A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15)*
As the beloved wife of Israel’s patriarch Jacob, Rachel holds a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people. Christians honor her as one of the great matriarchs of Jesus’ lineage. She is also ancestress to the three tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin. In order to understand these foretelling words of the prophet Jeremiah, it’s important for us today to understand the culture of the past times in which they were spoken.
As the great Mark Twain once wrote,
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
The Torah tells us in Genesis 35:16-20 how Rachel dies in childbirth while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, and her husband Jacob buries her between Beth-el and Ephrat. The story of Rachel and her sister Leah is marked by tension.
Although Rachel is the beloved first love of Jacob, she is unable to have children. Genesis 29:31 tells us “when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb so that she would conceive, but Rachel remained barren.” Some translations say Leah was not just unloved but “hated.” Leah continues to birth 7 children, Judah, Dinah, Reuben, Levi, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, constituting 6 of the 12 tribes of Israel, while Rachel gives birth to just 2 children, Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph’s portion is later given to his 2 sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, constituting Rachel as the ancestress of 3 of the 12 tribes of Israel.
This tension within the house of Jacob would become a foreshadow of the tensions that would evolve among the tribes of Israel.
As Saint Pope John Paul II was often quoted,
“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
Rachel’s children would soon depart from the Law and the Temple practices.
Ephraim would become the subject of warning by several prophets for its idolatrous practices and lawlessness. The sons of Israel would become divided. Rachel’s children would settle in the Northern Kingdom, while Leah’s sons, including the tribe of Judah, would settle in the South.
Jeremiah took the imagery of sorrow associated with Rachel’s tragic death and the subsequent demise of her children and revised it, creating the image of Rachel weeping for her lost children.
The prophet Hosea says of Ephraim and his tribe,
Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone! When their liquor is gone, they turn to prostitution; their rulers dearly love disgrace. (4:17,18)
When I would have healed Israel [says the Lord], then the iniquity of Ephraim was discovered, and the wickedness of Samaria, for they commit falsehood. (7:1)
When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling.
He exalted himself in Israel,
But through Baal he did wrong and died.
And now they sin more and more (chapter 13)
And yet, even though the debauchery was to such an extent of wickedness that the rest of the tribes of Israel wished to cut them off, the Lord interceded for them.
With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. (Jeremiah 31:9)
Jesus’ first mission of unification in the Gospels was between the descendants of Leah and the descendants of Rachel, i.e. the tribes of Judah and the tribes of Ephraim.
He comes first to Judea and then to Samaria and then to the Gentiles. Samaria belongs to the tribe of Ephraim. A son of Judah though he was, Jesus settles in Galilee in the Northern Kingdom among the sons of Ephraim. Because of their exile among the idolatrous Babylonians, the House of Jacob had become scattered. Any time he wanted to travel to the temple in Jerusalem, which was in the south in the lands of the tribe of Judah, he had to pass through Samaria. Christ’s mission was and always has been about restoring families.
He left Judea and returned to Galilee. Now He had to pass through Samaria. (John 4:4)
In a sense, because the Messiah has come to unite all the tribes of Israel, we might say Rachel is weeping no more for her lost children. Or is she?
The Slaughter of the Innocents…is as poignant to us today as it was in the time of Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew (2:16-18) tells us the prophet Jeremiah’s words have been fulfilled.
When Herod saw that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was filled with rage. Sending orders, he put to death all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
and refusing consolation,
because they are no more.”
The Slaughter of the Innocents as the passage above has become known is as poignant to us today as it was in the time of Jesus. Though the details and circumstances of history may not be exact to us at present, we might agree now with Mark Twain in that it certainly does rhyme!
Today, there may not be a single man named Herod filled with rage over the prophecy of a single small child but we can agree there are certainly many men (and women) filled with rage over the destiny of children. Call it concerns over women’s health, humanitarian efforts, population control or whatever justification we can give it, at present in our day and age is a new kind of Slaughter of the Innocents.
Like the fear and rage that gripped Herod’s heart over the prophetic destiny of the Messiah, this same spirit of fear and rage is present today and threatens the prophetic destiny of our world.
Each child is sent into the world by God with a unique message to deliver, a new song to sing, and a personal act of love to bestow.
A nation that kills its children in the womb has lost its soul.
– Mother Teresa
Rachel is most definitely still weeping.
Only now she weeps not just for her own tribal descendants but for all her lost sons. The sons of Israel which include the sons of both Leah and Rachel, and their handmaidens Bilah and Zilpah, and all the sons of another handmaiden who gave birth to all of Israel’s gentile sons, the Mother of Our Lord, Mary.
Christ came to bring healing to all the nations, not just the tribes of Judea.
If we are ever to see the unity of the family that Jesus came to restore, then we must be willing to pass through Samaria. We must learn how to listen to the deeper cry inside the hearts of our estranged brothers and sisters and to bear their fears without judgement. “With weeping they shall come… .” We must accept their pleas for mercy. We must lead them back…by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” We must be to them as a Father is to his firstborn son, as Jesus was to the woman at the well.
Jesus showed us the way to be like Our Father (John 14).
“If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” – John 14:14
We must Ask Him for the Grace to heal nations. We must Ask Him for the Wisdom to Love as He has Loved us.
Until the day comes when there is nothing more we need to ask of Him because all the lost have been found and every tear is wiped away, Rachel will be weeping…
And, Mary is weeping with her too.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy…
– Psalms 126:5-6
* Ramah means “the Heights.” Rachel in Hebrew means “lamb.” The lamb’s cry is heard in the Heights, or High Places, i.e. Heaven. Her mourning is answered by the coming of the Messiah, the Shepherd. Church tradition holds that Mary the Mother of Our Lord walked by Rachel’s tomb on her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth with the good news. It was then that Rachel received confirmation her cry had been heard.