There’s one part of Matthew’s infancy narrative that never seems to make the Christmas Cards or school plays.
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.
Matt. 2:16 NIV11
It’s simply put but no less awful for it. So desperate is Herod to eliminate the threat that he feels Jesus is that he will kill a whole community’s baby boys rather than do what he promised but has no intention to actually perform – worship the child Jesus (Matt. 2:8).
So the troops move in. We can only imagine the desperate scenes. Mothers struggling to keep children quiet as soldiers go from house to house, breaking down doors and searching for infants. In our previous study we saw the clear resonances in the movements of Jesus with the events of the Exodus. Now we see Herod presented to us as a new Pharaoh, ruthlessly killing any Hebrew baby that may challenge his position (Exo. 1:15-16). Again, the “King of the Jews” is seen to be the enemy of his people, in contrast to their true king (Matt. 2:2).
Yet it is not to the Exodus that Matthew now points us.
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 2:17–18 NIV11
The words that Matthew quotes are from Jeremiah 31:15. The scene is immediately obvious in the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
Rachel was one of the wives of Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes; the nation of Israel. Rachel, the wife that Jacob loved, was effectively the mother of the nation. Now we see her weeping for her children at the town of Ramah, just north of Jerusalem (perhaps the same distance north as Bethlehem was south). But why Ramah? Well the answer lies in something we learn a little later in Jeremiah…
The word came to Jeremiah from the LORD after Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had released him at Ramah. He had found Jeremiah bound in chains among all the captives from Jerusalem and Judah who were being carried into exile to Babylon.
Jeremiah 40:1 NIV11
Ramah appears to have been a staging post for the great Exile of Hebrew captives. It was also, according to tradition, the site of Rachel’s tomb. So what has woken Rachel as if from death itself? It is the desperate sight of the children of Israel being dragged away into Exile by the armies of Babylon. For Rachel it is as though her children are being dragged away from her with no hope for the future. The whole thing looks very much like those harrowing scenes from films about the holocaust as families are separated at the train station, parents and children never to see one another again. No wonder that Rachel will not be comforted.
As we’ve noted before, Israel’s exile was nobody’s fault but her own. It is intriguing that Matthew’s citations are all from prophets of around the same era (although Jeremiah is a little later – a last gasp warning to a nation that is hurtling towards disaster).
Every text that Matthew cites is from a prophecy telling not only of the judgement of God in the Exile of the people but also of a post-exilic restoration. The same is true of this little scene. It is placed in the heart of one of the greatest promises of the entire Old Testament.
“At that time,” declares the LORD, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”
This is what the LORD says:
“The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.”
The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.”
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Jeremiah 31:1-4, 31–34 NIV11
It’s one of the most wonderful passages about the New Covenant that there is. More than simply a restoration of the nation in their land, this will be the creation of a new people, changed by the Spirit of God so that they will always be his. Since the people cannot keep God’s commands by their own power, God will use his power to restore them to relationship with him.
In case we were in any doubt, the writer to the Hebrews names Jesus as the mediator of this new covenant (Heb. 8:6-13).
So what is the brief tragic cameo of a weeping Rachel doing in what is essentially a chapter full of hope and promise? There is no need for us to speculate:
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 descendants,” declares the LORD. “Your children will return to their own land.”
Jeremiah 31:16–17 NIV11
The balm for Rachel’s tears lies in the very promises that surround the report of her distress. It seems like the end of everything but it is not. For with God nothing is impossible and his great plans to prosper his people cannot be thwarted. The context of Rachel’s tears is the promise of great hope grounded in the love and mercy of God and this is enough to bring comfort to even the most distressed of mothers.
Which is precisely why Matthew includes this quote at this time. For what is fulfilled in the events he is describing is not just the deep sorrow of Rachel at the awful events of the exile, but the great promises of restoration that embrace Rachel’s tears.
So, too, the mothers of Bethlehem have a comfort even in their most awful moment. In the child Jesus there is someone who can bring joy and peace to this most distressing of tragedies. He is the King who will triumph over all evils. He is the Son who will one day willingly give his life so that others may live.
He is the one who brings with him a fulfilment of all that Jeremiah promises, including the comforting of the previously inconsolable Rachel.