Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Talitha Kum: Get Up! (Mark 5:41)

What does “Talitha cumi” mean? Little girl, I say to you, arise (Mark 5:41)

The raising of Jairus’ daughter is chronicled in all three Synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:18-25; Mark 5:22-43; Luke 8:41-56). Jairus, a synagogue official, implores Jesus to come to his dying twelve-year old child (Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:22-23, 42; Luke 8:41-42). After Jesus is delayed by a hemorrhaging woman, the child is reported as dead (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-35; Luke 8:43-49).

Undeterred, Jesus dismisses mocking mourners (Matthew 9:23-25; Mark 9:39-40; Luke 8:52-53) and clears the room, leaving only three select disciples and the girl’s parents (Mark 9:37; Luke 9:51). He then takes the girl by the hand and instructs her to rise (Matthew 9:25; Mark 5:41; Luke 8:54). At Jesus’ command, Jairus’ daughter awakens (Matthew 9:25; Mark 5:42; Luke 8:55).

Only Mark records the Aramaic words that Jesus speaks to the child (Mark 5:41).

Taking the child by the hand, He said to her, “Talitha kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). (Mark 5:41 NASB)
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) characterizes:
The account is strikingly concrete. Even the words Jesus uses to awaken the girl as uttered in Aramaic—‘talitha cumi’—are still given in the Aramaic form by the Greek narrator [Mark 5:41]. There is nothing grandiose or theatrical. (Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 210)
In this story, the reader is especially indebted to the narrator (Mark 5:21-43). Holly E. Hearon (b. 1956) explains:
The narrator leads readers through the events of the story (e.g., “and when Jesus had crossed...” [Mark 5:21] and “one of the synagogue leaders came...” [Mark 5:22]). The narrator also describes the individual scenes in the story, making them visible to readers (e.g., “and a huge crowd was following and pressing him” [Mark 5:24]). In this way, the narrator controls what the reader sees. The narrator also controls what readers know by providing them with selected information about the characters (e.g., “there was a woman who had a flow of blood over the course of twelve years...” [Mark 5:25]) or filling in “gaps” in the reader’s general knowledge by, for example, translating unfamiliar phrases for the reader (“‘Talitha koum [ταλιθα κουμ], which is translated ‘Little girl, I tell you, rise’” [Mark 5:41]). This underscores the omniscience of the narrator and the dependence of the readers on the narrator for their encounter with the world of the story. (Kelly R. Iverson [b. 1972] and Christopher W. Skinner [b. 1973], “From Narrative to Performance: Methodological Considerations and Interpretive Moves”, Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect, 227)
Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen (b. 1973) focuses:
Because Mark 5:41 does not contain perceptual verbs, audience members may attribute the perception of Jesus’ interaction with the girl to the extradiegetic narrator. This event constitutes the final percolutionary effect of Mark 5:23, where Jairus urged Jesus to lay his hands on the girl. By taking the girl’s hand, Jesus acts according to her father’s earlier request. Jesus also utters a speech act. Jesus’ utterance constitutes a directive point with a declarative intent, ταλιθα κουμ (Mark 5:41).This speech act is in Aramaic, but the extradiegetic narrator seems to presuppose that not all audience members are able to understand this language. The utterance is therefore translated into Koiné Greek, τὸ κοράσιον, σοι λέγω, ἔγειρε; In this manner, all audience members are able to understand the meaning of Jesus’ speech act. (Hartvigsen, Prepare the Way of the Lord: Towards a Cognitive Poetic Analysis of Audience Involvement with Characters and Events in the Markan World, 245)
Jesus enters a somber scene and it is he who breaks the silence (Mark 5:41). Of all people, he speaks to the child! He does not command an illness or a demon, but rather the girl. He also does this in the other two biblical stories in which he raises the dead as he commands the widow of Nain’s son, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” (Luke 7:14 NASB) and instructs Lazarus, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43 NASB). Some have speculated that the personal address is necessary lest all the dead rise at the command of the Lord (John 5:28).

Jesus speaks to the girl in Aramaic which Mark preserves (Mark 5:41). Mark is the only canonical gospel which incorporates Aramaic into its Greek text. Raquel A. St. Clair (b. 1970) surveys:

Mark shows evidence of knowing both the sacred language (Hebrew) and common language (Aramaic) of first-century Jewish people. In Mark 7:11, the narrator transliterates and provides an interpretation for the Hebrew word korban (gift, offering). Likewise, in Mark 11:9-10, he transliterates the Hebrew hosanna. Moreover, there are five instances in which the narrator transliterates and translates Aramaic words or phrases (Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36, 15:22, 34). (St. Clair, Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark, 87)
James A. Brooks (b. 1933) supports:
Mark and the oral tradition before him valued and preserved the Aramaic words Jesus used on this momentous occasion. Four instances of this are in Mark (also Mark 7:34, 14:36, 15:34), more than in any other Gospel and something that may indicate the primitiveness of Mark. Since the return from the Babylonian exile, Aramaic had been the language of the common people in Palestine. Jesus probably did most of his preaching and teaching in Aramaic. Therefore most if not all of his words in the Greek Gospels are a translation, and this fact is part of the reason the Gospels quote Jesus differently. Because Aramaic was not understood by Greek-speaking copyists of Mark’s Gospel, the textual witnesses vary in their reading at this point. (Brooks, Mark (New American Commentary), 95)
Donald H. Juel (1942-2003) understands:
The use of Aramaic by Mark represents an appreciation of the aesthetic dimensions of narration. Mark’s audience does not know the foreign words; they require translation. On three other occasions Mark recalls Jesus’ words in his native Aramaic: once in another miracle story (Mark 7:34), once in recounting Jesus’ prayer in the garden (Mark 14:36), and finally in repeating Jesus’ sole word from the cross (Mark 15:34). The Aramaic gives the story a taste of authenticity and a mysterious feel. (Juel, ,Mark (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 87)
Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) advises:
Instead of preaching from Mark, let Mark be our instructor in preaching. Mark actually uses some attractive, strange words. He uses some Aramaic words, and it makes you feel like you’re actually there. He says, “Abba.” [Mark 14:36] Do you remember what he said to Jairus’s daughter? “Talitha koum.” [Mark 5:41]. That’s striking, Talitha koum. (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], “The New Homiletic: Suggestions for Preaching from Mark”, Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah, 23)
The linguistics contribute to the presentation of a powerful scene. Michael Card (b. 1957) observes:
By my count, there are seven people in the room; the three disciples, the two parents, Jesus and the dead girl. This is a dramatic moment in the Gospel of Mark. It is the first time we hear Jesus speaking in his native tongue of Aramaic: “Talitha koum [Mark 5:41].” It is tender, as his words to the bleeding woman were tender [Mark 5:34]. “Little girl, I say to you get up!” [Mark 5:41] (Card, Mark: The Gospel of Passion (Biblical Imagination Series), 79)
Most scholars agree that Jesus spoke Aramaic. This means that Mark preserves the only direct quotes from Jesus’ earthy life (Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36, 15:34). In doing so, Mark provides a rare glimpse into the unfiltered Jesus.

Géza Vermès (1924-2013) determines:

There can be little doubt that Jesus himself spoke Galilean Aramaic, the language, that is to say, surviving in the popular and somewhat more recent paraphrase of the Pentateuch, the Palestinian Targum, and in the Talmud of Palestine. Practically all the terms which the Synoptic Gospels preserve in Aramaic before rendering them in Greek point in that direction. In the command addressed to the daughter of Jairus, Talitha kum [Mark 5:41], ‘Get up, my child,’ the noun (literally, ‘little lamb’) is attested only in the Palestinian Targum. Another Aramaic word, mamona, ‘money’, used in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:24, mostly occurs in the Targums. The rabbis, even in Aramaic phrases, usually employ the Hebrew word, mamon. Targumic parallel is similarly decisive in determining that when Jesus said Ephphetha [Mark 7:34], ‘Be opened’, he spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew. (Vermès, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels, 53)
Robert H. Stein (b. 1935) opines:
The Semitic expression “Talitha koum” (cf. Mark 3:17, 22, 7:11, 34, 9:43, 10:46, 14:36, 15:22, 34; Matthew 5:22, 6:24; John 1:42, which means, “Little girl...arise” (Τὸ κοράσιον...ἒγειρε, To korasion...egeire; cf. Mark 12:26, 16:6), suggests, among other things, that Jesus’s mother tongue was Aramaic (John P. Meier [b. 1942] 1991:255-68). The Greek translation that follows (and, of course, the whole Gospel) reveals that the native language of Mark’s readers is Greek. The Aramaic expressions found in Mark do not function as magical incantations (Robert H. Gundry [b. 1932] 1993:274-75; contra Gerard Mussies [b. 1934] 1984:427). Even less do they serve as secret “gnostic” formulas, since they are openly stated along with their interpretations. Nor are they used “to demonstrate the superior power of eastern words of healing” (Gerd Thiessen [b. 1943] 1983:254), since the expressions in Mark are used mostly in nonmiracle settings (cf. Mark 3:17, 7:11, 14:36, 15:34; also Matthew 5:22, 6:24; John 1:42). (Only two Aramaic expressions are found in the setting of a healing miracle, here and Mark 7:34.) It is best to understand that these expressions as remnants of the Aramaic traditions with which Mark was familiar (Joachim Gnilka [b. 1928] 1978:211). In their abbreviations of Mark, Matthew and Luke omit them (except for Matthew 27:46). (Stein, Mark (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 274-75)
Bernard J. Lee (b. 1932) acknowledges:
Because our earliest texts are Greek, we are not certain about the original words in any single thing that Jesus said, with the possible exception of an occasional phrase actually transmitted in Aramaic, such as Abba [Mark 14:36] (the intimate form of “Father”); Talitha Kum [Mark 5:41] (“Little girl, arise!”); and Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani [Mark 15:34] (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). That is not thick enough history to recover the full throated voice of Jesus. The early quest for the historical Jesus indicated the futility of seeking the original words, the verba ipsissima of Jesus. (Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus: Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity, 53)
Critical scholarship is not universally convinced of the Aramaic’s authenticity. Charles Leland Quarles (b. 1965) reports:
The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar...rightly acknowledge that “Jesus undoubtedly employed the term ‘Abba’ (Aramaic for ‘Father’) to address God [Mark 14:36].” They did reject the authenticity of the Aramaic words which appeared in Mark 5:41 and Mark 7:34. Though the Aramaic forms normally suggested authenticity, the Gospel writer had used the Aramaic term to make an ordinary command sound like a magical formula to the ear of the Greek-speaker. (Bruce Chilton [b. 1949] and Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], “The Authenticity of the Parable of the Warring King: A Response to the Jesus Seminar”, Authenticating the Words of Jesus, 419)
Though exact quotations from Jesus are scarce, this does not detract from the New Testament’s witness. Gregg R. Allison (b. 1954) and Michael J. Anthony (b. 1953) clarify:
The truthfulness of all of Scripture does not mean that the New Testament sayings of Jesus contain the exact words of Jesus. If Jesus spoke mostly Aramaic...then few of the actual words of Jesus are found in the New Testament. Indeed, there are only two phrases of Jesus in Aramaic: “Talitha cumi” (“Little girl, I say to you, arise!”; Mark 5:41) and “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34; see Matthew 27:46). Instead of the exact words of Jesus, the New Testament contains the exact voice of Jesus. (James R. Estep, Jr. [b. 1963], Anthony and Allison, “Revelation, Scripture, and Christian Education”, A Theology for Christian Education, 85)
John Azumah (b. 1962) assesses:
Some fragments of the original Aramaic have..been preserved...However such Aramaic fragments are the exceptions that prove the rule and it is clear that what the early Christians identified as being of the greatest significance in Jesus was not the original words and syllables spoken by him. The heart of the matter lay elsewhere, in who Jesus was, in what he had done, in his ongoing risen presence. (David Marshall [b. 1963], “The Divine and Human Origins of the Bible: Exodus 32:15-16; Jeremiah 1:9; II Timothy 3:16-17; Luke 1:1-4; I Corinthians 7:10-17; Mark 5:41”, Communicating the Word: Revelation, Translation, and Interpretation in Christianity and Islam, 95-96)
Jesus’ words and deeds are not mutually exclusive. Christopher D. Marshall (b. 1953) observes:
In some respects Jesus’ words and deeds are virtually interchangeable in Mark. Just as his words of command are imbued with power to bring about their own realisation (e.g. Mark 1:27, 41, 4:39, 5:41, 9:25ff, 11:14, etc.), so his actions are infused with didactic power that qualifies them as preaching (Mark 1:39) and teaching (Mark 1:27, 8:14-21). (Marshall, Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Narrative, 39)
English translations render the Greek in English but retain the Aramaic through transliteration, effectively making it as foreign to the contemporary reader as it was to her ancient counterpart (Mark 5:41): “Talitha koum” (CEV, HCSB, MSG, NIV, NLT), “Talitha cumi” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV), “Talitha cum” (NRSV), “Talitha kum” (NASB) or “Tal’itha cu’mi” (RSV). The fact that Mark feels the need to translate the expression is telling, much like a foreign film necessitates subtitles.

Such explanatory clauses are typical of Mark’s gospel. Whitney Shiner (b. 1949) documents:

In a number of places Mark provides explanations to his listeners. He translated foreign words (Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36, 15:22, 15:34), provides “explanations” of Jewish practices (Mark 7:3-4), comments on the emotional cause of actions (“they were frightened,” Mark 9:6; “for they were afraid,” Mark 16:8), a natural cause (there are no figs on the tree because “it was not the time for figs,” Mark 11:13), and an occupational reason for action (Simon and Andrew were “throwing nets in the sea—because they were fishermen,” Mark 1:16). (Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark, 176)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) expounds:
Willem S. Vorster [1941-1993] (in Neotestamentica 14 [1981] 68) observes that Mark uses and translates foreign (i.e. Aramaic) words and phrases to put across his narrative point of view — here [Mark 5:41], for emphasis on the power of Jesus’ word to raise even the dead. In only one other instance does the Aramaic plus translation have to do with a miracle (Mark 7:34), whereas in a number of other instances it has nothing to do with miracles (see Mark 3:17, 7:11, 14:36; and especially Mark 15:22, 34, where we read the same formula ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον, “which is translated,” i.e. “which means when translated”) — a point that weakens the suggestion that the Aramaic originally lacked a translation, that the following command to silence originally referred to keeping the Aramaic secret as a foreign magical formula...and that Mark added a translation with the result that it is now the miracle itself which needs to be kept secret (Joachim Gnilka [b. 1928] 1.211-12; cf. Mark 10:46, where Mark makes the Aramaic appositional to its preceding translation; Mark 11:9-10, where “hosanna” lacks a translatable prayer into a hardly translatable exclamation). (Gundry, Mark, Volume 1 (1-8): A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 284)
Jesus says, “Talita kum” (Mark 5:41). C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) dissects:
Ταλιθα χουμ, A transliteration of Aramaic telîtā kûm, of which the first word is the feminine of talyā’ (=‘lamb’ or ‘youth’) and the second is the Mesopotamian form of the imperative ‘arise’. Α D Θ f13 pm lat syphs have the Palestinian form of the feminine imperative kûmî. It is not at all clear which form Mark wrote. (Marie-Joseph Lagrange [1855-1938], Vincent Taylor [1887-1968] prefer χουμ; Ernst Lohmeyer [1890–1946] χουμι.) (Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, 190)
Talitha is a term of endearment (Mark 5:41). The affectionate word literally means “little lamb”; like Mary, Jesus has a little lamb. John R. Donahue (b. 1933) and Daniel J. Harrington (1940-2014) gloss:
In Aramaic this phrase literally means “little lamb, arise”; the word “lamb” (talitha can be a term of affection, especially for a young child (see II Samuel 12:1-6). (Donahue and Harrington, Mark (Sacra Pagina), 178)
James R. Edwards (b. 1945) comments:
The Greek translation, “little girl,” is endearing. The word korasion, a diminutive of korē (a stately young woman or maiden), indicates prime childhood, perhaps “little lady.” Such nomenclature reveals the vast difference in Jesus’ perspective of the girl from the mourners’ perspective [Mark 5:38-40]. (Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 167-68)
In tenderly touching her and his choice of words (Mark 5:41), Jesus gives Jairus’ daughter permission to be a child again.

This type of language is customary in Mark. Bonnie Bowman Thurston (b. 1952) notes:

Diminutives are characteristic of Mark’s style; see Mark 5:41-42, 6:22, 28, 7:27-28; and so forth. (Thurston, Preaching Mark (Fortress Resources for Preaching, 67)
Richard Schneck (b. 1941) contends that talitha alludes to Isaiah’s poetic description of Israel’s future shepherd who “gathers the lambs with his arm and in his bosom he will carry them” (Isaiah 40:11; Mark 6:34). That long awaited shepherd destined to lead Israel out of exile has arrived. (Schneck , Isaiah in the Gospel of Mark I-VIII, 137-138).

There has been some speculation that Talitha is a proper noun. Max Wilcox (1927-2010) argues:

It seems strange that anyone should have addressed an unconscious (or dead) person as “girl” and not by her own name. The context is thoroughly Jewish, the girl’s father has a Jewish name (Jairus=Ya’ir) [Mark 5:22, 35, 36], and he is a synagogue ruler [Mark 5:22, 35, 36, 38]. If his name is given, why not that of the daughter? Further the Greek manuscripts and the versions have problems in Mark 5:41. The best attested reading is Talitha koum, but at first sight that seems to make the verb masculine (qwm) instead of feminine (qwmy). The other three sets of readings all look like attempts to make sense of the matter by seeing in talitha (or in their equivalents of it) a proper name. Thus all make both subject and verb explicitly feminine. The problem could be solved if (1) talitha could be documented as a proper name and not just an Aram word meaning “girl,” and (2) if in the spoken language the final yod in feminine form qwmy were silent as in the corresponding Syriac. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:309-10)
Though this is not impossible, the fact that Mark translates talitha as a noun rather than a proper name seems to indicate that Talitha is not the child’s name.

There is variation in the ancient manuscripts regarding the verb Jesus uses (Mark 5:41). This discrepancy is reflected in contemporary translations which read either koum (CEV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV) or koumi (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, RSV).

George Aichele (b. 1944) admits:

The apparatus to the Eberhard Nestle [1851-1913] et al. (1979) of the Greek New Testament indicates that talitha koum is the best attested spelling of the transliterated phrase in Mark 5:41, but there is also evidence among the ancient manuscripts of Mark for talitha koumi and talitha koum(i). The fifth-century codex D, famous for its Aramaic transliterations into Greek, has rabbi thabita (= rhabotha) koumi. (Aichele, Jesus Framed, 59)
Ezra Palmer Gould (1841-1900) distinguishes:
κούμ is the Hebrew imperative כים. κουμι of the Textus Receptus is the proper feminine form. κούμ is the masculine used as an interjection. (Gould, The Gospel According to St. Mark (International Critical Commentary), 101)
Robert G. Bratcher (1920-2010) and Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011) add:
Instead of the masculine form koum of the great majority of modern editions of the Greek text, Textus Receptus, Alexander Souter [1873-1949] (and RSV) have the feminine form koumi (cf. the discussion on Marie-Joseph Lagrange [1855-1938]). (Bratcher and Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark, 180)
Kent Brower (b. 1946) rationalizes:
There are several variants of the Aramaic phrase talitha koum, probably due to the unfamiliarity of copyists with Aramaic. Some texts read tabitha, a confusion from the name in Acts 9:40. The variation between koum and koumi is due to gender in Aramaic. Thus koum is masculine but is used here without reference to gender. But koumi is imperative feminine singular and is probably a later correction (R.T. France [1938-2012] 2002, 234 n. 41). The earliest text is likely talitha koum. (Brower, Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary), 157)
Alfred Edersheim (1825-1899) footnotes:
The reading which accordingly seems best is that adopted by Brooke Foss Westcott [1825-1901] and Fenton John Anthony Hort [1828-1892], Ταλειθά κούμ. The Aramaic or Rabbinic for maiden is either Talyetha or Talyutha (טליוחא). In the second Targum on Esther 2:7,8, the reading is טלוחא (Talutha), where Jean de Léry [1536-1613] conjectures the reading טליחא (Talitha), or else Talyetha. The latter seems also the proper equivalent of ταλειθά, while the reading ‘Talitha’ is uncertain. As regards the second word, qum [pronounced kum], most writers have...shown that it should be qumi, not qum. Nevertheless, the same command is spelt קומ in the Talmud (as it is pronounced in Syriac) when a woman is addressed. In Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 110b, the command qum, as addressed to a woman suffering from a bloody flux, occurs not less than seven times in one page. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], “The Healing of the Woman – Christ’s Personal Appearance – The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter”, The Historical Jesus, Volume IV: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, 84)

Adela Yarbro Collins (b. 1945) preserves:

Julius Wellhausen [1844-1918] argued that the original reading was ραβιθα (“girl”), which he reconstructed from the corrupt reading of Codex D, rather than ταλιθα (“girl”), because the latter word is more refined and less dialectical and thus a correction. He also argued that κουμι (“koumi,” i.e. “arise” or “stand up”), read by Codex D, is original, as the Old Palestinian form of the second person singular feminine imperative; he considered κουμ (“koum,” i.e., “arise or “stand up”) to be a later Mesopotamian form. (Collins, Mark (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 285)
This grammar could be an indicator of Jesus’ accent. Géza Vermès (1924-2013) supposes:
It may also be presumed that like Peter, whose northern identity betrayed his speech [Matthew 26:73; Mark 14:70; Luke 22:59], Jesus also spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic. His command addressed to the ‘dead’ daughter of Jairus is reproduced as Talitha kum (‘Little girl’, or literally, ‘Little lamb, get up’) in the oldest codices of Mark 5:41. But kum represents Galilean slovenly speech in joining the masculine form of the imperative to a feminine subject, as against the grammatically correct kumi which we find in some of the more recent and polished manuscripts of the Gospel. (Vermès, The Changing Faces of Jesus, ccl)
Mark translates “talitha” for its Greek speaking readers as “Little girl” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “Damsel” (ASV, KJV).

A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) compares:

Mark uses the diminutive κοράσιον, a little girl, from κόρη, girl. Luke 8:54 has it ‘Η παις, ἔγειρε, “Maiden, arise.” (Robertson, The Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Mark (Word Pictures in the New Testament), 307-08)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) notices:
In talking about her, Jesus called her “the little child (Mark 5:39). In talking to her he affectionately calls her “Little girl” [Mark 5:41]. (Gundry, Commentary on Mark)
Jesus bids the girl to arise (Mark 5:41). R.C.H. Lenski (1864-1936) documents:
A.T. Robertson [1863-1934] 1215 claims that the aorist imperative ἔγειραι does not appear in the New Testament, and that we should read here the present imperative ἔγειρε, “be arising.” Either could be used; the question is one for the text critics to decide. (Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel, 231)
This is far from a rude awakening; Jesus meets Jairus’ daughter on her own level in a language she understands. The child has likely heard the command, “Little girl, get up!” many times throughout her life.

Ralph Earle (1908-1995) conjectures:

It has been suggested that these may have been the very words with which the little girl was wakened by her mother each morning. Here we see the human tenderness of Christ, as well as His divine power. What a beautiful combination! (Earle, Mark: The Gospel of Action (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 53)
David L. McKenna (b. 1929) praises:
“Talitha, cumi” is an invitation of love that literally means, “Little lamb, arise.” Jesus’ authority, tough with wild winds and raging demons, becomes as tender as a shepherd lifting the littlest of lambs. (McKenna, Mark (Preacher’s Commentary), 116)
Some interpreters have contrasted the provocative vocatives that Jesus uses in relation to the two women he heals in the chapter (Mark 5:22-43). Jesus calls the hemorrhaging woman “daughter” (Mark 5:34) while referring to Jairus’ daughter as “little girl” (Mark 5:41).

Bas M.F. van Iersel (1924-1999) interprets:

The privileged position of the girl is reversed in the combination of the two stories. Though the father is the first to appear on the scene and Jesus decides to oblige him, he actually helps the woman first: the inferior is given precedence, the first will be last and the last the first; but there is more at issue than order. The woman who has no one to fall back on is addressed by Jesus as ‘daughter’ [Mark 5:34], and is thereby shown to belong to the new family of Jesus. The daughter of Jairus, though, is addressed as ‘talitha’ [Mark 5:34], which is explicitly translated into the Greek κοράσιον, which mean ‘girl’. (Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, 212)
While Mark intentionally juxtaposes the two stories (Mark 5:21-43), Jesus describes both women in intimate terms (Mark 5:34, 41). Reading talitha as a slight does a disservice to the text and to Jesus. Jairus’ daughter need not be maligned for the hemorrhaging woman to be elevated.

When translating Jesus’ Aramaic, Mark actually adds the interjection “I say yo you” (Mark 5:41). R.C.H. Lenski (1864-1936) recognizes:

In his translation Mark adds, “I say to thee,” which is merely interpretive. (Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel, 231)
Alfred Plummer (1841-1926) critiques:
The Aramaic here hardly justifies the insertion of ‘I say unto thee.’ As in Mark 3:17 and Mark 15:34, the rendering given by Mark raises questions. (Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 66)
Though not in Jesus’ words, “I say to you” conveys tone and indicates the unique authority of the speaker (Mark 5:41). This authority is also underscored by his verb tense.

Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) gathers:

Mark’s quoting Jesus’ original Aramaic, introducing it with the present tense in “he says to her,” and inserting “I’m telling you” into the translation accentuate the empowering command [Mark 5:41]. (Gundry, Commentary on Mark)
Jesus’ words are markedly prosaic. The Aramaic is simple; Jesus does resort to language that makes him sound especially religious.

Dick France (1938-2012) updates:

The words ‘Talitha cum’ (in the vernacular Aramaic) are remarkably low-key: ‘talitha’ is literally a young sheep or goat but was used colloquially for a child, and ‘cum’ simply means ‘Get up’. So ‘Get up, kid!’ is an idiomatic equivalent. (France, Mark (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 81)
Scottish Canadian William Wye Smith (1827-1917) renders the phrase, “Lassie, wauken” (Smith, The New Testament in Braid Scots, 49).

David E. Garland (b. 1947) remarks:

Talitha koum is an ordinary Aramaic phrase made memorable by the extraordinary miracle. (Clinton E. Arnold [b. 1958], Matthew, Mark, Luke (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 36)
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) evaluates:
What’s so special about these words? Why leave them untranslated, along with only a handful of others (like ‘Abba’ in the Gethsemane scene, Mark 14:36)? The best answer is probably that the scene, and the crucial words, made such a deep impression on Peter and the others that whenever they told the story afterwards, even in Greek to non-Jewish audiences, they kept the crucial words as they were. It wasn’t a magic formula, a kind of ‘abracadabra’; they were ordinary words you might use to wake up a sleeping child. But part of the point of the gospel story, and of this whole section of Mark, is precisely that the life-giving power of God is breaking into and working through the ordinary details of life. (Wright, Mark for Everyone, 63-64)
The entire scene is wrought with simplicity (Mark 5:35-43). M. Eugene Boring (b. 1935) appraises:
Jesus does not pray, engages in no rituals, has no “technique”—he only touches and speaks, and the girl is raised [Mark 5:41]...Even the Aramaic phrase, foreign to Mark’s Greek-speaking readers, is no magic word, but when translated is seen to be the simple speech anyone could employ in waking someone from sleep. By translating the phrase, Mark removes the story from the world of magic and focuses on the authority of Jesus that cannot be resisted even by the power of death. (Boring, Mark: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 162)
There is discussion as to what Mark’s inclusion of Aramaic accomplishes. George Aichele (b. 1944) concedes:
A Greek transliteration, talitha koum, of Jesus’s Aramaic words appears in Mark 5:41. Since the transliterated words are immediately translated into Greek, to korasion, soi legô, egeire, they serve no informative function in the text. Either the reader knows Aramaic and the transliteration is unnecessary, or the reader does not know Aramaic and the transliteration plays no role in the story, except perhaps to add an exotic quality. A similar transliteration/translation combination appears in Mark 7:34 – “and [Jesus] looked up into the sky and groaned and said to him: Ephphatha, which means: Be opened.” Other comparable transliteration/translation combinations appear at Mark 3:17, where the nickname “Boanerges” is translated as “sons of thunder,” and Mark 7:11, where “Corban” is translated as “gift to God.” Unlike Mark 5:41 and 7:34, these latter instances are not elements of healing stories...Why these transliterated words are included in Mark’s text along with translations of the words is not clear. All four of the transliteration/translation combinations appear in Mark in the direct discourse of Jesus. Each is an oddity which disrupts the text: in each case, the translation which accompanies the transliterated words enables them to be understood, but the function of the transliterated phrase itself is not clear. In fact, the transliteration seems to serve no purpose. No deep narrative structure accounts for this surface effect, nor does the transliterated phrase appear to have any particular theological significance. It is significant that all of the respective parallels to these passages in Matthew (Matthew 9:25, 15:30, 10:2, 15:5, 26:39), Luke (Luke 8:54, 6:14, 22:42), and John (John 12:27) omit the transliterations. (Aichele, Jesus Framed, 57-58)
Many scholars presume that Mark was the first gospel written and if so, it might be significant that Matthew and Luke redact the Aramaic from their accounts (Matthew 9:18-25; Luke 8:41-56).

There may be a grammatical rationale for the discarding of the Aramaic. Rex Weyler (b. 1947) considers:

Matthew and Luke often disagree about the sequence of events in the life of Jesus, but generally follow Mark’s chronology when they do agree, suggesting that they both used Mark as a reference. Mark’s language appears earlier and closer to Aramaic. For example, the account of Jesus healing a child in Gerasenes (Mark 5:41) identifies a “little girl” by the Aramaic word talitha. Luke and Matthew appear to fix up or simplify confusing syntax in Mark’s more primitive style, and scholars doubt the Mark author would copy a simple construction by making it more convoluted. (Weyler, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message, 89)
Graham H. Twelftree (b. 1950) deliberates:
Matthew removes Jesus’ special words of healing in his source (talitha koum, Mark 5:41/Matthew 9:25). It is not that this would have been understood as magical. Rather, Matthew wants nothing to be seen as effective in healing other than Jesus himself. Also, in light of his didactic intention, Matthew would want to convey to his readers that in their emulation of Jesus’ healing ministry they are not to rely on anything other than the power of Jesus. (Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical & Theological Study, 119)
Mark is traditionally regarded as Peter’s memoirs and many attribute the Aramaic to it having left an indelible impression on the spectators (Mark 5:37). This is the first time that Jesus raises someone from the dead and that milestone would presumably be unforgettable.

Rodney L. Cooper (b. 1953) surmises:

Mark’s Gospel is the only one that uses these Aramaic words. This is probably because this account of Jesus’ miracle came directly to Mark from the apostle Peter. Peter was impressed with Jesus’ tenderness, his lack of concern about the purity laws, and his power. (Cooper, Mark (Holman New Testament Commentary), 89)
R. Alan Cole (1923-2003) concurs:
His words to the girl, Talitha cumi, in her own Aramaic mother tongue...are preserved in Mark alone [Mark 5:41]. If, as tradition has it and internal evidence may in part at least support, Peter was Mark’s informant, then the scene must have made such an impression upon the three apostles present that the actual words of Jesus were remembered long after [Mark 5:37]. (Cole, Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 165)
It cannot be denied that the Aramaic has impact. Steven A. Crane (b. 1964) perceives:
Aramaic was the language of Jesus. Koine Greek, or common Greek, was the language of commerce. Mark translates it for a Roman audience, and for us. “Little girl, I say yo you, get up!” [Mark 5:41] Why give us the Aramaic? Possibly for emphasis. It creates a dramatic effect for the listeners (and for us). (Crane, Marveling with Mark: A Homiletical Commentary on the Second Gospel, 101)
Donald H. Juel (1942-2003) analyzes:
There is something mysterious about the words, and their mere presence suggests some distance from Jesus—who did, in fact, speak another language. Readers experience some sense of distance from the events while at the same time experiencing the power of the story...The Aramaic words have the greatest impact when the story is read aloud. (Juel, Gospel of Mark (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series), 116)
A friend or pastor might have offered words of consolation to the pained parents. But Jesus does not enter the home as merely a counselor, pastor or friend. Jesus appears as a savior, and it is as the little girl’s savior that he speaks (Mark 5:41).

John Phillips (1927-2010) marvels:

Two words and the soul is snatched from the maw of the old lion, death [Mark 5:41]. The child’s pale cheeks blushed red with new life. Her eyelids fluttered. She opened her eyes, saw Jesus, and sat up! Just like that! (Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Mark, 128)
What Jesus says is not as important as the fact that what is done is accomplished simply through speech (Mark 5:41). In raising Jairus’ daughter, Jesus’ humanity is on display in the tenderness of his words while his divinity is featured in their power. The raising of Jairus’ daughter serves as a reminder of the infinite capacity of what the Almighty can do. Jesus can speak to the dead; even death cannot separate us from Jesus’ love (Romans 8:38-39).

Other voices abound in Jairus’ house. The hopeless wails of professional mourners and those mocking the newly arrived savior ring out as well (Mark 5:38-40). In their midst, the one true voice is unfamiliar to the child (Mark 5:41). Yet Jesus’ words are the only ones remembered verbatim. His words still reverberate; they are the lasting ones. May we listen only to that voice which invites us to live, which demands we get up and do what we are called to do.

Why does Mark retain Jesus’ Aramaic when raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41)? What impact does the injection of Jesus’ native language have on your reading of the story? Why did the other gospel writers not preserve the Aramaic? What does utilizing Greek at the expense of the original Aramaic say about what mattered most to the early church about Jesus? With what accent do you hear Jesus speaking? Presuming that he does not, why Jesus not address Jairus’ daughter by name? Is “talitha” an appropriate designation for a twelve-year old girl (Mark 5:42)? What terms of endearment do you use? What would you want Jesus to call you? From what occasions do you remember an exact quote? What would have happened if the girl had listened to the other voices instead of the call of Christ? To whose voice are you listening?

Many commentators have equated Jesus’ exotic words with magical incantations (Mark 5:41). Adela Yarbro Collins (b. 1945) writes:

It is noteworthy...that the only words of Jesus that the evangelist gives in Aramaic in this context are the powerful words by which, in part, Jesus raised the girl from the dead [Mark 5:41]. The implication is that, for Greek speakers in the audience, the Aramaic words were in themselves perceived to be mysterious and powerful. Lucian of Samosata [125-180] satirizes the use of holy names and foreign phrases in healing by having one of his characters ask whether the fever or inflammation is afraid of them and so takes flight. (Collins, Mark (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 285-86)
Joel Marcus (b. 1951) explicates:
The retention of Aramaic here is partly for effect: the exotic foreign words increase the sense of mystery about the miracle that is about to occur. Cf. Lucian of Samosata [125-180]’s reference to the tendency of faith healers to use rhēsis barbarikē, “foreign language” (False Philosopher 9). The only other healing story in which Jesus’ words are rendered in Aramaic is the narrative about the deaf-mute in Mark 7:31-37; in both cases, as Gerard Mussies [b. 1934] (“The Use of Hebrew and Aramaic in the Greek New Testament,” 427) points out, the Aramaic words are the verbal counterpart to the non-verbal healing action...and in both cases the healing takes place in seclusion. The combination of the motifs of seclusion and mysterious words is probably not accidental; Gerd Thiessen [b. 1943] (140-42, 148-49) notes that in the magical papyri, injunctions to silence frequently occur before or after occult formulae, in order to guard their secrecy (Papyri Graecae Magicae, 1.40, 130, 146-47, etc.). Also strikingly parallel to our narrative is Philostratus [170-247]’s story of the resuscitation of a dead girl by Apollonius of Tyana: “He simply touched her and said some secret words to her and woke her from seeing death” (Life Apollonius of Tyana 4.45). Not only does this tale share with ours the motif of secret words, but it also includes the pattern of the healer touching a dead girl and thus “awakening” her. The combination of motifs is so close that it is hard not to agree with Rudolf Pesch [1936-2011] (1.310) that our story reproduces typical techniques of ancient faith healing. (John P. Meier [b. 1942] [Marginal Jew, 2.580] raises the possibility that Philostratus is plagiarizing the Gospels, but admits that he cannot establish the probability of this assumption. (Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible), 363)
William L. Lane (1931-1999) counters:
The retention of Aramaic formulae in Marcan healing contexts (Mark 5:41, 7:34) has led to the conjecture that, analogous to pagan custom, the early Christians commonly believed in the efficacy of esoteric utterances composed of foreign or incomprehensible words. There is no support for this proposal either in Mark or in the subsequent tradition. The evangelist retains Aramaic with translation in other contexts unrelated to healing. Moreover, there is no evidence that “Talitha cumi” [Mark 5:41] or “Ephphatha” [Mark 7:34] were ever used by Christian healers as a magic spell. Their presence in the narrative reflects a faithfulness to the tradition that Jesus had actually spoken these words on specific occasions. (Lane, The Gospel of Mark (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 197-98)
Allen Black (b. 1951) dismisses:
Some argue that Mark preserves the Aramaic here and in the healing at Mark 7:34 as examples of foreign words used as magical incantations (similar to “abracadabra”). However, Mark’s translation of the Aramaic weighs against that understanding. So does the fact that most of Mark’s uses of Aramaic terms are not connected with working miracles (Mark 3:17, 7:11, 11:9-10, 14:36, 15:22, 34). (Black, Mark (College Press NIV Commentary), 108)
Camille Focant (b. 1946) agrees:
Although it is expressed in a foreign language, the expression “Talitha koum” uses quite ordinary words in the Aramaic language [Mark 5:41]. It therefore can certainly not be considered as a sort of “magic word” (contra Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 214; with Simon Légasse [1926-2009], 1:350). However, in quoting the words of Jesus in Aramaic before giving their translation in Greek, the narrator draws attention to the expression, as if he was highlighting it. In the Greek translation he adds, “I say to you,” which emphasizes the commitment of Jesus in this word. It is a performative word that must realize what it states. (Focant, The Gospel according to Mark: A Commentary, 214)

Lars Hartman (b. 1930) contends:

Jesus’ words are the culmination of the story (Mark 5:41b). “Talitha koum” is Aramaic, and the readers may have come to think of how miracle workers and exorcists could use mysterious formulas to subjugate evil—or good—powers...The words mean “Raise, girl!” and by translating them Mark suppresses any associations with incantation formulas and intimates that Jesus just gives an authoritative order. This means that the field of associations is the same as when Jesus commanded the storm to be still (Mark 4:39). Mark’s translation is, however, not literal, but he inserts “I say to you,” and in that way he underlines Jesus’ own power. Nevertheless, the borderline is not sharp between his power and the power of God, since it all has to do with the reign of God (cf. Psalm 104:30, Septuagint, “You send forth your spirit, then they are created”). Since the story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) the readers know that Jesus is empowered by the Spirit, and this knowledge has been confirmed by Jesus’ defense against the accusation of being on Beelzebul’s side (Mark 3:27-30). (Hartman, Mark for the Nations: A Text- and Reader-Oriented Commentary, 224)
Not all Aramaisms occur in the context of miracles and Jesus performs numerous miracles without the (documented) use of Aramaic. His actual words are stark and simple and further remove any sense of magical incantation.

Max Wilcox (1927-2010) quips:

The view that talitha is a foreign word, part of the magician’s mystique, is ingenious but fails to take account of the Jewish and indeed Aramaic nature of the whole setting of the story. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:310)
While pagan readers might have connected Jesus’ foreign words to incantations, the text likely sparked entirely different associations for early Christian readers. The Greek word for “get up” (CEV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV) or “arise” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, RSV) would likely conjure images of resurrection.

C. Clifton Black (b. 1955) informs:

Early Christians could have heard in Mark’s terms for the child’s rising, -emi (Mark 5:42) the language of resurrection (Mark 5:41) and anist egeir-o (see Mark 6:14, 12:23-26, 16:6,9, 14). (Black, Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries))
Robert G. Bratcher (1920-2010) and Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011) contextualize:
Egeire (cf. Mark 1:31) ‘rise’, ‘get up’. Whether this simply means ‘rise from the bed’, or ‘rise from the dead’ will be determined by the meaning given the statement of Jesus concerning the girl in Mark 5:39. (Bratcher and Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark, 180)
In this way, the raising of Jairus’ daughter foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection and that of his followers. James A. Brooks (b. 1933) reads:
Mark interpreted the Aramaic by using a Greek word that elsewhere in the New Testament is used in connection with the resurrection of Jesus and Christians (as is also the word “live” in Mark 5:23). The resurrection of the girl is therefore a preview of the resurrection of believers. (Brooks, Mark (New American Commentary), 95)
Eugene LaVerdiere (1936-2008) connects:
The great moment had arrived. Jesus took hold of the girl’s hand [Mark 5:41], as he had done for Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:31) and said to her in Aramaic, Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” (Mark 5:41). The tone of Mark’s Greek translation corresponds to what one would expect of a liturgical formula. The Greek verb, egeiro (to raise), the same that was used in the raising of Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:31) and in the raising of the paralytic (Mark 2:11, 12), is associated with Jesus’ own resurrection in the story of his passion-resurrection (Mark 14:28, 16:6). (LaVerdiere, The Beginning of the Gospel: Introducing the Gospel According to Mark, Volume 1), 140)
The story has striking parallels to a later incident involving Peter in Acts (Acts 9:36-42): George Aichele (b. 1944) bridges:
A remarkably similar saying appears in the book of Acts 9:40, where Peter heals the disciple Tabitha (“which means Dorcas”) with the command, “Tabitha arise,” Tabitha, anasthêthi. The Aramaic phrase, if there were one, would be something life “tabitha cumi,” a formulation which is supported by the Old Latin version of Mark 5:41 and close to the texts of the fifth-century Greek manuscripts D and W. Otherwise different stories bring together the transliteration of the words talitha/tabitha and the Greek verb anistêmi, the apparent death of a girl/woman, and the successful command to rise (“And he gave her his hand and lifted her up,” Acts 9:41, RSV). This correlation between the two passages suggests a correspondence between the stories. The story in Acts strangely echoes Mark’s story. (Aichele, Jesus Framed, 60)
Joel Marcus (b. 1951) further associates:
James 5:15 promises that “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” There is a remarkable closeness here to the overall story in Mark 5:21-43: one sick person is saved (=cured) by faith, and another is raised up. As Gérard Rochais [1939-2011] suggests (Les Récits De Résurrection Des Morts Dans Le Nouveau Testament, 60), Mark’s juxtaposition of these two tales may hint that, on the way to the final “healing” of humanity at the resurrection, people already see the power of death driven back when Jesus heals them of their illness. (Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible), 363)
That the story has echoes of resurrection is not surprising within Mark’s gospel. William E. Reiser (b. 1943) notices:
Easter pervades the story. There are numerous instances in the Gospel where someone figuratively dead is raised back to life. One first thinks of the leper who is healed in the opening chapter [Mark 1:40-45], and then of the demented individual in chapter 5 who made dwelling among the tombs [Mark 5:2-20]. The leper had died to his family and friends (“He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” [Leviticus 13:46]); the crazed man was dead to human contact as such. Both are brought back to life. The daughter of Jairus is another obvious example: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mark 5:41). (Reiser, Jesus in Solidarity with His People: A Theologian Looks at Mark, 78)
Jesus’ enlivening voice summons the girl (Mark 5:41). In doing so, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) raises the little lamb in the most intimate of ways. As Christ calls the little girl to “get up” we somehow feel that he is calling to all who are enslaved, constained and hopeless.

Lamar Williamson, Jr. (b. 1926) preaches:

“Fear not [Mark 5:36],” so characteristic of appearances of God in the Old Testament (e.g. the theophanies in Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 26:24, 46:3), represents here as well the divine intervention to save and to give life. Not even after death is it too late to hope...Readers today are to understand the raising of Jairus’ daughter in light of Jesus’ own resurrection. Beside an open casket or at the moment of our own death we are invited to respond to the words Talitha, cumi not with a historical question about a past event but with a thrill of anticipation. (Williamson, Mark (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 111)
William H. Willimon (b. 1946) personalizes:
I think he [Jesus] may be calling to you. “Get up!” His voice is strong, commanding, vital. “Get up!” You have perhaps heard his comforting, soft voice before, stilling the waves of the storm, bringing peace to troubled waters [Mark 4:39]. Now hear his other voice, that strong, shattering, enlivening voice. Evoking “fear and trembling” (Mark 5:33) in all who heard it that day, it may do the same for us. Life is frightening, when it intrudes into the realm of death. Hear his voice now. I think it is a shout. There is so much death. We are asleep with death so it takes a loud voice to wake us...In this story, we don’t have to wait to Easter for life to intrude and death to be defeated. Get up! he says. In the name of Jesus Christ, the victor over pain and death, enslavement and despair, Get up! (Willimon, “Get Up”, unpublished sermon preached June 29, 1997, at the Duke University Chapel)

Is Mark’s use of Aramaic intended to draw comparisons to magical incantations (Mark 5:41)? What other stories foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection? What reminds you of your future resurrection? When have you been instructed to “get up?” What is Jesus calling you to get up and do?

“It is that life-giving power that is at the heart of this shadowy story about Jairus and the daughter he loved [Mark 5:21-43], and that I believe is at the heart of all our stories— the power of new life, new hope, new being, that whether we know it or not, I think, keeps us coming to places like this year after year in search of it. It is the power to get up even when getting up isn’t all that easy for us anymore and to keep getting up and going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever he is, that all our lives long reaches out to take us by the hand.” - Frederick Buechner (b. 1926), “Jairus’s Daughter”, Secrets in the Dark, p. 278

Monday, July 14, 2014

Letting Go of Deborah (Genesis 35:8)

What was the name of Rebekah’s nurse? Deborah

While residing in Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20), God commands Jacob to return to Bethel and build an altar (Genesis 35:1). The patriarch complies, instructing his entire entourage to purge their idols, purify themselves and change their clothes (Genesis 35:1-3). After burying the idols near Shechem (Genesis 35:4), the caravan journeys to Bethel where Jacob builds the prescribed altar (Genesis 35:5-7).

The text notes that while there, his mother Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, dies (Genesis 35:8).

Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the oak; it was named Allon-bacuth. (Genesis 35:8 NASB)
Elizabeth George (b. 1944) imagines:
Age brought an end to Deborah’s active role of caregiver, and then Jacob’s family cared for her. She loved them, and they loved her...Deborah was buried under “the oak of weeping” [Genesis 35:8] and was lamented with sadness and tears usually reserved for family. (George, Walking with the Women of the Bible: A Devotional Journey Through God’s Word, 67)
Deborah’s death notice is puzzling. Rebekah has not appeared in the book’s last seven chapters (Genesis 27:46) and, though her unnamed nurse has been referenced (Genesis 24:59), Deborah’s name appears in the text only here (Genesis 35:8). She is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture.

Martin Sicker (b. 1931) acknowledges:

It is not at all clear why this statement is included in the text or what its significance is, and for over two millennia commentators have struggled to explain it. Perhaps what is most troubling is its mention by name of Rebekah’s nurse, and the notation regarding her death and burial, at the same time that the text is completely silent with regard to the death and burial of Rebekah. The absence of relevant information in the text has inspired a good amount of speculation and supposition to fill the gap. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167)
The announcement leaves a lot of questions. Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) asks:
The report of Deborah’s death takes the reader by surprise: Why Deborah? And why now? Deborah, has played no visible part in our story; never before mentioned by name, we know of her only from a remark made long ago, when Abraham’s servant came looking for a wife for Isaac: “And they sent away Rebekah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men” (Genesis 24:59, emphasis added). How did she come now to be in Jacob’s party? And why are we told of her death, especially since the death of Rebekah herself will not be reported? We have no confident answers to these perplexing questions. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 502)
Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) surmises:
The brief notice about the death of Deborah [Genesis 35:8], who is not mentioned before or after, gives one the impression that the narrator and his readers once knew more about her. One may not ask what Rebekah’s old nurse, who belonged in Isaac’s house, was doing on Jacob’s wandering. A tradition about Deborah was early connected with a place not far from Bethel. According to Judges 4:5, it may have been one about the prophetess Deborah, but then a different tradition knew of a nurse of Rebekah. Since Jacob has now arrived in the vicinity of Bethel, this brief traditional element has been attached to the narrative. (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 338)
The verse is classified as a death report (Genesis 35:8). Jules Francis Gomes (b. 1966) inspects:
Genesis 35:8 is traditionally attributed to E. The form is that of a “Death Report” followed by the formula reporting the naming of the place in Genesis 35:8b. Structurally, it serves as an introduction to subsequent death reports (Genesis 35:16-19, 28-29). Erhard Blum [b. 1950] demonstrates how the death, burial and place naming for Deborah (Genesis 35:8) and Rachel (Genesis 35:19-20) closely resemble each other. The death reports are interrupted by P (Genesis 35:9-15) with a parallel report on the naming of Bethel. (Gomes, The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity, 88)
Narrative asides such as this are common in Genesis. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) comments:
The very brief “comments” that occur occasionally in Genesis stand in starkest contrast to the expansive legends—for example, when it is stated, very briefly, that Jacob encountered the divine host in Mahaniam (Genesis 32:2-3), and he bought a field in Shechem (Genesis 38:18-20), that Deborah died and was buried near Bethel (Genesis 35:8, 14), that Rachel died near Ephratha when Benjamin was born...(Genesis 35:16ff.), or that Sarah was buried in the cave of Machpelah [Genesis 23:19]...It is certainly no accident that many of these “comments” mention the place where the event occurred, indeed, that it is often the main point of the whole tradition. Consequently, we must see such information as local traditions adapted directly from oral tradition. Such brief local traditions can still be heard in the German countryside and read in legend books (cf. Jacob Grimm [1785-1863] and Wilhelm Grimm [1786-1859], Deutsche Sagen nos. 2, 6, 11, 12, 19, 21, 22, etc. and, e.g., also Karl Bader [1868-1956], Hessische Sagen 1, nos. 8, 10, 11, 17, 19, 20, etc.). Later narrators sometimes constructed whole narratives from such “comments” (cf. Genesis 4:4). (Gunkel [translated by Mark E. Biddle (b. 1957)], Genesis (Mercer Library of Biblical Studies), xlviii)
Some have conjectured that the laconic notice may have been displaced. Claus Westermann (1909-2000) notices:
There follows in Genesis 35:8 an itinerary note, apparently independent of both...Genesis 35:1-7 and Genesis 35:9-12...It would be quite appropriate, however, before Genesis 35:16; in both form and content, Genesis 35:8 and Genesis 35:16-20 belong together. (Westermann, Genesis (Academic Paperback), 244)
Though the aside seems like a non sequitur, George W. Coats (1936-2006) situates:
This little unit [Genesis 35:8] connects with the context on the basis of a catchword organization. The context concerns Bethel. The burial site at the center of this tradition is Bethel. Yet, beyond catchword organization, the unit has no contact with its context. In the redaction of the patriarchal narratives as a whole, it may be taken as an introduction to the section of narratives dealing with death and burial of patriarchal figures and their associates. The following unit (P) interrupts that organization with a parallel to the Bethel tradition in Genesis 28:10-22 and Genesis 35:1-7. But the theme of death and burial or succession returns in Genesis 35:16 (J). It should be noted, however, that this unit has more contact with an Isaac narrative than with Jacob. Deborah has played no role in the narrative frame. There is no connection between her death and the pilgrimage from Shechem to Bethel described in Genesis 35:1-7. Rather, one has the impression that with this verse J shifts the organization of the Jacob tradition from the narrative inclusion to the narratives about the last days and the death of the patriarch and his family. (→ Genesis 35:16-20). (Coats, Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 238)
Deborah’s passing inaugurates a theme in this chapter of Genesis (Genesis 35:8, 19, 29). Bill T. Arnold (b. 1955) observes:
Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, who left Mesopotamia with her mistress to return with Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:59), is mentioned here again here in a passing death and burial notice (Genesis 35:8). She plays no role in the narrative and is named only here. But the record of her death is the first of three in this chapter [Genesis 35:8, 19, 29], which together serve to bring closure to the Jacob narrative generally. (Arnold, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 302)
W. Lee Humphreys (b. 1939) compares:
The narrator tells us that on the journey from Bethel, death once more strikes Jacob’s family. The impact of the death of Deborah seems limited in terms of the narrative space given her [Genesis 35:8]. The second death—of Rachel in childbirth—carried a much greater weight [Genesis 35:16-21]. (Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal, 200)
Abraham Kuruvilla considers:
Rachel’s burial in Bethelem is puzzling [Genesis 35:19]: it was only twenty-odd miles to the family burial site at Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were buried (Genesis 49:31). Indeed, if Jacob himself could have his body, and Joseph his bones, moved 200 miles from Egypt to the same burial site (Genesis 50:1-14; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), one wonders why Rachel’s remains could not have been transported a tenth of that distance to Machpelah. Besides, her burial is described in the exact terms as Deborah’s is, in Genesis 35:8; “And Deborah died...and she was buried,” “And Rachel died, and she was buried” (Genesis 35:19). “But while the sort of al fresco burial these verses depict is appropriate for a character like Deborah, a servant who merely sojourns with Abraham’s family and not a member of the Abrahamic patriline, it seems strikingly out of place for Rachel, whom we would expect to receive instead the interment in Machpelah due an honored wife, as is accorded to Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah.” (Kuruvilla, Genesis: A Theological Commentary for Preachers, 439)
Despite multiple deaths, the overarching tone of the chapter is upbeat (Genesis 35:1-29). Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) characterize:
Deborah...died and was buried under the Oak of Weeping [Genesis 35:8]. Surely, there was mourning but the event also carried the undertone that they were in the land of milk and honey [Exodus 3:8]. (Kessler and Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 179)
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) expounds:
The journey to Bethel is shadowed by multiple reminders of death [Genesis 35:1-8]. The departure has to be protected lest the surrounding cities attack [Genesis 35:5]. There is another reference to fleeing from Esau [Genesis 35:1]. And then, most explicitly, there is sudden death, sudden in the sense that it intrudes, unannounced, in the narrative. It is the death of Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah [Genesis 35:8]. Its intrusiveness in the narrative does not mean that it does not belong there. Rather it illustrates vividly one of the narrative’s key concerns—the shadow of death, and the unpredictability of the way death strikes. Deborah apparently is the kind of person who is scarcely noticed till she dies...Yet, despite the emphasis on death, the journey as a whole is positive. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 342)
Deborah is known only by her death (Genesis 35:8). Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) introduces:
Deborah is the subject of one verb: she “dies” (Genesis 35:8). Deborah is described only by her occupation, but she is never depicted as doing her job. Her importance must lie in something other than her abilities as a nurse. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 207)
Though her name is referenced only at her death (Genesis 35:8), most commentators have determined that Deborah is the anonymous nurse who accompanies Rebekah from Paddan-Aram (Genesis 24:59).

Sarah Shectman (b. 1973) connects:

Very little attention has been paid to this Deborah, Rebekah’s wetnurse, who is mentioned by name only once, in Genesis 35:8, although an anonymous wetnurse of Rebekah is mentioned in Genesis 24:59 as well. The latter verse states that Rebekah takes her nurse with her when she leaves with Abraham’s servant to go to Canaan and marry Isaac [Genesis 24:59]. Interpreters tend to assume that these two wetnurses are the same person, and it is difficult to argue with this assumption. The text is not concerned with the logistics of how the wetnurse got from one place to another and suggests a tradition that this wetnurse stayed with Rebekah’s family for multiple generations. (Shectman, Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis, 103)
Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) concurs:
Deborah is named and described in only one passage, Genesis 35:8. But there is good reason to consider another passage as obliquely referring to her. The first potential reference to Deborah appears when Rebekah is leaving her family to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:59). The text notes that they send off their sister and her nurse, along with Abraham’s servants and his men. The term used for “nurse” is meneqet. The noun used to describe this person comes from the verb yanaq, meaning “to suck,” leading to the translation “wet nurse”...Nowhere is Deborah depicted nursing a child, and it is highly unlikely that Deborah still nurses Rebekah, nor does Rebekah have children. It is not clear why she accompanies Rebekah. The reason to connect this women to the Deborah who dies in Genesis 35:8 is that she is also labeled Rebekah’s “nurse.” The title is used infrequently in the biblical text and its use for both of these women connected with Rebekah strongly supports their identification. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 206-07)
Deborah’s name literally means “bee”. Her name within the family might have been Aunt Bee! While running a hive that includes twin boys, she is likely “busy as a bee”.

This type of name is common among Hebrew women. David W. Cotter provides:

A rule of thumb—women’s names often allude to some aspect of the natural world, e.g., Tamar = “palm tree,” Deborah = “honey bee,” Susanna = “lily.” Men’s names, by contrast, often contain a theophoric element, i.e., some reference to God: Michael = “who is like God?” Isaiah = “YHWH saves,” etc. (Cotter, Genesis (Berit Olam; Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), xxx)
Jeff A. Benner traces the root:
The root word is ‘davar’ and is most frequently translated as a thing or a word. The original picture painted by this word to the Hebrews is the arrangement of things to create order. Speech is an ordered arrangement of words. In the ancient Hebrew mind words are ‘things’ and are just as ‘real’ as food or other ‘things’. When a word is spoken to another it is ‘placed in the ears’ no different than when food is given to another it is ‘placed in the mouth’. The Hebrew name Devorah (Deborah) means ‘bee’ and is the feminine form of the word davar. Bees are a community of insects which live in a perfectly ordered arrangement. The word ‘midvar’ meaning wilderness is actually a place that exists as a perfectly arranged order as its ecosystem is in harmony and balance. (Benner, Ancient Hebrew Word Meanings: Wilderness ~ Midvar)
Deborah is “the help” (Genesis 35:8). She is a described as a “nurse” (ASV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “one who had nursed” (HCSB) or “personal servant” (CEV).

Deborah would likely have been seen as a nanny. Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005), investigates:

Hebrew meneket is really a wet nurse, such as employed for the baby Moses in Exodus 2:7. Rebekah could hardly have been in need of such services. In Mesopotamia the wet nurse, Akkadian mušēniqtum, “the one who suckles,” frequently had the additional duties of tarbītum, bringing up the child and acting as its guardian. In Genesis 35:8 Rebekah’s nurse is identified as Deborah, and her death and burial are recorded. She was obviously an esteemed member of the family. Having attended and reared Rebekah from birth, she must have remained as a member of the household and now accompanies her as a chaperon. Interestingly, Targum Jonathan renders meneket by padgogthah from Greek paidagŏgos, “tutor,” a meaning that echoes the Akkadian tarbītum. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 169)
Martin Sicker (b. 1931) suspects:
With regard to Deborah’s identification as Rebekah’s nurse, the Hebrew term meineket would be better translated as “wet-nurse.” It has been suggested that the term does not refer to the woman who served as wet-nurse to Rebekah, but rather that she was the wet-nurse employed by Rebekah to care for their infant sons Esau and Jacob, which might explain in part why her death was a matter of particular concern to Jacob. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167)
The descriptor “nurse” is rare in the Old Testament. Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) inventories:
The other two “nurses” serve Moses (Exodus 2:7) and Joash (II Kings 11:2; II Chronicles 22:11). There is a reference in Isaiah 49:23 but it is to theoretical future “nurses,” not specific individuals. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 207)
That Rebekah has a nurse has been interpreted as a sign of her family’s wealth (Genesis 24:59, 35:8). Carol Meyers (b. 1942) infers:
Because the mention of wet nurses is so rare in the Hebrew Bible (the only other specific instances are for Moses, where his biological mother is “hired” to be his nurse [Exodus 2:7], and for Joash, a Judean king whose mother was apparently murdered [II Kings 11:2; II Chronicles 22:11]), it may be assumed that most Israelite women nursed their own children. The exceptions may have been elite or royal women. That Rebekah is said to have had a nurse may be a literary embellishment pointing to her prominence among matriarchs. (Meyers, Toni Craven [b. 1944], Ross Shepard Kraemer [b. 1948], “Deborah 1”, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 66)
Given her vocation, Deborah is likely an important witness. Like Eugene Allen (1919-2010), the White House butler who served eight presidents, Deborah has a unique view to multiple generations of history. Her presence at one event may be especially significant.

Tammi J. Schneider (b. 1962) speculates:

Deborah is labeled not a midwife but a west nurse [Genesis 35:8]. The text does not suggest who is with Rebekah when she bears her twin boys [Genesis 25:24-26]. Could it be that Deborah is there when Rebekah bears Esau and Jacob? If so, Deborah is the only person who witnesses which child emerges first. Throughout the text the situation of the primogenitor is an issue and here it is particularly important: the Deity conveys to Rebekah that the older shall serve the younger [Genesis 25:23]...This is a major concern for Rebekah, ensuring that the Deity’s plan comes true. Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, would be the only person who knows which son of Rebekah should receive the promise. (Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, 208)
Deborah has clearly endeared herself to the family, her value far exceeding her vocational position. Michelle Ephraim (b. 1969) chronicles:
The medieval philosopher Nachmanides [1194-1270] understands the nurse Deborah as a surrogate maternal figure who gets sent along in lieu of Rebecca to accompany Jacob as he leaves home. Jacob’s weeping on the occasion of her death [Genesis 35:8], he reasons, should be taken as his mourning of Rebecca, whose death ceremony, for reasons of Jacob’s departure [Genesis 28:5], Esau’s fury [Genesis 27:41], and Isaac’s blindness [Genesis 27:1], could not be properly performed: “[F]or the weeping and anguish could not have been such for the passing of the old nurse that the place would have been named on account of it. Instead, Jacob wept and mourned for his righteous mother who had loved him and sent him to Paddan-Aram and who was not privileged to see him when he returned.” The Midrash explains Jacob’s weeping, similarly, as grief for both Deborah and Rebecca. John Calvin [1509-1564] understands Deborah as “a holy matron...whom the family of Jacob venerated as a mother” whose ceremonial burial is evidence of her status. Andrew Willet [1562-1621] explains that Deborah most likely played the role of Rebecca’s “bringer up and instructor.” (Ephraim, Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage, 63)
Jacob’s respectful burial of this servant is a sign of love. A contemporary literary comparison might be that of Harry Potter’s unnecessary burial of the house-elf, Dobby (J.K. Rowling (b. 1965), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 477-81).

Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) applauds:

Jacob’s tender treatment of this elderly servant is an example for all of us to follow. (Wiersbe, Be Authentic: Exhibiting Real Faith in the Real World (Genesis 25-50), 83)
Deborah’s body is laid to rest beside an oak tree and the site is christened Allon-bacuth (Genesis 35:8). Dianne Bergant (b. 1936) explains:
Planting a tree over a burial site, as Jacob did over Deborah’s grave [Genesis 35:8], was a common practice. It might have developed from an animalistic belief that the souls of the dead could then live in trees. The name of the tree planted here is very fitting for the occasion: בכות אלון (Allon-bacuth; the oak of the weeping). (Bergant, Genesis: In the Beginning, 150)
Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) supports:
The association of Deborah’s internment with the “oak” (’allôn) at Bethel also encouraged the inclusion of this burial in the passage (see “oak [’ēlâ],” at Shechem, Genesis 35:4). Her burial under a tree was not exceptional (cf. “tree” [’ēlâ], I Chronicles 10:12; also I Samuel 31:13), although in the patriarchal period a hewn cave for multiple burials was typical. Burial sites continued to be honored by later generations, providing future descendants a psychology of divinity with the land (Genesis 47:29-30, 49:29-32, 50:25; Exodus 13:19). (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 620-21)
Some have connected this tree with the palm tree from which the judge Deborah operates (Judges 4:5). Jules Francis Gomes (b. 1966) informs:
The connection between the palm of Deborah in Judges and Rebekah’s nurse has been noted by many scholars, “asserting that the latter day Deborah had turned a venerable place of lamentation into a little oracular oasis.” (Gomes, The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity, 121)
Klaas Spronk (b. 1957) explicates:
According to Barnabas Lindars [1923-1991], “the later editor, knowing the place, has decided that it was the right place for Deborah simply because the name was the same. This was not necessarily due to simple-minded confusion, but was the result of an hermeneutical principle, whereby one passage of scripture is elucidated by reference to another. In this case it furnished the location of Deborah, which was not given in the text.’...If Lindars is right in assuming that a later editor used Genesis 35:8 to fill the gap of information left in Judges 4, then why did he not cite it properly? In Genesis 35:8 we hear of Rebecca’s nurse Deborah being buried ‘under the oak below Bethel’ and that this oak received on this occasion the name ‘oak of weeping’ (בכות אלון). Why does the assumed editor not speak in Judges 4:5 of an oak, but instead a palm tree or, to be more precise, of חמר, using an uncommon vocalization? A commonly accepted bridge between these names was constructed by Wolfgang Richter [b. 1926]. He relates both trees to ‘the oak of Tabor’ (חבור אלון) mentioned in I Samuel 10:3, which is also located in the vicinity of Bethel. This would be according to an old suggestion a corruption of דבורה אלון, ‘the oak of Deborah.’ This does not explain, however, the use of the word חמר in stead of the expected אלו. According to Lindars the unusual vocalization might indicate a ‘different tree from the various kinds of might denote any tree.’ Why did the editor not use then, one could ask, the normal word in Hebrew for tree? More to the point seems to be the explanation of this word by Angelo Penna [1917-1981] as polemically vocalized with the vowels of בשת, ‘shame’, indicating that we are dealing here with a pagan cult object. Lindars reports this suggestion, but does not accept it. In my opinion, however, this could very well be a first clue to a better understanding of this verse. (Johannes C. de Moor [b. 1935], “Deborah, a Prophetess: The Meaning and Background of Judges 4:4-5”, The Elusive Prophet: The Prophet as a Historical Person, Literary Character, and Anonymous Artist, 234)
Some interpreters have seen the explanation of this location’s name as the primary reason behind the death report (Genesis 35:8). Robert Alter (b. 1935) remarks:
Allon-bakuth. The name means “oak of weeping.” Beyond the narrative etiology of a place-name, there is not enough evidence to explain what this lonely obituary notice is doing here. (Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 197)
Deborah’s grave site gives Jacob one more stake in the Promised Land, an important prerequisite to the fulfillment of the promises given to his grandfather, Abraham (Genesis 12:2).

John H. Walton (b. 1952) enlightens:

When the family of Jacob arrives at Bethel, Rebekah’s nurse, buried under a tree (Genesis 35:8). There is no suggestion that this land for burial has to be purchased, but its use for a tomb establishes yet another claim and foothold in the land. This continues to be an important submotif in the author’s development of covenant issues. (Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary), 631)
Deborah’s presence here is odd (Genesis 35:8). She is out of place both in the narrative and geographically. Laurence A. Turner concedes:
The most puzzling element in this paragraph is the death notice of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (Genesis 35:8)...Claus Westermann [1909-2000] considers it to be ‘beyond comprehension what Rebekah’s nurse is doing in Jacob’s caravan’ (Westermann 1985:552). Surely she could not have accompanied Jacob to and from Haran. (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 156)
Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) notices:
There is nothing to suggest that she had been in Jacob’s caravan, and by this time she would have been very old, having left Haran some 140 years earlier (compare Genesis 25:20 with Genesis 35:28). Her grave would, however, have been of considerable interest to this family, which had come from the same place in Haran as Jacob’s wives. (Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50 (Bible Speaks Today), 149)
Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) inquires:
The appearance of Deborah as a member of the caravan is odd [Genesis 35:8]. She is the only servant in Genesis whose death is recorded, even though we know nothing about her, except that she left Paddan-arm with Rebekah [Genesis 24:59]. It is strange that the text tells us about Deborah’s death, and yet is silent about the death of her mistress, the matriarch Rebekah. Moreover, how did Deborah find herself in Jacob’s caravan? Did Deborah go with Jacob to Laban’s house over two decades earlier? If so, why is she not mentioned as accompanying him on the journey? If not, when did she join the caravan? (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 294)
John C.L. Gibson (1930-2008) wonders:
Had this old, old woman, who had perhaps dandled him on her knee as a baby, come north to Jacob from Hebron when he had returned to Canaan to tell him of Rebekah’s own earlier death, the mother who, it will be remembered, had expected him back from Mesopotamia in a “few days” (Genesis 27:44 KJV), but had not lived to see it? If so, the note prepares us for a quick descent from triumph to pathos; for hardly has Jacob left Bethel than his beloved Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin [Genesis 35:19].(Gibson, Genesis, Volume 2 (Daily Study Bible), 217-18)
Many have speculated that Deborah’s presence is because she is serving as a messenger. Rashi (1040-1105) records a tradition that Rebekah has sent Deborah to alert Jacob that it is finally safe to return (Genesis 27:45).

Martin Sicker (b. 1931) supposes:

It is suggested that, notwithstanding her obviously advanced age, Deborah was sent by Rebekah to find Jacob and encourage him to return home, fulfilling Rebekah’s promise to him when she sent him away to escape his brother’s anger until it was assuaged, then I will send and fetch thee from thence (Genesis 27:45). According to this reconstruction of events, Deborah encountered Jacob after he left Shechem and reported to him that his mother Rebekah had died, and then succumbed herself. (Sicker, The Ordeals of Isaac and Jacob, 167-68)
More commonly, Deborah is seen as the bearer of the bad news that Rebekah has died. Robert R. Gonzales, Jr. (b. 1963) conjectures:
After Rebekah’s death and on learning that Jacob was on his way, Deborah apparently went to meet Jacob to give him the news. Ironically, she dies sometime shortly afterwards. (Gonzalez, Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives, 236)
The presumption is that if Deborah is not with Rebekah, Rebekah is dead. Rebekah is Deborah’s home. This makes the passage as indirect allusion to Rebekah. In this way, Deborah is doing what she always does: standing in as a surrogate for Rebekah.

Many have seen Deborah’s death notice as an indictment against Rebekah. When last seen, the matriarch assures her reluctant son, Jacob, that if he deceives his brother Esau, as she proposes, that she will incur any resulting curse upon herself (Genesis 27:13). Rebekah assumes the consequences for Jacob’s actions.

Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) understands:

Rebekah stakes her life on her convictions [Genesis 27:13]. Knowing the oracle she has been given that the older will serve the younger [Genesis 25:23], she can dismiss Jacob’s fears. Although her faith pays off and no curse falls on her, she pays a price for her deception. Ominously she disappears...after this scene. The narrator memorializes Deborah, her nurse not Rebekah (Genesis 35:8) and makes no notice of her death (cf. Genesis 23:1-2). At the end of Genesis however, he notes that she was given an honorable burial with the other patriarchs and matriarchs in the cave of Machpelah (see Genesis 49:31). (Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks [b. 1970], Genesis: A Commentary, 378-379)
Deborah’s presence is a reminder of Rebekah’s conspicuous absence. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) scrutinizes:
The last we heard of her [Rebekah] was Genesis 27:46, well over twenty years before this scene. Without exception Genesis tells us about each patriarch’s death and burial (Abraham, Genesis 25:7-11; Isaac, Genesis 35:29; Jacob, Genesis 49:33). Genesis also tells us about the death and burial of each patriarch’s favorite wife (Sarah, Genesis 23:1-20; Rachel, Genesis 35:19). The exception is Rebekah, apart from the summarizing statement in Genesis 49:31. Presumably she died and was buried before Jacob returned from Aram-naharaim, for there is no reference to Jacob being reunited with Rebekah. Rebekah is gone, though survived by her nurse, but only Jacob arrives. He not only does not get to see his mother, but is forced to become undertaker for his late mother’s nurse [Genesis 35:8]. Thus, one of Jacob’s first experiences after coming back home is confronting death. But including the name Rebekah, the author helps his reader recall her character, she who instigated the deception of Isaac [Genesis 27:5-10]. Her punishment (implied at least) is that she will never get to see her son again. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 378)
Laurence A. Turner bolsters:
The effect of her [Deborah’s] death notice in this context is important. The narrator has provided the death notices for Sarah (Genesis 23:1-2), and for Rachel in the next paragraph (Genesis 35:19), but for Rebekah, the death of her nurse is provided [Genesis 35:8]. Perhaps depriving Rebekah of a death notice, but providing one for her nurse, passes silent comment on her role in the story. Others who died were remembered; but Rebekah has died and been forgotten. (Her burial place is mentioned in passing only in Genesis 49:31). She died without ever seeing her son again (cf. Genesis 27:44-45), and appears to have said more than she realizes when she told Jacob, ‘Let your curse be on me, my son’ (Genesis 27:13; see Joyce G. Baldwin [1921-1995] 1986:149). (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 156)
Deborah is a character who is introduced at her funeral (Genesis 35:8). Her life is not documented, only her death. She is known by her obituary.

Her nature can be inferred from the two passages that reference her (Genesis 24:59, 35:8): Having spent so many years in service to Rebekah, she is loyal and faithful. Deborah must have been courageous to both leave her homeland with Rebekah (Genesis 24:59) and then, at some later point, leave another familiar place at an advanced age to reunite with Jacob in Bethel (Genesis 35:8).

Furthermore, the documentation of her death is evidence that Deborah is an important member of Jacob’s household (Genesis 35:8). The patriarch feels very attached to the woman. This sentiment is likely amplified by Deborah representing the last vestiges of his beloved mother, Rebekah.

At her death, Deborah, a character usually behind-the-scenes, takes a rare turn in the spotlight. She is an unsung hero. In a heart warming moment, the Bible documents the care Jacob takes in regards to this caretaker (Genesis 35:8). The loss of someone the world would have viewed as insignificant is felt greatly by Jacob. And his God.

Why is Deborah’s death notice recorded in Scripture (Genesis 35:8)? When have you felt out of place? Who do you overlook; are you familiar with any unsung heroes? Has anyone served as a surrogate parent to you or your children? How do you feel about these people? When has a person’s death been more documented than their life? When have you felt that you met someone after they passed? How would you want your obituary to read?

This period represents a time of transition in Jacob’s life. Deborah is a connection to his past. John Phillips (1927-2010) envisions:

It was a great comfort to Jacob to have her back and, no doubt, a great comfort to his wives as well, for she was a link with Padan-aram. How eagerly Deborah must have asked after Laban and old friends of years gone by. Then, too, she, was a link with Rebekah, a link with him, a link with Jacob’s past, with boyhood days, with life’s early memories. But God was gently severing all those ties and separating Jacob to Himself, so Deborah died and was tenderly buried under a notable terebinth tree, a landmark in those parts now to be called “The oak of weeping” [Genesis 35:8]. It was snapping one more tie that bound Jacob to earthly things. (Phillips, Exploring Genesis: An Expository Commentary, 275)
Burying Deborah marks the end on an era (Genesis 35:8). Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) denotes:
Her [Deborah’s] presence recalls Abraham and Isaac, whose connection with Paddan Aram arose from the servant’ attainment of Rebekah (Genesis 24:59). Deborah then represented the past, and her presence in Jacob’s circle meant that the past is revived in the return of Jacob. Similarly, the death of Rachel in conjunction with Benjamin’s birth also recalls the past in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 35:16-20), which is now only a painful memory for Jacob. The burials of Deborah and Rachel meant the end of the Aramean era. (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 614)
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) agrees:
Now, with the patriarch in Bethel, God began to effect a transition to a new generation with the death of aged Deborah. “And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth [“oak of weeping”] (Genesis 35:8). Deborah’s 180 years bridged the lives of the first two patriarchs, “and her death reminded the people of the era that ended with the return of Jacob to Bethel” (Allen P. Ross [b. 1943]). Change was in the air. (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 421)
In laying Deborah to rest, Jacob is burying his past. This is connected to the burial of his family’s idols four verses earlier (Genesis 35:4). Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) bridges:
Deborah being buried [wattiqqābēr] under the oak tree [’allon] parallels Jacob’s burying (wayyitmōn) the false gods under a terebinth (’ēlâ), earlier in the chapter [Genesis 35:4]. For the gods’ burial the root tāman is used. For Deborah’s burial, the more usual root qābar is used. The opening unit in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 25:19-34) contains, among its emphases, the birth of two people, Esau and Jacob. The concluding unit in the Jacob cycle (Genesis 35:1-22) contains, among its emphases, the death of two people, Deborah [Genesis 35:8] and Rachel [Genesis 35:19]...Jacob’s life after the events at Peniel [Genesis 32:24-32] is filled with hardship: the trauma of facing Esau again [Genesis 33:1-17], the violation of Dinah [Genesis 34:1-31], the death of his late mother’s nurse [Genesis 35:8], the death of Rachel in childbirth [Genesis 35:16-20]. In the remainder of his life he will face more tragic and distressing situations. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 378-79)
Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) joins:
The place of Deborah’s burial, “beneath the oak” (tachath ha’allon), reminds of the burial of the foreign gods and earrings, also “beneath the oak” (tachath ha’elah), at Shechem, during the recent purification, mentioned but a few verses earlier (Genesis 35:4). Deborah, the last remnant of the world of Paddan-aram, the old nurse of his mother who had been sent to watch over her as she left to join the people of God’s covenant, now at last departs; with her burial “beneath the oak” are symbolically laid to rest all traces of Mesopotamian influence. (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, 502)
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) applies: buried under an oak tree, which they called the Oak of Weeping (or Oak of Tears, Genesis 35:4, 8). Her tearful burial, under the tree, forms a precise literary continuity with the burial of the foreign gods under a tree (Genesis 35:4, 8). The apparent suggestion, is that, while tears have their place—they are prominent in the Odyssey—they can also be foreign gods, idols, and it is right at a certain point to bury them, to put them away. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 342)
In this time of transition, Jacob’s puts his past to rest. Some burials, like Deborah’s, are good things that are relinquished with tears (Genesis 35:8). Others, like the false gods, are not (Genesis 35:4). Jacob lets go of both to embrace the future that awaits.

When have you wept over loss? What is your greatest loss? What do you need to let go of in order to move forward?

“Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.”- Daphne Rose Kingma (b. 1942), The Ten Things to Do when Your Life Falls Apart: An Emotional and Spiritual Handbook, p. 74