So this is another weird chapter for me to process! Why is the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, recorded, but not Rebekah’s death? And why on earth does Reuben sleep with one of his step moms? There’s a lot for me to ponder!
I read some commentaries on these points, so I’ll try to give you the short version.
First, regarding the death of the nurse; there are several theories.
1.) Rebekah died some time ago and her nurse, who would be loyal to Jacob, went with him on his travels instead of staying with Isaac. This old, wise woman could have become an integral part of Jacob’s life, therefore he mourned heavily when she died. (Allom Bakuth means Oak of Weeping.)
2.) Some think Rebekah also died at the same time as the nurse because “Oak of Weeping” is actually written in plural form indicating it was double mourning. Theories are also given as to why the burial of Rebekah needed to remain secret. These are speculations, so I’m not going to bother to list them.
The bottom line is that Jacob mourned heavily at the death of his mom’s nurse and named the area accordingly.
So, now for Reuben. What was he thinking as the oldest child of the clan? His actions remind me of what David’s third eldest son, Absalom, did 800 years later. Absalom, on the advise of one of his father’s officials, slept with David’s concubines “in the sight of Israel” so that all Israel would “hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and everyone with you will be more resolute.” (2 Sam. 16:21)
So, it can be assumed here that Reuben did this to show he wanted to take over his dad’s position prematurely and in an “in your face” sort of way. Well, needless to say, it doesn’t go well for him. Jacob takes away Reuben’s blessing, that could have been his as the oldest son, and gives it to Judah (Gen 49: 3 & 8).
There are good and reasonable explanations for the things that occurred in this chapter, and there are also practical take-aways to be learned from these people. This family is trying their best to follow the one true God (35:4). But notice, individual members must choose to “go with it” and follow God loyally (like Deborah) or rebel and try to do it their own way (like Reuben). Membership in a Christian family doesn’t make one a Christian. An individual choice needs to be made by each member. On the day you die, you are going to leave your family either with sweet mourning or as an obnoxious memory. The choice is yours.