And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth.”
Genesis 35 tells the story of Jacob’s relocation to Bethel in obedience to God’s instructions (35:1). The high point of this story is God’s appearance to Jacob, through which God reaffirms Jacob’s new name (Israel) and the divine promises given to him (35:10-12).
Verse 8 of Genesis 35 is one of those verses that we might be inclined to skim quickly so as to get on to the main part of the story. This verse reads, “And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth” (Gen 35:8). Deborah was mentioned one other time in Genesis, in 24:59, when Rebekah, who had not yet married Isaac, was sent away with Abraham’s servant. In that text she is not named, but identified only as Rebekah’s nurse.
We know very little about Deborah. We do know that the word translated as “nurse” means “wet-nurse.” Therefore, Deborah began to serve Rebekah when she was an infant. Deborah remained with her throughout her life. This means that Deborah cared for Rebekah for many decades, probably for over a century. (We don’t know when Rebekah died or at what age. Isaac, her husband, lived to be one hundred eighty years old; see 35:28).
In addition to Deborah’s long term of employment as a caregiver for Rebekah, we can infer from the text that she was beloved by the family she served. After her death, she was buried under an oak tree near Bethel. This tree was called “Allon-bacuth,” which means “tree of weeping.” Deborah was mourned by those who loved her for her faithful service.
Deborah’s death did not make headlines. What she did with her life was mainly behind the scenes. Yet her contribution mattered to the family through whom God was working to bless the whole world. More importantly, her work mattered to God, since through her work she fulfilled her created purpose.
Deborah reminds me of Dorothy Weaver Parish, who died earlier this year. I had the privilege of knowing Dorothy when I worked at the H.E. Butt Family Foundation. Dorothy was the secretary and personal assistant to Howard E. Butt, Jr., a relationship that began when Howard was working in the H-E-B Grocery Company and continued through his long years as president of the Foundation. In addition to her official role with Howard, Dorothy cared deeply for Howard’s family, especially his children. Those of us who had the privilege of working with Dorothy considered her a dear friend as well as an outstanding colleague. When Dorothy finally retired, she had worked for Howard for almost five decades. We were glad that she would be able to spend more time with her family, especially her beloved husband, Henry. Yet, we were sad for our loss of such an amazing partner and friend. We didn’t name a tree “Allon-bacuth” in her honor, but we certainly could have!
The examples of Deborah in Genesis 35 and of Dorothy in my own experience encourage me to reflect on my work. Am I willing to work in the background, serving well those who will receive public acclaim? Am I offering all that I am to those whom I serve, giving not just my best work but also my best self? If I were to die today, how would those who have worked with me respond? Am I the kind of colleague who will be missed? Am I like Deborah?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Do you know anyone like Deborah? What have you experienced in working with this person?
Why don’t you take some time to reflect on the questions from the last paragraph?
Gracious God, thank you for the example of Deborah. We know so little about her, but what we do know suggests that she was a faithful, caring, loyal worker. She was beloved by those who knew her and were blessed by her service.
Help me, Lord, to be like Deborah. May I work in a way that honors you even as it serves others. May I care well for those you have entrusted to me. May I be a valuable colleague, employee, and friend. Amen.