There is another memory Matthew wishes to stir up here, though, one with hope. The evangelist is quoting Jeremiah 31:15, which called to mind the matriarch Rachel as the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and marched families off into exile. Rachel’s weeping occupies a key turning point in Jeremiah, when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to promises of hope. "Keep your voice from weeping . . . there is hope for your future . . . your children shall come back."
Why Rachel? The ancient rabbis tell a story (midrash) of God’s response to this pivotal tragedy in Judah’s history. Jeremiah, they say, called up Moses from his grave, who in turn called the patriarchs to bear witness as the exiles left their homes. Each of them responds with indignation.
“Lord of the world, I did not protest but willingly let myself be bound on the altar and even stretched out my neck beneath the knife. Will you not remember this on my behalf and have mercy on my children?,” Isaac protests. (Rachel, by Samuel Dresner, Fortress Press).
God is not moved, not by Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Moses himself, until finally Rachel stands before God, and her words alone turn the tide. Although Rachel is a biological ancestor for only two of the original twelve tribes, she is recognized in Jeremiah as mother of all, and even God has to respond to her insistent plea for mercy. Fairness has nothing to do with it; it is the promise of one parent to another: your children will come back.
Matthew, in turn, invokes Rachel in the midst of this story of God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save. God’s salvation may seem far off and inadequate to the mothers who mourn, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time. The threat of this Herod passes for a time, only to be replaced by another Herod, yet another ruler without scruples. But when this child of Rachel returns to Jerusalem as an adult, God enters into the fate of every doomed child and every bereft parent.
- Pam Fickenscher, guest columnist in Journey With Jesus for December 30, 2007. (Click on date for link.)