God now called upon Jacob to arise and go to Bethel, and make an altar unto the God who appeared to him there when he fled from his brother Esau. Jacob obeyed. All things were made ready; and with his numerous family and flocks and herds, he began to move forward. The host presented an imposing appearance; and the terror of the Lord was upon the cities around about them, so that this large company passed on undisturbed, and arrived at Bethel in safety.
But death, who is ever lurking in ambush around the paths of life, shot a fatal arrow into the midst of this family, and Deborah, a beloved and aged servant, received its stroke. While the altar which Jacob built in that place had scarce received its first bleeding victim, she died, and the place was consecrated by the grave of a child of God. This Deborah was the same nurse that was sent away, one hundred and twenty-five years before, with Rebecca, when Abraham's servant went into Padan-Aram, (the Hebrew name of Mesopotamia), to get a wife for Isaac.
She was with Rebecca when she alighted from her camel to meet Isaac as he walked in the field to meditate; saw her given to him as his wife; travelled with them in their various journeyings; nursed Jacob and Esau in their helpless infancy, and watched their growth and different dispositions for more than seventy years. She was probably present when the savory meat was made to deceive her master Isaac; and grieved to see Jacob sent off alone to go to her native country.
After Rebecca's death and Jacob's settlement in the promised land, Deborah seems to have been taken into the family of Jacob; and notwithstanding her usefulness was gone, and she was only a care and expense, her death was sincerely mourned, which speaks well for the kindly feeling existing between the family and this their faithful friend. They buried her under an oak in Bethel, and called it "the oak of weeping."
While Jacob remained in this place the Lord appeared to him again, and blessed him; changing his name to Israel, which means "a prince that prevails with God," and renewing the promises he made to Abraham and Isaac, "To thee and to they seed after thee will I give this land." And he set up another pillar, and poured a drink-offering upon it, and called the name of it "Bethel."
Jacob had now performed at the altar of Bethel the vow which he made "in the day of his distress;" and the Lord had again confirmed his promises. In this consecrated spot he had made the first grave of his household; and with many endearing remembrances of Bethel, we find him again taking down his tents and gathering up his substance for another removal.
This time he turns his face towards the home of his childhood. Rebecca, his fond and indulgent mother, who had sent him to her own kindred "to be gone a few days," had long since closed her eyes in death, without one more view of her beloved Jacob. But his aged father Isaac was still alive; and with the hope of being a comfort to him in his declining days, Jacob purposes to visit his early home.
Twelve miles of his journey are passed, and he arrives again at Jerusalem; but how different is his entrance into the city from what it was some thirty years before, when, alone and sad, he passed through it a fugitive from his father's house. Now he has at his command a host, besides immense wealth and an extended influence. He could say emphatically, "I went out empty, but Thou has brought me back full."
Jerusalem is "beautiful for situation;" but this could not detain the travellers. Commanded of God, the angel of death had passed on before, only to await their approach at Bethlehem; and all unconscious of his fearful presence, this large company passed on with their usual cheerfulness.
Jacob's camel is close by that upon which sits his beloved Rachel; these were among the last hours he would ever pass with her. Only six miles were between him and his greatest sorrow; yet, with cheerful anticipations of happiness in the future, Jacob and his Rachel wended their way through the valleys and up the hill-sides, followed by the long droves of lowing cattle and bleating sheep, till Bethlehem on the distant hill-top burst upon their view.
How sad that death should mar a scene like this. Even now his shadow is falling upon Rachel, robbing her cheek of its bloom. The journey is stayed; the camels' furniture is removed; the tents are pitched; and Rachel has all the attention that could possibly be given. Yet the angel of death steadily approaches, till his presence is evident even to Jacob, whose heart now begins to fail. It is his own Rachel, his dear Joseph's mother, and how can he give her up? God has heard his prayers in other troubles, and will he not help now? Undoubtedly he wrestled long and earnestly for her life; but as an importunate child, who knows not what is for his own good, is refused by a loving father, so Jacob was refused; and with a bleeding hear the aged saint bowed to the will of God.
Neither the encouraging "Fear not" of Rachel's attendants, nor her own wishes, nor her friends' efforts, nor her husband's prayers, could retain the spirit; and as her soul was departing, the son of her sorrow was bequeathed to the broken-hearted Jacob, and the babe became his Benjamin.
It was the custom in that country for the nearest relative of the deceased to close the eyes and give the parting kiss. And can we not see this trembling patriarch, with his long white hair and beard, bending over his beloved wife? His hands were pressed upon her eyelids; his frame trembled; he kissed her, and lifted up his voice and wept. He had kissed her and wept at their first meeting; then for joy, now for grief. Thus the two extremes of our feelings meet in tears.
The loving Joseph mingled the tears of this his first grief with the bitter waters that welled up from his father's wounded spirit; and as Jacob's eye of faith caught glimpses of that better land where his beloved was at rest, did not Joseph learn from his father's words of confidence in God, lessons which were lasting and salutary?
The day of interment came, "and Jacob buried Rachel in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem." That the spot might not be forgotten, he placed a pillar of stone upon her grave; and the pillar of Rachel's grave is the first monument of which we have any account at Bethlehem.
About six hundred years after Rachel's burial, we have another glimpse of Bethlehem, which was honored by having one of its citizens chosen as judge in Israel. His name was Ibzan, and he was the successor of Jephthah; but little is recorded of him. He judged Israel seven years, and died, and was buried in Bethlehem.