When Herod the Great sanctioned the murder of Bethlehem babies who are male and two or younger, Matthew pointed to Jeremiah 31:15 as something that horrific event “fulfilled” (cf. Matt 2:17-18).
Fulfilled? In what sense? When you read what Matthew quotes (“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comfort, because they are no more,” Matt 2:18), it is clear that a verbal prophecy is not there. In Jeremiah 31:15, the context is imminent exile to Babylon. The “children” are Israelites, who were descended from Israel himself (originally named Jacob), and he was married to “Rachel.”
Exile would bring weeping and lamentation, yes, but sorrow wasn’t the last word. Zoom out, and you see that the wider context of Jeremiah 31 is full of hope:
- “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers” (31:4)
- “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” (31:9)
- “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more” (31:12)
- “There is hope for your future . . . and your children shall come back to their own country” (31:17)
- “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. . . . But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:31-33)
The captivity in Babylon would come to an end. There would be a glorious return, and lamentation would be followed by jubilation. There would be an exodus and a return to the promised land.
In Matthew 2:18, the author quotes Jeremiah 31:15 because the state of spiritual exile is deep and dark, but Light is dawning. Lamentation and mourning fill the streets of Bethlehem because of the children who died (2:16-18), but a glorious return was coming. A Deliverer had been spared and would soon lead the way.
Jesus had been protected from the Bethlehem massacre (cf. Matt 2:13, 16), and this protection evokes the story of Moses being rescued from the river in which other babies had perished (cf. Exod 2:1-10). The setting was captivity (to Egypt at that time), and Moses was the deliverer God raised up to lead an exodus toward the promised land. In Matthew 2, scenes of exodus and exile are blended together, and the figures of Moses and corporate Israel are triggered by what happened in Jesus’ day. Jesus was the New Moses, and he was embodying the stories of Israel. He was the True Israel, the Son of God (cf. Exod 4:22). He had his own exodus “out of Egypt” (Matt 2:14-15), and through his death and resurrection he would chart the consummate redemptive course from the deepest exile, accomplishing a New Exodus that trumped every previous pattern of deliverance.
Pattern. That’s a key idea underlying Matthew 2 and explains the use of Rachel’s name both in Jeremiah 31 and Matthew 2. In Genesis 35, God renames her husband Jacob “Israel” (35:10) and reiterates the promise of descendants and land (35:11-12). Then later, when Rachel went into labor, she died giving birth to Benjamin (35:16-18). After she died, “she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (35:19). At the end of Genesis, Israel (Jacob) and his family go to Egypt, where the book of Exodus tells us they became captives. In a sense, then, Rachel’s children were in captivity, and she was in the grave.
In Jeremiah 31, captivity was looming again, and Rachel’s name was evoked because, though she was still dead in her grave near Bethlehem, lamentation was appropriate as her children–her descendants–were approaching exile. As Jacob’s (Israel’s) wife, Rachel was their mother. And as with the captivity in Egypt, the captivity in Babylon would end with liberation. Mourning would collapse under the weight of newfound joy.
When we read Matthew 2, the patterns are swelling strongly once more. Herod is like a new Pharaoh, and the promised land has become a new Egypt. When children in Israel are killed, the lamentation is so great it’s as if Israel’s wife is weeping over her children again from her grave. In fact, the geography is important because the voice of “weeping and loud lamentation” was “heard in Ramah” (Matt 2:18a), a place north of Jerusalem that belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Rachel’s son from Gen 35; see 1 Sam 10:2). And according to Genesis 35:19, Rachel was buried on the way to Bethlehem–the very place the massacre occurred in Matthew 2:16.
Matthew, therefore, is using Jeremiah 31:15 typologically. He sees the pattern that connects to the contexts of Jeremiah 31, Exodus 1-2, and Genesis 35. Jesus, the New Moses, has been spared, which means Rachel’s weeping will not go on forever. In Jeremiah 31, a new covenant was promised for a renewed Israel. Deliverance would come.
What does Matthew want you to know? That Jesus is the New Moses leading a new exodus to a new creation and inaugurating a new covenant for a new Israel. Part of that story involved death and exile and Rachel weeping. Mary, the mother of Jesus, also would weep as the True Israel hung from a rugged cross with a crown of thorns on his blameless head. But on the third day, mourning would collapse under the weight of newfound joy.