‘May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah’. This blessing, pronounced over Jewish girl seven today, shows us the importance in the Jewish faith of these four women, known in Jewish tradition as the four matriarchs. ‘As matriarchs of the Jewish people, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah each possess qualities that make them worthy role models. According to Jewish tradition, they were strong women who kept faith with God during tough times. Between the lot of them, they endured marital troubles, infertility, abduction, envy from other women and the task of raising difficult children. But whatever hardships came their way these women put God and family first, eventually succeeding in building the Jewish people’.1 The only one of these Old Testament women not mentioned in the New Testament is Leah.
To the Jewish people, Rachel is particularly important because of the two sons that were born to her – Joseph, who became the saviour of his people when they went down into Egypt, and Benjamin. Benjamin’s tribe, along with that of Judah, formed the southern nation that resisted the idolatry of Samaria and stayed loyal to their God for so much longer than the northern tribes. Rachel also embodied the essential spirit of a hugely persecuted people when she pleaded with her husband, ‘And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die’, Gen.30. 1.
With pogrom after pogrom over the millennia of time, the task of Jewish women to bear children to carry on the hopes of the nation has been of paramount importance.
Rachel was, of course, Jacob’s first love. She bore him his favourite son, but she also died in giving birth to his youngest son, and here we come to the third reason why Rachel is so significant. She named her last-born Ben-oni, which the KJV margin translates as, ‘The son of my sorrow’. ‘Rachel’s choice of a name accurately reflects her knowledge that she was about to die. Furthermore, it gives necessary weight to her role as a tragic figure who was the first love of her husband yet was never able to live a settled and fruitful life with him’.2 And it is here that we see the ongoing significance of Rachel in Jewish tradition. We encounter her name in the book of Jeremiah. ‘Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation,and bitter weeping: Rahel [Rachel] weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not’, Jer.31.15. Some suggest that the word ‘Ramah’ here stands for ‘on high’;thus,‘A voice was heard on high … Rachel weeping for her children’. In Jeremiah, Rachel, a type of sorrowing Jewish women since her own premature death, weeps as though from the grave (not audibly, of course) as she sees her children being taken into captivity and with many slaughtered in the streets of Jerusalem. On the other hand, Ramah was a place near Bethlehem, a place where the captives from Jerusalem were held before many, including Daniel and his kind, were taken to Babylon. Jeremiah recalls when he was held in Ramah, until he was given the option to return home, Jer. 40. 1-6. There is a dispute amongst Jewish historians as to where exactly Rachel’s tomb is located. Rachel had been buried, not in the family tomb with Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, but on the road to Bethlehem, Gen. 35. 19, 20. Saul is told by Samuel to find two men ‘by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah’, 1 Sam. 10. 2. Thus,it could very well be that the voice of Rachel in Ramah itself wept over her lost children.
What has this to do with the New Testament? Matthew records for us the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ by Herod, who, in order to ensure the death of the one ‘born King of the Jews’, commanded the murder of ‘all the [“male” NKJV] children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’, Matt. 2. 16. He then adds, ‘Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children,and would not be comforted, because they are not’, Matt. 2. 17,18. Here we see the motif of Rachel once again as the epitome of the sorrowing Jewish mother. We also observe what is quite often seen in scripture that a prophecy can have an immediate fulfilment and a later one. The exile of God’s chosen people in Jeremiah’s day, and Rachel’s refusal to be comforted, was followed by an assurance from God Himself, Jer. 31. 16. Thus, God promises the glorious restoration, regathering, redemption and revival of Israel.Just as the women of Ramah were given hope from the Lord, so too the women of Bethlehem would find great David’s greater Son would bring hope to His people,the One whom the wicked King Herod sought to destroy. It is remarkable to notice the words that follow the weeping of Rachel in Matthew chapter 2. ‘But when Herod was dead’, Joseph is told in a dream, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life’, vv.19, 20. In a time to come, when God gathers His chosen people to their promised land, and their great Messiah comes, Rachel shall no longer weep. Man proposes but God disposes.
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