When Deborah Died
Gen. 35:5 As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them. 6 Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, 7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. 8 And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth.
This is the only time that the name of Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah is mentioned. She was the woman who had served along-side Jacob’s mother and had probably nursed him as a small child. More than just a servant in the household, this woman was dearly loved and probably embraced as a mother or grandmother. Her influence over Jacob and his family must have been great because her passing caused great pain for them all. Rebekah’s death isn’t mentioned, but here, this servant Deborah’s death is mentioned, as well as the acute mourning on behalf of the family.
Deborah is buried under an oak near Bethel. Bethel becomes a well-known and sacred place for the Israelites for it is there that Jacob meets with God. The tree under which Deborah is buried becomes a marker of the site, a place to which others would return in the future. But for now, the pain is so intense with her loss that the tree is named “Allon-bacuth,” meaning oak of weeping. A previously unknown servant becomes remembered for all of time because of her influence in the family. History records the moment, when Deborah died.
Deborah is one of those unsung heroes, whose name is never mentioned until her death. I’m sure that during her time there were plenty of well-known people in her world that got attention, had wealth and property, and became leaders. All we know is that Deborah was a nurse and that when she died there was great mourning, or lamenting — so much so, that they named the tree where she was laid.
With a little imagination we can piece together the life of a woman like Deborah. This family had seen strife, brothers who didn’t always get along, but this was a woman of peace. Refusing to love one boy more than the other, she poured out her life for them both to be successful. When things needed to get done in the household, she quietly went about her business, to make sure there was a sense of tranquility in the home. After the woman she had served passed away, she remained loving and respectful to all the household, maintaining a sense of continuity. She went on to be like a grandmother to so many little ones who became a part of this great family. She was more than a nurse, but a matriarch who loved and served the family. Deborah was a servant-leader, possibly foreshadowing the coming of the Messiah who would come to serve his people in much the same way.
Deborah was buried under a tree with great lamenting. Jesus would die on a tree surrounded by those who would cry out over the loss of his life. The family of Jacob thought they had lost the centering figure of their family community — the one who held it all together. The disciples thought they had lost the one who brought meaning and purpose to their lives. Jacob’s family, Israel, would come back often to Bethel to meet with God. The parallels between the two dissipate at this junction because the disciples discovered that Jesus would raise from the dead. But Deborah remains an example of a life that may have reflected the very nature of God as El-Shaddai, the God who gathers children to the breast — just as a nurse —loving and nurturing them, raising them up in the fear of God.
The family wept at her death because, through her, they saw God at work in their midst. As we participate with Christ we are to take on the form of the servant-leader. Through our lives others should see God at work in their midst, and the result is that God gets the glory and not us. Deborah’s name is never mentioned until her death, but in her death she is lamented near the place known as meeting with God. Our desire should be that God is lifted up in and through all that we do. This is the little that we learned, when Deborah died.
Lord, thank you for Deborah’s life of faithfulness and servant leadership. Just as she was faithful day in and day out, may I, too, serve you in faithfulness. Amen.