All in all Jacob’s life was a troubled life.
There were moments when he experienced great happiness, and when life seemed good to him. He had his moments when he rejoiced because he had attained to what he set his hand to get. He wrestled with his hungry and weary twin brother for the birthright and got it. He deceived his blind father and obtained the promise of the birthright blessing. He fought his uncle Laban and got the flashing beauty he wanted for a wife. In a struggle for his uncle’s cattle he came out the victor and could eye hundreds upon hundreds of sheep and oxen and call them his own.
But his many disappointments and difficulties were too many to characterize his life as a long and happy life. He knew sorrows too often and had moments of deep grief. As a little boy he grew up in the awareness of the fact that his father preferred his older twin brother. And although he had the heart and preference of his mother, he had to leave her and spend twenty years as an outcast while his brother enjoyed all the pleasures of the home. His wedding turned out to be a disaster. He woke up and found himself married to a woman for whom he had no love, tricked by his uncle Laban after he had worked hard for seven years for the beautiful sister of the woman he had married! Those twenty years of working for Laban were not under pleasant working conditions by any stretch of the imagination. And when he left Laban, he was pursued and accused of great evil by him. Then came the confrontation with his twin brother whom he had cheated out of the birthright blessing. When that crisis was over and he could breathe a bit more freely, his daughter Dinah was defiled by Shechem; and his sons, in cold-blooded murder, brought him great embarrassment—to say the least—by killing all the Shechemites in a very cruel but also tricky and dishonest way. Soon after this the faithful servant of his mother, who nursed him as a child and came to live with him and serve his family in the declining years of her life, died, and it robbed him of some of the little comfort that he knew in his life. And now the unexpected and painful blow: his beautiful and beloved wife, Rachel, died shortly after giving birth to his twelfth son.
Let it be stated that part of his rough life which was filled with disappointments and difficulties was due to his own nature. Jacob was a very competitive man, and his birth indicated what kind of life he would live. He was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother in an attempt to prevent him from being the firstborn. The name Jacob actually means heel catcher, and the last four letters in his name come from the Hebrew word for heel, the word being aqeb. And when a man with a competitive spirit meets and works for an uncle with an equally competitive spirit, you can expect life to be rough and to have problems arise, especially when both resort as well to trickery.
And the question that needs to be asked is, “What would you and I do if we had to experience all Jacob went through, and if we had his nature and lived under the same circumstances under which he lived?” It is easy, some three thousand years later, to sit in judgment upon Jacob. But let us heed Jesus’ words, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” For it is simply a fact that we always judge others according to what we ourselves would, except for the grace of God, have done. We know what our own evil nature would have done under those same circumstances, and we are able to judge others so correctly exactly because we know this sin so intimately in our own souls.
Let us therefore instead rejoice in the fact that Jacob’s faith does triumph in this sad hour of the death of his beloved wife. It is stated that the true man in us comes to manifestation when we are in difficulties and under stress. Men otherwise calm and collected will show, when a serious situation confronts them, what is really in them. And in Jacob’s moment of intense sorrow at the death of Rachel, the new life of Christ did come out into the open. So often it was so deeply hidden in his soul that we would be tempted to question whether he had ever been born again. But now the grace of God upon him fans to a bright flame his faith in God. And Jacob revealed himself as a true child of God’s covenant.
Rachel had an unusually hard labor so that the Scriptures make mention of it twice. God had told Eve that she and all women would “in sorrow… bring forth children.” But when Scripture twice calls it hard labour, and Rachel died shortly after giving birth to a son, we may believe that this was unusually painful labour that God gave her. It was more than Rachel’s body could take, and her soul departed and left that body. But before she did die she named this son Benoni, which means Son of My Sorrow.
Now there are different opinions as to what she meant. According to some she expressed her reaction to that hard labour, considering it a shame that she was not able to stand this pain, that she was such a “weakling” in comparison with other women who also had hard labour. She gave that name as she felt her life slipping away, though at the moment she may not have expected it to take her life. At least at the moment nothing mattered to her except her own terrible pains and discomfort. Her mind certainly was not at the moment upon God and His covenant. Others explain the name as meaning that she was defeated in her warfare with Leah to supply Jacob with sons. Because of the hard labour she would never again compete with Leah this way. It was too painful and terrifying for her to bear sons for Jacob. She admits defeat, and realizing the sorrow of the shame of having lost the battle, she names her son Benoni. Herein also is no faith on her part to be found. Covenant-mindedness is certainly not evident in such naming of a child. There is no rejoicing that another covenant child is born. There is no singing of, “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is His reward.” There is no happiness over the fact that another arrow has been placed in Jacob’s (and her) quiver. We say, then, “What a way to die!”
“But his father called his name Benjamin.”
That little word “but” and the name Benjamin give us an entirely different picture of Jacob. No, he was not about to die, and his body felt none of those pains that Rachel suffered—though his soul did in his great love for her. And although from that point of view, and because of the death of Rachel, there was reason to say that he had his sorrows at the moment, the name Son of My Sorrows was a name only his flesh could accept, a sorrow over the death of his wife. Yet, over against this sorrow was the fact that his quiver was now full, and he had twelve sons. He had both honour and strength, and the blessing of God was upon him. Two sons he now had from his beloved wife; and subsequent history show how much these two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, meant to him. The joy of another covenant son would never allow him to let this child go through life with a name that reminded him of his mother’s sorrow.
Yet we must not explain Jacob’s changing of the name as nothing more than a concern for the son, and a joy because of earthly strength and honour. Benjamin means Son of My Right Hand, and can mean Son of My Strength. The idea of Son of My Honour cannot be ruled out however. The Hebrew word yamin means right hand, or right side; and being seated at or being at one’s right hand meant being in a place of honour as well as in a place of power. Thus Jesus’ being seated at God’s right hand means that He has been given all power (both in the sense of strength and of authority) over all things, and therefore has the highest honour the creature can have before the Creator. For now He is Lord of all lords, and King over all kings, which is quite some honour! Either way—Son of My Strength, or Son of My Honour—Jacob’s faith triumphs over his flesh in so changing the name.
Consider that Rachel was his beloved wife, for whom he worked fourteen years, and for whom his love did not fade or diminish. His raising up a pillar over her grave shows that. For his mother’s nurse’s grave he used an oak tree already standing. And this pillar was no mere formality. It spoke of his love and of loving memories which he had for Rachel. And that made it hard for his flesh to go contrary to the dying wishes of a beloved wife. His flesh undoubtedly cried out to do what his wife wanted done. And we may believe that it was hard for him to change the name.
Sons and daughters will often contest the will of a father or mother for what earthly possessions are left behind. Such action does not stem from love for that parent. It rather shows a love for money, which is the root of all evil. It is not concerned with the wishes of the departed parent, because there is not the love there that ought to be present. The love of the money is greater and rules the actions of those who contest the will.
Now, granted that by doing this the departed parent is neither hurt nor benefited, for we cannot touch them after they have left our earth, and also conceding that out of sight so often means out of mind, and fleshly, earthly love needs constant reminders to keep the love burning brightly, yet contested wills often have their beginning even before the funeral arrangements are made.
None of this was true of Jacob. And he did not change the name months or years later but before or at least on the eighth day of the child’s life, and when he was circumcised. While his own sorrow over the death of Rachel was still great, he went contrary to her dying wishes and refused to call his son Son of My Sorrow.
Consider also that with all the other eleven sons his wives picked the names, and he let them stand. Here he makes the only exception and that for the child of his beloved wife whom he had just lost through death. We cannot escape the fact that Jacob realizes that this is something that he just cannot allow. His faith in God will not allow this. It will not let- him accentuate and perpetuate the remembrance of Rachel’s sorrow—whether that be because of the pains of her labour, or of her defeat in her struggle with Leah. A name that avoids—and indeed even denies—the joy of an inheritance from God, and a reward given in the covenant sphere, must not be carried on in that covenant home. Rachel’s name expressed her fleshly sorrow, but in the covenant sphere there are spiritual joys. Our light affliction which is but for a moment works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (II Corinthians 4:17). And nothing, not extremely hard labour; nor even death, can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). These can only bring God’s covenant people to endless, heavenly joys.
Rachel expresses the pessimism that must be the world’s. For we live in a vale of tears, and there is no hope that unbelief can see, or can ground on a solid foundation. Look at man—and Rachel was looking at herself—and you can only rightly call your children sons of sorrow, and you can give to this world the name Vale of Tears. Faith in Christ, Who removed the curse by His cross, makes one an optimist in the true sense of the word. He sees his children as an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb as His reward. He has hope even in death. Death and the sorrow of bearing children is part of the curse because of man’s sin. Faith sees sin paid for by the blood of the cross, and consequently sees the curse removed. Faith sees the strength and honour of having children in God’s covenant, and it has hope of seeing the children’s children in the new Jerusalem.