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כֹּה אָמַר יי קֹול בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ׃

“Thus says HaShem, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Jeremiah 31:15-17

 

The prophet Jeremiah wrote this heartbreaking passage at the inception of the Babylonian Exile. Over 500 years later, Matthew apparently applied this text to his own era in one of the opening texts of the New Testament,

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out, and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men. Then that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she would not be comforted, because they are no more.”
Matthew 2:16-18

This account has come under attack by skeptics for a number of reasons. One initial objection is that there is no evidence that the children in Bethlehem were slaughtered, and surely such an atrocious act would have made front page news. This assumption fails in its application of an argumentum ex silentio, an argument of silence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially after 2000 years. Bethlehem itself was a relatively small town and the number of children slaughtered has been estimated to be in the tens or twenties. Despite its unspeakable nature, it was relatively small on the scale of Herod’s more notorious assassinations. Such a heinous act is in perfect accord with the historic understanding of his brutal character. He killed his own wife, even his own children, and his barbarity was as famous as his architecture.  There is one relatively late text that seems to suggest that Herod’s act did not escape notice. The ancient Roman writer Macrobius  (395 CE- 423 CE) [1], who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, wrote the following words,

“Cum audisset inter pueros quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium.”

“When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”
Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book II, Chapter IV:11

EXILE

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Rachel’s Tomb circa 1934.

The second criticism of Matthew is that Jeremiah 31:15-17 is not a Messianic prophecy and does not predict the death of the children in Bethlehem. As stated above, Jeremiah’s words were written at the beginning of the Galut Bavel (Babylonian Exile) and in the midst of the ashes of Solomon’s Temple. Exiles would pass by the grave of Rachel on the road to servitude, and Jeremiah poetically drew upon the history of Israel and its geography to inspire repentance and even hope. While all of this is true, the position that this passage is not Messianic and has no connection to what Matthew is writing misunderstands the profound nature of Matthew’s midrash. Not only has its significance eluded skeptics, but even Christian commentators as well.

Was Matthew wrong, or was he pointing to something deeper than the surface understanding? The passage absolutely refers to the exile and beyond. Yet, the Babylonian exile is a part of a much larger exile process, which is exile from the Garden of Eden. The voice of Rachel’s cry shakes the very foundations of Creation. Ramban writes,

“I have seen that Yonasan ben Uzziel . . . says, “A voice is heard in the heights of the universe…,” and he translates the whole verse as talking about the Jewish nation.”
Ramban on Genesis, Mesorah Publishers, pg. 245

Midrash Rabbah says,

“AND RACHEL DIED, AND WAS BURIED IN THE WAY TO EPHRATH (35:19). What was Jacob’s reason for burying Rachel in the way to Ephrath? Jacob foresaw that the exiles would pass on from thence, therefore he buried her there so that she might pray for mercy for them. Thus it is written, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah… Rachel weeping for her children…”
Genesis Rabbah 82:10, Soncino Press Edition

Jeremiah’s passage, though difficult and painful, contains a distant glimmer of hope,

“Thus says HaShem, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Thus says HaShem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded,” says HaShem, “and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. ‘There is hope for your latter end,’ says HaShem ‘and your children shall come again to their own border.”
Jeremiah 31:15-17

It is well known within Judaism, that there is one person who can end the exile: The Mashiach.

Mosaic_Tribes

EPHRAT

In Parashat Vayishlach, Rachel dies and is buried on the way to Ephrat, which refers to Bethlehem, as Genesis says,

“Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrat (the same is Bethlehem).”
Genesis 35:19

Ramban says regarding the location of Rachel’s Tomb,

“…now that I have been privileged to come to Jerusalem (praise be to the good and beneficent G-d!), I have seen with my own eyes that there is not even a mil (about 5/8ths of a mile) from Rachel’s tomb to Bethlehem.”
Ramban on Genesis, Mesorah Publishers pg. 245

The words of Genesis regarding the location of the Kever Rachel, the Tomb of Rachel, are echoed by the Messianic prophecy in Micah chapter 5,

וְאַתָּה בֵּֽית־לֶחֶם אֶפְרָתָה צָעִיר לִֽהְיֹות בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה מִמְּךָ לִי יֵצֵא לִהְיֹות מֹושֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וּמֹוצָאֹתָיו מִקֶּדֶם מִימֵי עֹולָם׃

“But you, Beit-Lechem Ephratah, being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of ancient times, from the days of old.”
Micah 5:2

According to Micah, the Messiah is coming to vicinity of the burial place of Rachel. The Targum Yonatan paraphrases,

“And Jakob proceeded and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder, the place from whence, it is to be, the King Meshiha will be revealed at the end of the days.”
Targum Yonatan to Genesis 35

Like Genesis before it, the preceding chapter of Micah, speaks of Migdal Eder,

“And you, O Tower of the Flock (Migdal Eder), The stronghold of the daughter of Zion, To you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.”
Micah 4:8

ANOTHER SON

The pain of Rachel during childbirth is a reverberation of the curse of Eve,

“To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. In pain, you will bear children…”
Genesis 3:16

Rachel seems to foretell the birth of ben acher, another son. In the midst of her death, a prophesied child was born.

וַתִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמֹו יֹוסֵף לֵאמֹר יֹסֵף יי לִי בֵּן אַחֵר׃

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Map of the Twelve Tribes. Click for higher resolution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Credit: Wiki Commons, Malus Cortas and Kordas.

“She named him Yosef, saying, “May HaShem add (yosef) another son to me.”
Genesis 30:24

Benjamin was fulfillment of Rachel’s prayer. He is unique among all the sons of Jacob in that he never bowed to Esav, and he is the only one born within the holy borders of Eretz Yisrael. It is in his territory that the Temple stood upon Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the Heart of the world. He was born near Beit-Lechem,

“They traveled from Beit El. There was still some distance to come to Ephrat, and Rachel travailed. She had hard labor. When she was in hard labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, for now you will have another son.”
Genesis 35:16-17

Rachel’s birth pains symbolize the era immediately preceding the coming of the Redeemer, called the chevlei Mashiach, the birth pains of the Messiah. Rachel herself is linked to the Imma Tata’ah, the Kallah (Bride),as Revelation says,

“A great sign was seen in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child. She cried out in pain, laboring to give birth.”
Revelation 12:1-2

This imagery is drawn from the dream of Yosef,

“He dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet another dream: and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.He told it to his father and to his brothers. His father rebuked him, and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves down to you to the earth? His brothers envied him, but his father kept this saying in mind.”
Genesis 37:9-11

Jacob = Sun
Rachel = Moon
Twelve Stars = Twelve Tribes

Yaakov’s question to Yosef was incredibly powerful, if not painful, as the mother of Yosef was dead. How would this be possible, unless she were resurrected?  The Zohar says of the Shekinah, whom Rachel symbolizes,

“The Faithful Shepherd said, “At that time (there will come) pangs and pains upon the woman in childbirth, that is, the Shekinah … And through these pains, which will make her cry out, seventy supernal Sanhedrins will be aroused, until her voice reaches the Lord … And from those voices which she gives forth … her womb opens — and her womb consists of two houses — to give birth to two Messiahs … and she bends her head betwixt her knees; her head is the Middle Column and her two thighs are Eternity and Majesty … and from there are born two Messiahs. In that time the forests will be denuded, and the Serpent will pass from the world.”
Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna, 3:67b-68a, cited in the Messiah Texts, Raphael Patai, pgs 129-130

Mashiach ben Yosef is hinted at in this verse in Genesis 30 regarding the ben acher, another son, that is given to Rachel,

“This ultimate confrontation between Joseph and Esau is alluded already in the very birth of Joseph when his mother Rachel exclaimed, “G d has taken away my disgrace” (Genesis 30:23): with prophetic vision she foresaw that an “anointed savior” will descend from Joseph and that he will remove the disgrace of Israel. In this context she called his name “Yossef, saying ‘yossef Hashem – may G-d add to me ben acher (lit., another son), i.e., ben acharono shel olam – one who will be at the end of the world’s time, from which it follows that ‘meshu’ach milchamah – one anointed for battle’ will descend from Joseph.”
Chabad.org, Mashiach in Halacha, Appendix II, J. Immanuel Schochet

SON OF SUFFERING

Rachel before her last breath proceeded to name her son, Ben Oni, the Son of My Sorrow. Rashi explains,

“Ben Oni. This means son of my pain. (בן צערי)”
Rashi on Genesis 35, Vol 1, Mesorah Publishers, pg 395

Immediately, without hesitation, Jacob changes Ben Oni’s name to Benjamin, meaning ‘the Son of the Right Hand.’ Psalm 110 says,

נְאֻם יי לַאדֹנִי שֵׁב לִימִינִי

“HaShem says to my master, ‘Sit at my right hand (limini),until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet.”
Psalms 110:1

This dual aspect of Benjamin speaks of the dual aspect and paradox of Mashiach. He suffers greatly to atone for Israel, and yet he is to be exalted, even to the right hand of HaShem. As Mashiach is the yechida of Israel, whatever happens to Mashiach will happen to Israel. If Rachel’s naming of Ben-Oni predicted the coming Galut (Exile), then Jacob’s naming of Benjamin looked forward to coming Geulah (Redemption).

THE COMFORTER

Kol HaTor, the Voice of the Turtledove, an explosive book written by R’ Hillel Shklover, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, says,

“All the above-mentioned aspects are in the line of Yosef ben Rachel, from the land; thus this chapter speaks about Rachel–Rachel who weeps for her children. “Refrain your voice from weeping … they will return from the land of the enemy” refers to the exodus from exile, “your children will return to their border” refers to the immigration (ascent) to Zion.”
Kol HaTor 2.1, Translated by Rabbi Yechiel Bar Lev and K. Skaist, YedidNefesh.com

The Zohar illuminates the relationship of Rachel’s weeping and the coming of Mashiach,

The Messiah…lifts up his eyes and beholds the Fathers (Patriarchs) visiting the ruins of God’s Sanctuary. He perceives mother Rachel, with tears upon her face; the Holy One, blessed be He, tries to comfort her, but she refuses to be comforted (Jer. 31:14). Then the Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps, and the whole Garden of Eden quakes, and all the righteous and saints who are there break out in crying and lamentation with him…All through the seven days the Messiah shall be crowned on earth. Where shall this be? “By the way”, to wit, Rachel’s grave, which is on the cross-road. To mother Rachel he will give glad tidings and comfort her, and now she will let herself be comforted, and will rise and kiss him.”
Soncino Zohar, Shemoth, Section 2, Page 8a-b

The imagery of Matthew chapter 2 is profound and haunting. As the women of Beit-Lechem wept for their children, collectively they were personified by Rachel Immeinu, the symbol of the Knesset Yisrael, weeping for the tears of exile and death of her children.Their voice is one voice. And it is in this place, Beit-Lechem, that the King Messiah was born, an answer to her cry. She will accept his comfort and he will wipe away all the tears of the children of Israel. May it be soon in our days. Amein.

 

 

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REFERENCES

  1. Text of Macrobius in Latin
  2. Moshiach and the Future Redemption, Appendix II, Chabad.org