Ups and downs of life



‘There is a time for everything … a time to be born and a time to die … a time to weep and a time to laugh … a time to be silent and a time to speak … a time for war and a time for peace’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8).

Bible passage

Genesis 35:16–29

The deaths of Rachel and Isaac

16 Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. 17 And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t despair, for you have another son.’ 18 As she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin.

19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20 Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.

21 Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. 22 While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

Jacob had twelve sons:

23 The sons of Leah:

Reuben the firstborn of Jacob,

Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

24 The sons of Rachel:

Joseph and Benjamin.

25 The sons of Rachel’s servant Bilhah:

Dan and Naphtali.

26 The sons of Leah’s servant Zilpah:

Gad and Asher.

These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram.

27 Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. 28 Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. 29 Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Lapping sea


This last section of the story of Jacob and his family contains a mixture of joy (Rachel’s second pregnancy at last!), sorrow (Rachel’s death in childbirth, and Isaac’s death of old age) and treachery (Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine). Jacob knows about Reuben’s treachery, which was perhaps an attempt to challenge Jacob’s authority within the family, but does not deal with it at the time. He remembers however, and in his final words to his sons Jacob says that, although Reuben is his firstborn, he will not excel because of this act (Genesis 49:4).

There is a sense of completeness as Jacob comes home to his father, before Isaac’s death (vs 27–29). God is not mentioned in the narrative here, but Jacob’s return home and the listing of the 12 sons shows that God’s promises are beginning to be fulfilled.

Look back over the story of this family. Which characters do you identify with? Which would you like to see mend their ways? What do you see of God at work in their lives?

Esther Bailey


Map out the story of your own family. Where do you see God at work? Where do you long for him to intervene? Talk to him about what he is doing in your family.

Deeper Bible study

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’1 Death causes huge upheaval and loss. Perhaps through tears, give thanks for Christ’s victory.

As we come to the final section of Genesis in which Jacob is the central character, the themes are familiar to us. The whole of life in all its joys and sorrows, frustration and fulfilment is represented. Jacob faces the shattering blow of losing the love of his life, yet has the fulfilment of another son being born. What his new son means to him is captured well in the name he chooses for him: ‘Benjamin’, meaning ‘son of my right hand’. We don’t really know how Jacob reacted to Reuben’s sexual misdemeanour (v 22), but it must have brought huge disappointment and raised fears for the future conduct of his sons. The listing of the 12 takes us back to chapters 29 and 30 and the mixture there of jealousy and unhealthy competitiveness over against the expressions of gratitude to God for his gift of children. This is all part of life in a world in which sin is powerful but where people like Isaac witness to the possibility of a long and fulfilling life.

‘There is … a time to be born and a time to die’.2 Our experience in this fragile and sometimes harsh world is not random or meaningless. The cycle of birth and death could leave us feeling helpless, but Jacob’s topsy-turvy existence teaches us that life is going somewhere. There is meaning to history; God has called Abraham, then Isaac and now Jacob. There are promises that this family line is going somewhere. There are indications that, despite all the interruptions and many byways, God’s plan is being worked out. We have the advantage of knowing that there is a bigger story that does make sense. 

As you meet people frustrated by life and questioning its meaning, what’s the most helpful thing you can say to them? How do you articulate your own hope?

1 1 Cor 15:55  2 Eccl 3:1,2

Andy Bathgate

Bible in a year

Read the Bible in a year: Job 29,30; Luke 23

Pray for Scripture Union

SU Mission Enabler Hannah Legge was due to be at Creation Fest (1–7 August) running sports venues alongside Adam Legge and Richard Witham but, unfortunately, it's been cancelled Thank God for the opportunities that events like this create and pray that, as we move forward, we may know how to make the most effective use of them.

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