Monday, January 06, 2014

Hope for Weeping Rachel

A sort of commentary on the "Massacre of the Innocents."

As you may remember, after the Magi brought gifts to and worshiped the Christ Child, they were warned by God in a dream not to return to King Herod -- who wanted to kill the newborn "king of the Jews" -- and so they took a different route home.

   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." - Matthew 2:13-15

That peculiar quotation is from Hosea 11:1, which refers, initially, to the Exodus from Egypt. The nation of Israel is occasionally described as God's son in the Old Testament. And so, Jesus, as the faithful and true son of God -- succeeding where Israel failed -- is brought up out of Egypt, in his own version of the Exodus. (There are a number of interesting parallels between Jesus' early life and that of Moses, BTW.) But this you probably already know.

The story takes a grim turn.

   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 2:16-18

When's the last time you saw this in a Christmas pageant? Matthew helpfully mentions that the prophetic quotation is from Jeremiah. If Jacob is the father of the nation of Israel, then Rachel his wife is their mother. Even though we're likely only talking about a few dozen babies and infants at the most, this is still tragic and  horrifying. Symbolically, the mother of the nation grieves inconsolably.

Oddly enough, these lines from Jeremiah 31:15 are the saddest of the entire chapter. Jeremiah 31 is mostly a rather cheery pronouncement that though Israel may weep as her people are being led as prisoners of war -- passing through Ramah, northeast of Bethlehem -- to Babylon, the people will return from thence. Here is the verse Matthew cites in its larger context:

"Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: 'He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD-- the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty," declares the LORD. 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." 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 31:10-17

As with the Hosea quote, Israel goes away, but they will be back. Obviously, the grief and tragedy is real for these children slaughtered by Herod's soldiers, and it is appropriate that the nation should mourn the senseless loss.

However, Matthew has already painted Jesus as the true son of God -- the true Israelite. I can't help wondering if, under inspiration, he cites Jeremiah to hint that the real tragedy for the nation and the world is that Jesus has been taken from their midst. BUT, "restrain your voice from weeping" because he "will return to" his "own land." Considering Matthew's very Jewish audience, they would likely have known the context of the single verse he quotes. Additionally, directly following this Jeremiah quotation, we find this:

   After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. - Matthew 2:19-21

And so, as God says in Jeremiah, "There is hope for your future."


PaperSmyth said...

Thank you, Allen. This post taught me a lot. The idea of the parallels between the lives of Moses and Jesus, which you have stated before, continues to make me look at things with greater longing and curiosity.

Mary O'Regan said...

Hello Allen, Greetings from Great Britain, London to be exact. I have nominated you for a Sunshine Award here. I invite you to pop over to my blog -

Warmest Wishes from Wintry London,