What does Genesis 35:17 mean?Jacob's most loved wife, Rachel (Genesis 29:30), has gone into labor. This happens while the large company is traveling south from Bethel toward the region of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Bible describes this as a difficult birth (Genesis 35:16), though we are not told exactly why. It's possible that Rachel went into early labor, possibly due to some unmentioned health issue.
Rachel's labor is difficult and life-threatening. The Hebrew words applied to her situation evoke something "fierce," "harsh," or "severe." A curious detail is that the midwife can identify the baby's sex during—not after—the worst part of this process. This could suggest something like a breech birth, where the baby is delivered feet-first. This timing might also suggest the midwife was performing a Caesarean, or "C-section," where the infant is cut from the mother's womb. Despite popular misunderstanding, this process was not named for the Roman ruler Julius Caesar; it was a last-resort method for thousands of years prior. In the ancient world, a c-section was a last-ditch effort to save the baby of a dying woman, as the "surgery" itself was always fatal.
Lacking more information, we can only speculate as to a medical cause. The only meaningful details preserved are that the process was extremely difficult, and ultimately fatal for Rachel (Genesis 35:18–19).
The midwife delivering the baby attempts to encourage Rachel with the news that she has given birth to a long-awaited second son. The name of Rachel's first son, Joseph, was a prayer for another son (Genesis 30:24). Now that prayer has been answered. It's possible that Rachel has given birth to daughters, as well, though we don't know for sure.