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SBL e-journal

Aaron Demsky





Where Was Rachel Buried?





APA e-journal

Aaron Demsky





Where Was Rachel Buried?








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Where Was Rachel Buried?

Today, Rachel’s tomb lies near Bethlehem, in the territory of Judah, son of Leah. However, reading the description of her burial in Genesis 35:19 and 48:7 together with the references to Rachel’s tomb in the story of Saul’s anointing (1 Samuel 10:2) and Jeremiah's prophecy of consolation (Jeremiah 31:14) directs us further north, to the territory of her son Benjamin.


Where Was Rachel Buried?

The death of Rachel after the birth of Benjamin, by Gustav Ferdinand Metz c. 1847. Wikimedia

Leaving Bethel, Jacob, his wives, and children proceed southward, presumably on the Patriarch’s Road along the watershed, todays Route 60. On this leg of the journey, Rachel goes into hard labor and gives birth to Benjamin:

בראשית לה:טז וַיִּסְעוּ מִבֵּית אֵל וַיְהִי עוֹד כִּבְרַת הָאָרֶץ לָבוֹא אֶפְרָתָה וַתֵּלֶד רָחֵל וַתְּקַשׁ בְּלִדְתָּהּ...
Gen 35:16 They set out from Bethel; but when they were a kivrah of the land on the way to Ephrat, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor…

Rachel dies shortly thereafter, and Jacob buries her by the road, marking the spot with a pillar:

בראשית לה:יט וַתָּמָת רָחֵל וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם. לה:כ וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה עַל קְבֻרָתָהּ הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת רָחֵל עַד הַיּוֹם.
Gen 35:19 Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrat—this is Bethlehem. 35:20 Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day.

The same geographical description appears in Jacob’s deathbed speech to Joseph when he relates Rachel’s death:

בראשית מח:ז וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם.
Gen 48:7 When I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when a kivrah of the land, on the way to Ephrat; and I buried her there on the way of Ephrat this is Bethlehem.

Given the location of the modern-day structure known as Rachel’s Tomb, we read these verses and assume they are saying that Rachel is buried in the northern entrance to Bethlehem in Judah. The earliest documented evidence of such a structure is post-biblical (see discussion below). However, an analysis of the verses themselves, and comparison with other biblical texts, point to a location further north, in the territory of Benjamin—the son born in the story.

A Kivrah of Land

Both texts in Genesis use the obscure phrase, כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ “kivrah of the land.”

Toponym—The Septuagint (LXX), followed by the Old Latin (Vetus Latina) treats the term as if it were a toponym (Χαβραθα, Chabratha). This is not really possible in context, however, because the phrase is clearly a feminine noun in the construct state, “a kivrah of the land” not “the Land of Kivrah.” Most likely the Greek translator didn’t know the meaning of the term and left it untranslated.[1]

Approaching—Targum Neofiti translates the phrase עללתה דארעא “approaching the land,” or “entrance of the land,” making the term essentially a double for לבוא “on the way to.” This would make the description unusually cumbersome “approaching/entering the land on the way to Ephrat.”

Metathesis: Plowed Land—Targum Onkelos translates the term כרוב, Aramaic for “plowing,” as if the Hebrew were a metathesized version of the Aramaic word, i.e., כרב (k.r.b) becomes כבר (k.b.r).[2] One way to understand this is that Jacob was near the town’s cultivated land, i.e., not far away at all.[3] Alternately, the initial preposition could be temporal, “when the land was being plowed,” telling the reader the time of year.

Metathesis: First Fruits—A similar approach is taken by the Fragmentary Targum (MSS Z and D) on Genesis 48:7, which sees כברה as a metathesis for בכרה, translating the phrase as באָשון בוכרת פירי “at the time of the first fruits.” Perhaps this is the understanding in the Latin Vulgate as well, which translates verno tempore “springtime.”

While metathesis is a real phenomenon, these translations are forced, out of context, and difficult to accept.

A Measure of Distance

The most likely understanding is that a kivrah is a term of measurement, either temporal, i.e., a length of travel time,[4] or spatial, a distance of travel.

Long Distance—The 10th century Spanish grammarian, Menachem ben Saruk, understood the word as a cognate of Aramaic kabir (כביר) “great”—and also Arabic kebir (كبير)—and thus, as expressing a long distance, a meaning accepted by other commentators, like Ibn Ezra (second commentary) Targum Pseudo-Jonathan also understands it this way, and translates סוגעי “a lot,” or “much.”[5] Similarly, Rashbam says it was a long distance, adding

לשון הרבה. ולפי {שהיה}[6] ריבוי ארץ עד אפרת נקברה בדרך.
Meaning “much.” Since {there was} a lot of ground to cover before Ephrat, she was buried on the road.

Nevertheless, the usage of the term in Kings—its only other appearance in the Bible—suggests the opposite impression, that it is a short distance.

Gehazi’s Short Run

After meeting with Elisha, the Aramean general Naaman leaves.

מלכים ב ה:יט ...וַיֵּלֶךְ מֵאִתּוֹ כִּבְרַת אָרֶץ.
2 Kgs 5:19 …and he went from him a kivrah of the land.

Immediately after, Elisha’s servant Gehazi decides to run after him, and soon catches up. Using this passage, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzato, 1800–1865) interprets kivrah in Genesis as a short distance:

כברת הארץ – מדת קרקע בלתי ידועה, אבל ממה שכתוב בנעמן וילך מאתו כברת ארץ (מלכים ב ה:יט) נראה ברור שהיא מדה קטנה, מיל וכיוצא בו, כי מן הסתם לא אֵחַר גחזי לחשוב מחשבתו.
“A kivrah of land”—this is an unknown measurement of space. However, from what was written regarding Naaman (2 Kgs 5:19), “and he went from him a kivrah of land,” it seems clear that it is a small measurement, a mil (about 2/3 of a mile) or something like that, for it makes sense that Gehazi would not have waited long to put his plan into action.

The Syriac Peshita translation suggests פרסחא דארעא (ܦܪܣܚܐ ܕܐܪܥܐ) “a parasang of land,” using a Persian measurement of distance equivalent to about about 4 Roman miles (=3.7 miles, or 6 km).[7] Rashi too compares it to a parasang. Many traditional commentators, at least in their glosses on the story in Kings, also understand it as a short length,[8] as does Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai (1886–1973) in his gloss.[9]

An Akkadian Term

In 1911, the noted Assyriologist Benno Landsberger (1890–1968) argued that the term כברת הארץ reflects the Akkadian kima bēru, understanding the first letter as a preposition, כ-ברת “[a distance of] something like a bēru of land.”[10] The solution was especially attractive since it also explained the strange reference to the land that immediately follows this phrase. As Mesopotamians used the same term bēru in astronomical calculations, in which the bēru was very large, they would clarify when they were using the term for a ground calculation by modifying it: ber qaqqari, “a bēru of land,” which is exactly what we have here.[11]

I concur with the approach that the kivrah is likely a very short distance, no more than 3 kilometers. The question remains: is Rachel’s death and roadside burial meant to have taken place a short distance from the point of departure at Bethel or from the destination at Bethlehem?


Before we go further, we must clarify the relationship between Bethlehem and Ephrat. The text states that Rachel is buried בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם “on the way to Ephrat, this is Bethlehem.” This has been understood to mean a kivrah of distance on the Road to Ephrat, that is Bethlehem.

The toponyms Ephrat (or Ephratah) and Bethlehem are often associated with each other in the Bible, sometimes in complementary stichs,[12] and thus, the common assumption is that Ephrat/Bethlehem is another case of a place with multiple names, like Kiryat-Arba/Hebron, Kiryat-Sefer/Debir, Luz/Bethel, or Layish/Dan, with one representing an earlier (Canaanite) name and the other its later Israelite name.

Ephrat, however, is not coterminous with Bethlehem; instead, it represents something larger, of which Bethlehem is a part. For instance, when David is introduced, we read:

שמואל א יז:יב וְדָוִד בֶּן אִישׁ אֶפְרָתִי הַזֶּה מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה וּשְׁמוֹ יִשַׁי...
1 Sam 17:12 David was the son of a certain Ephratite of Bethlehem in Judah whose name was Jesse…

Given that the verse needs to explain that this Ephratite was from Bethlehem, as opposed to some other city,[13] Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki 1040–1105) correctly deduces that Ephrat must be a larger area:

אפרתי – בית לחם יושבת בארץ אפרת.
“Ephratite”—Bethlehem is situated in the territory of Ephrat.[14]

I would further suggest that Ephrat is actually a matriarchal clan name, as we can see in the genealogies of Judah in 1 Chronicles, chapters 2 and 4:

דברי הימים א ב:יט וַתָּמָת עֲזוּבָה וַיִּקַּח לוֹ כָלֵב אֶת אֶפְרָת וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת חוּר.
1 Chron 2:19 When Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath, who bore him Hur.
דברי הימים א ד:ד ... אֵלֶּה בְנֵי חוּר בְּכוֹר אֶפְרָתָה אֲבִי בֵּית לָחֶם.
1 Chron 4:4 … These were the sons of Hur, the first-born of Ephrathah, the father of Bethlehem.[15]

The land occupied by this extended matriarchal clan was in the north of Judah’s territory, from Kiryat-Yearim south to Tel-Gedor (modern day Beit Ummar), west to Zorah and Eshtaol and east to Tekoa.[16] Inside this rather large swath of territory sat the city of Bethlehem, on the main longitudinal road (more or less equivalent to today’s Route 60). Thus, the phrase means on the road to Ephrat, that is, the one which heads towards Bethlehem.

The Road to Ephrat

The idea that Rachel dies near Ephrat (or Bethlehem), just before they got there, is based on a misunderstanding of the phase דרך “the road to” or לבוא “the way of/approaching.”[17] In the Bible, and in general, a road is named after the destination, so it is called “the way of Ephrat” because that is where they were going, but it does not mean they were anywhere near there. Thus, I would translate the phrase here: “while having travelled (only) a short distance on the way to Ephrat.”

Rachel Dies Soon After They Start Traveling

Putting this all together, Rachel dies when they were only a short distance south of Bethel, their point of departure. Locating Rachel’s tomb in Benjamin as opposed to Judah makes much more sense. Rachel is not the mother of Judah—that is Leah—but she is the mother of Benjamin. Moreover, the story is about the birth of Benjamin, and ends with an etiology for a pillar ostensibly to be found in that territory.[18]

North of Migdal-Eder

After Rachel dies, Jacob next stops in Migdal-Eder (Gen 35:21)—before finally heading all the way south to Hebron (Gen 35:27)—thus, we can deduce that Rachel is buried south of Bethel but north of Migdal-Eder.

While no firm identification exists for Migdal-Eder, the list of cities taken in the campaign of Pharoah Shishak (Sheshonq) I (943–922 B.C.E.) includes a Migdal (#58) situated geographically between Gibeon and Zemaraim (#57), not far from Bethel (2 Chron 13:4), along the border of Ephraim and Benjamin. Moreover, the list of Benjamin’s descendants in 1 Chronicles 8:14 mentions an Eder son of Beriah. Thus Migdal-Eder can be translated as “Tower of the (Benjaminite) Eder Clan.” If Jacob is north of Migdal-Eder when Rachel dies, then she must have been buried in Benjaminite territory.[19]

The Tomb of Rachel in Zelzah (1 Samuel 9–10)

The second biblical source for Rachel’s tomb, this time explicitly giving a Benjamite location, is found in the story of Samuel’s anointing of Saul. Young Saul enters an unnamed town in the land of Zuph—probably Ramah/Ramatayim-Zophim, the hometown of the Ephraimite Samuel the prophet (1 Sam 1:1) - to ask Samuel where his father’s jennies have wandered. Unbeknownst to Saul, God has told Samuel to anoint him king.

Samuel gives him three signs that he will experience on his way home that will corroborate his election. The first sign will be his encountering two men—at Rachel’s Tomb—who will inform him that the jennies have been found:

שמואל א י:ב בְּלֶכְתְּךָ הַיּוֹם מֵעִמָּדִי וּמָצָאתָ שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִם קְבֻרַת רָחֵל בִּגְבוּל בִּנְיָמִן בְּצֶלְצַח וְאָמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ נִמְצְאוּ הָאֲתֹנוֹת אֲשֶׁר הָלַכְתָּ לְבַקֵּשׁ...
1 Sam 10:2 When you leave me today, you will meet two men near the tomb of Rachel in the territory of (or “inside the borders of”) Benjamin, at Zelzah, and they will tell you that the jennies you set out to look for have been found…

While the town of Zelzah has not been identified, Samuel’s description of it as being in Benjaminite territory is clear.[20] As Saul is on his way home,[21] the town is somewhere between Samuel’s village and Saul’s home.

Saul’s Hometown—The most frequent understanding is that Saul is from Ha-Gibeah (Gibeat Shaul), identified as Tel el-Ful, which became his capital. However, based on Chronicles (1 Chron 8:29–34; 9:35–40), his hometown appears to have been Gibeon (el-Jib).[22] This is where the great Bamah was located corresponding to the last sign where Saul prophesied along with the cultic instrumentalists and where neighbors and family members recognized him (1 Sam 10:10-16).

Samuel’s Home—There are two possible locations for Ramah (Ramatayim-Zofim):

  1. The village of er-Ram in Benjamin (1 Kgs 15:17ff)
  2. In the vicinity of present-day Ramallah in the southern hills of Ephraim in the territory of the Zuph clan (1 Sam 1:1; 9:5).

The toponym Ramallah seems to be a hybrid of Hebrew Ram (echoing the ancient name Ramah), which preserves the initial syllable of the biblical place name, plus the Arabic Allah, “God,” “the Heights of God.” Specifically, I suggest the Iron Age I Khirbet Radannah (1695/1468), on the northern perimeter of modern-day Ramallah,[23] south of Bethel.

Samuel’s Circuit

The verse describing the geographic area/itinerary covered by Samuel’s circular prophetic mission supports the latter identification:

שמואל א ז:טז וְהָלַךְ מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְּשָׁנָה וְסָבַב בֵּית אֵל וְהַגִּלְגָּל וְהַמִּצְפָּה וְשָׁפַט אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵת כָּל הַמְּקוֹמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה. ז:יז וּתְשֻׁבָתוֹ הָרָמָתָה כִּי שָׁם בֵּיתוֹ...
1 Sam 7:16 Each year he made the rounds of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judged over Israel at all those places. 7:17 Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there…

The term ס.ב.ב “rounds” implies that Samuel travels a somewhat circular clockwise route, from Bethel, southeast to Gilgal,[24] southwest to Mizpeh/Mizpah (Tel en-Nasbeh), and finally home, to Ramah, whence he would begin again by travelling to Bethel.

If Ramah is identified with er-Ram, Samuel would have to first bypass Ramah to go to Mizpeh, and then head back south to Ramah. Then, when starting the circuit again, he would bypass Mizpeh and head straight for Bethel. This is a difficult route.[25] If, however, Ramah is identified with Khirbet Radannah, as I propose, then the circuit works well, since this site is located north of Mizpeh but southwest of Bethel. Moreover, Samuel is an Ephraimite, so it is more likely that his home, Ramatayim-Zophim, would be in Ephraim, not deep in Benjaminite territory.

Rachel Crying in Ramah

The third biblical source where Rachel’s tomb—or in this case where the deceased Rachel's voice is heard—appears is in Jeremiah’s prophecy of consolation about the exile of the Judeans:

ירמיה לא:יד[*טו] כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.
Jer 31:14[*15] Thus said YHWH: “A voice be-ramah is heard—wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.”

Commentators have long debated the meaning of “a voice be-ramah,” with some suggesting that this last word is a common noun or adverb, and others that it is a toponym. Suggestions include:

On High—Targum Jonathan translates קָלָא בְרוּם עַלְמָא “a voice at the heights of the world,” i.e., her voice is heard in the heavens. This is also how the phrase is translated in the Latin Vulgate, vox in excelso “a voice on high,” and is how the traditional commentators Rashi and R. David Altschuler (Metzudat David/Metzudat Zion, 18th cent.) understand the phrase.[26] The Syriac Peshita offers a variation on this interpretation, קלא ברמתא (ܩܠܐ݁ ܒܪܡܬܐ) “a voice on a high place/hill.”

Loud Voice—Alternatively, Rabbi Joseph Kara (11th cent.) suggests it means בקול רם “with a loud voice.”

Toponym—Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) and Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809–1879) both suggest that the term refers to the town of Ramah, where Samuel hails from. This is how the Greek LXX (ἐν Ραμα) and the Old Latin (in Rhama) understand the phrase as well.

The Masoretic pointing of the text, with an initial sheva instead of a qamatz—the latter would mean that the definite article הָ “the” is hidden in the bet—shows that the Masoretes did not understand the word as the town Ramah, which is always written with definite article.[27] This is likely because placing Rachel in Ramah contradicted the general assumption that Rachel’s tomb is located near Bethlehem.

Nevertheless, as both the story about Saul’s anointment places her tomb in Benjamin, and the simple reading of Genesis, as I have argued, also implies she is buried in Benjamin, this verse can be seen as yet another piece of evidence that, in biblical times, Rachel’s tomb was located in the territory of Benjamin perhaps close to the border with Ephraim.[28]

Jeremiah’s Exile

The identification of Ramah in Ephraim at Khirbet Radannah is further supported by the story in which Jeremiah finds himself among the exiled in a certain Ramah after the Babylonian conquest of Judah:

ירמיה מ:א הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר הָיָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ מֵאֵת יְהוָה אַחַר שַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים מִן הָרָמָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֹתוֹ וְהוּא אָסוּר בָּאזִקִּים בְּתוֹךְ כָּל גָּלוּת יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם וִיהוּדָה הַמֻּגְלִים בָּבֶלָה.
Jer 40:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH, after Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, set him free at Ramah, to which he had taken him, chained in fetters, among those from Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled to Babylon.

After the fall of the Kingdom of Judah, the exiled citizens were held captive in Ramah. Jeremiah is given the choice to either accompany them to Babylonia or remain in Judah with the new governor, Gedaliah ben Ahikam in Mizpeh:

ירמיה מ:ה ...וְשֻׁבָה אֶל גְּדַלְיָה בֶן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בְּעָרֵי יְהוּדָה וְשֵׁב אִתּוֹ בְּתוֹךְ הָעָם... מ:ו וַיָּבֹא יִרְמְיָהוּ אֶל גְּדַלְיָה בֶן אֲחִיקָם הַמִּצְפָּתָה וַיֵּשֶׁב אִתּוֹ בְּתוֹךְ הָעָם הַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּאָרֶץ.
Jer 40:5Or return to Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon has put in charge of the towns of Judah, and stay with him among the people, or go wherever you want to go.” 40:6 So Jeremiah came to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah and stayed with him among the people who were left in the land.

In contrast, if er-Ram was intended, then the Babylonians after establishing their center in Mizpeh where they install the new governor marched the prisoners back south to Ramah (er-Ram)—the opposite direction of the road to Babylon. This is not impossible, but it makes little geographic sense, and works less smoothly with the overall context.

It makes more sense that the captives are at a holding camp at Ramah/ Kh, Radannah, during which time, Jeremiah is let go, and he is allowed to return south to Mitzpeh. Indeed, the term ש.ו.ב “return” implies that Jeremiah—and the Judean prisoners in general—have begun the march out of Judah (=north), but that he is being allowed to return (=south).

This episode is likely the Sitz im Leben, i.e., the historical context or setting, of Jeremiah’s prophecy recalling Rachel’s voice heard in Ramah weeping for her children going into exile.

So Where Is Rachel Buried?

In the modern period, the discussion continues with some still maintaining the traditional site north of Bethlehem while others have advanced several suggestions for locating the tomb in the territory of Benjamin.

Qubur Bani Isra'il—The French archaeologist Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau (1846–1923),[29] followed by many other scholars, identified Rachel’s tomb with the five Middle Bronze age structures located north of Hizma (biblical עזמות) and south of Jaba (biblical גבע), near Wadi Fara.[30] These scholars connect this wadi with biblical הַפָּרָה (Ha-Parah, Josh 18:23) and פְּרָת (Perat, Jer 13:4–7), both in the Benjamin region, and suggest that the Ephrat of Genesis is a variation on this toponym.

The attraction to this spot, of course, is the connection between what is clearly a physical monument of some kind—though much earlier than the biblical period—and the burial tradition. Indeed, it probably was the Arab tradition that brought this site to mind in connection with Rachel, for it is called Qubur Bani Isra'il (“The Tombs of the Israelite Tribes”). Nevertheless, the spot is not on the main road from Bethel to Judah, but off to the east, closer to the desert. Thus, this identification is problematic.

Sheikh Abd al-Aziz—Conrad Schick (1822–1901) located it at Sheikh Abd al-Aziz (now Mount Ahiram in Mevaseret Zion), where local Muslim tradition associated an old mosque with Qubat Rachil (Rachel’s Tomb), but this is not an Iron Age site.[31]

Kiryat-Yearim—Matitiahu Tsevat (1913–2010) located the tomb in Kiryat-Yearim based on the parallelism of Sede Yaar and Ephrat in Psalm 132:6. Like Ruth 4:11, it parallels the local site with the larger territory (1 Chron 2:50).[32] The psalm refers to the location of the Ark and has nothing to do with Rachel’s tomb. Furthermore, Kiryat Yearim is way off the main highway, certainly not a stopover between Bethel and Bethlehem.

Khan village of er-Ram—Several scholars identify Ramah of Jeremiah 31 with er-Ram in the middle of Benjamin, and thus assume that Rachel’s tomb should be located at the khan (a caravanserai or roadside inn) in this vicinity.[33] However, as discussed above, this Ramah, is too far south of the Ephraimite border to be the hometown of Samuel’s family.

Rachel’s Burial Place South of Khirbet Radanna, Biblical Ramatayim-Zofim

The three textual sources about Rachel’s tomb give us several clues as to its proximate location. It is:

  • In the territory of Benjamite or close to its shared border with Ephraim;
  • Near a place called Ramah/Ramatayim-Zofim;[34]
  • A short distance south of Bethel but north of Mizpeh;
  • On the road from Bethel to Bethlehem.[35]

Taking all these factors into consideration, especially identifying Ramatayim-Zophim with Khirbet Radanna on the southern tip of Ephraim, bordering on Benjamin, I propose that Rachel’s tomb straddles the border between her sons, Joseph (=Ephraim) and Benjamin.[36] This would parallel the location of Joseph’s tomb in Shechem, a city shared by the two Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (1 Chron 7:29).


How Rachel’s Tomb Ended Up in Bethlehem

In modern times, Rachel’s tomb refers to a structure near Bethlehem. This structure was first built in late antiquity and was renovated and expanded over the generations.[37]

Early Christian Sources

The belief that Rachel’s tomb should be located near Bethlehem has its earlier appearance in Matthew 2:16, which connects Rachel’s cry in Jeremiah to the story of how Herod killed children in Bethlehem when searching out baby Jesus:

Matt 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 2:17 Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

In his Onomasticon, the 4th century C.E. Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea also places Rachel’s tomb near Bethlehem:

“Ephratha”—The country of Bethlehem, the city of David, in which Christ was born. Tribe of Benjamin. Right beside the road is where Rachel is buried, 4 milestones from Jerusalem, in what is called the Hippodrome. The tomb is still shown until today. The father(!) of Bethlehem was called Ephratha, as in Chronicles.[38]

Indeed, in the Itinerarium Burdigalense, an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux notes that, in his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 333 C.E., he visited Rachel’s Tomb:

§598.5 From Jerusalem as you go to Bethlehem, four miles above the road on the right-hand side is the tomb where Rachel, wife of Jacob, is buried.[39]

This is also where it appears on the 6th cent. C.E. Madaba Map bringing Ramah close to Bethlehem.[40]

Rabbinic Sources

Rabbinic tradition, in contrast, seemed to be of two minds about the location. For example, in Sifrei Deuteronomy (§352), Rabbi Judah argues that she is buried in the territory of Judah, whereas Rabbi Meir argues that בחלקו של בנימין בנה מתה “she died in the territory of her son Benjamin.” Yaakov Sekili’s Yalkut Talmud Torah, a 14th century collection of ostensibly much older midrash, similarly states that אפרת היא רמה “Ephrat is Ramah.”[41]

In contrast, when analyzing the verse in which Samuel refers to Rachel’s Tomb near Zelzah in Benjamin, the Tosefta asks:

תוספתא סוטה יא:יא וכי היכן מצינו שנקברה רחל בגבול בנימין והלא בגבול יהודה נקברה שנ' ותמת רחל ותקבר בדרך אפרת היא בית לחם
t. Sotah 11:11 Where do we see that Rachel was buried in Benjaminite territory? Wasn’t she buried in Judahite territory, as it says (Gen 35:19): “and Rachel died and she was buried on the way to Ephrat, this is Bethlehem.”[42]

While this debate seems to have been live in the Tannaitic period, by the time of the Amoraic period, when some sort of marking was already placed on the purported spot of Rachel’s Tomb, Jews also began to take the southern spot near Bethlehem as the traditional site.

The Tomb in Bethlehem Makes Nahmanides Change His Mind

The clearest example of the power this structure had to define tradition can be seen in the commentary of Nahmanides (ca. 1194–1270). In the earlier version of his commentary, written when he still lived in Barcelona, Nahmanides adopted the understanding of כברת הארץ suggested by Radak, that it meant the length of time from waking until breakfast, apparently a few hours. This allowed him to envision a burial spot farther north, in the region of Benjamin.

Towards the end of his life, following the dispute in Barcelona,[43] Nahmanides fled to the Holyland in 1267 and then saw the building we now recognize as Rachel’s Tomb; this changed his mind:

זה כתבתי תחלה, ועכשיו שזכיתי ובאתי אני לירושלם, שבח לאל הטוב והמיטיב, ראיתי בעיני שאין ממצבת רחל לבית לחם אפילו מיל, והנה הוכחש הפירוש הזה, גם דברי מנחם. אבל הוא שם מדה בארץ כדברי רבינו שלמה...
This is what I wrote originally, but now that I have merited to come to Jerusalem—praise be to God who is good and does good —I have seen with my own eyes that Rachel’s Tomb is barely a mil from Bethlehem, which contradicts this interpretation, as well as that of Menachem (who said it was a long measurement). Instead, Rabbi Solomon (=Rashi) is correct, that it refers to a [small] measurement of land…

Nahmanides then takes the next logical step, and argues that there is no such burial place in Benjamin, despite the biblical reference to it:

וכן ראיתי שאין הקבורה ברמה, ולא קרוב לה. אבל הרמה אשר לבנימ[י]ן רחוק ממנה כארבע פרסאות, והרמה אשר בהר אפרים (שמואל א א:א) רחוקה ממנה יותר משני ימים.
I have also seen that there is no such burial site in Ramah, or anywhere near it, since Benjaminite Ramah is about four parasangs (20+ kms) away, and Ephraimite Ramah is something like two days travel away.[44]

Nahmanides, therefore, reinterprets the passage in Jeremiah to read that Rachel cries so loud that her wailing can be heard all the way up north in Ramah.[45]

In his lengthy comment, I discern that Nahmanides continued to deliberate regarding the place of Rachel’s burial. He knew of the two Ramahs, one in the territory of Benjamin and the other in Ephraim. He might have visited them as well, noting their approximate distance from Bethlehem and that they were in ruins. We can certainly identify with his dilemma in weighing the evidence, which on the one hand was based on a close reading of the biblical sources in light of his knowledge of local geography and on the other hand, his visit to the monument consecrated in Rachel’s memory by generations of devout Jewish pilgrims.


January 4, 2023


Last Updated

December 31, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.