, Isaac, did they take stock of all that had happened? Did an awkward silence hang in the air? Did they think, “There sure is a lot of water under the bridge…a lot of pain, too”?
Have you ever had this moment, this graveside epiphany that your family has enough hurt and bitterness and loss to last a lifetime? Maybe you have never felt like that. Good! Or maybe you have. Funerals seem to be when we take stock of things, when we assess all the chapters that have gone before and when we ponder all that lies ahead.
Isaac is dead. Jacob and Esau remain. A new chapter, the future, is now opened to them.
The separation of Jacob and Esau.
The future, for Jacob and Esau, meant separation. In Genesis 36 we read:
6 Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his livestock, all his beasts, and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan. He went into a land away from his brother Jacob. 7 For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together. The land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. 8 So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir. (Esau is Edom.)
This need not be seen as a bitter thing either. The reason for the separation is given: “For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together.” I get that. But there is a note of sadness here too. The relationship between these brothers has been so difficult and, even with the reconciliation we witnessed earlier, it will never really be the same again.
Some family fractures are like this. You forgive each other and put the pieces back together again, but you are aware, even in doing so, that a bridge has been crossed, that there is a dark spot now in your collective memory, a point of pain.
Esau “went into a land away from his brother Jacob.” There is something heart-stirring in this scene of Jacob watching his brother leave. Jacob has inherited the land. Esau leaves.
Esau, to be sure, will become the father of nations in his own right. Genesis 36 lists the names of his progeny as well as of the kings that came from him. “Esau-Seir is the ancestor of the Edomites,” writes E.A. Speiser, “in the same way that Jacob-Israel is the eponym of the Israelites.” This, too, is a dark cloud in the sense that Esau’s lineage will conflict with Jacob’s. R.R. Reno writes:
Neither Ishmael nor Esau is chosen. Both are progenitors of nations that will afflict the people of Israel. This is especially true for Esau, whose descendants include Israel’s archenemies, the Amalekites…
As it was with the brothers so will it be with their descendants: strife and division and pain. Such is the way of family conflict. It tends to perpetuate itself.
A Ray of Hope in the Darkness
One reads and hears these descriptions of dark clouds hanging over the family and wonders whether there is any light here. Is there any joy here? Is there any hope? And, may we thank God, there is. It is found in the beginning of our text, in Genesis 35:16-20.
The naming of Benjamin
This is a text that will not appear, at first glance, to have much light in it as it involves the death of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, in childbirth. But watch what happens in the midst of this painful scene.
16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. 17 And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
What a powerful scene. There is heartbreak here. There is also hope. This plays itself out in the naming and renaming of Benjamin. Rachel names him “Ben-oni” then Jacob renames him “Benjamin.” E.A. Speiser lays out what is going on behind these names.
The element ‘oni may signify “my vigor”…and this sense is supported by the orthography; the context, however, favors (at least symbolically) “misfortune, suffering”…and this interpretation is preferred by tradition…; it has furthermore good extra-biblical parallels…The other name, Benjamin, is ascribed to the father. It means literally “son of the right (side, hand, or the like,) that is, one on whom the father expects to count heavily for support and comfort; or, alternatively, one who promises good fortune, a propitious turn of events.
Victor Hamilton writes that Ben-oni means literally, “son of my affliction/sorrow,” “son of my strength/vigor,” or “son of wailing/mourning.” He considers this last translation [“son of wailing/mourning”] to be “the most promising” with Benjamin—“son of good fortune”—“provid[ing] a contrast.”
In other words, Rachel, in her pain and dying agony, names the boy “Son of Wailing.” She puts her pain on him. He will carry a sense of sorrow and loss and agony into the future. But Jacob, perhaps grasping not only what this would mean for the boy but what it would say about their whole family and about the pain they have all gone through, does not want this to be the last word. So Jacob names him “Son of Good Fortune.”
In doing so, Jacob does something important: he refuses to let the future be given over to darkness, even though the family’s past has at many points exhibited such, and he holds on to hope instead.
Jacob speaks light into darkness when he speaks this boy’s name.
Jacob refuses to let despair win.
It is fascinating that in Jeremiah 31 the Lord will mention Rachel’s pain and then speak hope over her as well.
15 Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” 16 Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 17 There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.
Ah! “There is hope for your future”! And, tellingly, in our text, this hope, this pushback against darkness, this daring declaration of light in darkness, is tied up in a baby’s name.
A child is born and his name means “Good Fortune” and points to better times to come.
Watch this! Isaiah 9:
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This is the gospel, the gospel before the gospel. In the midst of the darkest night, in the midst of pain and loss and bitterness and a fractured family and a compromised patriarch and suffering and pain, Jacob, mustering his courage, bolstered by the covenant promise of God that he so often falls short of, refuses to let the future be dominated by fear and despair and, instead, names his baby, in essence, Hope! And in doing so he was doing more than he realized. Why? Because this is exactly what God does with His family.
God’s family, the human race—broken and divided and bitter and hurting—kept speaking despair and death and fear over itself and its future. But one day, in the fullness of God’s timing, a baby was born—a baby from God Himself—and God gave this baby a name that spoke of better times to come: Hope, Light, Joy, Peace, Forgiveness, Grace, New Life, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
And now we get it: the story of Jacob and this baby is a signpost pointing us to the story of the whole human race.
Our hope, too, is found in a baby who became a man who went to a cross who walked out of a tomb who ascended to His Father and who is coming again.
Our hope, too, is found in a name: Jesus.
Church, the devil does not win.
Your pain does not win.
Your past does not win.
Your despair does not win.
God has sent a champion
Jesus is His name.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.134n22.
 Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Gen. Eds., R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p.387n24.
 E.A. Speiser, Genesis. The Anchor Bible. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), p.281.
 R.R. Reno, Genesis. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), p.259.
 E.A. Speiser, p.274.
 Victor Hamilton, p.383, 385.