The first Christmas was not a time of holiday celebration. Although there was certainly joy concerning the birth of Jesus, it was also a time of frustration, fear, and danger. First there was the journey to Bethlehem, a long and dangerous trip. Then there was the lack of rooms at the inn. The presentation at the temple was both encouraging, with the confirmation from Simeon, and scary, with Simeon’s warning about a sword piercing Mary’s heart. Finally there was the danger posed by Herod’s homicidal jealousy.
It was at this point that the private story of a woman and her child becomes a very public story.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)
Herod was a ruler who was supposed to be protecting and assisting his people. Yet as often happens he chose to use his power to perpetuate himself rather than provide for his people. It was an old and familiar story. And so when Herod decided to slaughter innocent children to protect his power the faithful knew Herod’s true identity. Herod became both Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh. And God provided an “exodus.”
Matthew appropriates the passage from Jeremiah chapter 31 to provide commentary on this event.
"This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
In Jeremiah’s time he used the reference to Rachel weeping to express the sorrow and sense of helplessness associated with the Babylonian exile in 587. For Israel, this seemed like the end of their world – Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was in shambles and the best and brightest of the people endured forced migration to Babylon. It seemed that the covenant was broken. Many people questioned God’s faithfulness…
In Jeremiah’s time Rachel’s children were not slaughtered, rather they were “missing.” They were carried away from their land and their culture and imprisoned in a country that threatened to destroy their heritage and replace it with a radically different story. There are some fates worse than death.
The reference to Rachel weeping is actually quite interesting… for Rachel died shortly after giving birth to Benjamin, her second child.
Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.” As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. (Genesis 35:16-20)
Rachel desperately wanted children. Sadly it was in giving life to her second child that she lost her own life. She reflects this sorrow by naming her child “Ben-Oni” or “son of my trouble.” Jacob, of course, changes the name to “Benjamin” which means “son of my right hand.” The grieving in this event was not for the children, but for Rachel, the mother.
The event of sorrow that Jeremiah seems to be referring to is the mourning of Jacob concerning the apparent death of Joseph. Notice this passage from Genesis.
Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. (Genesis 37:31-35)
Jacob had lived a life of deception, and now he was on the receiving end of a great deception. His son was alive, just missing. But the grief was real. Jacob was a broken man.
Everyone who has experienced grief, especially the grief that comes from losing children knows what Jacob was going through. Yet it is interesting that when Jeremiah makes use of this old story he does not have Jacob weeping, but Rachel. Is the grief of a mother more powerful than the grief of a father? The image of “Rachel weeping for her children” is extremely powerful and is easily appropriate for new settings with new tragedies.
So the story of Moses is incorporated to become part of the larger “Rachel weeping…” story. The story of the exile gets included. And finally, at least in the biblical record, the Jesus story becomes part of the Rachel weeping story.
Weeping and grief are inevitable responses to violence and cruelty that seem to constantly plague our lives. Whether the story is personal, local, national or international, the loss of children brings comfortless grief. So we are encouraged to weep with those who weep. But our responsibility does not end with weeping.
We are also pushed to get involved with helping… for there must be an end to weeping. Listen to the further words of Jeremiah.
This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.” (Jeremiah 31:16-17)
God promised that Rachel’s missing children would return home! Imagine the joy.
“Your work will be rewarded.” What an interesting phrase. The people were grieving, and that is seldom recognized as work. But they were surely also praying, which itself is a powerful work. I suspect that they were also treating their remaining children with more love and care, which is one of our most important works. They may even have reached out and claimed some children who were missing their parents, for the fortunes of war do not just impact children.
This Christmas you will no doubt treasure and pamper your children. This is as it should be. But please remember that there are too many of “Rachel’s missing children” in the world who also need to be loved and pampered. Jeremiah reminds us of God’s promise, “your work will be rewarded.” So weep and work for those children.