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