[b-hebrew] Names of Rachel's Second-Born Son

jimstinehart at aol.com jimstinehart at aol.com
Sun Sep 25 19:29:42 EDT 2011

Names of Rachel’s Second-Born Son

Each of Rachel and Jacob gives Rachel’s second-born son a name.  [In English, this son is called Benjamin.]  Rachel dies in childbirth after giving this child the name BN-)WNY.  Genesis 35: 16-19

This post will focus primarily [but not exclusively] on Rachel’s name for her second-born son:  BN-)WNY.  Scholars split as to the intended meaning of this name.  Robert Alter comments at p. 199 of “Genesis”:  “Ben-oni.  The name can be construed to mean either ‘son of my vigor’ or, on somewhat more tenuous philological grounds, ‘son of my sorrow’.”

I myself see Rachel’s name for her second-born son as meaning “Son of My Strength”.   In my view, )WNY at Genesis 35: 18 has the same meaning as )WNY at Genesis 49: 3:  “my vigor” or “my strength”.  It’s the same word, with the same spelling, and the same meaning.  Rachel’s intended meaning, in giving her second-born son the fine name BN-)WNY, “Son of My Strength”, is:  even though I’m dying in childbirth, nevertheless I have the “strength” to bear the “son” who will inevitably become my husband’s favorite son, whom my husband Jacob/“Israel” in due course surely will designate to rule over all my husband’s other sons by his other wives, now that my firstborn son Joseph [who had previously been my husband’s favorite, favored son] is gone.

It’s true that Rachel was sad that her firstborn son Joseph had disappeared and was presumed dead [as reported later, as a flashback, in chapter 37 of Genesis], and of course she was also sad to be dying in childbirth.  But rather than being a defeatist and calling her second son “Son of My Sorrow” [as the case is often viewed to be], in my view Rachel by contrast is triumphant in death.  Rachel logically figures that her second-born son will surely become Jacob’s favorite son now that Joseph is gone [which indeed does happen], and as such Jacob could be expected to name Rachel’s son as the leader of the next generation of Hebrews [which, however, manifestly does not happen].  No, things did not end up turning out the way that Rachel had hoped they would.  But at the moment of this second son’s birth, that was a very reasonable way for Rachel to adjudge the situation.  In fact, Rachel’s judgment seems to be initially confirmed by Jacob himself, when Jacob/“Israel” as a great Patriarch immediately gives this son the grandest of all possible grand names for a son of Jacob [as all sons are hoping that Jacob will place his “right hand” on the head of such “son” as a sign of leadership, as Jacob/“Israel” literally does for Joseph’s younger son Ephraim at Genesis 48:  14, 17, 18]:  “Son of my Right Hand” -- Ben-Jamin.  

On the foregoing view, and  o-n-l-y  on the foregoing view, both names make sense for Rachel’s second-born son:  (i) Ben-Oni/“Son of My Strength”, and (ii) Ben-Jamin/“Son of my Right Hand”.  It’s not just the question of whether Rachel is alive or dead [Genesis 37: 10 vs. Genesis 35: 19], or whether it’s safe for Jacob to have Joseph walk up to Shechem alone [in view of the bloody Shechem incident] [Genesis 37: 14 vs. Genesis 35: 5], or the fact that it can be mathematically computed that Joseph is the equivalent of stated age 20 in chapter 35 of Genesis, whereas Genesis 37: 2 shows that chapter 37 of Genesis is a flashback by starting out by expressly saying that Joseph is stated age 17.  No, beyond all that, the very names BN-)WNY and BN-YMYN, in and of themselves, require us to view chapter 37 of Genesis as being told out of normal chronological order, as a flashback to the time shortly before the bloody Shechem incident occurred.  Those two grand names could be given to Rachel’s second-born son if and only if Joseph was already gone and presumed dead.

Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list