Rachel weeping for her children.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December

Jeremiah 31.15-17.

A pet peeve of mine is by Noël Regney and Shayne Baker’s historically inaccurate Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” In it, when Jesus gets born, a night wind tells a little lamb of the nativity. The lamb tells a shepherd boy, who then tells a mighty king, who then tells the people everywhere. In real life, the mighty king responded a bit more like this:

Said the king to the soldiers at his gate:
“Massacre the toddlers!
Everyone below two years old:
Massacre the toddlers!
Slay all, slay all, leave my rivals dead
Put your spears through this child's head
Put your spears through this child's head

Not at all heartwarming, but that’s Herod bar Antipater for ya.

Matthew 2.16-18 KWL
16 Then Herod, seeing he was made a fool of by the Zoroastrians, was enraged.
Sending agents, he destroyed all the children in Bethlehem and the whole area around it,
from two years old and under, according to the time he exacted from the Zoroastrians.
17 Thus was the word of the prophet Jeremiah fulfilled, saying,
18 “A voice was heard in Ramáh: Weeping and great lament.
‘Rachel’ weeps for her children and doesn’t want comfort: They’re gone.” Jr 31.15

We don‘t find this massacre recorded anywhere but in Matthew, but Herod committed much greater atrocities, so the other histories focus more on those. In any event the bit I wish to zero in on today would be how Jesus fulfills Jeremiah’s word about “Rachel’ weeping for her children.

Christians incorrectly presume Jeremiah was prophesying about Jesus. Nope; not even close. It’s not what fulfillment means either: Matthew didn’t mean Jeremiah’s prophecy had come to pass by Herod slaughtering the children. Only that Jeremiah’s words describing a previous historical event, likewise describe this historical event. Arguably describe it better than they did the previous event. History repeated itself.

To the ancients, history repeating itself was a sign of order instead of chaos. A hint God is in control of history. Which is why Matthew and the other apostles fished through the Old Testament for examples of how Jesus’s situation was just like other situations in the bible. Coincidence? They thought not.

I know: Certain Christians are really fond of the idea Jeremiah foretold Jesus. And he did! But not with this passage. This passage is about Nabú-kudúrri-usúr 2 (KJV “Nebuchadnezzar”) demolishing Ramáh, a town in a whole other tribe.

The context.

Ramáh is one of the ancient cities Joshua conquered, then allotted to the tribe of Benjamin. Js 18.21-28 The territory of Benjamin is right next to Judah’s territory. Together with Simeon’s territory, these three tribes make up “the kingdom of Judah,” 2Ch 11.17 or Judea. There’s more than one city called Ramáh in the bible, but the others were located in northern Israel, and the Assyrians had overthrown them a few centuries before Jeremiah’s day.

In Jeremiah’s day, the Babylonians came to overthrow Judea. The LORD had appointed Jeremiah to be his prophet, and prophesy to the Judeans that the nations of the north were coming to conquer Jerusalem because the Jerusalemites had abandoned God. Jr 1.13-16 This role didn’t make Jeremiah at all popular. He put up with a lot of crap for being the only prophet who wasn’t saying, “No, don’t worry about them; God will get us out of this like he has all the other times!” They called him traitor; even the Babylonians thought he was on their side. But he was the only prophet who listened to God instead of listening to his gut, who declared something other than his own wishful thinking. That’s why we kept his book.

But even though the LORD had Jeremiah foretell the destruction and deportation of the Judeans, God wasn’t happy about any of this stuff. He was only following through with what he told Moses and the Hebrews: They can have the land if they follow God. If they don’t follow God, others get the land. Others will rule over them—whether they be the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Abbasids, Umayyads, Crusaders, Ottomans/Turks, or British. But that doesn’t have to be the case… if they’d only repent.

Jeremiah’s prophecy came after Nabú-kudúrri-usúr invaded the land, demolished Ramáh, and deported its inhabitants. The LORD’s message to Benjamin wasn’t to gloat, nor add insult to injury—“See, that’s what you get for disobedience!”—but to offer them hope after this disaster.

Jeremiah 31.15-17 KWL
15 “The LORD says this: ‘The voice heard in Ramáh of wailing and bitter weeping
is “Rachel” who cries for her children, refusing comfort for her children: They’re gone.’
16 The LORD says this: ‘Stop your voice from weeping and eyes from tears.
For there are wages you earned,’ declares the LORD.
‘They come from your enemy’s land. 17 There’s hope in the end,’ declares the LORD.
Your children return to your border.’ ”

Rachel was Benjamin ben Israel’s mother, who died giving birth to him. Ge 35.18 The LORD’s reference to her was a reminder of this. But the Babylonians themselves would be judged for Nabú-kudúrri-usúr and Bel-šar-usúr’s own excesses, idolatry, and failure to recognize they likewise answer to the LORD God: The Persians would conquer them, and allow the very next generation of the deported Benjamites to return to their homeland.

When Rachel died, Israel buried her on the road to Bethlehem, and put a pillar there Ge 35.19-20 which Muslims have since covered with a mosque. (Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting over it ever since Israeli statehood began.) So because of this relationship between Rachel and Bethlehem, Matthew likely figured the Bethlehemites were also Rachel’s children, in a sense. And since Herod killed “her children,” this verse of Jeremiah was fulfilled by the mourning which followed.

But the reference to Ramáh in Matthew 2.18 makes it kinda obvious this verse is not a prophecy about Bethlehem, but Ramáh. It doesn’t foretell Jesus, nor Herod’s massacre. It’s simply another case of a mad, murderous king. That part of history has, sadly, repeated itself many times.