Bas Krins
Being a Biblically faithful Christian today.

Rachel weeps for the children of Bethlehem


Up to five times in Matthew's birth story we come across the comment that a prophecy has been fulfilled. In this contribution we will discuss one of those references in more detail.
In Matt. 2: 18, in the history of the infanticide in Bethlehem, contains a remarkable reference to a text from Jeremiah 31:15: 'There was a voice in Rama, weeping and lamenting loudly. Rachel wept for her children and would not be comforted, for they are no more.' It is a well-known passage from the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, but if we think a little more carefully it is at least a remarkable quote. What does Rama have to do with Bethlehem? What is the relationship between the weeping inhabitants of Bethlehem and the weeping Rachel? And if we read the rest of Jeremiah 31:15, even more questions arise: 'But this is what the LORD says: Weep no more, dry your tears. Your care for them will now be rewarded, declares the LORD. They return from the enemy's land. Your future will be hopeful, and your children will return to their own land, declares the LORD.” This is clearly a return from exile. Why does Matthew refer to the promised return from exile in the murder of the children in Bethlehem?
To gain more insight into the answer to these questions, we must first ask ourselves how the first hearers and readers understood this text. It is important to note that the Gospel of Matthew is primarily aimed at people with a Jewish background. Matthew tries to convince them that Jesus is really the promised Messiah. When explaining the quotation from Jeremiah in Matthew, we will have to take into account the way in which the text from Jeremiah was read by the Jews.
The pericope in which the quotation appears includes Matt. 2:13-18. This pericope is divided into two parts. The first part tells how Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt after Joseph was warned about Herod in a dream. This part then ends with the quote from Hosea: 'Out of Egypt I called my son'. The second part tells the story of the infanticide in Bethlehem and ends with the quote from Jeremiah: 'There was a voice in Ramah, weeping and lamenting loudly. Rachel wept for her children and would not be comforted, for they are no more."
The first thing that strikes you is the parallel with the Old Testament Joseph. In both cases the father is Jacob (see Mat. 1:16), there are dreams in which God reveals Himself, Joseph goes to Egypt and there is hatred. In the Old Testament Joseph hated his brothers, in the New Testament Joseph hated Herod, who was a descendant of Esau. The second striking parallel is the Exodus from Egypt. Both prior to the Exodus and prior to the flight of Jesus and His parents to Egypt, there is a murder of small children. As we will see in more detail later, there is another striking similarity. Joseph is first in prison before he eventually becomes viceroy. The Exodus was preceded by a period of severe trials. In this way, Matthew wants to place the infanticide in a context.
The text in Jeremiah quoted by Matthew refers to the story of the birth of Benjamin. Rachel had Joseph first. Later she is pregnant again. In Gen. 35 we then read that she had to give birth when Jacob left Bethel and was on his way to Ephrath. It is not entirely clear how far Jacob is from Ephrath. The NBG translates 'one way', the NBV 'two hours'. The meaning of the Hebrew word used here is unclear. Suggested translations are a plow length (400 cubits, about 200 meters) or the distance to the horizon (about 5 km). In any case, it was a relatively short distance. In Gen. 48, where Jacob looks back on this history, Ephrath is equated with Bethlehem. Rachel has a difficult birth and dies. Rachel wants to name the child Ben-Oni (bad luck child), but Jacob calls it Benjamin (lucky child). It is striking that Jacob did not bury Rachel in Machpelah (like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Leah; see Gen. 49: 31), but somewhere near the place where she died.
Jeremiah quotes this story. When he speaks of a voice heard in Ramah, we get the strong impression that Ramah must be a short distance from Rachel's tomb, north of Jerusalem. That is very possible. At first we are inclined to think of Ephrath, which is equated with Bethlehem (Gen. 48:7), as the place where both David and Jesus Christ were born, but that is probably incorrect. The place where David was born is always described as 'Betlehem in Judah', and is located south of Jerusalem. The place where Rachel is buried is located north of Jerusalem in the tribe of Benjamin. This is also evident from the story of Saul looking for the lost donkeys, where there is mention of Rachel's grave in Sheshach (1 Sam. 10: 2). Although we cannot locate this place, the context shows that this place must be in Benjamin's territory or on the border of Benjamin (both translations are possible from Hebrew). Ephrath of Genesis is probably the same place as Perath where Jeremiah had to hide a linen belt in a cleft in the rock (Jer. 13:1-7).
The text in Jeremiah 31 is in the section referred to as the “book of comfort” (Jer. 30 to 33). In the previous chapters it has been repeatedly announced that the people will go into exile. This is the Babylonian captivity of the 2-tribe kingdom. The northern 10-tribe kingdom was taken into exile by the Assyrians more than a century ago. In chapters 28 and 29 we read the first reports about the future return from the Babylonian captivity. Then follows the 'book of consolation' and prophesies of the reckoning with the enemies of God's people, of a return from both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, a reunion of the 10-tribe kingdom and the 2-tribe kingdom, a new covenant , a period of prosperity, a restoration of the empire, etc.
In this box is the text from Jer. 31:15 quoted by Matthew. Rama is not only a place close to Rachel's grave, but also the place where the exiles from the 2-tribe kingdom would be gathered for deportation to Babylon (see Jer. 40:1).
When quoting the Old Testament in the New Testament, it is always important to read the Old Testament text in context. We must realize that the first readers of the Gospel of Matthew knew the Old Testament by heart, and at that time people were much more trained than we are to memorize texts because written texts were expensive and therefore relatively rare. The quote from Jeremiah has certainly been placed in context. And then it is striking that the text from Jeremiah has a striking continuation: 'This is what the LORD says: In Ramah people hear complaining and bitter mourning. Rachel weeps for her sons, she will not be comforted. Her children are no longer there. But this is what the LORD says: Weep no more, dry your tears. Your care for them will now be rewarded, declares the LORD. They return from the enemy's land. Your future will be hopeful, and your children will return to their own land, declares the LORD.”
The text has a cover that reminds us of the cover in Genesis. Rachel wants to name her child Ben-Oni, but Jacob names the child Benjamin. For example, in Jeremiah we hear how the comment that Rachel weeps for her children is followed by the admonition to 'keep your voice from weeping'. The reason for this is that the exiles will return to their homeland. What we should also note is that Rachel is the mother of Joseph (one of the tribes in the 10-tribe kingdom) and Benjamin (one of the tribes in the 2-tribe kingdom). Rama is located in the border area of ​​Benjamin (2-tribe kingdom) and Ephraim (10-tribe kingdom). For example, Rachel weeps on the one hand for the 10-tribe kingdom that has already gone into exile and on the other hand because the 2-tribe kingdom will still go into exile. The remainder of the text in Jeremiah points to the return of the exiles from both exiles and the coming of the Messiah.
In the Old Testament, the return from exile is often linked to the coming of the Messiah. We already read this in the blessing and curse in Deuteronomy (Deut. 30:1) and we later encounter it frequently in the prophets (Isa. 11:11, Jer. 29:14, Jer. 30:3, Ezek. 20 :41, Ezekiel 37:21, Micah 2:12, Micah 5:1, etc.). It would take us too far to go into this in detail now. The reference in Matthew to this text in Jeremiah gives the infanticide in Bethlehem special meaning. Rachel's weeping is followed by an announcement of the return from exile and the coming of the Messiah. In this way, Matthew wants to make it clear that the infanticide is terrible, but will nevertheless be followed by a messianic time of salvation.
In the birth story in Matthew, a text from the Old Testament is quoted five times. The first quote is the text about the virgin who will conceive in Isa. 7:14. This text is found at the beginning of the section known as “the book of Immanuel” (Isa. 7 to 12). The second reference is to the well-known text in Micah 5:1 which prophesies the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. The next verse in Micah, Micah 5:2, refers to Isa. 7:14, creating a striking connection between the first and second references in Matthew. Then in the sequel of Micah we read about the messianic kingdom and about the return from exile of both the 10-tribe kingdom and the 2-tribe kingdom. The third reference in Matthew speaks of the Exodus from Egypt (Hosea 11:1). This Exodus is an image of the return from the Assyrian exile, we read in the sequel of Hosea. Then comes the reference to Jeremiah 31:15 - the subject of this article - and finally there is a reference to Isa. 11:1 when Matthew mentions that Jesus moves to Nazareth. This text from Isaiah - also from the 'book of Immanuel' - also speaks about a messianic time of salvation and the return from both exiles. And also in Isaiah the image of the Exodus is used to describe the return from exile, just like in the text from Hosea. In this case it concerns the return from both exiles, where the reunion of the 10-tribe kingdom and the 2-tribe kingdom is also prophesied. In short, Matthew's reference to the prophecy in Jeremiah fits a pattern: systematically, Matthew wants to indicate that actual Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah are now being fulfilled. In addition, we must note that Matthew repeatedly recalls prophecies that speak of the return from both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, the reunion of the 10-tribe kingdom and the 2-tribe kingdom, and a messianic time of salvation is announced. Prophecies that have largely not yet been literally fulfilled.
The Jews of the first century AD had great difficulty with the fact that the Old Testament speaks of both the conquering Messiah and the suffering Messiah. These two images could not be reconciled. In Rabbinic literature we read that the texts about the suffering Messiah are interpreted in such a way that it is the enemies of Israel who will suffer. Other Jewish texts speak of two “messiahs,” a suffering Messiah and a conquering Messiah. When we read the Gospels we repeatedly see that the Jews indeed had great difficulty understanding that Jesus had to suffer. And we can understand that for the Jews the infanticide in Bethlehem was at odds with the image they had of the messianic kingdom.
Matthew gives an answer to this. By referring to Joseph, who was also a slave before he became king of Egypt. And the Exodus was also preceded by a period of oppression in Egypt. The exile would be followed by a return. Even David, the great king, had to flee from Saul before he became king. In that sense, these are all examples of how suffering precedes glory. As Jesus Christ would later explain to the so-called Emmaus disciples: “Didn't the Messiah have to undergo all that suffering to enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26).
But what about the messianic kingdom? The return from exile? The reunification of the two empires? We cannot ignore the fact that Matthew explicitly refers to prophetic texts that announce this. Almost at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 24) Jesus Christ returns to this. There will be a time of wars, famines, earthquakes, deceptions and persecutions before the Messiah returns. Just as the fulfillment of the prophecies about the suffering Messiah was central to the first coming of the Messiah, so the fulfillment of the prophecies about the conquering Messiah will be central to the Second Coming of the Messiah. The first coming depicts Jesus Christ as a Lamb who was slain, the second coming as a lion from the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5-6).
Matthew wants to indicate that, on the one hand, the Kingdom of God has arrived, but on the other hand, there is still an incomplete fulfillment of all promises. There is still suffering in the world, there is still much that goes against God's will. Even though many try to give the Christmas season the appearance of peace and justice, the reality is that the romantic atmosphere is only an appearance and the reality is often raw. As believers we can also face illness and suffering. Matthew teaches us to face that reality and to realize that on the one hand the Kingdom of God has arrived and that those who believe in Jesus Christ may see something of it, and on the other hand it will be revealed in full glory. So during this period we can look forward to the Second Coming, when all promises will be fully fulfilled, and God will wipe away all tears from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).


Bas Krins